Pop culture implies a lot of weird messages about femininity. I’ve been reflecting on some of the books and films I consumed growing up, with the gift of hindsight and my present-day experience working in spaces deemed stereotypically “masculine”. It’s pretty mind blowing what I was made to believe was progressive. More often than not I saw female characters falling into one of two categories: either the “badass”, who must be stripped of her femininity in order to be “tough” and is praised for not conforming to mainstream femininity, or the “mean girl”, vilified for complying with visual stereotypes of overt femininity (i.e. ridiculed for liking pink and wearing glittery things, might also be portrayed as vapid, superficial, an airhead - think Mean Girls' Karen Smith).
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with portraying a character like that - e.g. who likes pink and is unintelligent - because it's perfectly reasonable for those traits to co-exist in a person. However, one is not necessarily indicative of the other.
As a child and then as a teenager, I was immersed in these binaries. I believed them. The media promoted them as if they were the only options available - the only possible representations of girl and womanhood - when in fact they were/are expressions of the demonisation of girl and womanhood, further perpetuating the idea that a) gender is binary and b) by virtue of being female you must fit into a box, and that no matter what you do, society won’t like that you’re there.
I’m glad that in recent years (the last decade?) these portrayals have become less rigid, with more and more fantastic TV capturing the complexity of human nature in female characters that come in (and contain) all shades: cruel, kind, funny, shy, angry, so on. Women who may be physically weak, but are capable of achieving their ends through great cunning. Women who are physically strong, but equally vulnerable and conventionally feminine. Women who derive strength from family, women who derive strength from self, women who are self-centred and women who are selfless… Characters that are unique and strong for simply being… themselves.
I have realised that growing up consuming these ideas I have always felt pressured to be one or the other. That's a testament to how our expectations of ourselves, of what role we must play in the world, are shaped in childhood and perpetuate into our adult lives. It represents even more reason to press for greater inclusion in the media. Stories that are not diverse simply for the sake of shoving on-the-nose social commentary into the audience’s faces, but are original, authentic, reflections of humanity - because no one is ever “just” anything. You do not belong in a box. You do not need to deny any part of you.
NB: femininity is a spectrum. I’ve used phrases like “hyper feminine” but I am talking about visual stereotypes. TBH fuck binaries altogether.