This chapter, more than most, makes me — well, this word is going to sound melodramatic, but it’s the only word that comes close– it makes me feel despair. I know I’ve said this a few times during the course of this review, but it’s worth re-iterating: Helen sounds incredibly extreme, and her ideas sound cartoonish and seem to be easily dismissed.
But Helen is only saying out loud what most of the people I knew actually believed– and still believe, in most cases.
Granted, I grew up in an Independent Fundamental Baptist church, and they’re on the “unmitigated horror” end of the Christian spectrum. However, the ideas I’m about to dissect are present all over mainstream evangelical culture. For example, all of the ideas in this chapter show up in Rebecca St. James’ “SHE Teen.” The “feminine manner” that Helen describes is all over every single Jannette Oke and Lori Wick book ever written.
So, digging in:
The feminine manner is attractive to a man because it is such a contrast to his masculine strength and firmness.
This is probably the central theme for any conversation about femininity in evangelical contexts: the goal is to be as much unlike a man as can possibly be managed. The boundaries between sexes must be firm and distant, and there can be no gender fluidity of any kind. Everyone must not only be cisgender, they must also conform to modern Western stereotypes or risk being labeled “ungodly.”
There are nine specific ways Helen says women can develop a feminine manner: with your hands, the way you walk, your voice, laugh, by “cooing and purring,” having “bewitching languor,” controlling your facial expressions, in your conversations, and in “refinement.”
First of all: this chapter is racist.
It’s racist, because every single trait she describes as “feminine” could be described in two ways: “not stereotypically masculine” and “not black”– by how white supremacists view black women and black culture. Although there’s no such thing as some hegemonic or monolithic “black culture,” there is a way white people view what they call “black culture,” and it’s typically demeaning. When Helen talks about all the unfeminine things can women do, she’s using words and ideas that racists use to belittle and Other black women.
We can’t “wave our hands in the air of use them firmly in expressing” ourselves. Which, that means I’m always going to be unfeminine. Always. I don’t think it’s possible for me to talk without using my hands. Also, this implies that we can’t express ourselves firmly, either– which tends to happen when you have firm views on something. However, having a definite, solid, informed opinion and being resolute– that’s unfeminine.
Don’t walk like men or fashion models. Especially not models. They’re “arrogant.” Also, we have to walk like we weigh “ninety-five pounds.” Which, since I’m around 150, can someone please explain to me how I’m supposed to walk around like I weigh 50 pounds less than I do? Apparently, you need to have been horribly skinny at one point in your adult life to do this. If I ever weighed ninety-five pounds I’d be dead. Granted, there are plenty of small women and 95 lbs. is no big deal for them. However, I’m not one of them.
For our voice, we can’t talk “too loud,” which she doesn’t define, and it also can’t be raspy. It has to be “clear,” and if it isn’t, we have to practice by recording ourselves and reading poetry with marbles stuffed in our mouths like chipmunks. Forget about women who have naturally husky, low, raspy, or masculine-sounding voices. They’re beyond hope.
This next one just infuriated me: we have to “coo” and “purr”:
Have you noticed when women talk to their babies . . . they tend to make gentle noises? This is called baby talk. It can be fascinating to a man, even when bestowed on an infant.
I’m a little lost as to what “bewitching languor” is supposed to be. She says it’s a “calm, quiet air similar to that of a cat relaxing before a fireplace.” When you say bewitching languor to me this is what I imagine:
Considering Helen’s basically been on a rampage against sexiness, talking about “languor” just seems . . . odd.
In our facial expressions, we can never have “tight lips or drooping mouth” . . . or basically use our face to communicate any non-happy-happy-joy-joy expression. If our faces are anything less than eternally “gentle,” it’s because we don’t have a “sound philosophy of life based on moral values” and we’re just “harsh, critical, [and] impatient.” We can learn to control our character by exercising control over our face . . . and apparently, having a good character means never feeling or showing anything negative. Ever.
Women talk too much, too. And we talk about ourselves all of the time. We never talk about anything that isn’t our children, husband, or our house– nevermind the fact that besides church (where we see people to talk to!) we don’t ever interact with anything that isn’t our husband, children, or house in Helen’s universe.
And, my favorite, refinement, which “implies good social breeding.” Considering that phrase is intimately connected to being descended from either wealth or nobility, it’s unsurprising that the description Helen gives for “refinement” is basically “be rich and white.”
There are some parts in this section that I agree with: she encourages us to be courteous, respectful, considerate. All good things. However, in the context of this chapter, even these exhortations to be decent human beings are problematic. You’re courteous, respectful, and considerate because you’re refined. You have “good breeding.” Anyone who expresses frustration, or is critical, who “rubs their husband’s back” or does anything outside of a pearl-and-kitten-heels-wearing image of womanhood is unrefined, and we can judge them for it.
The last part of the chapter, though, includes several “letters” from women who have read Fascinating Womanhood and wanted Helen to know how much it changed their life. I don’t usually talk about the letters– the book is heartbreaking enough on its own, and I’m not even sure if the “letters” are legitimate. Stylistically, they don’t deviate that far from Helen’s voicing, tone, grammar, and vocabulary. The first letter though, hit me:
Before I found your book, I was extremely unhappy . . . I had been raised to be very aggressive, independent, and competent, and added to that was the fact that I am very tall and unfeminine loo
king . . . I feel anything that can change a person like I was into a soft, feminine woman needs to be taught to every woman, especially Women’s Libbers!”