Being highly aware of sexism can be a tough gig. I sometimes wish I could turn off that nerve-jangle I get whenever someone says “he throws like a girl” or “don’t be such a pussy” or “she looks like a whore”. It’s tiring to go through every day constantly weighing up how we want to react. More specifically, for women who wish to actively resist the patriarchy, making everyday decisions becomes complicated: do I shave my body hair or not? Do I wear makeup to cover my pimple? If I want to wear socially-coded “sexy” clothes, am I actually subconsciously wishing to gain heteromale approval? Once you’re aware of sexism, you can’t easily switch that awareness off.
It can become very tempting, as a result, for feminist women to resent other women who seem oblivious to these concerns. It is dangerously easy to feel that women who happily wax all their body hair off and diet themselves into the smallest size in the shop and pout at us from the cover of Sports Illustrated and flip their hair in L’Oreal advertisements are our enemies. If we aren’t careful, we start to think of them as collaborators. But it is absolutely crucial that we resist this temptation.
Too often, hyperfemme women are unfairly accused of collaborating with the patriarchy. Yes, it’s true that the more people adhere to social gender norms, the harder it is to destroy these norms. There is no denying that some women are doing it explicitly to get heteromale attention, thereby buying into social power structures – and reinforcing them. But a lot of women just genuinely like presenting in a socially-coded feminine way. And if that is so, then presenting in that way is not collaboration at all. It is ridiculous to demand that women curtail their self-expression to further the feminist cause, when the aims of feminism include making it safe and acceptable for women to express themselves however they like.
Worse, a lot of the denigration of hyperfemininity is actually sexist. We associate lipstick and pink with women (this century, anyway) and then associate women with “weak” or “inferior”; when feminism tells us to destroy that second link, we just leap to “lipstick and pink must be inferior”. A lot of social opposition to traits or clothing or activities that are socially-coded-feminine is actually unexamined misogyny.
So hyperfemme women are not “collaborators”. But there are women explicitly propping up sexist social structures. First, women who overtly push androcentrism as their chosen replacement for “traditional” sexism are actually reinforcing sexism. Androcentrism is the glorification of socially-coded male attributes, which is the thing that causes women to say “I can’t be friends with other women, they’re all backstabbing, catty bitches”. Or “Women are so boring, they’re obsessed with shoes and lipstick! I like to play Halo and watch football!” Or “Why do women care about their appearances? They’re so shallow! I get on so much better with men, because they care about real issues.” Or “Why do you have a problem with women being seen as sex objects? You sound like you just need a good fuck.” (Thanks, Olivia Munn). These ideas do prop up sexist social norms. They buy into ideas that socially-coded male things are great and socially-coded female things are pathetic.
Of course, this is not the only way for women to collaborate with the patriarchy. There is good old fashioned sexism being espoused by plenty of women. Sexist views do not magically become feminist when espoused by women. Women who say that we all need to return to traditional gender roles, and get women back to the kitchen, are being sexist. Women who slutshame are being sexist. Women who say that women should never appear in public with pubic hair, or leg hair, or armpit hair, or fat bodies, or masculine features are sexist. Women who insist that women should never go out in public without makeup? Sexist. The minute you start policing other women’s behaviour to enforce sexist social norms, you cross a line – then you really are a collaborator, no matter your gender. Women who endorse genderised tropes as mandatory behaviour are engaging in social control for the patriarchy. They are policing other women’s behaviour to ensure those women toe the line.
They are also policing themselves. So even though we recognise that sexist and androcentrist women can and sometimes do collaborate with patriarchy, we shouldn’t condemn individual women for their actions. To the extent that we can accurately identify genuine cases of collaboration, which is difficult, we should see it for what it really is for those individuals: a survival response in a sexist society. That doesn’t make the behaviour any less problematic. That doesn’t mean it’s a good outcome. But it does mean that the individual is not the core problem. She is stuck in a system that makes certain demands on her, and this is how she’s going to play it.
That sucks, but clearly on some level that’s what she feels she has to do. It’s not anyone’s place to tell individual women how to respond to their situations. Of course we can call out hurtful and policing behaviour when we encounter it. Indeed, if we are able to do so, we must do that. But we must also criticise social norms that demand these behaviours from women, and in so doing, we shouldn’t let individual women become collateral damage. Our sexist opponents hate the idea of allowing women to make their own decisions, free from social norms, free from community pressure, free from judgement. We need to be absolutely sure that we never collaborate with them on that.