I was born into an age when radical Feminism was already in full swing. Having achieved suffrage and the right to work, gained easy access to birth control, divorce, and abortion, made sexual promiscuity, lesbianism, and rejection of matrimony commonplace, and have in virtually every other respect estranged women from their biological and spiritual motherhood and put her on level playing field with men, you'd think that the debate around gender equality would have cooled down a bit. Yet, here we are, 20 years into the 21st century, and terms like "Feminism" and "toxic masculinity" are still used with increasing frequency and urgency.
Today, masculinity is often associated with power and aggression and suppressed emotions on one extreme, while femininity has connotations of meekness and fragility on the other. The solution? To push men and women towards a murky "sameness". Indeed, even claiming that there are real biological differences between the sexes can bring down the mob. (Man, what a time to be alive.)
As someone who considers herself a "classical Feminist", I find it both interesting and sad that in our pursuit of genuinely good things—like career choice, financial independence, bodily autonomy, and many other things I take for granted as a modern woman—we have also somehow diminished and even rejected the very things that make women so unique and powerful.
I often ponder what it means to be a woman. I will admit that stereotypes and gender roles are easy traps to fall into—pick any norm and you will find outliers and exceptions. What does it mean to be truly feminine?
They come in all kinds
I've met all sorts of women in my life. I know women who are quiet and gentle and sweet. I know women who are tough as nails, who shoot rifles and can skin a deer. I know big, LOUD women who fill a room with their personality. I know funny women and serious women, nerdy science women and artsy fashionable women. If I once thought that femininity could be defined within a narrow range of personality types or interests, knowing all these incredible ladies has completely demolished those assumptions.
Yet, depsite this wide array of temperamental and physical attributes, I have perceived a common thread when a woman has embraced her inherent femininity... or when she has rejected it in her brokenness. When I think of the women who I believe best exemplify the feminine spirit, they all have one thing in common: they invite others into their hearts and homes.
I think of the robust Italian-American single mother of three I met in Boston, who is every bit as loud as you might expect an Italian-American from Boston to be. She'll readily admit to having little finesse in the realm of housekeeping or style and other typically female concerns, yet few other places have I felt more welcome and understood than in her home. I think of the women who are two or three times my age yet feel like sisters. The friends who shoot me a text when they sense that something is "off" with me. The women who get excited when I have happy news, who grieve with me when I am grieving, who accept me through all my foolish mistakes—but love me enough to call me out on them. Despite their wide variety of temperaments and talents, these women have all embraced their unique feminine power to make themselves into a haven and support for the souls around them.
If I could epitomise "masculinity" with a single word, it would be strength—the kind of strength that makes a man work hard for his family, fight for his country, care for the weak, forgive his enemies; the kind of strength that gives rise to courage, leadership, teamwork, and selfless sacrifice.
For a long time, I have thought that the best word to represent femininity is beauty. But that beauty is, first and foremost, an interior beauty. It is the fruit of a heart tuned to the voice of Love, a heart that makes space for everyone she encounters. The heart of a mother. The feminine genius is characterised by its warmth, not its packaging, although exterior beauty can be an outward symbol of the invitation that exists within. Like a garden bench bathed in sunlight, a truly feminine woman can make others feel at home by her very presence—with a gentle touch, a kind word, a heartfelt smile. Her vocation is written within her very body—in her womb which literally brings new life into the world, in her unique ability to feed her infants. This physical reality is reflected upon her soul, in her capacity to carry the needs, hopes, fears, and love of others, nurturing them with a skillful balance of affection and engagement until they can ultimately walk free. Such a woman is truly beautiful.
But what about the converse? If men can display "toxic masculinity" (and I'm not a fan of the term, but there is no denying that some men abuse their God-given strength for the pursuit of power and the exploitation of others), can women also misuse their feminine genius?
There's no such thing as "toxic femininity"
When the controversial Gilette ad highlighting the issue of toxic masculinity hit the internet in early 2019, there was a massive amount of backlash. Say what you want about the ad, it certainly got people talking. I only bring it up because when I was reading the comments beneath the video (the best part of any hot topic post, in my opinion), I read something that literally made me laugh out loud.
"What about toxic femininity?" one person asked. "Why aren't we talking about that?"
"There's no such thing as toxic femininity," the original poster replied.
.......Really?? Obviously you've never seen a tv show portraying high school students.
Seriously, though—when I think of the women who least exemplify authentic femininity, the high school "mean girl" seems like a pretty fitting example. Who is this cliché? She's usually pretty but vain, a gossip and a bully, jealous and manipulative and otherwise just plain mean. The beauty that might have attracted, the intuition that ought to have produced compassion, and the charm that could win over, are all, instead, used to exclude and destroy. She is the jealous girlfriend, the devouring mother, the backstabbing coworker. While the great mother works to help others become whole and healthy individuals, toxic femininity seeks to control by manipulating and infantilizing those under her power, leaving them dependent and underdeveloped.
This is why I clarify that I am a "classical" Feminist—because the radical version of modern feminism today not only accepts but glorifies these traits. Tenderness and sensitivity are traded in for cold cunning. Women are given special license to be hostile and aggressive to make our way in the world (it's a kind of resistance against the patriarchy, which prefers its women docile and pliable, don't you know). Excessive concern with your appearance can earn you a massive following on social media, for your physical attractiveness is to be flaunted—modesty be damned. Your intelligence and sexuality are weapons. Personal choice is lauded above all else, even at the expense of our unborn children (and sometimes our born children too). Gone is the chaste virgin and selfless housewife; revered is the sexually-liberated, career-driven, empowered female.
And, again, this is not to say that Feminism is not striving for some genuinely good things. I happen to be an entrepreneur running two businesses and a ministry, I vote, I got to choose who I married (and he's freaking amazing), my name is on the mortgage papers too (...yay), and the men in my life have only ever treated me with respect. So, yeah, I'm a fan of gender equality.
