Monday, 21 November 2011

Nice Review & Femininity

The Crescat has written a generous review of The Closet's All Mine, as the American release of Seraphic Singles is known. I bet it sells more copies than the expensive ad in America I was told about.

It seems an eensy bit churlish to make a correction, but it involves my name, so you know. The correction is merely that the author of TCAM is Miss C or Ms. C, but not Mrs. C as I am now Mrs. M socially and Ms. C-M in print. Mrs. C is my mother. (My sister-in-law was married in the province of Quebec, and thus remains Dr. S.)

Kat also linked to this page as an example of a feminine blog, and I was heartily flattered by that. I was reminded my surprise when my (now ex-)shrink told me I was a very feminine woman. After all, my favourite hobbies at the time were boxing and reading tough-minded short fiction at Spoken Word events. Shrink pointed out that I was wearing a floor-length black velvet skirt and a tight blue velvet shirt with 18th-century sleeves and I was, like, oh yeah.

Same with this blog. I guess it is kind of feminine to talk constantly about single life and courtship and men. I thought I'd get tired of these topics when I got married, but no. I don't feel at all bad about this, as some Top Novelist or other recently said (I paraphrase) that the essence of writing fiction was actually caring that John loves Jane.

Femininity is an increasingly contentious topic. For example, there are men who wish to be women, and go about this in an intensely masculine way: fighting and striving and having this surgically cut off and that surgically put on and being pumped full of drugs. I think real women are more like apples: we develop to a delicious well-roundedness and grow even sweeter as we shrivel, fall off the tree and die. Of course, I'm physically lazy these days. I acknowledge that the natural female body trained to the muscularity of an Athena is feminine, too. (Oh, how I miss my boxing body... Size 2... Could wear jeans without fear... Whimper, whimper...)

The man-as-active, woman-as-passive paradigm drives many people absolutely nuts. It drives me nuts, too, when it interferes with something I want especially to do. So I'm not even going there, except to trash cosmetic surgery. Women who get "boob jobs" have turned themselves into female impersonators, which is a very dumb thing for a real woman to do. There is a huge difference between making the most of, and protecting, your feminine appearance and turning yourself into a walking cartoon.

When I was an undergraduate, I read books by Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth), Susan Brownmiller (Femininity), Andrea Dworkin (Intercourse) and Camille Paglia (Vamps and Tramps) to get my mind around contemporary ideas about femininity. (By the way, Dworkin can mess you up; I am in no way endorsing any of these books although Paglia was great fun.) Later I read Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, The Boston Women's Health Collective, Natalie Angier (Woman: An Intimate Geography, which I DO recommend) and Germaine Greer. Much, much later I read Edith Stein and John Paul II. (I know I should read Alice von Hildebrand, too.)

What I got out of all this mostly-feminist reading, in the end, was a healthy distaste for elective surgical modification of any kind, an enduring respect for female athleticism, an enjoyment of dressing-as-art, dread of both anorexia and obesity, recognition that all healthy bodies are beautiful, a taste for higher-end cosmetics (maquillage, not skin-cream rip offs) and permission not to be more like a man. I loved how Goth subculture has an aesthetic that suits both slim and apple-shaped girls; so do historical re-enactment societies, by the way. Although 20th century fashion freed us from corsets and dangerous paints, it has otherwise been at war with the female figure. Boo, Coco Chanel.

I wasn't even thinking about femininity as a complement to masculinity. "Who cares what men-in-general think?" was my usual scornful mindset from the age of 19 to 32 or so. Now I think about femininity and masculinity a lot because the hugest battles of our time, including the one with radical Islamism, surround them.

I keep thinking about the symbolic significance of masculine and feminine, as opposed to unisex, clothing.

My parish church is packed with fogies, old and young, and they tend to wear beautifully tailored wool or tweed jackets. As they never take their jackets off in public, I haven't a clue what their shoulders actually look like. They never wear shorts, either; they could be wearing sock braces for all I know, and I doubt I will ever know for sure. Wide or slim, the fogies share Male Shape, the inverted triangle of wide shoulders narrowing to shiny well-shod feet. They all look sharp and masculine, not macho.

