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Being a feminist is hard work

July 5, 2008

Especially in a world devoid of structures that reward feminist actions. In order to acquire a state of equality with men, one is accused of jettisoning one’s femininity. Some men continue to furiously expect their women to be independent yet submissive to their needs and preferences. A woman who chooses to fall in love and surrender her life to matrimony or whatever long-term relationship is not guaranteed peace of mind or certainty that she is committing her time, emotions and self to an end that will not destroy her.

In a capitalist state (and even under Communism anchored on patriarchalism), beauty and attractiveness are pawns by which a woman could get ahead, either professionally or in her personal life. Whenever a successful woman, or an ambitious woman is being discussed, either in hushed whispers, coffee-shop talk, or even in profile interviews, her physical attributes will also be discussed. As much as we like to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in all seriousness, there are particular standards of beauty that a society adheres to. Gone are the days in which beauty is relative to cultural memes and preferences. Nowadays, globalization and the media will tell you what is beautiful and what is not. Some scientists claim that babies can differentiate between an attractive and less attractive person when presented with photos of different facial features. One may argue that it may be less to do with how attractive the person may be, but more with the familiarity in which the infant has with a particular face. Perhaps that face in the picture resembles that of its mother, or its carer, or someone with whom the infant has had contact with. It is the same with how each and everyone have been conditioned and socialized to accept a particular mold of beauty, a particular idea of attractiveness. In this age of the global community, advertisement does the job better than anyone else could. Giant players in the beauty market are those who could set the trend and while moving fast enough to be ahead of all its copycats.

Now that we talk about beauty, feminine beauty in particular, what is the fundamental point that determines what is feminine beauty? What is femininity and girlish behaviour. Who first decided it and then spread the meme of what is feminine? Hegel believed that there is such a thing as classical beauty that is upheld as the ideal and timeless, a sensuous form elevated to the spiritual, yet this concept is relative according to the ideas of a particular culture. While is classical for one may be abhorrent to another. Of course, geneticists would believe that there are still basic, fundamental preferences that keeps thing remarkably similar at the core, such as the peahen’s preference for the peacock’s lavish display of feathery splendour. Or a men’s preference for a wasp-waisted woman.

I once had a debate with a male friend who insisted that there must be standards to adhere to in terms of sexual structure, or the world will fall into chaos. He staunchly believed that the difference between the feminine and the masculine is manifested not only in the hirsuteness of the subject but also in particular standards of behaviour. To his mind, a woman must always play a supportive and nurturing role to a man, and play it naturally. A woman must be well-socialized in interpersonal communication, and can do so unfailingly. One who fails to do it has failed the standards of womanhood. he believes that that there are unconscious inclinations that move each sex towards modes of behaviour and thinking that represents them. Such thoughts came not from an everyday lackey, but a man who believes himself to be educated and liberal.

Perhaps looking at transsexuals will provide particular answers to some of our questions, or it may just add to our confusion. Why do this group of people try to stratify gender classes that feminists have tried so hard to dismantle? Why does a male-to-female transsexual believe that s(he) can further affirm he(r) gendered identity if she were to don stilettos and makeup, and maintain a highly feminine appearance and demeanour. Of course, many ‘normal’ women are schooled in ways of doing so (that’s what popular women magazines are for) but none put in as much trouble to do so as the transsexuals. Nonetheless, their appearance could possibly be more of an attempt to gain acceptance for themselves as the female sex than to further propagate traditional concepts of womanhood. If one were to look at the various positions occupied by transsexuals in the world, many had broken away from the drag-queen mode to becoming highly successful in various highly regarded careers. But one question that continuously begs the mind, how does a man feel like he is a woman trapped in a man’s body and vice-versa? How does he or she even know what being a woman or man is like? Does it have to do with their likes and dislikes, certain childhood predisposition towards particular toys or expectations?

So the question continues to the utmost fundamental level, and at the end of the day, without labels, categorization and arbitrary measures of truth, we seem to fail to define womanhood in gendered terms. Yet, we know clearly the sex of an individual by way of biological distinctions. However, the idea of feminism is based on the existential construction of gender that is a source of constant reconfigurations. Maybe that’s why being a feminist is such hard work.

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