But like anything that becomes an idol, by choosing female empowerment over love of God and neighbour, we have lost some of the truth about ourselves.
The two faces of femininity
I got to experience this dichotomy in a particularly poignant way this summer at Captivenia. For those of you who don't know, Captivenia is a Catholic medieval adventure camp for girls that I've volunteered with for the past nine years. You can learn more about it here!
This year I had the awesome opportunity to act, once again, as the character Princess Genevé. She is ancient, wise, kind, and loyal, with a gift for healing and telling stories. However, her loyalty was called into question this year when a woman with her appearance was seen in the Dark Forest vowing to destroy the realm and usher in a new era of darkness (gasp!).
Enter: Regina. She's your stereotypical highschool bully. I will admit that I had way too much fun playing her. Sure, I did some pretty cliché bad guy stuff—I'll destroy you all, blah blah blah—but what was really interesting was when my sinister ceremonies were interrupted and the dialogue began.
Regina would arrogantly saunter over to the group of Captivenians (who were positively bristling with bows and arrows) and flippantly invite them to even try defeating us. When a brave Messenger courageously stood up to me, I got right in her face and taunted her, knowing full well that the little girls watching prevented her from doing me any real harm.
(I'll be honest—it was actually kind of nerve-wracking having that thing aimed at my nose. Even padded, that would seriously hurt if she let go.)
I tried to be intentional when developing this character—even her name, Regina, was like a desperate play for power. I spent a lot of time on my makeup, copying the elaborate eyeshadow and excessive contouring that you'll find in virtually every makeup tutorial. I borrowed the subtle eyebrow raises and facial expressions common to women on social media. I wanted Regina to remind the girls of the women they are being told to admire. And this wasn't a good thing.
Regina was, in virtually every respect, the exact opposite of Genevé. And the quick scene changes meant that I was sometimes playing these extremely different characters mere minutes apart. I felt the contrast in my very body—one minute, I would stand with my shoulders back and jaw tilted in defiance. I could feel that the girls were scared and angry and frustrated with me. A short while later, as Genevé, my posture was instead dignified and serene. I would be surrounded by a sea of smiling faces who were happy to draw near. One sowed division and resentment while the other cultivated unity and joy.
Interestingly, my evil doppelganger (who was not Genevé but a shapeshifter who took her form—I told you this was a cool camp), was defeated in the end not with bows and arrows and threats of violence, but with kindness.
"What about us??" she screamed in the final scene as armies were about to clash. What space is there for the girl who feels she is not accepted or loved or appreciated? Who does not sense God's presence? Who isn't naturally good or virtuous? The response from the girls was simple and profound and a perfect example of feminine compassion: The love of the King is precisely for those who need it the most. Your situation does not define you. We love you as you are.
.....Which almost worked but then Regina just got angry and challenged her apprentice to kill someone and Illyria, this super-ancient elf-lady, touched the ground with her magic lantern and she was blasted through a portal into another realm. Fantasy worlds are amazing.
These two roles deeply impacted me. One thing became painfully obvious: both these dispositions live inside me. Yes, by God's grace, I am capable of so much good. But it is also within my power to do so, so much damage.
Raising a new generation of Feminists
In the nine years that I've been part of Captivenia, I've watched countless girls blossom into strong, kind, and truly feminine women. Here at home, I am surrounded by a wonderful community of faithful women. Slowly, my understanding of what it means to be a daughter of God has deepened and grown. I've seen how wonderful it can be when women affirm and encourage one another to be the best version of themselves—have felt, for myself, raw insecurities healed by the gentle warmth of other womanly hearts.
I think it's fine to challenge corrupt hierarchical systems and pioneer new ground for women and break through the "glass ceiling". Heck, I'm living proof of what previous generations have fought for. But I firmly believe that our real power lies not in government intervention or angry mobs of pink-hatted protesters, but is found first and foremost in a heart that rests in her identity as a daughter of God. From there, we can withstand any storm.
As women, we can bring comfort to the lonely, love the unlovable, minister to the disadvantaged, encourage what is good, and heal what is broken from the inside out. We can do this in our homes and workplaces and schools, with our own unique set of talents and skills. We can infuse every encounter, no matter how insignificant, with love. With our wide variety of gifts and temperaments, think of the problems we can solve, the lives we can improve. The world needs every woman to bring all that she has!
Think how boring and predictable the "mean girl" is, yet how vibrant and unique are the saints! For that is the surprising twist: when we embrace our authentic femininity, we discover our distinctive and unrepeatable place in history. Be that woman.
Watch the Captivenia 2019 Highlights
Enter the realm of Captivenia, an exciting medieval adventure camp designed to captivate the feminine heart. Following a thrilling theatrical storyline, girls embark on epic forest missions, tackle obstacle courses, create medieval crafts, learn the skill of archery, and so much more! Through the celebration of the Sacraments, they dive deep into the beautiful mysteries of our Catholic faith.
I am SO excited to share this video! Captivenia has been close to my heart since its founding year in 2011, and for years I've wanted to try making a video that would capture in some small way the beauty and fun and EPICNESS of this incredible camp. This summer I finally had the opportunity! This is the first time I've tried making a video like this and, not gonna lie, I was totally flying by the seat of my pants. Not only was I the Mystique Director (which mostly involved hours of reorganizing the decor bins), not one but TWO lead characters, I was also learning a new camera and sprinting around trying to capture those perfect shots. So. Many. Hills. I learned a lot and had so much fun putting this together!
Captivenia really is a place for girls and women of ALL ages. Come for the adventure, come for the beauty, come for an encounter with Christ. I guarantee you won't find anything else like it.