Femininity as Performance, and the Changing Face of Female Identity

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Somewhere around the age of three the human mind becomes obsessed with defining itself. Little kids around that age will be diligent about drawing firm lines between themselves and others, and particularly when it comes to gender. At this moment in life we begin to develop the urge to become the most exemplary specimen of whatever it is that we are. And if you happen to be a girl, you’re going to try to be the most perfect girl that ever walked the earth. But it’s a developmental stage that we never fully grow out of, spending much of our adult lives molding our identities so that they conform to whatever our version of ideal happens to be. There’s no better or more obvious example of this than the daily struggle of applying a whole face of makeup and twisting your hair into submission every morning. This is what psychologists refer to as the female performance, a never-ending stage act in which everything about you, the way you speak, the way you move and dress and bat your eyes, your whole existence becomes an act of willing an idealized version of femininity into existence. How often do you as a woman stop to consider where your ideas about what constitutes your best self comes from, and just how deeply it has been shaped by others? How many of us realize just how far the pendulum of idealization can swing? Let’s take a walk through history.

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The Perfect Woman as Perfect Mother

lempicka breasfeeding Though by today’s standards, expecting a woman to be educated and independent certainly raises the bar quite a bit from her original role as babymaker, the road to this new feminine ideal was fraught with setbacks. Since biblical times and beyond the chief duty of a woman was to be a perfect wife and a mother. Anything she did or said was only valuable to the extent that it helped her perform her motherly duties. If she was expected to be well-read, it was only in order to raise well-read children. Little else was expected or even wanted from a woman. She was completely reduced to her ability to birth out humans. In a 1853 book called the Women’s Medical Guide, author Joseph Hippolyt Pulte explains, “the perfect woman is formed, in all respects able to meet the arduous duties of a wife and a mother, in the full strength and maturity of body and mind.” The book warns that girls married too young are ill-prepared for the difficult demands of motherhood and wifedom. Nevermind the immorality of forcing a child to marry, or of the trauma of being forced out of her home, or anything at all that has to do with her own thoughts and feelings. No, in the late 1800 child marriage was wrong only because a young girl is not mature enough to be a mother. The message was clear: Be a good wife, be a good mother, then your life’s purpose is fulfilled.

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The Flapper Era Party Girl

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I’d rather do the ‘wrong thing’ at a party than do nothing at all. The girl who slips on her pretty new heels and stumbles into the potted palms or tumbles the music off the piano — she is laughed at, certainly, but she is also remembered! People will forgive your being incorrect but they will never forgive your being dull. ~ Excerpt from a 1920s book of advice for young women.

The 20s were the first time in history that women set their own standards for behavior and fashion, and so, quite predictably, it was a decade of anything goes. With the First World War behind them, Flappers were faced with unusually little male influence in their personal lives. Their fathers, fiancees, brothers and husbands had been tragically killed in the war, and the number of eligible bachelors was extremely small. They had to find a way to navigate the world on their own terms. And so they did. Women in pop culture suddenly took on incredibly public lives, they partied hard, wore loose comfortable clothing, had passionate love affairs, they could finally vote, and the sudden mass-availability of birth control meant women could postpone their motherly duties. Far from motherhood, the ideal woman was a social butterfly, a fashionable party girl, an extroverted, witty and worldly Zelda Fitzgerald character who could drink any man under the table. This was progress in leaps and bounds. But with progress came pushbacks. And it seems that with every two steps forward, came one step backwards.

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The Domestic Goddess

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Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question– ‘Is this all? ~ Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

After women entered the workforce in WWII and proved to the world and to themselves, that they were perfectly capable of doing “men’s work,” an old feminine ideal crept into the picture: the 1950s housewife. She was wholesome, suburban, a neat-freak, always immaculately put-together, and a supremely talented cook. Her most admirable qualities took on the familiar shades of motherhood. Beyond her role as a wife and mother, she had no other social purpose. “She must be understanding, kind and sincere, of good character, conservative in manner and speech.” Explained 1950s heartthrob wrestler Don Leo Jonathan of his perfect girl, “It is the nice girl I am seeking. The average American wholesome woman.” Long gone were the flapper days when feisty, outspoken women ruled over the hearts and minds of popular culture. Now the timid, demure and submissive woman was touted. These ideals held fast until the 80s came along and changed everything.

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The Supermodel Era, The Perfect Woman as Polymath

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We should celebrate being women and having the opportunities to do things that our mothers and grandmothers were not allowed to do. They were expected to stay at home and do the cooking and the cleaning. Though of course now we’re expected to do the cooking and the cleaning and the working. ~ Joan Collins

The 80s Supermodels were total badass Amazons – they were muscular, intimidating, ambitious and exuded an aura of power, with giant coats and shoulder pads to super-size the Xena Warrior Princess intimidation factor. The era of the Supermodel was a time when all the effort to destroy limiting gender stereotypes started to pay off. In the 80s women could finally apply for a bank loan without a male co-signer, the Supreme Court in the US finally overturned the law that husbands are “heads and masters” of their wives property, and large strides were made to protect women from discrimination at work. For the first time, women were in control of their destinies, as long as they could figure out how to navigate “the boys club” culture that remained. And so not surprisingly, the perfect woman of the 80s became androgynous, aggressive, and confident, all while hyper-highlighting her femininity with bright makeup and over the top hair. On TV we saw feisty, take-no-bullshit characters like Murphy Brown and Roseanne, who were strong and independent women, not easily intimidated by anyone. But of course, the other side of the coin was that the pressure to be all things in the universe began to grow. The pressure to be a successful career woman, while maintaining a household and a family, and a social life, all without letting your appearance go to the shitter.  The pressure grew and grew until today, giving rise to…

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The Ultimate Feminine Performance

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She drinks cold-pressed juices, has a million followers on Instagram and contours like a rock star. She has absolutely mastered that messy wavy look, in fact, she probably even posted a tutorial about it, and it probably went viral. Her Instagram account is so aspirational, it looks like something torn from a magazine. She’s super successful (or working on it), and has the kind of self confidence that only comes with knowing you’re really really good at what you do.

