This is possibly a first for me. This month OWLS chose a topic I was a bit stumped by. Usually I’ll find a way to just prattle on about any given subject with very little difficulty but this one…it was a doozy. Do you like my attempt at burying the lead? As if it’s not the end of the month and you’ve already read a whole bunch of OWLS posts. (I hope you didn’t miss out!)

As you know by now, this month’s topic is Femininity.

3rd Monthly Topic Deadline: March 1, 2019

In honor of Women’s History Month, the OWLS bloggers will explore the concepts of femininity and feminism. We each have our own definition of these two terms and we will explore our definitions using “feminine” characters from various pop culture fandoms. We will discuss how these characters are “feminine” or show signs of a feminist agenda. We will also share our personal stories about the amazing women that supported us in our lives as well as sharing experiences involving women’s rights, oppression within the patriarchy, and/or issues of growing up as a woman or having a feminine persona.

  • Examples:
  • Sailor Moon
  • Cardcaptor Sakura
  • Sex in the City
  • Female Musicians
  • Etc.
Natsume Reiko
by むぎみぐ (so much amazing Natsume art!)

And I was at a loss. Not because I have any difficulty writing about women and issues that are of particular concern to my gender. Also not because Natsume has any lack of great female characters to choose from. Between Taki and Touko not to even start with the Yokai, there’s plenty to go on. Rather because when I sat down and thought about it carefully, I’m no longer certain what femininity means. At least to me…

The dictionary defines the word femininity as such: qualities and attributes regarded as characteristic of women. Don’t you hate writers who use the old dictionary definition trick??? Except what is characteristic of women anymore? It use to be simple right? Rigid gender norms may have done a lot of harm but at least they were clear. Pink ribbons, ornate dresses, soft colours and delicate touches.. Jewelry, makeup, dolls… Sugar and spice and everything nice. Girls were one thing, and we all knew what that was.

Thankfully, our vision of what women are has evolved in time and with it, the definition of femininity has gotten wider and wider to the point that it could be just about anything now. And that’s truly wonderful, but how do I write about it? I grabbed on to several ideas while going over Natsume’s Book of Friends. Motherhood is certainly a prevailing theme as is grace. But none of them seemed quite right for me.

Natsume.Reiko and tream
for some reason this image is deeply feminine to me – by むぎみぐ again

Finally, I turned to the past. To those harsher and more defined times to find my example of femininity. Natsume Reiko. It’s no secret that I tend to be attracted to women with a certain strength of character. Meek and pleasant is just not my type. But for a little while there, having a strong independent spirit and the backbone to stand up for yourself was considered distinctly “unfeminine”. In fact, for a while female characters with that type of behavior were purposefully written as tomboyish. It was all or nothing. If one trait wasn’t traditionally feminine then everything had to be thrown out.

This has always bothered me. Why can’t you be a badass and still feminine. The answer of course is: you can!

Reiko is a character shrouded in mystery. The information we do have on her comes from rather unreliable sources and it isn’t much. But we can infer a lot from context. As far as the Yokai world is concerned she was a troublemaker and a bit of a bully but she also seemed often beloved. Her brash manner was a form of kindness to Yokai who often felt abandoned by the world. Her aggressive strength, the perfect excuse to put aside their pride and interact with a human despite deep rooted distrust.

Natsume.Yuujinchou and madara
OMG so cute… by むぎみぐ

On the other side, it seemed that Reiko was largely ignored by her own kind. Reports almost always paint her as very pretty but a little odd and always alone. We do know that she lived in a quiet little rural village and eventually had a family despite her difficulty in connecting with people. But we never hear about that family. She died young. She left behind a child and yet that’s never mentioned either. Almost if that child was unknown to people. As if it had been taken away at birth as use to be common for young unwed mothers.

We don’t actually know any of this. The fact is Reiko wasn’t close to anyone, and the people still around may simply not remember that part of her life. But we can speculate. We know how the world has treated the feminine.

