“The Feminization of America” and the way words work

Written by Emily

For days (almost a week, really) a phrase has been hanging on my brain like a soggy wool blanket, picking and itching and keeping me awake. It wraps around me in moments of silence, in moments of quiet observation when I should be feeling at peace watching my kids play and imagine. Instead I’m haunted by it–well, less the phrase and more the tone with which the phrase was spat like an unexpected hair tucked into a bit of cheesecake:

The Feminization of America.

I won’t share the source of the phrase, where I heard it, or the mouth that curled into a sneer after it hissed, “the Feminization of America,” because I don’t want this to be misconstrued as a political agenda. It isn’t. It’s a human agenda. Or rather an agenda for my humans. And honestly, while these people were audacious in their position and made no effort to conceal their aversion, it’s just as dangerous, maybe more so, when it catches us off guard in its subtly.

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There on the page surrounded by white space and nothing it doesn’t look like the poisonous venom it was made to be. When I say it out loud, I like it. I’m throwing up high-fives. I’m starting the wave with my kids and celebrating because I don’t think feminization is 12-letter curse word. It doesn’t have to be.

Words don’t exist or live without emotion, intention, purpose. They die without an audience. Last week, millions of Americans tuned in while men and women discussed the “feminization of America” not with enthusiasm but with disgust dripping from their mouths until they needed a napkin to catch the extra derision and indignation pooling at the corners of their lips.

What do they see when they hear the word? What images pass behind their eyes? What ideas?

Does feminization still conjure images of Disney princesses: Aurora, passive and breathless until love’s kiss awakened her from her slumber; or Snow White, the delicate demure flower she was. Do all the archaic images and stereotypes from all the texts we’ve ever seen rest in supine positions for our gluttonous gaze?

That must be it. Because no one who scoffs at the idea of feminization sees the reality of what lives and breaths in front of them like I do. Every. Single. Day. The reality of feminization:

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The Concentration:

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The Imagination:

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The Curiosity:

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The Individual:

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I fear for my girls.

And what’s the sacred opposite? Masculinization. A masculinization that has been reduced to nothing more than good ol’ boy bravado, bullying and arrogance. And we’re supposed to buy this, sop it up with some crusty bread and swallow it down. While it’s digesting, pass the Playboy, will ya?

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I fear for my boy.

I’m wary of the princess culture. I’m discouraged by the sexualization of toys I used to play with like Strawberry Shortcake and Holly Hobby, but I’m impressed by my girls. They’re complex creatures with varied interests: circuit boards and make-up, glitter and glue, mechanics and dresses, letters and numbers. And by my son who is a cocktail of compassion and toughness.

More and more I see that kids don’t always suffer from a crisis of categories that demands people fit just so. I’m afraid grown-ups with our baggage do that to them. With our words and our actions, we model it.

On the surface, I’m a stereotype. It’s a truth that was unsettling to me for a long time.

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I’m a stay-at-home mom, a care-giver, a nurturer: the woman in the advertisements.

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It took time for me to realize there’s more to that image; there’s a depth that often goes unmentioned because it doesn’t necessarily sell dish detergent. Shame on me for taking so long to notice. In falling for hasty generalizations, I know I sold a few women short.

The Feminization of America

I know so many women, so many men, so many people who are sold short again and again by the idea that feminine means docile, domestic, passive, emotional, irrational and soft and that masculinity means tough, aggressive, active, arrogant, physical and unyielding.

Shame on us.

My husband and I are charged with the responsibility to reveal what’s under the surface. We’ll do that by fueling our children’s innate desire to wonder and question and explore the complexities of everything around them…even people, especially people. Sometimes stereotypes will stare at them in their reflections and sometimes not. Sometimes they’ll see them in their friends and sometimes not.

By the time my children enter the work world or become voting citizens, I truly hope they can think beyond the “always” mentality that makes “feminization” and “masculinization” dirty words.

I hope they feel there’s a place for them here no matter who they become.

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And I think there will be. I do.

But what do I know? I’m just a mom, a woman, a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a person.

14 comments for ““The Feminization of America” and the way words work

  1. January 23, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Beautiful post, just beautiful. There is so much more to all of us than just the titles, and all of the little cubbyholes that society wants to shove us into. I think it’s important to recognize that, and to let our kids out of the box, let them discover who they are. I think that what you’ve written is a beautiful message.

    • January 23, 2014 at 10:53 am

      Thank you so much! I’m so glad you get it. I worry about the messages subtle and otherwise that my kids will receive as they continue to grow–in the lyrics they dance to, in the commercials they see, in the television they watch. And when those ideas are reinforced by adults around them, it becomes part of what they believe. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. I always look forward to your insight, Kate 🙂

  2. Michelle
    January 23, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    Such a great read, Em! Thanks for posting.

  3. January 23, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    Hmm, I’m not sure how to voice my thoughts about this post. I wonder if the real issue is the demonization (spell-check’s telling me that’s not a word…) of both feminine and masculine. I wonder if the underlying problem is our attempt to merge the two into one, discarding the inherent differences, strengths, and weaknesses in each?

    More and more I see our culture pushing towards gender-less-ness. A demand that everyone be the same. When I hear the phrase “Feminization of America” (feminization apparently has not made it into the WordPress dictionary either), I think of our military attempting to put women into a combat zone or the hew and cry against the dangers of the NFL.