The church has fewer female fogies, but we tend to wear skirts, to keep our hair long and to wear at least a modicum of make-up. Your pale Auntie S favours dark red lipstick, but she is 40 so she can get away with it. She also set a minor parish trend for killer heels, if one other woman can count as even a minor trend.

Killer heels look good, but they are bad for you in the long run and best worn sitting down. The whole point to them is that they make your calves look nicer and that men don't wear them. Few pieces of clothing say Women are mysterious than totally impractical killer heels. Various women writers have ascribed darker symbolic meanings to killer heels, but I am more optimistic than they.

I blame unisex clothing for the current craze in cosmetic fakery and over-emphasis on bodily shape. Fat or thin, women in my town wear jeans and skin-tight leggings. They hoick up their breasts with padded bras or, horror of horrors, they have them filled with silicon balloons. They wear obviously fake eyelashes and sometimes hair extensions. They paint their skin brown or, worse, tan themselves in tanning salons. They are the reason I love Marry, Snog, Avoid, a show in which a sarcastic machine named Pod mysteriously scrubs the fakery off such girls and puts them in pretty dresses. Sadly, there is not much Pod can do about the breast implants, the tats and the scary piercings, except cleverly "de-emphasize" the bust and assign sleeves.

One well-dressed young fogey tells me that in Germany men and women wear much the same clothes and length of hair, although men draw attention to their chests by wearing super-tight T-shirts. I have not noticed young men doing that here, but the principle strikes me as the same. If we dispense with gentle symbolic ways of indicating masculinity or femininity, we are left with hyper-focus on real, literal, secondary sexual characteristics: big chests, big breasts, round bottoms.

And how deeply boring is that? It's the socio-sexual equivalent of never being able to read novels or look at paintings; only words of one syllable and cartoons allowed.


Katie said...

Hi Seraphic

I totally love that show: 'Snog, Marry, Avoid'. Yes we even get that here in New Zealand. Although NZ women tend not to dress to the same extremes as some in the UK. I find it interesting your thinking that because clothing has become so androgenous that women find the need to over emphsise parts of themselves when they dress. Actually I think we may be heading that way here too. Shorter shirts, more cleavage etc. etc.
Athough I suspect 'natural beauty' is still the default for most women. Long may that last.

theobromophile said...

Women may avoid "femininity" because it is equated with being passive, reactionary, and weak (both mentally and physically). Masculinity, on the other hand, is equated with all of those things like being active, strong-minded, of sound and capable body, and proactive.

Women have long been devalued by society, and things associated with women were devalued, or bad things were associated with us because, well, we are bad/weak/stupid etc. to bad/weak/stupid things should fit with us. We've gone from thinking women unable to cast a vote or earn a degree to devaluing pregnancy and motherhood, but that devaluation is still there. So it's not surprising to me that women run away from the "feminine" label.

As for androgynous clothing: I recently heard that a woman who did a feature on fashion in the legal world could not get a single female attorney to speak with her on the record. Off the record, they spoke in droves, but they did not want to be associated with fashion and thus thought to be frivolous. Given that environment, is it surprising that women try to look like men?

Seraphic said...

Oh yes, I am very sympathetic to that female attorney. The law world does not mess around. From everything I've ever heard, it's a male world with male rules and if you can't live with that, out you go.

Someone or other decreed that the best work uniform for a professional woman was a well-tailored grey wool suit with a white blouse, a knee-length skirt or trousers. The fashion magazines were entranced for five minutes and then went right back to pushing their own agenda.

I always thought the grey wool suit with a white blouse and knee-length skirt, with dressy but lower-heel shoes, the epitome of professional female dressing. Quiet, businesslike, understated, feminine. In real estate, however, whoo! See how women dress in real estate: make-up is a BIG DEAL. There's a whole women-in-real-estate power-dressing thing.

What I don't understand is why women would want to dress like men AWAY from the office or work in general. Golly, if I had the kind of job which meant grey wool suit, I would have the money for racks of feminine finery, and I would go to town!