‘Mean girls’ giving feminism a bad name
By Lifestyle Team
“A few times in my life, I have been manipulated by the sexual power of a woman. “Could you help with my assignment?” I’ll do it for you. “I don’t know why they’ve given me middle seat.” Take mine. “I thought the trains would still be running.” Let me drive you home. No promises, no offers, nothing expected in return…” said Graeme Simsion in his book, The Best of Adam Sharp.
The book was written in 2016 when the term ‘toxic femininity’ was a vocabulary. We have heard too much about toxic masculinity-— the socially-constructed attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional and sexually aggressive. For decades, we used terms like “macho,” to describe masculinity. But in toxic masculinity, strength morphs into violence and assertiveness warps into entitlement. The result is men who can’t take no for an answer, who are unable to empathise with others.
But what about toxic femininity? It can be described as the weaponisation of female sexuality or identity with the gender as a means to an end, mostly to gain social status or power to benefit from a situation. Urban dictionary defines toxic femininity as ‘putting your hands on, abusing, and physically assaulting men and then using your “woman card” to get out of being hit back or getting in trouble.
Crossing the line
“A woman will place her hand on a man inappropriately, in a seductive way, say in an office or at any public place, and the man is expected to act normal. But if the same is done to her, she pulls out a woman card and claim that she has been sexually assaulted,” says Beatrice Nderitu, a sociologist.
Ken Ouko, a sociologist and lecturer at the University of Nairobi, says toxic femininity defines the repulsive tendency by some women to overstretch the determination to unseat men from their perch of superior dominion, especially in matters relational and domestic.
In commonplace realism, however, he says, toxic femininity refers to the tendency by some women to choke on their own femininity. “It starts from trying too hard to prove oneself in a relationship or at home or in the office. Such women become victims of their own femininity and invite ridicule from fellow women and loathing from men in equal measure,” he says.
James Mundi, a university student says how he once dated a woman and when it didn’t work, she pulled out her feminine card. “She lied she was pregnant. It made the situation worse. The relationship had to end. That’s when she threatened to kill herself if I left her,” he recalls.
Zainab Said says modern femininity has evolved into something cringe worthy. She says that there is a group of deliberate “mean girls” who hide behind the term feminism. “There is a thin line between feminism and toxic femininity. Femininity becomes toxic when it cries foul, and I have to agree that feminism was a good course that fought for women’s right and equality, but now we have a group of women who use their ‘women card’ to get out of tough situations. We have women who are rude and then blame it on their periods, hormones and moods. That is unacceptable,” she says.
Ouko concurs. In advocating for the rights of womenfolk, he says, some women cross the red line of feminine decorum and became exaggeratingly vociferous. “Vocalised femininity was originally seen as a tactic to jolt the male establishment awake, but it instead become too repulsively strident to achieve that purpose. In fact, it was the vocalisation of femininity that emboldened male chauvinism since it caused men to start thinking that masculine dominion was under siege, hence the need for an equally vigorous defence,” he adds.
To him, it unpleasantly amplified when women started staking their claim to political authority. He points out that the so-called affirmative action was overplayed by politically inclined feminists and started appearing as if it was sowing the seeds of a forceful takeover. “In exerting themselves, the politically inclined feminists overshot themselves by appearing angry over obstacles men placed in the paths of political ascendancy,” he says.
He adds: “Feminine rage also found its way into non-political gender relations when women suddenly exhibited signs of being assertively in control of relationships and even marriage. Accruing from this, feminine rage soon became a symbol of feminine toxicity.”
Women expect men to open doors for them. They expect men to treat them with polished courtesy and favourable suavity. “Feminine toxicity creeps in when this expectation is translated into a demand. The chief paradox of women’s clamour for genderised equality is that in the process of advocating for this equality, women make demands for preferential treatment,” he says.
Despite gender equality as the overt mantra, the archetypes of strength as masculine and weakness as feminine remain potent today.
“For some, nurturant is not a typical characteristic of leaders. It suggests a “mothering” approach and evokes images of passivity; that is, being a supporter rather than a leader, and being someone who is focused on relationships rather than tasks. Men who hire women to be leaders may not consider “nurturers” as competent for the role. Therefore, women in leadership positions, may consciously or unconsciously, shy away from these and other “feminine-centric” images,” Nderitu argues.
A downside of feminine toxicity is that it generates fear. “This degenerative fear explains why such women are usually unmarried and unable to settle in any form of stable heterosexual relationships,” Ouko argues.
According to Gladys Nyachieo, a sociologist, this type of women play both cards to their advantage. “They could say what a man can do, a woman can do better. But on the other hand, they try to get preferential treatment such as wanting help in carrying luggage because she is a woman,” she notes.
Talk about a lover who withholds sex until she gets her way, or a woman who cites “family pressures” to avoid working late, which does a disservice to women who are actually struggling.
Nyachieo says toxic femininity hurts other women too. “It’s just a strategy that some women use. It’s something they learn to use. And this eventually becomes their way of expressing themselves in almost all aspects of life. In the process they hurt people, including other women too.”
Zainab Said knows this too well. She complains that women have sometimes turned against themselves, bringing each other down on social platforms and at the workplace. “I have been attacked and body shamed by women before, and it is a horrifying experience, especially since it is coming from someone who should understand what you are going through as a woman,” she says.
Joan Thatiah, an author and journalist, says one can be feminist and not toxic. “For instance, if I invite a friend over for lunch, whether he is a man or not, then I should pay for the bill. I don’t expect him to pay or split the bill. That is wrong,” she says.
— Wambui Virginia, Grace Wachira, Ann Nyathira, Sandra Wekesa