May 16, 2013, 01:25PM

Femininity Is Still About Bodies

A different take on Angelina Jolie’s mastectomies.

Angelina jolie reveals she had a preventative double mastectomy.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

"Angelina Jolie Is Still A Woman," announces the headline to Eleanor Barkhorn's post about Jolie's double mastectomy. Jolie herself, in her New York Times op-ed, explained that following her operation, "I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity." Which seems like it should be non-controversial. Why wouldn't she still be a woman? Does this even have to be stated?

Actually, yes. The reason is that femininity is still, in our culture, very much about bodies. This is one of the main differences between perceptions of masculinity and femininity. To be a man, for the most part, is to act like a man—be tough, brave, courageous, dignified, or honorable. To be a woman, though, generally means to look like a woman. It means to have a feminine appearance, or to look sexy.

The differences in emphasis can have some upsides for women. Since femininity is more about appearance than action, women in some circumstances have a wider range of acceptable behavior than men. Women can wear pants without calling their femininity into question, while men who wear dresses are likely to be mocked. Women can openly express affection for other women without anyone questioning whether they are women, in a way that men cannot necessarily express affection for other men.

But overall, it's not an advantage to have your gender reduced to your appearance. It tends to make you into a body rather than a self—which is why being a woman in, say, film is often a matter of standing there and looking pretty rather than of doing anything in particular.

It also creates huge and insoluble pressures having to do with naturalness and artificiality. For men, performing gender is a matter of performance; it's what you do. You might fake it (by, say, pretending to be straight when you're gay), but the act isn't itself a betrayal of your gender. Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be gendered simply by being. So woman have to appear to be women—but any effort to appear to be a woman is unfeminine. Thus, women are simultaneously told that they must look a certain way, and then condemned as artificial when they try to look a certain way.

In this sense, beauty culture and the decrying of beauty culture aren’t really opposed; they're just two sides of the same dialectic. The endless fascination of fashion photoshop disasters, with its gleeful revelation of fakeness and artifice, functions in much the same way as the perfect airbrushed images themselves. Whether you're promoting the fake femininity of bodies or sneering at the fake femininity of bodies, the link between artificiality, femininity, and bodies never really gets broken.

Jolie is trying to break it, though. Again, she writes," I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.” The mastectomies don't make her less of a woman; instead she's empowered by her choice. She's right on the verge there of defining her femininity as empowerment—as how she acts, rather than how she looks. Having artificial breasts, or real breasts, or no breasts, isn't what makes her a woman. Gender isn't about the body; it's about the self.

In her book Whipping Girl, Julia Serrano, a trans woman, argues that every person has a "subconscious sex,” an internal sense of what gender they belong to. For most people, their subconscious sex corresponds to the gender they're assigned at birth. For some, like Serrano, it does not. But everybody has it; the gender you know you are, whether masculine, feminine, or both.

The point about subconscious sex is that it doesn't really have anything to do with what you look like—nor, for that matter, with how you act. It's not something you have to attain, whether by being brave or by wearing eye-liner, by acting a certain way or having a certain body. It's just who you are.

  • My previous post did not register so please forgive if it appears twice later. Noah, are you seriously suggesting that men are not judged on manliness by physical appearance? If that were true, why do penis enlargement curealls sell so well. Why are men with litlle muscle mass referred to as girly-men, wussies etc.? Why all the ED meds? As for Jolie, I'd argue that her answer gives credence to this very stereotype. First, she has not been seen publicly without breasts. If she didn't believe this stereotype why the need for new implants and not revealing her plans until after all the work was done? Second, by acknowledging that she does not feel any less a woman, is she not giving credence to the stereotype? Would not a more appropriate answer be why would I feel any less of a woman? That's a non-sensical qquestion. What does my preventative care or breast size have to do with my DNA? Instead, she is using this procedure as yet another publicity gaining event where she paints herself as both the victim and the heroine. After all, if you really beleived that you have an 85%chance of dying from cancer and you allow body image issues to dissuade you from taking appropriate action, that'd be a sign of psychological issues not strength.

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  • Texan: Thanks for being patient. Glitches have been worked out.

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  • No problem. a few minor glitches is a small price to pay for the new look. Kudos

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  • Hey! The comment system lets me in! yay! Texan...I don't mean to be an absolutist about any of this. "Being a man" means what "being a man" means — it's about actions, not appearance. That doesn't mean that men are never judged by appearances at all (as many trans men will tell you), but I think it's fairly clear that maculinity is defined a lot more by action, and femininity by bodies. As far as Jolie goes...I think, yes, she doesn't entirely avoid or refute the stereotype. I think that's kind of hard to do, honestly. I think she is trying to get around it, though, and not completely unsuccessfully. I think you're overly harsh in saying she's just doing it for publicity, or what have you. She's a celebrity using her celebrity to try to bring attention to a disease, and point out that woman who have it aren't somehow deformed. I don't have a problem with that.

