FEMININITY by Susan Brownmiller


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A pastiche of personal reflection, famous quotations, and historical fashions in femininity--with no clear political stance. Brownmiller (Against Our Will) has a far less certain view of femininity than she had of rape: femininity is variously ""an exquisite aesthetic,"" ""a grand collection of compromises,"" and a ""desperate strategy of appeasement."" The chapters that follow on the body, hair, clothes, voice, skin, movement, emotion, and ambition are chock-a-block with tidbits often oddly juxtaposed. Under ""The Body,"" we move quickly from Lady Di's height problem to the early sexual maturation of female baboons and gorillas (and their end to growth). Under hair, we have potted history. Egyptian pharaohs had their heads plucked clean and then wore wigs; Puritan moralists considered women's hair ""a sign of subjection,"" and insisted it be worn long, neat, and with a concealing cap. When the flappers bobbed it, they were supported in their rebellion by the unglamorous Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Herland's heroines had short hair) and the glamorous Irene Castle, who took full credit: ""I believe I am largely blamed for the homes wrecked and the engagements broken because of clipped tresses."" Brownmiller recognizes the importance of female competition in maintaining femininity: competition in nail-growing, for example, ""so absorbing that accounts of the struggle, which read like the triumph over polio, have been written by Shirley MacLaine and Helen Gurley Brown, among others."" Even would-be non-competitors must still reach compromises, and Brownmiller reveals each and every one of hers, from her compromise hairdo (""I keep my hair at middling length and fret about its daily betrayal"") to her skill at feminine movement (""I'm lissome, I'm fluid, even in trousers. Want to see me raise my eyebrow?""). While she recognizes the conflict between feminine ambition and other ambitions, and looks forward to the day when ""the feminine ideal will no longer be used to perpetuate inequality between the sexes,"" her evident captivation with femininity's details paradoxically reinforces the whole construction. Many women may identify with this and that throughout the telling, but in the end a sharper edge is needed to cut through the fluff.

Pub Date: Jan. 23rd, 1983
Publisher: Linden/Simon & Schuster