    As a woman, I understand that I have strengths men lack and weaknesses they lack as well. For instance, no matter how hard I train, I will never be able to be as physically strong as even a comparably-sized/built man to myself, much less those who are built much larger. This is a genetic fact that I appreciate. This fact alone makes me cringe when I hear of a woman begging to play football or hear a report that the military is “dumbing down” their physical standards to accommodate women in combat units. This is a problem.

    At the same time, I relate to people completely differently than any man I have ever met (I’m almost 50 and an extrovert, so I’ve met LOTS of men, from many cultures too). The male brain is different than the female one … we process emotions differently … we even hear differently. It’s a FACT that should not be discarded because of a fear of stereotyping. Is it stereotyping to say that a dog is quite a different animal than a cat? I don’t think so. Neither do I believe it is stereotyping to say that men are different from women. We get into stereotyping when we as a society demand that people act in the pigeonhole we put them in. However, it is a fact that MOST OF THE TIME (I’ll qualify that, since there are a few exceptions to this), you can remove any semblance of a gun-like toy from a typical boy, and on his own he will turn everything he can find from sticks to legos into pretend guns. This is not to say girls never do this, but it is not common in their nurturing nature.

    I wonder if in our desire to eliminate gender differences (not roles, mind you, but differences which are factual and real), we are diminishing the strengths of each and losing something vital in the process of demanding an equality that simply does not and never will exist?

    Just some thoughts. Not angry and no soapbox. But want to think all the way through this issue. Meanwhile, I hope my husband’s making dinner tonight. 😉

    • January 23, 2014 at 1:34 pm

      I agree with you 100%. I am in no way suggesting there aren’t differences between men and women (I think there are vast differences between people in general, too), rather what I mean to say is what you’re saying: it’s the demonization of the masculine and/or the feminine or the suggestion that one is better than the other that’s the problem. I don’t want feminization to be a bad word, and I do not want masculinization to be a bad word either (“well, less the phrase and more the tone with which the phrase was spat”). When we give value to one over the other, ways of thinking and feeling are completely discredited (i.e. women can’t do this because they are too emotional, compassionate/soft men are called names, etc.) In the program I was watching, the anchors did not hide their disdain for feminization and were celebrating an arrogant bravado they might as well have been called masculinity. It’s an us vs.them mentality that makes groups of people feel inadequate or less than.

      We do not have a genderless home at all. We did not push certain toys on our son, but he liked cars and trucks. We were careful not to force him into sports or interest in sports just because, but he loved football and learned all of his numbers from 1-99 by associating them with athletes. He gravitated to stereotypical “boy” things. In our home, we’re careful not to call things boy things or girl things so that our kids can hone their own interests. For example, my daughter is very interested in circuit boards, mechanics and science. We wouldn’t ever want to suggest those are boy things nor would we want to suggest objective thought is a man’s way of thinking, which was the implication from the people spitting at the thought of feminization of America.

      In response to your feminization interpretation…YES! What I hate and aim to challenge is when people suggest calling attention to the dangers in something is feminine and thus weak. Am I making sense?

      I greatly appreciate your thoughtful response, and I hope my reply was clear. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment and engage in fantastic dialogue. I look forward to hearing from you!

      • January 23, 2014 at 4:12 pm

        Yes, indeedy! 🙂 I had hoped that’s what you were saying.

    • January 23, 2014 at 2:06 pm

      And you in no way sounded angry in your comment. I hope my response did not sound angry or hostile either. I love the dialogue!

      • January 23, 2014 at 4:13 pm

        No, not in the least. 🙂

      • January 23, 2014 at 4:13 pm

        P.S. I love the dialogue too! I think that’s what has forced me out of organized religion and into the blogosphere … at least here we can have a conversation! lol

  4. January 23, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    I’m pretty pissed that anyone ever decided that certain traits are particularly feminine or masculine in the first place, I’m super pissed that only one set has been assigned value. Girls have been told they can do all the things a boy can do. Be tough, be powerful, go after what they want. It is time there was a movement enforcing the positives of so called ‘femininity’. Be sensitive, be nurturing, share your feelings. See what beautiful changes occur in the world.

    Looks like we’re trading guts for guts today. You are beautiful, as always.

    • January 23, 2014 at 6:38 pm

      I’m pretty glad you’re pissed. More people should be!

  5. January 23, 2014 at 8:54 pm

    Your reaction to those words is poignant, beautiful, hopeful and so many other things. I am so humbled by this post as I think of how often my daughter’s princess infatuation bothers me and I don’t know what to do about it. Or when my daughter tells me that she wants to be a mommy when she grows up and I feel proud and touched but also worried that she might be missing all of the glory that is out there for women in the workplace because I choose to stay home with my kids. What a wonderful way to open up our thinking on this incredibly important topic, Emily. Thank you:).

  6. January 25, 2014 at 4:43 pm

    I love, love, love your writing, Emily. And I heard that “concentration” pic. 🙂

  7. February 17, 2014 at 10:40 pm

    Beautiful post. I am dealing this with my daughter right now and it is painful. She is only 6. She brings up things that I know she is only hearing/learning outside of the home: “is my arm thin?”. “I’m more like a boy…girls don’t do fun things” (yet she is all girl at home…somewhere she learned being a girl isn’t cool), “am i flat?”….for these statements, I seriously reconsider homeschool yet I cannot protect her from the ridiculous world. It is so hard to parent this but I just keep saying we are all the same, our likes/dislikes determine nothing about who we are and always, she is the exact size she should be. Ugh, parenting never gets easier.
    On a different note, your hair is rockin’! Love! Wish I could wear a pixie cut and look as cute 🙂

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