Masculinity, femininity, and the difficulty of easy definitions

My junior year of college, I took a course called, “Masculinity in African-American Literature.” It was one of my favorite classes in my English major. We spent a whole semester reading great fiction and talking about how the books we read portrayed masculinity, and femininity. We debated at-length conceptions of masculinity and race, and discussed how the masculinity of black men was challenged by hundreds of years of slavery and institutionalized discrimination. Despite our continual examination and re-examination of the topic and our ever-shifting understanding of the material at hand, we struggled to arrive at a succinct, straightforward definition of the term, “masculinity” itself.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about these concepts of “masculinity” and “femininity.” It probably started when my 6-year-old decided to lop off her hair and go short for the summer. It was a bold move. All the stylists at Cartoon Cuts were in awe. We went with a pretty contemporary, fashionable style, but something that we knew would work well on a blonde with fine hair.

If only my girl's haircut could get me Mumford and Sons tickets.

If only my girl’s haircut inspiration could get me Mumford and Sons tickets.

Since then, her hair has sparked a number of different reactions, many of them positive. But over the last few weeks, she’s been getting a lot of comments that unsettle me. When she cut her hair, a few of the neighborhood kids (her brother included), said she had a boys’ haircut. We quickly corrected them, showing them pictures of my own hair short and naming women who had short hair as well. We talked about how boys can have long or short hair and so can girls. They adjusted to these ideas with ease. Kids are hasty judges, but they also respond well to correction. Adults on the other hand…

Like the woman at Wegman’s grocery store who was giving out cheese samples and repeatedly addressed my daughter as, “Sir,” despite my subtle attempts to correct her. Or the clerk at Panera today who asked me, “What would he like?” while gesturing at my daughter next to me. Or the man behind me at the Dick’s sports yesterday who saw my husband escort our three kids to the bathroom and remarked, “It’s easy when you have all boys.” So far, these comments, from her peers as well as adults, don’t seem to bother her. She looks at me and laughs that she “tricked them.” That’s one way to feel a sense of control over it, I think. But how long will it be before she begins to be embarrassed (if she’s not already)? Will she internalize these comments the way she does when she gets chastised for “boy things” like playing baseball or her dream of becoming a rock star?

Fire away, gender-presumers.

Fire away, gender-presumers.

As her mom, I’m protective. I want to take that woman’s cheese plate and whack her with it. She had short hair herself. She should have known better. But, in the last few days, I’ve found myself wondering if we should priss up our girl’s wardrobe as a preemptive strike. A few less jerseys and orange (her favorite color) and a little more pink or kitten-based clothing, perhaps, or a “girl power” type bracelet. She might wear any of that (besides the pink, at least). I don’t harbor these thoughts because I won’t change her. She’s amazing. There’s nothing wrong with her.

What I want to change is her world. But I can’t seem to do that fast enough. At six, she’s more self-aware and self-confident than I am at thirty-six. Like any other parent, I can only hope that her gift of self-expression will survive the gauntlet she’ll have to run. I can give her tools and teach her to advocate for herself. I can be there to bandage the heartbreak, but I won’t be able to stop it. And I can’t prevent her from taking in or believing all the messages and lies our culture feeds women, and men for that matter.

This past week, I watched a clip from PBS about companies that make clothes for gender non-conformists called, “The Right to Be Handsome.” While these clothiers are making it marginally better for women who enjoy masculine styles of dress, there are still challenges for men who enjoy feminine expression. Recently, I was talking with a man from our church about our culture’s pressures on teenagers. About halfway through the conversation, he proceeded to rant about how “confused” our boys were these days, with their skinny jeans, and “metrosexual” attention to their wardrobe and appearance. He agreed when I said that a man’s jeans don’t make him a man, and that we have to look at the whole person and see clothing as a personal preference in expression. He agreed, then returned to his diatribe about how our boys don’t know how to be men.

I would chalk this up to old-fashioned machismo, but then I saw this list, “50 Ways to Be a Woman” posing as “good advice” on Facebook. A sample:

10. Learn to handle your liquor. And if you can not handle your liquor, simply do not drink.


11. Learn to walk in high heels. And if you can not walk in high heels, buy cute flats instead. There is nothing attractive about a woman wobbling around like a newly hatched chicken.


12. Allow yourself to be treated like lady. If more women would sit down and be ladies, more men would stand up and be men. Just because you are capable of opening your own door, in the presence of a man, you should not have to. Allow men the indulgence of being men and take pride in the privilege of being a lady.

13. Keep your business to yourself. Be leery of who you trust and realize there are certain things you should keep to yourself.

14. Handle confrontation with grace and dignity. There will be people with which you do not agree. Respect the opinions of others and their right to disagree with you.

