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  • Writer's pictureSJ Marcotte

Femininity, Strength, and the Princess Phenomenon

Little girls in glamour makeup, princess gowns, tiaras AND athletic gear is not breaking new ground, but it might be reinforcing worn out narratives...

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Despite our sex chromosome combinations at birth, we are not born feminine or masculine - in a social sense. We come into this world, tiny bodies teeming with life - processes engaged, neurons firing, cells replicating - wonder, mystery, miracle. We start with all of the biological building blocks that make us both human and simultaneously connected to those things that are not. It’s like Joni Mitchell sang: “...we are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon...” We develop with a complex and individual soup of hormones and chemicals that contribute to our experience in the world both internally and externally. We also grow up around a social bonfire, the stories of what it means to be human, to be a man, to be a woman, swirling around us and through us.

I try to imagine our early ancestors, those kin who persevered before the Axial Age, before the birth of what we recognize as modern civilization - the transition that made social construction possible. I think about what it means to be a woman now compared to what it could have been like to be a woman then, and the social evolution that has transpired in the millennia that have come and gone. The pondering does not provide answers so much as it points to a growing complexity that comes with progress (in the sense of moving forward in time).

Feminine is an adjective. It is a word, a human construction, used to describe a noun: a person, place or thing.

Fem·i·nine /ˈfemənən/ adjective

having qualities or an appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness.

Because we have created the concept of femininity, it is a set of external expectations. Because we are social beings, those expectations becomes internalized.

What happens when we combine socially constructed ideas about what it means to live into an ideal, with who a person is on the inside and how they choose to manifest their strengths and passions actionably on the outside? Maybe we get photoshoots of little girls in full glamour makeup, princess gowns, tiaras AND athletic gear - and we call it ground breaking. (I'm intentionally not sharing the link to this project as it has gleaned enough of the spotlight these past weeks, and I bet you know the one I'm referring to).

Princess is a royal rank earned by birth or marriage and therefore a title of privilege not connected to anything the owner of the title truly has control over. In most formal cases, the title earned in marriage is likewise lost upon divorce. It is not a title connected to disposition, skill, ability, or strength. There are very few real-life instances of princesses having ruling authority. And yet, modern western consumerism has fully invested in the princess. The commercial princess phenomenon is the product of marketing and social construction - a metaphor for femininity, a ridiculous proxy for what it means to be a girl.

According to a 2015 article by Bloomberg: "Princess merchandise—dolls, clothing, games, home décor, toys—is a $5.5 billion enterprise and Disney’s second-most-profitable franchise. (This does not include sales connected to Frozen).

Movies, costumes, branded clothes, accessories, dolls, toys, games and media have influenced a generation of girls who have been taught to associate femininity with all things princess.

We all play many roles in life, some simultaneously, others in isolation and they all can be done authentically. Our chosen roles may have uniforms, social expectations, rules and norms, but none should require that a woman (or any person regardless of gender identity) to defend their femininity or uphold a fictitious ideal while performing the function of the role. When that requirement is present it is because we wrote the script and have imposed it on ourselves.

When I asked girls under the age of 18 who have grown up in this princess age what society tells us about femininity they used words including:

Fancy, girly, long hair, make up, dresses

Those same girls said they define femininity as:

Being yourself

As much as it pains me to admit it, maybe Disney is partially responsible for the latter message, too.

I asked two of my seventeen-year-old students what society says about what it means to be feminine:

M: “I think of girls, makeup, dressing up. Society says it’s about being skinny and small and wearing dresses.”

K: “It’s about being girly. Media tells us to be feminine is to wear makeup, to dressy girly, to look beautiful.”

I followed up by asking what femininity means to them:

M: “Being myself. I care about what others think, but not to the point that I will do anything about it.”

K: “It’s about being myself. I’m kind of sporty, you know I wear leggings and sweatshirts every day. I play sports. I don’t have to be girly to feel feminine.”

