Keep your pedestals

Trigger warning: female objectification, rape and sexual assault, war.

I’ve been thinking for sometime about how society puts “women” and “femininity” in the abstract on a pedestal in a way that ends up actually concretely limiting, hurting, and ultimately dehumanizing women.

Modesty culture is a good example of this, actually. Part of the idea is that women are supposed to dress and comport ourselves in a way that lives up to an idealized femininity. Wearing tight or “revealing” clothing is unfeminine because we’re supposed to maintain some kind of mysterious allure that is ruined if we “expose” our bodies to male view. Men won’t respect us if we “leave nothing to the imagination.”

“Femininity” means we should be above dirt, sweat, grime, any signs of physical work or exertion. Even above the scents and sounds of typical bodily function. Smell like a garden. Look like your face has no pores.

We shouldn’t be too strong or independent – physically, emotionally, financially. If we’re too successful or content on our own, men won’t think we need them. Men want women who need to be protected and provided for. If we’re too strong, men will be intimidated by us. We’ll scare them off. Men want women who want to be treated like queens. Princesses. Or at least our two-dimensional fantasies of what we imagine the life of queens and princesses to be.

This idea that women’s bodies, appearance, lives should be all roses and delicacy and pampering stands so at odds with the realities of most women’s lives that it’s hard to believe it’s not a deliberate fiction meant to paper over our suffering and oppression.

I read a post once, when I was still a fairly conservative Christian, by a similarly conservative Christian guy quoting a Catholic complementarian on the role of women in war. This man – Anthony Esolen, if I remember correctly – asserted that women don’t belong in combat or in any military roles at all because women should be “above” the fray of war. Combat sullies our delicate and pristine nature. We should be on a pedestal, untouched by the ugliness and destruction of fighting. Because men and their lives are dispensable – are biologically and divinely intended to be dispensable – but women are not, because we are destined to give life and be mothers.

And even at the time I thought this was a load of bullshit, because honestly, apart from children, who is more harmed by the effects of war than women and female-assigned people? Who ends up being left to raise and provide for families alone, under the most horrific and deprived of conditions? Who do soldiers rape and batter with impunity, as a means of terrorizing and demoralizing “the enemy,” or just because they can get away with it?

Girls. Women. Children and adults who are read as female.

Just like modesty is a load of bullshit, because no amount of clothing is any protection from someone who is bound and determined to objectify you, to harass you, to assault you, to rape you. No, modesty is just society’s way of telling us that people who don’t conform to “femininity” deserve whatever we get. That we’re asking for it. And a way of absolving the perpetrator and an enabling culture for responsibility. It’s no protection even for those who conform to it and are subjected to violence. Even then you are held to the stringent standards of performing “femininity.” You must be the perfect victim, or you’re probably a lying slut.

This reminds me that just today, apparently, Jon Huntsman – clearly the most reasonable person in the current GOP presidential candidate field – described the allegations of adultery, sexual harassment, and sexual assault against Herman Cain as a distraction from the issues Americans really care about and a “bimbo eruption.”

Because speaking out about sexual harassment and assault = being a bimbo.

All this twaddle about women being obliged to be vulnerable so than men can swoop in and come and rescue us, this bullshit about how we’re all pretty princesses and mysterious alluring creatures with magical power over men, who men love to not be able to figure out or attain…I mean, what better cover for festering misogyny and the violence that goes with it? Because the reality is, the “femininity” we are socialized into tell us to make ourselves vulnerable in ways that serve to silence and disempower us in the face of (usually male) abuse and violence.

Fantasy: Don’t be too financially independent so your prince can come. Reality: stuck with an abusive partner that you can’t leave because of financial constraints, because you have no place to go. Reality: most people living in poverty are women and children, and economic hardship hits women and children most severely.

Fantasy: dress and present yourself in a certain way and men will think you are mysterious and alluring and irresistible. Reality: dress in a way considered too attractive and you will be considered a slut and not taken seriously. You will be blamed if you are assaulted. Reality: Dress in a way considered not attractive enough, and you will be considered a frigid bitch and not taken seriously. You will be considered impossible to rape, because rape is supposedly about sexual attraction.

Fantasy: You will be safe, respected, loved, and provided for if you do/are this or that. If you are “feminine.”
Reality: Femininity is despised, threatened, hated, marginalized.


  1. So true. So horribly, depressingly true. Thanks for bringing this issue up.

  2. Pingback: Do men want to be “treated like men?”