Masculinity, Femininity, and Meanings

Julia Serano
5 min readJul 11, 2023
image of two columns of binary oppositions commonly applied to masculinity vs femininity. they include (in the order depicted): big/small; strong/weak; hard/soft; tough/fragile; independent/dependent; active/passive; assertive/receptive; rebellious/conventional; dangerous/vulnerable; mature/immature; rational/irrational; cerebral/emotional; insensitive/sensitive; aloof/affectionate; serious/frivolous; practical/impractical; functional/ornamental; natural/artificial; sincere/manipulative
image of the Table of Opposites, from Chapter 2 of my book Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us, and How We Can Fight Back

I experienced a weird confluence of events over the last 48 hours. Over the weekend, I listened to the Know Your Enemy podcast episode What’s Wrong With Men? It dissects two conservative books about the so-called “crisis of masculinity” and asks why the left has problems addressing the issue. Then just today, a Washington Post article entitled Men are lost. Here’s a map out of the wilderness came out, and seems to make many of the same points regarding how young boys/men feel “lost” and that the political right (but not left) is attempting to speak to this problem. (Note: this essay is not intended to be a critique of either of these, as I largely appreciated the former and skimmed the latter.)

While all this was going on, I received a Google Alert that I was mentioned in an article in The Telegraph (a conservative-leaning UK news outlet) entitled Bimbo, feminist — or both? Why we’re still fighting over Barbie, with the subtitle “A new film promises to put the doll in the driving seat — but just how subversive can the size-zero blonde really be?”

Why am I cited in it? Well, because of my 2007 book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Like many hack writers, the author of the article quotes a sentence from page 6 of my book where I say that we should “empower femininity” in order to suggest that I (and other “liberal feminists”) are naively promoting Barbie-style femininity. (And can I just say, it’s super-fucking weird for anyone who writes for the “Torygraph” to play the “liberal feminist” card against other feminists.) This type of out-of-context quoting of my “empower femininity” line (two words in a 300+ page book!) has become so rote that in 2014, I wrote a Ms. Magazine essay to correct the record for people who couldn’t be bothered to read the entire book.

When people fret about the “crisis in masculinity,” what gets overlooked is that femininity is still routinely demeaned and debated in our society. In fact, these two problems seem deeply intertwined to me.

As I point out in Whipping Girl and in my Ms. Magazine essay, ways of being that get categorized as “feminine” or “masculine” are all human traits. All of us can be verbal and communicative, or emotive or effusive, or nurturing, and/or have an appreciation for beautiful or aesthetically pleasing things. And all of us can be competitive or aggressive, silent and stoic, mathematically or technically oriented, and/or use physical exertion or brute force. In various combinations.

The problem is that we live in a society that is steeped in two complementary forms of sexism. Oppositional sexism presumes that only men can be masculine and women feminine. And it punishes all of us who “paint outside the lines” of the gender that other people perceive us to be. This may include feminine men, masculine women, and LGBTQIA+ people, to varying degrees.

More pertinently for this essay, traditional sexism presumes that feminine traits are inferior to, or less legitimate than, masculine ones. The Table of Opposites (from my most recent book Sexed Up: How Society Sexualizes Us, and How We Can Fight Back) at the top of this article illustrates this tendency. These binary oppositions seep into our unconsciousness and thus are difficult to shake. As I put it in my Ms. Magazine essay:

This discrepancy is obvious in the adjectives that we commonly associate with gender expression: the assumption that masculinity is strong while femininity is weak, that masculinity is tough while femininity is fragile, that masculinity is rational while femininity is irrational, that masculinity is serious while femininity is frivolous, that masculinity is functional while femininity is ornamental, that masculinity is natural while femininity is artificial and that masculinity is sincere while femininity is manipulative.

Being feminine in a world filled with all these connotations has always been fraught. What’s changed over the last few decades is that being masculine has become fraught in its own ways too. Part of this stems from critiques of “toxic masculinity,” which I’d personally define as expressions of masculinity that are rooted in masculine superiority and feminine inferiority (i.e., traditional sexism). And part of it stems from the longstanding notion that, if men veer too far into the feminine realm, they cease to be taken seriously as men (i.e., oppositional sexism).

The problem with the aforementioned framings is that they place all the scrutiny on how men “do” (or should do) masculinity, and how women “do” (or should do) femininity. In reality, the far bigger problem is how we (you, me, all of us!) perceive, interpret, and judge masculinity and femininity (and androgyny).

I don’t have a simple answer for the “how should we do our genders” question that everyone seems to be asking. From my perspective, other people will inevitably (mis)interpret us in various ways no matter what we do. I was a not-very-masculine boy growing up, and I survived by not giving a shit about what other people thought of that. Since transitioning, people often read me as a tomboy-ish and/or queer woman, and that’s fine by me. I cannot control their perceptions (and the oppositional and traditional sexism that may imbue them).

What I can do is to *refuse* to project sexist (and arbitrary) meanings (like those listed in the Table of Opposites above) onto other people’s gender expressions. I couldn’t care less how you “do” your gender, just as long as it doesn’t involve you projecting oppositional and traditional sexist meanings onto other people. Go ahead and be masculine, so long as it isn’t steeped in the notion of being inherently “superior” to or “dominating” other people.

As I have been imploring for almost twenty years now: let’s move the focus of this conversation away from how people “do” their genders, and toward how we (all of us) see and interpret other people’s genders. That is how we can dismantle all forms of sexism.

This essay was made possible by my Patreon supporters — if you appreciate it, please consider supporting me there.

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Julia Serano

writes about gender, sexuality, social justice, & science. author of Whipping Girl, Excluded, 99 Erics, & her latest: SEXED UP! more at juliaserano.com