Finally, I asked them to tell me about a time they felt feminine but weren’t conforming to societal expectations:

M: "Bareback riding in the woods. Being in nature, on a strong animal that I was directing and working with. It’s not something that everyone can do or chooses to do, but it makes me feel empowered.”

K: “Playing softball. When I make a good play, like stealing a base, it feels so good, I mean I feel so good about myself. Even though I’m gross and dirty and sweating, I’m strong.”

This brief interaction with my students inspired me to reach out to adults of various ages and walks of life. I heard back from thirty people, all who identify as women. Survey questions included: What does society say about what it means to be feminine? How have societal expectations about femininity changed in your lifetime? How do you define femininity? Have your perceptions about femininity changed over time? Why? Is femininity part of your identity? Describe. Describe a time when you felt feminine and were not conforming to societal messages. Respondents tended to say that society tells us that femininity is about being gentle, kind, nurturing, sensitive as wells as irrational, emotional, dramatic, and weak. I immediately recognized how human strengths can be manipulated into weaknesses.

These women of life experience defined femininity on their own terms as:

  • Strong and gentle

  • Identifying as a women no matter how you appear

  • A sense of wonderment; a sense of kinship and strength inherent in women, resilience

  • Accepting your womanhood and yourself as you are

  • Gentle strength, a vessel strong enough to hold destruction and nurture regrowth

  • Strong, confident, and kind

  • The state of embracing your strength and unique qualities as a female-identifying person

  • Embracing the functions and changes of your body, expressing feelings, thoughts and emotions

  • A struggle for equality, visibility, and humanity

  • Living life as a female

  • Happy, confident, and content, joyous, sad, grumpy - and appreciating all of it

  • Open, honest, healthy womanhood - being your own true self

  • Strong yet flexible. Flowing. Colorful. One half of a scared balance. Warm. Understanding. Empathetic. Good smelling. Life carrier. Earth Goddess.

  • Sense of empathy, care, wholesome-ness and sensitivity. The term, femininity, also makes me think of the earth that nurtures many things, so it is not just about gentleness, but also about the calm strength

  • Embracing rational thinking, being empathetic, and courageous. ANYONE can be feminine, regardless of DNA.

Give me this femininity any day over princess femininity!

Femininity is both an internal and external concept, shaped by societal expectations, norms, and beliefs - and therefore shifting, evolving, and in tension. The tension comes when what we experience in our own being and psyche is at odds with what society espouses as truth. Our penchant for polarity and to default to dualism gets us stuck. Us and them; right and wrong; night and day; black and white; girls and boys. There is some good old conventional wisdom and observation in this view that makes that world feel safe and predictable, but life is far too nuanced for that reality to be complete. Upon close observation the messy beauty is in the details and more so in the relationships of those dualisms.

Go find the line where ocean meets shore. It’s not poetry. Actually think about it. At first there is more water than sand and at some point more sand than water, but there is no line. And while we’re at it, let’s consider the water and the sand. I could sit at a microscope for hours in wonder at the diversity found in these two elements. The water and sand can be examined individually, but there is a story in their relationship, too. Femininity and strength are like that. We can choose to observe them as two separate characteristics. When we buy into that perspective we participate in a dualistic narrative. We’re back to a one or the other mindset - and if both, we burden our children and ourselves with an expectation that to be feminine and strong requires the mastery of two roles - one foot in two worlds. The strange juxtaposition is masterfully illustrated in photographs of the aforementioned photoshoot. I suggest femininity and strength are deeply interwoven and interdependent. Authentic femininity is as expansive, inclusive and diverse as the billions of people who experience it as part of their identity - those who are free to express it, and those who are not.

The responses to my survey question: Describe a time when you felt feminine and were not conforming to societal messages included:

  • Deadlifting 200 pounds

  • Whenever I get a new tattoo

  • When I show up dressed as the professional me. No makeup. No jewelry. Naturally gray hair. Just me and my confidence.

  • When I was painting and detailing semi trailers in a factory. I had on diamond earrings and nail polish and was dirty wearing a hard hat but no one saw me as another guy on the team.