Ok, that was a cheap shot to get back on topic. But I had never really strayed despite appearances. You see this superficial picture of Reiko is the outline of what femininity means to me. It means being a brute while showing tenderness. Being harsh out of sentiment. Being wild and free and a mother bound by responsibility and imposed social expectations. It means laughing in the face of convention and longing for traditional connection. It sounds like gibberish doesn’t it? It’s not an easy question. Moreover it doesn’t have a right answer.

Natsume and reiko
by いつき

To be honest, it’s a question I’ve actively struggled with at several points in my life. What is femininity and what doesn’t mean to me. How does it shape and impact my life. How do I wish to accept it? If you’ve ever had identity issues or been faced by any form of sexism, I’m sure you’ve gone through that same thought journey. It’s not an issue Natsume’s Book of Friends has ever addressed though.

But that doesn’t mean it didn’t have an answer. At least for me. Reiko was feminine because she wasn’t limited by descriptions. To me femininity is embracing with pride those aspects of yourself that make you feel like a queen or a goddess, regardless what they are in practice or whatever gender you happen to be. A deceptively simple answer to a plain yet complex question.

We’ve already had many wonderful Owlers give their own views on this intricate subject. For instance Megan’s great take through Resident Evil and next up we have Lyn that will surely surprise us all. But what do you think makes up femininity these days? This isn’t  just a closing statement. I do want to know your answers. I honestly think they could help people, like me!

badass Reiko
by 38番

9 thoughts

  1. I’ve struggled with this question quite a bit myself.
    In my family, there are rigid gender norms, especially among the older generation. But my parents brought me up without particular infliction of the said norms so every family meet my unfeminine ways were a topic.
    But let me not go ahead and explain a post I have planned here.
    In short if feminine is described as associated with females, that means that being female everything I do is feminine. It may perhaps be a bull headed way to think of it, but I really do believe in this…

  2. There’s a lot more we don’t know about Reiko than we do. Other than the Book of Friends, what did Takashi get from Reiko? His family name: Natsume. Now this is where my memory fails me. Most of the youkai call her Reiko, but do they, too, know her under the name “Natsume”? I tend to think so, but I’m not sure.

    In any case, if Reiko is Takashi’s grandma, then she needs to have passed on her name to a son, otherwise it would have been highly unlikely for the name to have been passed down. And from that we have three possibilities: Takashi’s father, a Natsume, either got his name from an as yet unkown grandfather, Reiko married but they chose to go with her name (unsure if this is possible in Japan, and if it is, for how long it would have been possible), or Reiko was a single mother.

    Now, since I think the youkai know her as Reiko Natsume, I tend to think the most likely answer is that Reiko was a single mother. She also never got involved with Takashi after his parents (her son and daughter in law, or – far less likely – her daughter and son in law) died, so at that time at least they probably weren’t very close, although there is also the possibility that her not getting involved with little Takashi had some “youkai” reason we’re unaware of. She did leave him the Book of Friends, so she must have kept some sort of tabs on her family.

    This is interesting, because I don’t think of Takashi as “Takashi”; I think of him as “Natsume”. Compare this to Reiko: I do think of her as “Reiko”; I don’t think of her as “Natsume” (and I’m not sure that was her name since birth, though I think so – I wish my memory were better). Part of it is that the youkai call Reiko “Reiko”, but they call Takashi “Natsume” (the Fujiwaras use “Takashi” – I don’t think any one else does?). The fun thing here? “Natsume” is common as a first name as well, and it’s decidely more unisex than “Takashi”. On the other hand, “Reiko” as a name is decidely more feminine than “Natsume”. The constellation, namewise, here is interesting: feminine – ambiguious – masculine –> Reiko – Natsume – Takashi. (I don’t speak Japanese so I’m unsure how firm this is.)