15. Use social media sparingly and in a way that only further dignifies you as a woman. In an age of digital exposure, we make the mistake of becoming too present in social media. If it’s not going to present you in a positive light, don’t post it.

16. Do not be afraid to admit that sometimes you need help. Even if it is a man’s help. 

20. Do not restrict yourself to gender stereotypes, but do not blatantly defy them for sport. 

23. Be the woman a man needs, not the woman that needs a man. 


24. Understand your self worth and never settle for less than what you deserve. 


25. Cross your legs. 


26. Do not lower your standards. 


27. Find your passion and pursue it. Wholeheartedly and fearlessly. 


28. Bend the rules when necessary, but observe them whenever possible. 

36. Find your bliss. Life is too short to be unhappy and an unhappy woman is very unattractive. 

The author says a woman doesn’t have to conform to gender stereotypes, but then what the heck is she doing with the rest of the list? High heels? As an arthritic, that’s just not practical. As a person, that’s just not practical. Most of this list is culturally-constructed. Some of it sounds like the inside of a Dove chocolate wrapper.

Silly chocolates, a real lady doesn't play video games or get into football.

Silly chocolates, a real lady doesn’t play video games or get into football.

None of these sharp delineations is biblically-prescribed. (Let’s not forget that by today’s standards of fashion, Jesus and all his male cohorts were basically wearing big-ol’ dresses.)

Way to man up, Lord.

Way to man up, Lord.

Many of these “norms” are rooted in an understanding of femininity that elevates masculinity above all other expression.

I’ve been struggling to even define “masculinity” and “femininity” in a way that’s not utterly stereotypical. Perhaps these terms are like beauty or pornography: I know it when I see it. I invite my readers to consider their own definitions. Are there ways to define these terms without codifying stereotypes about men and women, or more broadly, gender?

Consider this exchange between Julia Sugarbaker and her beau, who are embroiled in a back-and-forth battle of the sexes (conversation starts at 0:30):

Julia pinpoints part of the problem when she says women are better at integrating masculinity and femininity than men. While it may be more culturally-acceptable for women to be masculine than for men to be feminine, both are still denigrated. Reese’s responses explain why women are freer to be masculine: femininity is considered inherently weak. Masculinity strong. Many people define masculinity/femininity this way. They are predetermined opposites and their expressions are fixed: men are the pursuers, women the pursued. Femininity is compassionate, nurturing (both of which are considered “strengths” but culturally viewed as vulnerabilities). Scholars Sara Ruddick and Carol Cohn write (emphasis mine):

We understand gender not just as a characteristic of individuals, but as a symbolic system – a central organizing discourse in our culture, a set of ways of thinking, images, categories and beliefs which not only shape how we experience, understand and represent ourselves as men and women, but which also provide a familiar set of metaphors, dichotomies and values which structure ways of thinking about other aspects of the world…In other words, we see the ways in which human characteristics and endeavors are culturally divided into those seen as “masculine” and those seen as “feminine,” (e.g., mind is opposed to body; culture to nature; thought to feeling; logic to intuition; objectivity to subjectivity; aggression to passivity; confrontation to accommodation; war to peace; abstraction to particularity; public to private; political to personal; realism to moral reflection, etc.), and the terms coded “male” are valued more highly than those coded “female.”

This unequal (and somewhat arbitrary) valuation is the reason that we find it okay for a girl of a certain age to express masculinity as a “tomboy” but a boy of any age expressing femininity is a “wuss,” “pansy,” or worse. It’s why women can wear pants, but a man in a skirt is unacceptable.

But the ramifications goes beyond styles of dress. This dichotomous expression of gender is why some of us are trying to “Ban bossy” as an adjective to describe confident, competent, assertive women, and why some of us are insisting that women “Be bossy and proud” instead. (Civilization: feminists can disagree on solutions while agreeing on the existence of the problem.) It’s why people are still making these jokes about Hillary Clinton (as if that is any woman’s first priority in life):

Proud to say one of my Republican friends called this crap out on a young conservatives Facebook group.

Proud to say one of my Republican friends called this misogynistic crap out on a young conservatives Facebook group.

It’s why we can’t shake this men pursue/women are pursued dynamic even when it so obviously objectifies women and dehumanizes men. It’s why women are still subjected to physical violence, and then violated all over again by their communities. Look no farther than Whoopi Goldberg, a celebrity known for her own gender non-conformity and Oscar-worthy portrayal of a domestic violence survivor, who says on national TV that some women are “provokers” of their own abuse. It’s why transwomen live in fear for their lives.

