Actress Arlene Dahl’s 1965 novel with advice for women on how to achieve femininity.

Femininity is a set of values that are usually associated with women, womanhood, and girls within a society. These values have been socially constructed and developed to classify certain traits as feminine and differentiate opposite traits as masculine. Although femininity can also be defined through biological differences between the sexes, all genders can express traits which are culturally defined as feminine.

As explained in Foss’, Gender Stories, femininity is part of a gender binary, in which the opposite is masculinity. The western world often considers femininity to be “less than, weaker than, [and] somehow deficient” (Foss, Dominico, & Foss 57). In addition, traits such as crying and sensitivity, decisions based on feelings, and sweetness are often associated with femininity. In contrast, according to Leslie Feinberg’s To Be or Not to Be, “masculinity has been inaccurately contrasted as stronger, more analytical, more stable, and more rational than femininity” (148).  Furthermore, in our heteronormative society, the male sex is seen as masculine and female sex as feminine; therefore this gender binary leads to the terms as “discriminatory and oppressive values” (148). Feinberg argues that individuals should have the right to express their gender as separate and distinct from their sex.

When femininity is strictly linked with the female sex, one can perceive these traits as traits with which a female is born.  However, Judith Butler states in her book Gender Trouble, “the very subject of woman is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms” (2). Butler argues that females are not born with femininity but that particular traits associated with femininity can become part of a gender expression, just as any other trait. Ultimately, anyone can express femininity or masculinity throughout their gender performance. This is reiterated in Gilman’s, Herland, where the norms of femininity are challenged throughout the text. According to the narrator Van, the “women” of Herland are “strikingly deficient in what we call femininity” (50). In fact, in Herland there was no specific standard of what was feminine or masculine.

The issue with looking at femininity in a binary world is that “anatomic sex differentiation occurs on a male/female continuum, and there are several dimensions” (Feinberg 148). Biologically, it can be argued that along a spectrum there are at least five sexes, and that a binary sexual system is “in defiance of nature” (Fausto-Sterling qtd. Feinberg 148). Therefore, one must disconnect “female” with femininity, as well as disconnect traits categorized as feminine. It is important to recognize that all genders and sexes can express a diversity of traits no matter how they are labeled.

When gender performativity is linked with genitals, it becomes a social construction which marginalizes many people in our society. These individuals include but are not limited to: bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgendered, intersex, and even heterosexual persons. People of all genders express themselves in diverse ways. For example, my friend Shelby is a female, heterosexual woman who enjoys ballet and painting her nails, all of these aspects socially constructed as feminine in our heteronormative society. She also has very short hair, an expression that is culturally defined as masculine, which defies her “femininity”.  This example emphasizes how femininity fits into a binary system.

Another example that shows gender binary is the relationship of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, a


Portia (left), with her wife Ellen (right).

married lesbian couple. The picture to the right shows the couple, but Ellen embodies a more masculine look (shorter hair, a suit, less of a smile), while Portia expresses herself in a way that is seen as more feminine (long hair, a dress, earrings, and a smile). Both women are female, but they express their gender in unique ways.

Femininity cannot be seen in a binary world that is linked only to genitalia because then femininity would be an impossible set of traits to achieve. Feinberg argues, “Who has the right to tell anyone else how to define their identities…to decide what happens to each of our bodies?” (150). Many people in our society express themselves in a variety of ways, thus gendered narratives cannot be directly linked to the binary of the male and female sexes, nor the binary of femininity and masculinity.  

Overall, our class agreed that gender is socially constructed in our society. Along with this, femininity is a socially constructed set of traits attempting to define what we consider female, girlish, and womanly, but cannot be stringently linked to the female sex. In fact, femininity in general cannot be linked to any traits or expressions as we strive to overcome the gender binary. 

Written by: Holly Hargis

Works Cited

Always Ask a Man, Arlene Dahl’s Key to Femininity. Photograph. Corina Writes. 9 Mar 2012. Web. 14 Jan 2012.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Feinberg, Leslie. “To Be or Not to Be.” 147-151. Print.

Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss, and Mary E. Domenico. Gender Stories: Negotiating Identity in a  Binary World. Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2013. Print.

Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi. Photograph. 11 Sept 2011. Web. 14 Jan 2012.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1998. Print.

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