If you’re not sure what ‘weaponised femininity’ is, then phrases like “eyeliner so sharp they could kill a man” or “lipstick as red as the blood of my enemies” may give you a hint. It’s the idea that conforming to patriarchal beauty standards (ie. high heels and lipstick) is ‘radical’ and that femininity is empowering (think Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” music video, or Claire running in heels from a T-Rex in “Jurassic World”). It’s the case where women use the tools of their societal-prescribed gender expression to win battles.
Liberal feminism dictates that women can choose to wear make-up or high heels, that her choice empowers her. But is it a good or bad thing? First of all, femininity is time-consuming and even crippling – like blistered feet and chronic pain from wearing heels – but women are expected to conform to some form of femininity if they want to get anywhere in the world. And women who don’t are seen as lazy or unattractive; it’s basically a lose-lose situation.
Representation in pop culture
The easiest way to illustrate weaponised femininity is to point to film tropes. Action heroines often use femininity to their advantage – they may possess powers or knowledge characterised by femininity or remain hyperfeminine while engaging in physical combat on par with men.
Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, is one of very few prominent female characters in the Marvel universe, and the only female Avenger. While the Black Widow film explores feminist themes, Scarlett Johansson (who plays the role) has criticised the hyper-sexualisation of her character in Iron Man 2.
In Disney’s Mulan live-action film, the protagonist is a girl who just couldn’t conform to the traditional female role and because of this, the Matchmaker says that she’ll never bring honour to her family. However, Mulan does more than bring honour – she basically saved China – and the way she did it is what’s significant: in a famous battle scene, she lets loose her long, wavy hair and reveals the flowing feminine costume under her armour. In revealing her femininity, she also lets loose her stronger inner warrior.
Another glaring example of weaponised femininity can be seen in the popular ‘magical girls’ genre in Japanese animation featuring overtly feminine or cute young girls who use magic or magical powers to hold their own in battle.
Sailor Moon is the epitome of the genre; while male superheroes like Kamen Rider transform into uniforms that make them look stronger, the Sailor girls turn into exaggerated forms of femininity – with their short skirts, long hair, manicured nails – that seem ill equipped to do battle. However, femininity and girliness are a requirement in order to succeed against adversity in the magical girl genre.
It’s not just about appearances either – even the feminine image of being nurturing and loving are brought into the foray. In Wonder Woman, Diana embraces her belief in the power of love to defeat the villain Ares; you’d be hard-pressed to find any male hero using ‘love’ as a power boost. However, these are just a few examples of women using their prescribed traits in order to win battles.
Is it a good or bad thing?
The discussion on weaponised femininity is divisive; some consider it as challenging male hierarchy and power, while others consider the hypersexualisation of action heroines as merely a vehicle for objectification. On the one hand, we see women kick butt and hold their own against powerful men, but on the other, these women need to look a certain way to do so. It seems to be the ultimate male fantasy.
It’s as if women need to be ‘feminine’ – whether it’s being nurturing or conforming to patriarchal beauty standards – in order to be powerful. Why can’t women be strong without being feminine, like Jessica Jones, Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth, or Princess Mononoke? It seems that ‘weaponised femininity’ gives men the reason to stick patriarchal rules on women (you can be strong, but also cute!), and sadly, gives women reason to police other women for not conforming.
In Captain Marvel, we’re supposed to have a powerful superhero – but in the final fight sequence, Carol Danvers only kicks butt when she’s just ‘being a girl’ (to Gwen Stefani’s “I’m Just a Girl” soundtrack). The message? ‘Being a girl’ is all a woman needs to save the day – it’s almost like an ad for beauty products that ‘empower women’.
Perhaps that’s the reason weaponised femininity came into being: to ensure that women can be strong as long as they stay feminine, just so that society can sell her more beauty products to keep up with patriarchal standards.