What does deconstructing femininity look like?
Because I know how we construct femininity – the same way we do masculinity, through a collection of social, historical, and cultural influences that tell us that if we are born with a certain body type or identify with a certain gender than we should act a certain way. That’s not hard to understand. But what I want to know is what a deconstruction of that would look like through the lens of pop culture.
That sounds weirdly specific when I put it like that, but I have seen so many stories that deal with the deconstruction of masculinity, especially in the last few years. I mean, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, arguably two of the most critically acclaimed shows of the last decade or so, are entirely based around the breaking down of the traditionally “masculine” role. We watched as Don Draper’s seemingly-perfect life as a husband, father, and successful advertiser was picked apart by his inner torment at keeping up the facade of idealised masculinity, same as we watched Walter White’s ego tear him and his family apart as he attempted to establish himself with an overwrought masculinity that he felt had been taken from him. Dozens of films, movies, and books have dealt with the questioning and deconstruction of traditional masculine gender roles: Fight Club, The Sopranos, Fargo, Portnoy’s Complaint, amongst dozens and dozens of other examples.
And that’s good – I think any stories that question exactly how we construct gender and why it’s patently negative to shove people into simplistic boxes that label them as this or that when people are far more complex than that. But the majority of stories that we see deconstructing gender roles revolves around masculinity, around men, I think simply because the majority of stories we tell are about men, period. So, what would a story at the other end of the spectrum look like – a story that deconstructed femininity?
Because I’m not sure that the tropes we apply to stories that deconstruct masculinity necesarily directly translate to a female counterpart. Most of those stories revolve around how the subscription to traditional masculinity is directly damaging to the people around the main character – such as in Fight Club and Breaking Bad, where the characters feel emasculated and resort to aggressive behaviour to reclaim their masculinity – or in on themselves – as Man Men does with Don spiralling out into increasingly personally damaging actions in an attempt to reject the traditional roles foisted on him. Certainly, I’ve seen female characters who are forced into traditional gender roles and find that damaging and repressive, but they usually act as a complement to a man going through the same thing, rarely as a story of their own.
But while traditional masculinity is built around destructive notions of repression and aggression, traditional femininity is built on concepts of nurturing and caring. It’s hard to imagine a story which features a leading female character nurturing so hard that she destroys her family and murders a bunch of people along the way, you know? It seems that the closest we come with stories that thoroughly question femininity are with characters, such as Quinn in UnReal, who reject entirely notions of femininity and take on traditionally masculine qualities, like aggression, forthrightness, an openly sexual attitude, and so on. Whereas stories that deconstruct masculinity have characters aggressively subscribing to the traditional notions of masuculinity, it seems like we don’t have a nuanced enough grasp on the effects of “toxic femininity”, if you like, to see the destruction that it can wreak on both women who define their lives by it and the people around them. Because, in a patriarchy, maleness is seen as the default, the closest we can come to stories that question the notions of femininity are ones where women just become take on male roles. But stories that feature men taking on more feminine roles are more often played as comedy than drama or nuanced commentary. So what gives? Why is the default for women who push the boundaries of traditional gender roles just giving them traits historically associated with dudes?
I haven’t got an answer to this question, but I would love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about the way we deconstruct gender roles in fiction? Have you read or watched anything that has deconstructed femininity in an interesting way? What do you think stories deconstructing femininity would or should look like?
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Have you watched or read Gone Girl? I think it’s very interesting and warrants comparison to Fight Club when it comes to deconstruction of gender roles. Not perfect, obviously, and possibly not quite what you’re looking for– but good, and worth a watch or read.