The Mask of Femininity

Trigger Warning: Sexual Harassment, Brief Mention of Sexual Assault

The other night I went to pick up my sushi takeout, putting my butterfly mask to good use and doing my best to dodge any people who came anywhere near six feet of me. I needed to turn a corner to enter the parking garage, but I paused to let a man pass me. I took a few steps to the side, giving this maskless individual enough room to pass without entering my social distancing bubble. But instead of passing, this man paused. He came closer to me. He told me I needed to “stop being so serious,” a grin on his face. Now, I have heard a lot from misinformed men, but this was new. 

I, like most other womxn, am no stranger to the phrase “You should smile more” — a fan favorite among 40-year-old men who are all too eager to give us the compliments we are practically begging for with our curve-hugging leggings and colorful range of crop tops. Considering I have what I like to call a “resting confused face,” I have heard this remark on far too many occasions. I have almost become immune to it. 

woman holding a smiling balloon

Some may not understand why I am choosing to write about these seemingly trivial occurrences. Yes, they may be a bit annoying, but isn’t the intent good? Aren’t the men just exercising their freedom of speech? Well, to the unfamiliar observer, this may be the case. However, a common theme runs through these instances, and it reveals a lot about our culture — as well as womxn’s role in it. 

One time I went to eat at BJ’s and, before being seated by the server, I was told that I needed to zip up my jacket in order to cover my low-cut top (one that I had worn to school multiple times without any issues). For context, this was when I was 14 years old, and as a staunch rule follower, I had never been dress-coded in my life. I was not entirely unfamiliar with the blatant sexism underlying school dress codes, but the full implications of such rules were not nearly as clear to me as they were that night, standing in a crowded room, zipping up a sweatshirt I had only brought as a precaution against the cold. 

Denim Jean Jacket Wink Patches Eyes

It seems as if people have a lot to say about a womxn’s choices. A 12-year-old girl who wears a spaghetti strap tank top must be desiring the attention of a 12-year-old boy who has never seen a shoulder before. A young womxn who covers her body head-to-toe must be a prude and needs to stop being so serious. A womxn who sings about her sexuality must be asking to be raped; she should just leave this kind of music to the men. 

With regards to the man in front of the parking garage, you could say that his comment was not gender-fueled. And, in response, I would tell you that it is, in fact, possible that he went to every mask-wearer he saw and told them to “stop being so serious.” But it is also very possible that he didn’t.

woman wearing sunflower dress and face mask Photo by Zach Vessels from Unsplash

Whatever led the man to call me “serious” does not matter as much as the implications behind the word. The remark has the same underlying meaning as “You would look a lot better if you smiled.” It is as if it is a sin for womxn to take themselves seriously — to not exist simply to satisfy the male gaze. If I pursue a career as a writer (which I have every intention of doing), aren’t I just evading my biological predisposition to be a caretaker? Perhaps I’m just taking myself too seriously. Instead, I should spend my time smiling, playing dumb, and looking for a husband to support me while I stay at home to take care of the kids. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with being a caretaker; it is just to say that womxn should be allowed to take themselves seriously, no matter what path they choose for themselves. 

I am not going to put on a mask of socially constructed femininity so I can satisfy the never-fully-satisfied. If I show too much skin, I’m asking to be raped. If I don’t show enough, I don’t know how to have a good time. If I assert myself in the professional world, I’m bossy. If I don’t stick up for myself, I don’t even need to be working in the first place. It is difficult to accept the reality that the critics will never be appeased. But it is also quite freeing. 

For the time being, the only mask I’ll be wearing is the one that has been proven to — you know — slow the spread of a viral contagion. Or does that make me too serious?