Adults involved in the education of teenage girls these days are highly aware of a negative 'curriculum for femininity' operative in our culture. But what would a positive 'curriculum for femininity' consist of?
Light or Shadow?
Many commentators and concerned parents and educators have drawn attention to the shadows that affect teenage girls in our society. There is the pressure of expectation of many kinds, not least to be 'sexy', but also to be successful in all they do. For quite a while now there have been efforts to redress 'legacy issues' of social inequalities between men and women, and 'cultural affirmative action' programs of various kinds to help girls embrace the wider opportunities now available to them. Indeed some have argued that it is now boys who are in danger of falling behind in some important ways - which can't be good for girls either.
Yet despite all the concern and effort, it seems that things are getting worse in some ways. The virtual 'mainstreaming' of pornography, 'sexting' and abusive behaviour, the decline of dating and romance, and the development of what many have called a 'toxic culture' now affect girls in serious ways. Many suffer eating disorders, engage in self harming, and experience emotional disturbance and depression.
From Critique to Action
When it comes to teenage girls' education, in the broad sense, how have we responded? The main responses so far seem to be defensive and protective. This is natural as a first response, and there needs to be more of it. But it also points to a need to begin giving more attention to the positive substance of what we are educating girls to be and to become and not only what we are educating them to resist, avoid or claim as entitlements.
When young people are exposed to a more positive message, and a beautiful vision of what true sexuality can be, it clarifies their dissatisfaction with the current situation. It also arouses a hope for something better in their own lives. Where can they go to find living examples of quality socialising, of positive and happy experiences of relating with the other sex, without the pressure of being sexually active? Can we mark out, and begin paving, a pathway of hope for them? Can we help them become protagonists in building a better culture and community of relations between the sexes?
These are key questions being addressed here in "Man+Woman". But for the moment I want to propose a way of thinking about the positive substance of attractive femininity and how we might develop an educational approach that gives it more concerted attention. To do that we need to clarify our own thoughts about the matter, and get used to trying to propose how the positive vision can lead to practical implementation. This question of a 'curriculum for femininity' is just one of the questions that needs to be addressed. In what follows I begin addressing this particular question and propose a general outline.
*Please note, the question of femininity is a large one, fundamental to which is the capacity for motherhood, and all that entails. However, this article only deals with the question of that dimension of femininity that pertains to masculine-feminine attraction.
Girls have a legitimate interest in being attractive to boys, and to learn what is involved in becoming a beautiful woman. This is not a superficial issue. We can see by how much energy there is in girls around these issues. They are excited by the prospect of being attractive to boys, and they are eager to learn what they can about it. Yet they are also anxious and vulnerable, needing reassurance, support and protection.
Girls themselves consider this question of femininity very important, even when they don't know how best to understand it or to live it. It would be misguided of adults to try only to suppress or divert this natural energy. Yes, there needs to be an appropriate stress on safety, and on keeping things in balance, but this source of energy in girls will keep bubbling up regardless of warnings and restraints.
The solution then is to get in first and offer girls a compelling, approved path on which to learn about these things, and to grow into their changing bodies and emotions.
This would involve developing what I am calling a 'curriculum for femininity' to clarify and give shape to our teaching, mentoring and celebrating.
Engagement, Not Avoidance
Dealing with the topics of femininity and beauty can be fraught with sensitivities these days. People are apt to think these things should be downplayed rather than emphasised. In any case, isn't it something that you just leave for people to deal with informally?
- Some of the reluctance, or even opposition, comes from the awareness of all the problematic phenomena affecting teenage girls regarding sexuality.
- Some of the reluctance, or even opposition, comes from thinking that all our efforts should be devoted to getting girls not to put much importance on things like physical appearance.
So why would we turn our attention towards these topics rather than away from them? For two reasons:
- Engagement of the right kind can moderate girls' interest in these things.
- Avoidance doesn't work anyway, and can itself be a detriment.
Engaging with these issues connects with something girls feel to be important, and by accompanying them through their challenges and questions we earn their respect. By offering them a positive program of activities related to these questions we enable them to 'learn through doing' in an environment they feel is relevant to their real issues.
Four Building Blocks
I am going to propose four 'building blocks' for the curriculum for femininity:
This will take some explaining.
By femininity I am not referring to all the possible things that 'feminine' means, but to that which makes the feminine attractive to the masculine. Rather than trying to downplay or deflect this interest in attraction I propose turning attention towards it. What usually happens is that we tend to assume this attraction as a reality, and then conceive the role of adults as being to try and limit it. But we tend to deflect attention away from it before even giving it any attention. The underlying assumption is that it is just something simple and obvious, so there's not really anything to learn about it, apart from how to keep it under control.
This is when we lose girls' attention and interest. Just as they are getting interested we try to tell them not to be so interested, before having even addressed what the 'something' is. But they are very interested in what that something might be. This is a key focus of interest, and this is where we need to focus in order to enlist their energy to 'power' the formative program we have in mind. To be fair, the main reason we don't do this is because we don't really have a developed body of thought and practice about these things. So even if we wanted to do it, what would it consist of? What would we talk about, and how? What activities would be involved? We would tend to default to cautions and a few rules of thumb.
Feminine attractiveness is not only an interest of each girl as an individual. The opinions and feelings of other girls and women weigh quite heavily in this process. So too does competition, or the possibility of competition, between girls. The second building block of the curriculum then is solidarity among girls. This emphasises those interests that girls have in common and builds on them. Solidarity is not primarily the avoidance of competition. It is positively building something of value for women as a whole in their relations with men.