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  • 1. What does "being a lady" mean? Is it not also about action? 2. If you have cancer or as high a chance as Jolie claims, a healthy mind is not caught up in trivialities like appearance. We are born with an instinct for survival first. 3. What Jolie is really pointing out is that she is among the few who can afford to make this pre-emptive decision. Most insurance does not cover the gene tests that cost over $3000. Most insurance will not pay for preemptive surgery like this. Then, she could afford the top reconstruction surgeons. So here are my questions Noah, who wasn't aware of breast cancer (since you claim she is bringing attention to a disease and apparently never heard of Susan G. Komen)? Who is saying the woman is deformed as a result? If she had the type of reconstruction surgery Jolie has had, why would anyone know she had a mastectomy just by her appearance? No one knew Jolie did and she has the media following her every move. So once again, other than bringing attention to herself, how does this help anyone?

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  • "Being a lady" is somewhat different than "being a woman", though. That's about class as much as gender, I'd argue. Attributing anything humans do to instinct is really dicey. Linking an instinct for suvival to complicated reconstructive surgery seems weird. This isn't a struggle on the veldt; this is making complicated an informed health decisions. She's talking about a particular gene and a particular approach to prevention which I certainly didn't know about. I doubt most other people did either. Hating celebrities because they're celebrities...you realize that that's not really any different than loving celebrities because they're celebrities, right? Jolie's mostly in crappy movies and can't act especially well, but her charitable work is admirable and her op ed seems mostly to the good to me. I don't see why I have to get upset that she's famous just because she's famous.

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  • One last attempt at reason: 1. Be a man or Be a woman are both action statements. Lousy examples at best/ non-sensical vis-à-vis the article at worst. 2. The whole reason she made this decision is about the longevity of her life. Re-read her op. ed. if you must. She decided living was more important than the inconvenience these procedures caused her. It was not about reconstructive surgery (although she could afford the best therefore bypassing the very issues you are writing about), it was about pre-emptive cancer care. 3. I'm not hating celebrities, just not giving them undue credit for personal decisions we all have to make. 4. The fact that you were unaware of this gene analysis betrays both your lack of interest in the topic and/or general ignorance on the topic. This test has been available to the wealthy for over a decade. Most women who have a genetic history of these cancers have been informed by their doctors, Oprah, morning news shows, Sex in the City and too many other venues to name. The fact that this is news to you and you look to Jolie to be your source should be a big clue that a little research would be advisable before writing on the topic. 5. Finally, what about my other points? Like a republican congressperson, it seems that you are clinging to the minor points because you can not defend your main ones.

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  • It seems silly to appeal to an objective reason when we're talking about fairly complicated cultural codes. There's room for differences in interpretation. I've been thinking about "be a lady" more. If you fail to be a man, it generally means you're unmanly; i.e., a woman. If you fail to be a lady, it often means that you're a slut, or a bitch; still gendered, but not classy. re, 4; Jolie and a NYT op ed are going to get a lot more publicity than virtually anything else. I still don't see why that's a bad thing. Insulting me or my knowledge is not a very effective or thoughtful argument as to why it's a bad thing. 3. It sure sounds like antipathy to me. And saying that Jolie seems to have done a good thing overall doesn't seem like especially undue credit. I don't think she's a saint; I think she wrote a decent op ed for a good cause. 2. I never said anything different. Not sure what your'e getting at with this one... and I already answered 1. And for 5; get over yourself, man.

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  • I didn't need to offend and I apologize, I should have said uninformed instead of ignorant. My main 3 points are thus 1. woman who has an annual gyno visit, should have been informed of this gene study at least 5-10 years ago. My sisters, whose mother died of ovarian cancer, got the test around 10 years ago. Jolie herself talked about this over 5 years ago and said how she planned to proceed sometime in the future. This is not new or not widely distributed information. It is more a sign of media's short term memory. 2. Most women can not afford the test and following reconstructive surgery. Because Jolie can, does not increase it's availability to the masses. She is not talking about this but her own personal struggle. Not sure that since she had to tell the media instead of them finding out, that her struggle is really at all relevant to those who would have much more permanent and possibly obvious scarring. 3. In light of 1 & 2, what has Jolie written that will help or demonstrates courage or adds to the conversation? When informed and productive, I love celebrity involvement in worthy causes. When the celebrity is the primary beneficiary? , just think of the book offers, interviews etc., not so much.

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