Female Empowerment and the Masculine Ideal

*For the purposes of this post, I’m using perceived Western cultural norms when I talk about “masculine” or “feminine” traits. For example, masculine traits include a dependence on logic, assertiveness, durability, strength, coolheadedness. Feminine traits include being emotional, sociable, submissive, kind. I understand that these traits are a huge generalization of the population, but that’s what stereotypes and cultural norms/expectations are based on. I don't personally believe in these generalizations, but they are present in Western society. I also speak in very general, sweeping terms that do not account for individual differences. I mean no offense. So don’t ruffle your feathers at me.

Even if you live under a rock, you know about feminism: the movement that seeks to equalize the status of women to that of men in modern (often Western) society. In our patriarchal society, men have an advantage over women – in terms of money earned for the same jobs, freedom to go when and where they please, sexual freedom/not being called sluts, societal perceptions of power and capability, etc. This “male privilege” is the thing feminists combat – or more accurately, try to achieve. Feminists just want equal opportunity for women. The movement is not called, for example, humanism because that would imply raising the whole of humanity to some level, whereas feminism seeks to raise women to the level of male privilege in society.

The strange thing about feminism is that in order to raise women to the status of men, women often adopt traditionally masculine characteristics. For example, women in business or politics – take Hillary Clinton – learn to be less emotional, strictly logical and very assertive (more so than girls are usually taught to be) in order to succeed. In RuneScape (an online multiplayer fantasy game that I play), I stumbled upon a gang leader named Katrina. When I “examined” the character, the description read, “an empowered woman”. Katrina looked and acted the harsh, take-no-prisoners typical gang leader role. So in essence, in order to gain power in society women have to act like men. How many times have you seen a female protagonist in a book/movie/whatever praised as “kickass” for exhibiting masculine traits? People cheer when a woman beats someone up because, hey look, she’s in control. Thus there is this perception of the ideal person being masculine: tough, logical, kickass. 

There’s nothing wrong with exhibiting masculine traits. The issue here is that if masculinity is the key to success, then traditionally feminine traits are automatically worse to have. Here is a New York Times article about women and emotional displays at the workplace. A traditional business setting sees emotions as essentially a disturbance to the work process. If a woman cries she’s seen as emotionally unstable; if a man cries, he’s perceived as sensitive and caring because men are raised not to cry. The article ends with the very true statement that a woman President would have to be “‘more stoic than a man’”.

But the most troubling thing about this “masculine ideal” is that if women achieve power via masculinity, then these women are in a sense giving more power to the patriarchy by conforming to that ideal. Wouldn’t it be better, in an ideal world (so much idealism today!) for masculine and feminine traits both be valuable for forging ahead? In a way they are – people skills and tenderness are important skills – but in a cutthroat industry like business or law, for example, it’s still more important to be stoic and logical. If both traits are seen as equal, then we will not see as many people striving for that “masculine ideal” and ultimately unbalancing our society.


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