Femmephobia: the fear of femininity | campus.sg

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When you think of the word ‘feminine’, it immediately makes you think of someone who’s soft, emotional, sensitive, graceful, innocent, and also nurturing and co-dependent. Hence, the word ‘femmephobia’ is associated with the fear and hatred of all things feminine – the behavior, the way they present themselves, and even the colour pink and the act of crying. While ‘misogyny’ is the hatred of women, ‘femmephobia’ is the fear and hatred of things commonly associated with women.

The idea of femmephobia devalues everything associated with women and their femininity because society still equates ‘feminine’ with ‘less than’ – femme people are perceived as weaker, more objectified, infantalised, and so on. And while misogynists are men with a hatred of women, femmephobia can be experienced by both men and women as an act of misogyny.

Femmephobia, toxic masculinity, and violence

The devaluing of femininity is a social problem with serious consequences – it can manifest as internalised misogyny and externalised as shaming, policing, and even violence. For example, most trans people murdered in the USA in 2015 were femme. Three of the largest massacres in Canada (Montreal, Toronto, Nova Scotia) have been categorised as misogynistic attacks.

The men who commit violence out of femmephobia project heteropatriarchal masculinity – one that society embraces as the ‘alpha’ of gender hierarchy. According to Rhea Hoskin, scholar at Queens University in Ontario, hegemonic masculinity is elevated in society often through the subordination of women or less powerful men. Those who are femme are assumed to be either a woman or someone interested in attracting men’s attention, therefore the idea of femininity is seen as something cultivated for men’s consumption. 

Femmephobia places children in danger because once young boys are perceived to be feminine, they immediately become targets of harassment, bullying, and violence – sometimes even from their own family members.

Violence against transgender

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Femmephobia has far reaching effects for the LGBTQ community, particularly the transgender, where it’s linked to transphobia. Transgender women endure oppression in forms of violence or mockery, perhaps even more so than cisgendered women, for simply embracing their gender identity outside the constraints of masculinity.

Violence is often perpetuated by misogynistic men who’re internally feeling “why doesn’t this person want to be a man?” or worse, perceive trans women as men looking to attract and trick men.

Trans men fare no better – many who’ve undergone surgery will often try to be hypermasculine in order to avoid being called a fraud. Trans men who show a hint of femininity, like wearing nail polish or makeup, are often labelled ‘transtrenders’ – a slur for someone who becomes trans as a fad. They’re often judged on whether they’re masculine enough. Trans men are sometimes denied gender-affirming surgery like hysterectomies because doctors assume they’d eventually give birth.

What it means for women

For women, femmephobia is a conundrum. If she wears miniskirts and talks about boys, she’d be judged as being a bimbo – even though society has conditioned women to adopt an image of ‘femininity’ through decades of marketing (how many facial product or slimming centre ads have you seen lately?). The irony is that if she’s too masculine, she’d be perceived as a dyke, which has negative connotations. 

While in most nations hyper feminine women are sometimes mocked, in Asian societies like Japan and Korea, the more hyper-feminine a woman, the more valued she is in the eyes of men. You can see this in its pop culture influences where girls in anime often have high-pitched voices and demure personalities, or in K-pop where female idols have to adhere to strict feminine behavior. Women in these cases are objectified and infantilised, which can lead to racial fetishism

When it comes to discrimination, femmephobia plays a big role in traditionally male-dominated spaces like the tech industry. Women tend to police themselves in order to cope with the worst aspects of the toxic misogynist culture they work in – they would avoid presenting too ‘femme’ for fear of not being taken seriously. For video game designer Christine Love, femmephobia in misogynistic tech spaces is not about privileging men, it’s privileging masculinity.

While femininity is often self-policed by women in male-dominated spaces, the way it’s presented in gay and lesbian women has startling consequences that begin in childhood. Data from the Rainbow Women’s Project in the US – a survey of women who identify as lesbian/gay and bisexual – showed that 40% of women who identified as ‘butch’ reported significantly greater childhood emotional and physical neglect, while those who were more ‘femme’ reported significantly more forced adult sex.

What it means for men

For men, presenting as femme has harsher backlash. While a ‘tomboy’ girl is more tolerated by her parents and peers, a boy who has feminine tendencies is often labelled a ‘sissy’ and is likely to be bullied by both boys and girls. While there have been many entities encouraging women to get into traditionally male-dominated fields like STEM, you won’t find as many entities trying to get boys into female-dominated programmes like dance or gender studies. While women can wear boxers and a tie like it’s fashionable, men who don panties and skirts are seen as having a mental problem.

The idea of ‘masculinity’ is keenly policed in the West – boys are often told to ‘man up’ and not cry, while grown men who hug each other or cross-dress are ridiculed as ‘gay’. Femmephobia dictates that men distance themselves from femininity to seem authentic, so if eating salads or liking Taylor Swift are for women, then ‘real’ men should avoid them.

This behavior spills over to the gay male community too, which valourises the hypermasculine while demonising, rejecting, and shaming the feminine. It’s not uncommon to find gay dating profiles listing preferences as “no femmes, queens or flamers”, while some gay clubs specifically bar entry to femme-presenting men. 

This discrimination against femme gay men rose partly in opposition to caricaturish feminine representations of homosexuality in mainstream media where they’re often ‘emasculated’ as being lesser men. As a response, gay men used hypermasculinity – by bulking up at the gym – in order to place themselves on par with straight masculinity, if not above. By trying to prove they could be as much of a man, or assimilate with straight culture, they grew to loathe or reject not only women, but any trait of femininity. 

The issue at large

Like rape culture, sexism, and transmisogyny, femmephobia is deeply imbedded and systemic to the point of becoming a cultural norm that manifests as a bias against femininity in society. Masculine and feminine traits coexist within everyone, regardless of gender, and modern culture has forced masculinity to be at odds with femininity. 

Femmephobia cannot simply be conquered overnight – a reset requires introspection. To combat this cultural oppression, we as a society need to value femininity and adopt its positive traits like compassion and tolerance. It would change how we interact with one another, and how we value individuality, for a start.