Femmephobia: What are we really afraid of?

Recently I started coming across the word “femmephobia” to describe critiques of pinkification, female stereotyping and the beauty industry. The femmephobe is someone who exhibits an irrational fear of all things traditionally associated with femininity. She is prejudiced against people who use femininity as a means of expression. It’s not because she’s identifying an oppressive structure which limits everyone’s choice, but because she just doesn’t like girly girls. She is, in short, a bigot.

I’d say I’m a bit of a femme myself. I like make-up and prefer dresses to trousers. I think cars and football are boring (because they bloody well are). I’d rather do crochet than play on the Wii, unless it’s a relatively fluffy platform game that doesn’t involve too much killing. Hence I have a degree of sympathy with those who cry “femmephobe!” I can see the position as a distant relative to that adopted by earlier feminists who sought to re-evaluate traditionally female activity and culture. There is nothing inherently trivial about the work “feminine” people do, the poses they adopt, the means by which they express themselves. Moreover, devaluing “the feminine” is not just sexist but culturally imperialistic, since definitions of femininity vary between cultures.

However, whereas previous feminist work was about re-evaluating what it was that the construct “femininity” had to offer to human beings in different places and times, the “femmephobia” position feels more about silencing structural critique. It seems you can’t attack the industries and social environments which exploit pressures on women to be “feminine” because that’s attacking those people who are naturally “femme” (an essentialist definition which is, in itself, culturally imperialistic). I think this is bullshit. It’s quite obviously bullshit, but still, it’s a word that has “phobia” in it, so mustn’t say it too loudly.

I see this happening a lot: criticism made by women is pathologised, presented as a “phobia”, an irrational response to reality rather than something considered, nuanced and worthy of consideration. Men challenge the status quo whereas women, it seems, have the choice of reflecting it or being considered mad or bad. Women who don’t like the beauty industry are “femmephobic”. Those who criticise the sex industry are “whorephobic”. Those who question traditional family structures “hate men” and those who call out objectification are deemed to have “daddy issues” or “problems with sex”. A woman who challenges the social order is deemed unwell. It’s an age-old practice – feminist works of fiction such as The Yellow Wallpaper and Wide Sargasso Sea describe it vividly – but it’s depressing to see it still with us today, even more so given that it’s a tactic employed by women as well as men. Even so, I can see why women do it. They call other women “phobic” because they themselves are afraid. We all are. That’s patriarchy for you.

But what are we really afraid of when we use words like “whorephobia” and “femmephobia”, or when we claim mothers in paid work “hate” stay-at-home mothers? What is it we fear when we call No More Page 3 campaigners “pearl-clutching” and “prudish”? Or when we use acronyms such as SWERF and TERF, suggesting knee-jerk, pathological conditions in women with whom we disagree? I think what we fear is one thing: misogyny. We know that misogyny is real but we tell ourselves that if we don’t say it out loud – if we focus our attention on the imperfections of its victims — it might just go away or at the very least not affect us.

No one wants to be the woman who cried misogyny, a deadly serious word that no one takes seriously at all. Just uttering it makes you sound hysterical, childish and weak – all those things that misogynists think women are. It’s a word that describes a source of oppression which nevertheless manages to sound self-indulgent; only women who don’t have real problems get all het up about being hated for being women. Misogyny plays a part in so much of the shit that different women, in different contexts, go through, yet the fact that its manifestations are not the same across different groups is used as a reason to question its entire existence. Accuse a person of “femmephobia” and you instantly distinguish yourself from the morass of whining women; accuse one of misogyny and you are instantly deemed to be proving just how pathetic and addicted to victimhood women like you are.

Reifying the manifestations of misogyny – packaging them off into neat little boxes that in no way relate to one another – is comforting. Your problem is not a political, social and cultural environment that perceives women to be inferior human beings. It is not a world in which it is considered normal for women to be objectified, exploited and abused. It is not a world in which you will hear justifications as to why it is okay to rape people like you, nor a world in which any woman’s voice is considered too loud, nor a world in which the vast majority of decisions are made by and for men. Your problem is just the whorephobes, or the femmephobes, or the SWERFs, or the TERFs, or those radical feminists who’ve taken it a bit too far. Your problem neither structural nor vast. It’s just a few individuals who happen to be bigoted, wrong and female. Well. That’s convenient, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, comforting though this may be, it really isn’t helping, or rather, it might help a few individuals feel less vulnerable but it will not make women safe. Talking around misogyny, repositioning it to make it appear less powerful, isn’t a solution. We all have words in our head and stories to tell. We can invent more and more, as many as we like. Nonetheless, when our own flesh is being sliced, diced, modified and abused, it doesn’t matter how we retell it. This is misogyny.


2 thoughts on “Femmephobia: What are we really afraid of?

  1. Elizabeth Hungerford makes a good point: Does doing femme gender possibly harm one? (I’m speaking only of appearance-related actions. Being passive and weak also may have unintended and serious consequences.) For example, carcinogenic makeup, shoes that deform the feet and reduce mobility, shapewear that impairs digestion. Shaving one’s legs or wearing a dress has no lasting ill-effects, but some aspects of putting on femininity have definite health results, though they may be long-term. It’s also a good thing to keep in mind that one is “doing gender” when doing it.

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