If you took a negative approach, you would dwell on warnings about not being too sexy, so as not to cause jealousy between girls. If you take a positive approach you identify activities that involve group action by girls, building friendships precisely through the kinds of things girls can do to be attractive to boys. Hearing this, you might wonder - what kinds of things would that be? I'll propose some practical examples elsewhere.
Manner is the way you present yourself. It is not just 'manners' as in 'good manners'. It is the way you dress and move, how you look and communicate, the kind of 'presence' you have to others. And it is also about good manners, etiquette, and having some of the 'social graces'. What manner then should girls be encouraged to adopt? We are not speaking here in a 'micro-managing' way, as if there is one prescribed manner everyone should follow. Rather, we are asking - what are the core aspects of manner that tend to best communicate femininity to men?
Nowadays a lot of people might reply, oh, - be sexy, of course. You could say that the 'curriculum' offered by our culture would name this part of the program 'learning to be sexy'. Their idea of what it is that boys appreciate about girls is 'sexiness' - but that is a caricature of what boys look for. Not only that, a lot of meanings are bundled into the word 'sexy', which causes more confusion than clarity.
But if the aim is not to teach girls how to be sexy, what is the aim?
It can't be merely negative. There has to be a positive proposal. So girls could reasonably ask, "If we're not supposed to focus on being sexy, what are we being encouraged to do?" That is, they want a positive alternative that gives them an active role in cultivating the qualities that communicate attractive femininity.
The task has to take into account a further factor. In the relations between the sexes both prefer an arrangement where men take the lead in romance and women respond. Yet in practice it can be hard for girls to work out what kind of 'stance' they should adopt towards boys. They can feel caught between wanting to wait, and giving boys an opportunity to show their initiative, and being frustrated when the boys don't seem to know what to do. It can seem to girls that they are supposed to be passive, yet that is too restrictive. But if they are going to take an intentional and active role, how can they do it without upsetting the desired balance between masculine and feminine?
How then could we describe the 'manner of presence' that girls could be encouraged to develop? Whatever word or words we might use, we are talking about a mode of intentionality, not passivity. Some girls project this vibrancy more naturally, but most need to learn how to clarify and accentuate it. In its more indirect form it involves dress and presentation. In its more direct form it is a quality of presence, and a manner of 'projecting' femininity through speech and movement, gesture, glance and proximity.
We struggle to find a word to adequately express this meaning. We have noted the tendency to use 'sexy' to describe it. We need an alternative. No one word can convey this whole idea, but what I'm trying to get at is a blend of these kinds of meanings:
These are qualities that appeal to masculine perception. They convey that a girl has some self awareness of masculine sensibilities. The list of words above also covers a range. There is a difference between spirited and gracious. There is a difference between how this 'charm' is conveyed in smaller social settings and in large gatherings. At its best, how would this look?
A group of girls performing a choreographed dance would usually be aiming to be bright, spirited, vivacious and perhaps lightly flirtatious. In that setting the word 'charm' is not as apt. An individual girl mingling and conversing at a social gathering would usually be aiming at gracious and charming, and perhaps fascinating. We might need to use two words, one for public displays or performances by groups of girls, and one for individual girls in more interpersonal settings. Perhaps we could use 'spirited' and 'charming' respectively, or there might be a better word or words. In a former time girls could go to 'charm school', but I think we need a broader concept. Indeed it might be better to have charm school for boys!
I realise that some people are likely react to this kind of idea, thinking that this is all somehow old fashioned, and only reinforcing outdated gender stereotypes. It is worth thinking through the implications of this. It implies a rejection of the cultural expression of complementarity, and perhaps of complementarity itself. Now that we have lost so much of the previous culture, it would be hard to argue that we have ended up with something better when it comes to the relations between the sexes. I think we need to regain or develop cultural forms that give adolescent boys and girls clear, positive ways of communicating a richer and more humane masculinity and femininity. To do this we need to overcome a reflex criticism based on a reductive notion of gender.
By 'formality' I don't mean a matter of style, such as solemnity, or stuffiness or pompousness. I mean it in the sense that we use to refer to a 'School Formal'. It means making an intentional effort to make something special. It can involve dressing up, doing more preparation, and adopting some special rituals and symbols. This is not something that should only be rare, but should more frequently characterise our social lives. Formality means giving more form to things. That is, not just doing half-aware unstructured things, but expanding our range of relationship behaviours, becoming more intentional, and opening up a space for creativity.
One of the funny things about words and attitudes is that we use 'formal' to mean stuffy, staid, old, but we use 'informal' to mean cool, natural, friendly. It is common for people to associate 'informal' with 'creative'. But that is a half truth. They are not opposites. Formality opens up the space within which creativity flourishes. (You might also like to read "Informality Is Not Enough".)
In the present context, formality is one of the key building blocks in the 'curriculum for femininity' because it opens up the space for the kinds of things that express femininity, solidarity and spirit-charm. Without the right mix of formality these others can't really get off the ground.
A Practical Curriculum
This has just been an introduction to the idea of a 'curriculum for femininity', and I realise that it might seem a bit vague at this stage. In future articles I will explain these four building blocks in more depth, and give practical examples of what they involve.
The topic of a 'curriculum for masculinity' will also be addressed in due course.