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what is femininity and how do we use it?
I studied film in college. Something I noticed time and time again was that men and women tend to relate to movies differently. While women use characters as conduits for outsourcing feelings and temporarily relieving them of the need to feel their own (full subject-object convergence), men tend to think of films as sources of external aspiration (maintaining subject-object differentiation). When asked, men are much more likely to leave a theater feeling inspired to better themselves in the likeness of the strong male character, while women tend to talk more about the catharsis they felt for the characters themselves.
Extrapolating this further, I think women care much more about cultivating beauty and decreasing suffering (emotion-led), while men are primarily motivated by problem-solving and power (conquest-led). Blank slate theory would tell you that these mentalities are socially programmed into us by society, but I’m not so sure. If you’ve ever been in a heterosexual romantic relationship you probably know that men and women both behave and seem to see the world remarkably differently. Books on relationships are one of the few sources of honesty here.
This difference is interesting to me insofar as it affects ~half the population’s ability to understand my, and many women like me’s, motivations. In typical female fashion, I don’t feel like I need role models to aspire to or for my personhood to be widely understood — I just want a few true believers who support me unconditionally. This sentiment is something some (usually men) find quite confusing. “Don’t you want to define and scale yourself more?” or “Isn’t there someone whose life you’d trade with given the chance?”
The honest-to-god answer is no. Maybe that’s because I’m lucky and happy with what I have or maybe it’s because what a successful woman looks like today is a narrative that continues to be entirely up for grabs. It’s safe to say that the girlboss is dead, hardcore feminists went too far, tradwives will never make the comeback the right so stubbornly wants, and no archetype in particular has risen up to fill all three of their shoes.
And perhaps that’s OK. After all, one of femininity’s greatest strengths is its comfort in illegibility and lack of a need for wide recognition. Women paving their own path is not uncommon — it’s even preferred by many (myself included). Unlike masculinity’s obvious virtues and vices, femininity is by nature far more difficult to pin down. As H.L. Mencken puts it in In Defense of Women: “Women, in truth, are not only intelligent; they have almost a monopoly of certain of the subtler and more utile forms of intelligence.”
Which in my eyes is a distinct quality neither the girlboss, the feminist, nor the tradwife ever made full use of. Where are the women that harness their femaleness to do something real in the world beyond starting a family? I’m looking for ambitious, emotionally-attuned, smart, adaptable women that define their own measures of success. Women who want to raise kids but also raise rounds to support things they believe in — without putting their body on pause or acting as a man in a woman’s body to do so.
This is something I fully believe is possible. It just requires we take our lives much more seriously at a young age (women especially since we’re the ones with biological clocks).
I think about Paul Graham’s essay on Jessica Livingston often. They were serious about both each other and what they wanted to do from the start: started YC while in college (2005), married three years later (2008), and had their first kid four years after that (2014). She’s the closest match to the qualities I described above. He defines her as the “mom” and “Social Radar” of YC — what made early YC feel like a family and fostered one of the accelerator’s most valuable assets: the quality of its alumni network. He goes on to astutely note: “although Jessica more than anyone made YC unique, the very qualities that enabled her to do it mean she tends to get written out of YC's history.”
I wonder how many Jessicas are out there, enabling great things while taking very little credit for them publicly. She embodies what I call being “famous among friends” — just in her case, friends = tech industry royalty. But more importantly, she is emblematic in my mind of what it looks like for a woman to make full use of her innate femaleness beyond the home.
And how was she able to do that? Through a complementary partnership with a man. As shown by Paul and Jessica and every other productive partnership ever, differences in people can be a good thing. The east understood this in their conception of the unique union between yin (sun, male, consistency, order) and yang (moon, female, darkness, chaos). As Mencken writes on relationships:
The truth is that neither sex, without some fertilization by the complementary characters of the other, is capable of the highest reaches of human endeavour. Man, without a saving touch of woman in him, is too doltish, too naive and romantic, too easily deluded and lulled to sleep by his imagination to be anything above a cavalryman, a theologian or a bank director. And woman, without some trace of that divine innocence which is masculine, is too harshly the realist for those vast projections of the fancy which lie at the heart of what we call genius. Here, as elsewhere in the universe, the best effects are obtained by a mingling of elements. The wholly manly man lacks the wit necessary to give objective form to his soaring and secret dreams, and the wholly womanly woman is apt to be too cynical a creature to dream at all.
Despite proving her to be nothing but a capitalist fantasy, the girlboss meme left behind the pernicious assumption that women should aspire to “stand on their own two feet.” While I think self-reliance is undoubtedly good for everyone, I question the foundational beliefs upon which this premise was proposed: that atomization is good, men are bad/untrustworthy, and women should aspire to a male version of success.
Instead, I think women should think very long and hard about what they actually want and plan their lives accordingly. Feminism provided us with a great service: options. But that doesn’t mean we need to exercise them all just to prove to ourselves they’re there. Femininity isn’t merely a prettier version of masculinity either — it’s a different thing entirely. Good movies are a lot like women in this way: they both have a firm grasp on the plot and a mysterious ability to make you feel things. By any other name I’d say that’s power — even if it’s not a smell we recognize.