    Now throw this all into the blender and ask: who’s more feminine? Reiko or Takashi? Who’s more masculine? Reiko or Takashi? Everyone, regardless of the sex can have either masculine or feminine traits, and what traits are acceptable/normal/strange/unacceptable is a swamp of ongoing negotiations with no clear answer. In a post like this, though, the term “femininity” tends to work differently than if you ask such questions. The idea is to turn it into an identy for women: there are basically two ways you could go: retain the stereotypical terms “feminine” and “masculine”, but weaken their relations to “female” and “male”. Or redifine the terms, but strengthen the ties. Basically it’s “I’m a woman, but I don’t always have to be feminine,” vs. “I’m a woman, and thus whatever I do is feminine by default”. Except people can pick and mix from both approaches.

    Now back to the two questions at the start of the previous paragraph: Intuitively, I’d say calling Takashi a feminine boy is more acceptable, gives more “value” than calling Reiko a masculine woman, although – analytically – they should be equivalent. And I think this disparity is behind a lot of gender confusion. It’s “I’m a man, but I don’t have to be masucline all the time,” vs. “I’m a woman, and so everything I do is feminine by default”. Now, even though this is already regrettably complicated, it’s actually not that simple. Yeah. Why? Because people might be fine with traditional gender norms and not think about this much.

    Take the Fujiwaras. Touko is traditionally feminine, Shigeru is tradationally masucaline, and they work well together, taking in Takashi and giving him a fairly traditional family. The patient and caring mother, the stoic and reassuring father. They don’t buck any gender trends, and they have a good life and are lovely people. It’s “I’m a woman and I’m femine/I’m a man and I’m masculine,” and it’s so obvious that you don’t even need to say it, until you encounter people who don’t fit. And then?

    A lot of human behaviour, most of it actually, isn’t tied to a person’s sex. There are differences, and there are trends, but other than reproduction little is set in stone. Humans don’t have sexual dimorphism as extreme as, say, spiders, and even in biology there’s plenty of overlap up to intersex individuals, so not even the bilogical lines we draw are as rigid as we’re used to thinking about them.

    We know little about Reiko, and when it comes to gender what we can do is speculate (my opening paragraphs to this post). However, we’ve seen plenty of youkai memories involving her, and there she was, and she’s an awesome character, one of my favourites in a show with a generally stellar cast. Settling the question of her femininity is, comparably, a footnote. Reiko is Reiko. She’s Takashi’s grandma, but all we know about her comes from a time before she was even a mother. She strikes me as a trickster figure, a role that’s easy to fill with either gender, because it doesn’t fit any given defaults from its conceptions. But then again that’s all the youkai perspective; she would have been living somewhere, buying groceries, doing the laundry – living in a world full of people. It’s that part of her life we know nothing about, and it might (or might not) the part of her that will eventually lead to Takashi’s existance.

    And that world has defaults. Mother, father, child. And who knows what role Reiko took and how she felt about it? I’m curious, and I don’t want to think of that life as a trap, but sometimes I worry. Then again, I tend to worry too much. And one of the strengths of the show is that it leaves its cast the space to be themselves – without having to pretend that it’s easy.

    In the end, both Reiko and Takashi are Natsume, and they have a book of friends, and their spiritual energy seems to be similar enough that those friends can be fooled for a while. They’re very different people, too, and it’s not easy to see what role gender plays here. I’m fine with not resolving that question. And after all those words that’s what I end up with. What about Reiko’s femininity? Do we care, and if so why? The answer to these questions has more to do with ourselves than with her. Does she care? Why/why not? The answer to those questions are… unknown. In the end, I just hope she found herself a good life.

    1. What a pretty post. The answer definitely has more to do with me than with her and she probably couldn’t care less. That’s ok, I don’t need my role models to care about my needs.
      I think Reiko may have already been gone when Takashi was born. Everyone always insists on her “dying young”. Her stuff had been in storage for a long time before Takashi inherited it. Why didn’t his father have it? I don’t know…

  3. “Except what is characteristic of women anymore? It use to be simple right? Rigid gender norms may have done a lot of harm but at least they were clear.”

    I think this is an important question. I’m all for individual rights (in this case, as expressed in the form of feminism), but if we don’t acknowledge and deal with the downside, we leave ourselves open to those would would oppose those rights.