Beyond having a functioning vagina, blond hair, and higher education, today we have a brand new mold of perfection emerging from the ashes: The perfect woman as capital “P” Perfect Woman. You know the one, she drinks cold-pressed juices, has a million followers on Instagram and contours like a rock star. She has absolutely mastered that messy wavy look, in fact, she probably even posted a tutorial about it, and it probably went viral. Her Instagram account is so curated and so aspirational, it looks like something torn from a magazine. She’s super successful (or working on it), and has the kind of self confidence that only comes with knowing you’re really really good at what you do. And she does it all, perfectly balancing her career with an exciting social life, all while staying fit, writing her first book and redecorating her kitchen. The idea and remote possibility of achieving this ideal has paradoxically become the ideal for many men and women alike.

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The Perfect Woman as Her Own Woman aka The Sisterhood of the Vanishing Fucks

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And the princess lived happily ever after in her own castle, with her own money, and she wore all kinds of weird shit because it made her happy, and she had absolutely no fucks to give because she was her own woman, the end.

Thanks to the internet’s accessibility, it’s easier than ever to trace these “ideals” back to their source: sites like Men’s Health, OK Cupid, Whats Your Price and a vast number of other sites with a large population of male users. From a simple Google search, there is no arguing that the perfect woman is not a woman-generated concept. The very idea of a perfect woman is based on what the heterosexual man enjoys. It’s not about the woman at all. She’s eclipsed by fantasy. She is not a person, but a prototype. As such, any musing about the perfect woman could be called as much a stereotypically male pastime as Sunday Night Football and Grand Theft Auto. And this realization on a mass-scale has brought a surprising final twist in the evolution of the feminine ideal. Let’s call it the Sisterhood of the Vanishing Fucks. Suddenly we saw people like Nicki Minaj, Amy Winehouse and Leandra Medine of the popular blog Man Repeller, who were all considered weird and classically unattractive by the media and men alike, were nontheless hailed by fans for giving no fucks and being their own women. Unlike celebrities from bygone years like Marilyn Monroe and Clara Bow, today’s celebrities are not always loved and respected because they fit into the “Perfect Woman” category, but because they are unapologetically themselves.“Good fashion is about pleasing women, not men,” explained Leandra Medine, “so as it happens, the trends that we love, men hate. And that is fantastic.” It’s all about dressing the way you want because it makes you happy, regardless what anyone else thinks.

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The Irresistible Draw of Imperfection

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Good fashion is about pleasing women, not men, so as it happens, the trends that we love, men hate. And that is fantastic. ~ Leandra Medine, Man Repeller

Being confident, independent, supportive, and educated are beautiful qualities to strive for, but when the driving motivation is to please someone else or a general populous, they become meaningless. It’s when perfection becomes incredibly limiting. In order to be “perfect” one needs A, B, and C. Letters D through Z are considered worthless by the powers that be. Therefore, nothing else is accepted other than “perfect.” It’s another social convention that in the end strips us of our individuality. The Perfect Woman sets up a paradigm in which women and girls reach for certain standards just to be accepted by their male peers. It’s sacrificing one’s sense of self for others’ approval. The idea of perfection is supposed to elicit feelings of euphoria, beauty, satisfaction, but when the phrase is thrown around and put into practice, it’s a concept used for comparison that punishes those who don’t measure up. Those who are not perfect are not worthy of the same respect and attention as others. The whole concept leaves a group of women who don’t fit in feeling rejected and worthless.

It is for this reason why the growing response among women in regards to perfection has just been to fuck it. Fuck the whole idea of The Perfect Woman. Stop caring so much about what others want and find appealing. It’s time to please yourself before you attempt to please others. It’s giving yourself the power and agency to decide your own worth. Who cares if 100,000 nameless, faceless men think you’re subpar because you have brown hair, brown eyes, hate the color red, could drink them under a table, and wear size 16 jeans. The more important question is: how to do you feel about those traits? Are some of those things really even worth the effort of caring about?

As society stands, the current mainstream culture is The Perfect Woman concept. But there is also a growing counterculture of women Not Caring and Not Giving a Fuck. Not Caring about others’ judgement and doing what makes them happy. It’s the whole “Do You” phenomenon taken to the next level. It’s about doing what you want, while at the same time respecting other people’s decisions and realizing that everyone is different, looks different, acts different, has different values and preferences, but still deserves the same basic respect as a human.

Now take this and put it into the context of male-female attraction context. For so long, it was thought that female behavior and actions should be based on what would attract a man. That’s what The Perfect Woman promotes: a woman acting and behaving and looking a certain way to get a man’s attention. However, the Not Caring movement is the exact opposite: a woman acting and behaving and looking a certain way to make herself happy, giving absolutely no fucks about how the opposite sex is perceiving her.

Expectations of idealized women may change throughout time, but they really never go away. There will always be certain norms and standards for women that are considered better than others. But once women stop caring about fulfilling expectation they have no say in setting, women can strip these standards of the power they hold over us and she is able to live more freely.

1 Comment
  1. Alyssa Scott says:

    This is an incredibly well-written article. Using the historical context of female perfection to illustrate the unreachable pedestal that a lot of men put women on was brilliant. We need more articles like this in our lives to reinforce our own ideas of beauty and attraction, not those that society forces on us. Sisterhood of the Vanishing Fucks for the win! I’ll totally join!

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