Monday, October 3, 2011

Manly men and girly girls

I'm back from my blogcation and I have one more thing to say about the Zooey Dechanel thing.

The debut of the actress's new Fox sitcom, New Girl, has sparked a flurry of analysis of her childlike, twee persona. (Including some right here on this blog.) In turn, some defenders have pushed back, saying that criticizing Deschanel for things like her Hello Giggles blog and tweets about kittens is to devalue traditional femininity, which is counter to feminist values.

Deschanel herself hints at this in her recent New York Magazine profile::
 “That people equate being girlie with being nonthreatening … I mean, I can’t think of a more blatant example of playing into exactly the thing that we’re trying to fight against. I can’t be girlie? I think the fact that people are associating being girlie with weakness, that needs to be examined. I don’t think that it undermines my power at all.” Read more...
Righteous comeback, Zooey, but a strawwomen argument, I think. No one is criticizing traditional femininity, but instead the confusion of femininity with childishness. We are wondering at what it means for grown women to adopt perpetually pixie-like personas.

Our society has a history of associating childlike qualities with women. The cult of true womanhood that emerged in the 19th century dictated that white women possess the childlike qualities of purity and submissiveness. (Women of color were left out of this idealization then, as they are now, which is one reason there is no black Zooey Deschanel.) Susan Faludi said, “The 'feminine' woman is forever static and childlike. She is like the ballerina in an old-fashioned music box, her unchanging features tiny and girlish, her voice tinkly, her body stuck on a pin, rotating in a spiral that will never grow.”

Look even at the words we use to describe extreme femininity vs. the ones we use to mark extreme masculinity. A woman who is hyper-feminine is not a "womanly woman," but a "girly girl," emphasizing unencumbered youthfulness. A man who is traditionally masculine is, well, a man--a "manly man," very much an adult and in charge.

Maybe Deschanel is right. I suppose I do have beef with "girliness," not because of the implied femininity, but the implied submissiveness and dependence; because of how long it took for some women to prove that they are not children in need of care and for some other women, like me, to remind that we do need care as all human beings do. Perhaps I do reject a femininity that turns on being more "girl" than "woman," in part because "girliness" is accepted and abetted by a sexist society in a way that womanliness is not.

I'm not sure that this post brings me to any conclusion. This is just something I'm wrestling with--a visceral rejection of woman as child and the inability to unpack a persona like Zooey Dechanel's from the history of sexism in America. And, to be fair, one woman should never have to bear the weight of a nation's history of bias against women.

What do you say?

Photo Credit: Riddle


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