In his parenting manual, Emile, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that men and women are made differently and therefore require different types of upbringing. He espoused what today many people call a ‘complimentarian’ view of gender, which refers to the idea that the differences between men and women compliment and enhance each other.
Rousseau’s representation of gender falls along the typical polarities, with man being active and woman being passive; man being strong, woman being weak; man being bold, woman being bashful and reserved, etc. While some of Rousseau’s distinctions are exaggerated and stereotypical, we must give him credit for understanding an important point: men and women are different. As he put it, “where sex is concerned man and woman are unlike; each is the complement of the other…”
Many female thinkers in the 18th and 19th century accepted this complimentarian framework, even while offering appropriate challenges to our picture of what constituted ‘feminine’ attributes. Female writers see themselves defending their sex precisely through maintaining gender distinctions. For example, the Victorian writer Elizabeth Wordsworth once noted that “In an ideal state of society we never lose sight of the womanliness of women…why should it be considered a compliment to any woman to be told she writes, paints, sings, talks, or even thinks, like a man?”
Enter 20th century feminism. Now feminist writers see themselves as defending women through attempting to do away with the gender divide. The womanliness of women is no longer a fit object for praise; but neither is it uplifting to explicitly praise women for being like men. Rather, under the feminist androgyny and egalitarianism of the 20th century, the greatest gift we can give to women is by questioning the very category of masculine and feminine.
Under the canopy of the new stereotype of gender neutrality, the greatest censure comes against women who are too womanly. Just look at all the nasty things that Third Wave feminists have said against actress and musician Zooey Deschanel for being too feminine.
Zooey is a bad example for young women, feminists argue, because she is too “girly”, thus solidifying the impression that women are more attractive to men when they embody girly characteristics. The icing on the cake was when Zooey announced in Twitter that she enjoys baking and board games. Ugg – how feminine!
One of the reasons Zooey is criticized so heavily is because she allegedly conforms to gender stereotypes. But the real problem is that she is unusual among contemporary actresses in that she does not conform to the new stereotype of gender neutrality.
This increasingly pervasive stereotype of gender neutrality often hinges on bogus science combined with fanciful anthropology, both of which asserts that there is not a necessary relation between our gender identity (i.e., being feminine or masculine, and everything that this might entail within a given cultural context) and the fixities of our biological sex. This idea is enshrined in countless sociology and women’s studies courses at colleges, in which students are taught that there is no necessary relation between one’s biological sex and one’s gender. Gender is simply a social construction. Given this, the argument goes that we can and should be de-gendered, as we break free from society’s mold. The problem is the new mold of gender neutrality is every bit as stifling, oppressive and stereotypical.