    Throwing off the shackles of one set of expectations leaves a vacuum. We need social cues; we need expectations as shortcuts. What do we replace oppressive social norms with?

    Speaking of which: “Being wild and free and a mother bound by responsibility and imposed social expectations. It means laughing in the face of convention and longing for traditional connection. It sounds like gibberish doesn’t it?”

    I think that’s a beautiful statement. Also very hopeful! But it’s still pining for a new set of norms — and I don’t mean gender-based norms. Is it possible to substitute fidelity to one’s own view of the world for an externally-imposed set of norms? Isn’t that what freedom is supposed to be?

    “To me femininity is embracing with pride those aspects of yourself that make you feel like a queen or a goddess, regardless what they are in practice or whatever gender you happen to be.”

    Also a beautiful sentiment — I love appeals to the universal! Can we look at the quality of goddess is an idealized form of femininity? If so, are we dangerously close to the warning you gave at the start of the article about dictionary definitions?

    But let’s follow the idea of goddess. Are we talking Greek goddesses? If so, I vote for Diana! Or are we more in tune with Norse mythology? Maybe use Freya as an example? I’ve read she’s the goddess of love and “sex, lust, beauty, sorcery, fertility, gold, war and death.”

    That’s some serious range.

    Your language is straining at the restrictions of our culture. I think we’re staring a contradiction in the face: can we establish an idea of femininity that’s divorced from the negative social contexts while preserving the positive?

    It makes me wonder if as a race we’re ready to define feminism or masculinity in a freeing way yet. We might be still too fettered to purely biological definitions.

    Or is that the answer? Maybe the concept of femininity or masculinity is a purely biological construct, and beyond those basic machine-level functionings, we should use a different vocabulary?

    Why does that make me think of Talos IV?

    1. As someone who has long been defined and occasionally limited by my gender, it’s very difficult for me to disassociate femininity the concept from feminine the social construct. Both the biological and social constraints are in many ways a part of my identity and taking a step back has proven very difficult.
      As for the word goddess – it is one of the few truly gendered words associated with women that I could not find any general negative connotation for. Princess is used as an insult, in fact so is “girl” and I wanted a simple word that I don’t think has that sort of baggage with it. Yes it is an idealization. The idea is to find and embrace what a personal feminine is without shame or fear.
      This is my own hangups of course, but I have found a lot of fear in femininity and goddess was a word hat made me feel safe.
      Not sure if any of that made sense.

      1. We’re at the very upper range of my vocabulary on this subject, so I apologize up front if I make no sense.

        “As for the word goddess – it is one of the few truly gendered words associated with women that I could not find any general negative connotation for. ”

        That makes perfect sense! Current culture has failed to provide a meaningful language framework, so you’ve appealed to as close to the human substrate as we can get: the utter primitive/universal. At the foundation of language and human thought.

        Well, Western thought, anyway. I don’t know enough about how the Asian cultures would view this.

        “This is my own hangups of course, but I have found a lot of fear in femininity and goddess was a word hat made me feel safe.”

        Goddess as an intellectual and instinctive re-assertion of meaning. A cultural reset? The concept of goddess goes back to the foundation of civilization, yet not necessarily to the primitive. We’re not talking a fertility goddess, which would harken back to the era of pre-written languages. We’re not talking about a figure defined merely by her biological aspects. I chose Diana and Freya on purpose as a counter example to that. No denying the procreation aspect of who they are, but they were (are? they’re goddesses, after all…) so much more than that. Diana was the premiere hunter. Freya was, well, lots of stuff, all of it dangerous and amazing (and I meant her in her original incarnation, not her Danmachi version, but that kinda works, too).

        The more I think about it, the more I like your appeal to the idea of goddess. It’s impossible to separate the very idea of goddess from power and strength and all sorts of other positives. Gives you a wide selection of positives, too, depending on the goddess.

        Now, how to take those concepts and begin rebuilding our cultural norms…

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