Because Western societies generally reward and value things that men do, the post-1950s feminist movement largely worked to get women access to those realms. Accordingly, today women wear pants, play sports, become lawyers, doctors, and engineers, and enter politics. Women’s participation in these arenas is generally tolerated, even regarded positively, on one condition: they must look and act feminine.
This is patently obvious if we examine television programming. Powerful women are ubiquitous in sitcoms and dramas, but they are almost always young, thin, and beautiful. Powerful men are ubiquitous too and they are often young, fit, and handsome, but they are also old, fat, or carry faces that show “character.” We also see the feminine apologetic among female engineers and professional women athletes like Candace Parker and others.
Women, then, are not allowed to simply appropriate masculine traits and activities, they must also display femininity. Sociologists call this requirement a feminine apologetic, a way to soothe others’ concerns about her appropriation of masculinity. The more powerful a woman becomes, the more important it is for her to perform the feminine apologetic.
I thought of this concept when Laura E. and Citizen Parables alerted us to the release of a sexy calendar featuring female politicians. As of last May, women now hold a record 44 of the 200 seats in the lower house of the Czech parliament (source). And, right on cue, the Public Affairs party released the girly calendar. Some months:
In line with the feminine apologetic, these images say:
Don’t worry boys. I may be an ambitious, successful woman, but I still want you to look at me… no, I still need you to look at me. Your opinion of my sex appeal still matters. A lot. I may be powerful, but that’s a power I still accede to you.
(Images from here and here).
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.