  • I think I inherently always feel feminine, even when I'm not engaging in social expectations of what that looks like. I've felt my most powerful and self-aware when I've been clearing brush, hauling docks, building things with my hands.

  • As a student studying business, I oftentimes find myself in male-dominated classes or participating in male-dominated events. I especially enjoy events like mock interviews and role play competitions where I’m able to showcase my knowledge and aptitude for business, despite my gender.

  • When I wear something I feel good in whether it’s clothes from the thrift store or men’s section.

  • I am currently getting a full sleeve tattoo. I purposefully designed it with gentle, delicate images, to balance the boldness of a full sleeve of ink. But now that it is on my body, it feels like the embodiment of my feminine energy!

  • I feel just as feminine regardless of if I'm wearing a dress with my hair and makeup done or if I'm in sweatpants and a T-shirt.

  • When I tell people where I work, telling people the kind of car I want, getting stared at while I stack wood on my porch, arm wrestling

  • When I got divorced. It was empowering to take my life back.

  • Butchering chickens and rabbits, shoveling manure and loving it!

  • When I was breastfeeding my babies and some people felt it was not appropriate.

  • I have had an extremely short haircut and it never made me feel less feminine.

When we shed the expectation that femininity equates to pretty and delicate and princess-like, and is rather an internal experience with countless external manifestations, there is no question that we can be feminine and do whatever the heck we put our minds to. The being and the doing are not mutually exclusive. I’m not suggesting there aren’t barriers. I’m not suggesting there aren’t huge populations of people in the world who do not have the privilege to live their lives authentically. I’m not suggesting our global society, or even our communities here at home, have arrived at post-equality. I am suggesting there are narratives worth rewriting where we can.

Paul Cole's song "Strong Beautiful Woman" is the inspiration for the title of this website. In it she sings about the relationship between a granddaughter and her grandmother. The older continually reminding the younger:

You are a strong, beautiful woman, so don't let the world let you down. Look within yourself and remember who carried you forth. You are a strong, beautiful woman, so don't let the world let you down. Look within yourself and remember, who you are.

The opportunity to ask my grandmother about these things is gone, but I often think back to this hardworking farm woman, wife, and mother. By rural, mid-century, farming community, cultural standards she played traditional roles. I rarely, if ever, saw her "dress up" beyond her go-to cardigan sweater, a pair of Dr. Scholl’s, and a gold wreath pin featuring the birthstones of her grandchildren. More often than not her clothes were functional and she was doing chores in the barn and in the house. I’m not sure if she would have used feminine to describe herself, I'm certain she would not have used beautiful and I bet she wouldn’t have used strong either. My best guess is that she would have shrugged off a conversation like this for more practical tasks. But she was a strong beautiful woman.

I will never forget the day that reality flooded into my consciousness for the first time. I was an adult, a new mother, and she was confined to a hospital bed. Her body was giving up, her physical strength waned. As I helped attend to her personal care one day, I had the opportunity to touch her skin in a way that was not unlike caring for my own small child. The experience was one of awe, privilege, and humility. I marveled silently, with tears in my eyes, at a body that was unfamiliar to me, a vessel that was feminine in every sacred way. Feminine in the soft curves and valleys of her flesh, but not limited therein. I felt her strength course through me in the context of a life of labor, of bringing forth life, sustaining it, nursing it - even to the threshold of death. “You are amazing” I whispered under my breath.

If she were here today I would remind her: You are a strong beautiful woman. And so, I will remind myself, and you.




Questions inspired by "the photoshoot" that I'm pondering...

  • What do we tell girls when we associate femininity with the fantasy role of princess?

  • What do we tell girls when we associate strength with physical athleticism?

  • What do we tell girls when we attempt to connect the two roles?

  • What is the natural comparison for boys?

  • Does it still ring true if we use adults in place of children?

  • What do we tell those who do not associate with either role?

  • What if femininity can be internalized as a feeling and not an expectation?

  • What if badass is an attitude and not a role?

  • What would it look like?

Do you have thoughts? Would you like to be featured? Please contact me!

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