On top of it all, I believe that these prescriptions for how to be a woman and how to be a man are a total distraction from the whole-hearted pursuit of God. When we use such lists to define people, we are limiting the expression of God’s image in those we behold. I can’t help but wonder how much this kind of rejection and violence against one another hurts Him, too.

There are some feminists that reject the terms “masculinity” and “femininity” altogether. I’m not one of them. What I do reject is some easy catalog of these qualities, particularly when the stereotypes reinforce the violent, self-centered sinfulness of humanity. I think we should be talking about these concepts and opening ourselves up to a broader understanding of the spectrum within humanity. Masculinity and femininity exist in every person on the planet, in varying degrees. If we are all made in the image of God who expresses both masculine and feminine qualities, should we not be safe to explore and examine how those expressions are fulfilled in each of us? Can we not allow others the freedom to do the same in pursuit of the One who created them? What are we so afraid of here?

I realize that every step we take toward dismantling patriarchy can be unsettling. We are used to patriarchy. It looks like order to us. But it’s bad order. It’s an order based upon supremacy. The opposite of bad order isn’t disorder, it’s good order. Undoing hierarchy is about establishing equality. Equality doesn’t have to entail anarchy.

What about you? How do you define masculinity and femininity? How do you identify it? Is your concept of these terms tied to a cultural understanding? Have you used these terms to demean or devalue people in the past? Have you been hurt by these definitions?



2 thoughts on “Masculinity, femininity, and the difficulty of easy definitions

  1. Jaimie Lunsford says:

    This article was fascinating! This is exactly the type of thing I’ve been thinking and reading about for weeks, and I just happened upon your post. Thanks for writing!

    To answer one of your questions – yes, I have been hurt by these terms. In fact, I’m coming around to realizing my whole life has been stifled to a certain degree by them, and maybe many other people’s lives have, too. Even though I’ve noticed that, as you articulately point out, as a woman I’m freer to use masculine means of expression than men are to use feminine ones, I still can only go so far before I cross some invisible line and become socially ostracized.

    To answer your other question, here’s how I view “femininity” and “masculinity” – which are always in little quote marks in my mind. 🙂 It seems there is a list of traits or behaviors agreed upon to be “feminine” and a list agreed upon to be “masculine”. These lists vary between cultures and times. For almost every item on the list, anyone could think of several people who don’t follow the rule (men who are nurturing; women who never wear dresses or makeup or high heels; men who love to knit; women who have strong, assertive personalities; etc.). BUT – if a single individual transgresses too many of the rules at once, they become a social anomaly. What about a woman with a shaved head who wears men’s clothing, has a bold, assertive personality, AND works in a typically male vocation (computer programmer, for instance). Now she’s gender non-conforming, and she may even feel that she is transgender, or is at least unhappy in her assigned role as “woman”. Same for if a man breaks too many norms – actually, for a man it only takes one, wearing a dress or make-up. And if you add any more feminine hobbies or qualities to that (dancing, fashion, art, feminine gestures or mannerisms, etc), it becomes more likely that this man will identify as transgender. I have no problem with that, of course, but I wonder if these individuals would feel the gender dysphoria that they do if our culture just did away with our made-up notions of “masculinity” and “femininity” altogether.

    If you’re not convinced that they’re completely made up, let’s take body hair as an example. It’s “feminine” to have shaved legs and underarms. Biologically, women grow hair on their legs and underarms. In order to match up to the ideal of “femininity”, every woman has to alter her body to accommodate the norm. Just living in your regular body you were born in, without altering it, means you’ll be gender non-conforming if you’re a woman in 21st century America. How can that be? This convinces me that “real men” and “real women” are unicorns in the sky – made up images that none of us embody without pretending. So why keep the image? If we can admit, and even see that it’s important, that males can have long hair or short hair and females can have long hair or short hair, as their preference dictates, then where do we draw the line? Why draw a line? Why keep these made up lists intact? I say we shred them and be individuals. 🙂 What do you think??

    I guess my question is, if you can’t circle in on a distinct definition for masculinity and femininity that applies to everyone, and if you believe that the proscriptions to live according to the social constructs arranged around these terms can be harmful, why are you *not* one of those feminists who advocate for the end of these categories? What about them do you find positive enough to make them worth keeping?

    I ask this not in an argumentative tone, but in a genuinely curious one! Thanks again for this great read.

    • Thanks for responding! I guess right now I don’t see censoring terminology as the solution? (I say as a question.) I’d rather us explore how femininity and masculinity manifest themselves in the genders within humanity, without denying that there are qualities of each in all of us. If you ask me what those qualities are, I can’t pin that down, but I can tell you they are different. They make more sense to me poetically than they do as syllogistic philosophy.

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