Men, Power, and Femininity

Lately I’ve been wondering about the meeting place of femininity and power.  Specifically I’ve noticed that men who have a lot of power, whether that be financial, political, or religious, are allowed much greater latitude in their expression of traditionally feminine traits.  I’ve been wondering if this is a real phenomenon or just something that I’ve made up in my constant search for greater heights of outrage.

It is certainly a fact that men are held to a very strict standard of masculinity by our culture.  The first rule of manhood seems to be, “Don’t be a woman.”  In fact, calling a man a woman is a common insult.  Men are expected to look good but to not be overly concerned with their looks, or at least not in the same women are supposed to.  Men don’t often color their hair, wear concealer, remove body hair, or wear compressing undergarments.  But what kind of men do these things for self-expression (I’m excluding people who say, wear compression hose for vascular reasons or who shave body hair for swimming) and don’t receive pushback from our culture?  Rock stars.  Politicians.  Men with fame and large, devoted followings.  I believe that their power, manifested in their success, insulates them from the derision that your average joe on the street would be subject to.

(This does raise two important questions for me.  The first: for musicians in particular  their off-beat looks and clothes tend to pre-date their success.  Either they succeed in spite of their traditionally feminine looks, or because of them, or it has no bearing on their success.  I think it is probably not the latter, but I don’t know enough about the first two possibilities.  Both are interesting ideas.  Is our culture secretly hankering after more inclusive and less inhibiting mores and finding an outlet for these desires in musicians?  Or do we continue to judge musicians who display traditionally feminine traits more harshly than men who are the Standard American Male and only musicians with really outsized talent and resolve succeed?

The second question is how do we judge the followers of particular musicians? Often they adopt the same style of dress and grooming but lack the position of success and privilege of the musicians.  I think that  these people bear more judgement of culture than the musicians themselves, but  their clear association with a culture that has adopted these styles also insulates them from the worst judgement.   They can point to a subculture, rather than women, as a source of these traits.  But that’s only a guess.)

Men are also supposed to dress like men.  Nothing pink.  No skirts or dresses.  Very little jewelry.  No high-heels.  Unless you are the pope. The pope can wear miles of brocade and pounds of gold and jewels without anyone questioning his masculinity (though his vow of poverty might be questionable).

This isn’t a fully thought out idea, but I’ve been really struck by the images of powerful men with strikingly traditionally feminine traits: politicians with faked-baked orange tans, televangelists with flashy gold jewelry and bleached teeth, musicians with eyeliner and skinny jeans.  None of these things are necessarily feminine and I don’t think there’s any reason to keep them in the feminine realm, that’s hardly my argument here.  What I want to know is, why do powerful men get a pass on this when non-powerful men don’t?  Obviously, powerful people, men and women, get away with more things than average folk, but this seems different.

Anyone have any ideas about this?  Any anecdotal evidence?  Any counter-evidence?


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5 Responses to Men, Power, and Femininity

  1. Dan says:

    i only ‘get away’ with wearing skirts by ignoring the common cultural derision. i also only ‘get away’ with it in spaces where i don’t fear retribution. i can’t wear them to work, or in certain neighbourhoods, or really even in church, unless i’m willing to put up with the consequences of bucking the cultural expectations, or at least the possibility of consequences. the fear of the unknown (that is, not being sure whether i will actually face a consequence, and if i do, how severe it might be) gives me pause, and might force me to abstain from my skirts more often than i might need to. i do think that people with a certain cultural power are given a pass more than ‘normal’ people, and i think that their power plays a part in that.

    i also think, however, that fear plays a much greater role than we might be willing to accept or acknowledge. then again, few people court social approbation, and the possibility of physical harm. their (and my) reticence makes a lot of sense, in light of that reality.

  2. So, you’re saying that being powerful is what insulates you from fear of social approbation rather than being actually exempt from that approbation? I hadn’t considered that possibility.

  3. I think the case (certainly with musicians) is that part of the reason that people are interested in them is because they do or wear things that people who aren’t in the public eye don’t have the confidence to do or wear. Also, I think when it comes to celebrities, people want them to be outrageous and break the traditional mould because it makes them more interesting to follow as well as making them inaccessible which differentiates them from the average person on the street.

    • I think it’s a good call to see confidence as a major player in who is allowed to act feminine. Like the old joke about how you can go anywhere you like if you carry a clipboard and act like you don’t need anybody’s permission.

  4. Dan says:

    i guess so. i hadn’t really thought that through before i started writing (please excuse the rambling post…), but yes, i think so. i think that people will judge and criticise you for not following the norm no matter who you, or how powerful you are; just think of the hate websites dedicated to any number of celebrities! i think that power can insulate you from the fear of the consequences of that approbation, most especially the physical intimidation that befalls trans people everywhere, as well as the possibility of losing one’s employment.

    now, power can often be fickle, and it’s a rare person who is able to do exactly whatever they want without some fear that it might have social/economic consequences. a man in power often has to manage his public image in order to ensure that he can remain in power, especially as power is often something that is granted to him through the active participation of those around him. it’s a delicate dance: david bowie can wear whatever he damn well pleases, but that’s b/c his image is one of androgyny, and he maintains power through placating his fan base who expect androgyny of him. however, look at how quickly he backpedaled from his self-proclaimed bisexuality once the winds shifted in the 80’s, and it wasn’t as cool to be openly bisexual. he only had power to be openly subversive when people were willing to grant him the right to be subversive, by paying money for his work.

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