The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



Power of the purse

| Thursday, September 26, 2019

For as long as I can remember, my least favorite word has been “purse.” Forget “impregnation” or “seepage,” it was always “purse” that sent me over the edge. Even today, like an insecure man insistent on calling his soft-bodied briefcase a “satchel,” I refer to my dusty pink crossbody purse as my “bag” at all times. 

People always seem surprised when I choose “purse” as my object of scorn. There seems to be an unspoken understanding that folks avoid saying “moist” or collectively cringe at the word “ointment,” but “purse” should be fairly inoffensive. It has no gross implications, no associated bodily fluids, but to me it always represented something equally horrifying: the frivolity of femininity.

I have to call my purse a “bag,” because like the tote-carrying man insecure in his masculinity, I am a tote-carrying girl insecure in her femininity. Admitting it’s a purse means admitting I’m the kind of girl who carries a purse. The kind of girl who acts as the mean queen bee in the young adult novel, the airhead who is well-versed in lip gloss instead of calculus in the Disney Channel Original Movie.

Growing up, I gave my Barbies “respectable” occupations like “car mechanic” or “inventor.” In elementary school, I played pretend on the playground. My best friend and I would run around under the aliases “Sam” (short for Samantha) and “Chris” (short for Christine) and fight crime. Our archenemies were always named Clarissa or Tiffany. They wore lipstick and liked boys and were generally despicable. But looking back, I now wonder, what did these “girly girls” do to earn the ire of my wonder women? Why was wearing makeup a crime? Why does liking the color pink signify a loss of morals and intelligence? At the time, I thought I was a feminist, but I’m beginning to realize that what I thought was being empowered was actually just not being feminine.

Early on, I learned that the hyper-feminine characters in movies were the antagonists. In “Hannah Montana,” the villains, Ashley and Amber, were mean, vapid and one-dimensional. They wore sparkly belts and frequently reapplied their lip gloss. On “Modern Family,” I watched sisters Alex and Haley Dunphy grow up. One of them refused to wear dresses and got straight A’s in school. The other went shopping and failed tests. Time and time again, the stupid girl, the bully, the shallow prom queen displays more traditionally feminine traits, while the sympathetic hero acts “down to earth,” forgoing makeup or shopping to crusade for the underprivileged.

These shows associate traditional femininity with a lack of depth. They insinuate that respectability and “girliness” are mutually exclusive. And I’ve been insecure ever since.

I enjoy wearing eye shadow on occasion, but I still ask my little sister if she can tell I’m wearing makeup every time I put on more than just my mascara. When traveling to school this year, I kept apologizing to my roommate, begging her not to judge my frivolity in packing two full suitcases full of clothes. I used to take off my nail polish every fall before school started because I was afraid of the assumptions my teachers would make about me. In middle school, I always listed “Remember the Titans” as my favorite movie because I thought the truth, “Cinderella Story,” would make me sound shallow or stupid. I was embarrassed to be associated with anything too girly, for fear it might brand me as silly.

Time and time again our world has taught girls that we can, in fact, be powerful, as long as we don’t act too feminine. We can run for president, as long as we wear pantsuits, not dresses. We can be the smartest person in our family, as long as we’re not interested in fashion, too. We can do anything we want to do, as long as we do it the way men do. But I wonder, if women are capable of becoming anything they choose, why can’t they choose to be feminine?

I applaud parents who let their daughters play with LEGOs! But, I ask, are we just as driven to motivate our sons to play dress up? I am overjoyed when I see a young female fan of Lord of the Rings! But, I ask, why aren’t more people excited when they see a young male making his way through the Nancy Drew series? (I realize that Nancy Drew is not equivalent with LoTR in complexity. Why aren’t there higher level female-driven series?) I love hearing about more women joining the STEM fields! Why don’t I get newsletters praising men for joining humanities? I am so proud of my engineer-bound girl friends! Why isn’t there the same respect for a man becoming an elementary school teacher?

Go women! Yay empowerment! Now we can finally be like men!

I am so excited by the burgeoning scope of women’s role in society, but I worry this expansion is less progressive than we think. I worry that in “empowering” women to rise up and take men’s roles, we reinforce the idea that women’s current contributions are inferior. That empowerment is simply synonymous with making more masculine. That in a world where a girl can be anything, she ought to be a man, because that’s the position worth the most respect.

Of course, many women have rejected that they must choose between traditional femininity and power. Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez refuses to take off her signature red lipstick and gold hoop earrings, explaining, “Sonia Sotomayor … was advised to wear neutral-colored nail polish to her confirmation hearings to avoid scrutiny. She kept her red.” Irish head basketball coach Muffet McGraw wins national championships in green scarves, leather skirts, and leopard print dresses. Nancy Pelosi is both Speaker of the House and a proud mother and grandmother. Karlie Kloss is a renowned fashion model, coder and baker. Megan Rapinoe played on the World Cup-winning US women’s soccer team while sporting pink hair.

As we break down gender roles and note a departure from traditional femininity, from domesticity, from “frivolity,” I ask: What exactly makes traditional femininity so frivolous? What is so inherently silly about loving a good romantic comedy? Why must caring for my appearance be mutually exclusive with caring for my mind? Why am I automatically less intelligent, less destined for greatness, if, as a child, I preferred helping in the kitchen to helping mow the lawn? What is it about being a woman that is so repulsive, I must abandon all overt traces in order to be sensible? Have women been relegated to these pursuits because the activity was less respected, or are these fields less respected because women do them?

After all, if we can only respect women to the extent they resemble men, we’re not really respecting them at all.

Julianna Conley loves cereal, her home state of California and the em dash. A sophomore in Pasquerilla East, if Julianna can’t be found picnicking on North Quad, she can be reached for comment at [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Tags: , ,

About Julianna Conley

Contact Julianna