This past week, I have begun feeling like the feminine mistake, to play with Betty Friedan’s title, and here’s why. The other day, Mary Jo and I were talking and she said that one of our graduate students had taken her aside and had begged to know what’s going on.

“What do you mean?” Mary Jo asked.

“You know what I mean,” said the student. “Everyone says something’s up with your husband.”

“I haven’t noticed anything,” she said, squirming with discomfort, but also secretly enjoying the fact that she knew something that was going to be really big news in a few weeks.

“Oh, come on. He’s just so… so… effeminate. Is he turning gay or something?”

“Not that I know of,” said Mary Jo. “Are they saying that I’m turning gay, as well?”

“No,” said the student slowly. “Are you?”

“No,” she said. “Just asking.”

When I heard this tale, besides enjoying hearing her tell it, I found myself a little insulted that I’d be thought of as effeminate. I asked Mary about it, and she said, “Of course you are — Geez, look at your face, your body, your movements, your hand gestures.” I checked with my friend Violet, who spent time with me in Boston a few weeks ago, and she concurred.

I guess I had thought of myself as feminine (or at least androgynous) because of my obvious shift in sex and gender, and for some reason the word effeminate grated on me. Although it shouldn’t bother me, it did, and I’m wondering why. Maybe it was my old self sitting up, taking notice, and arguing with whatever macho pride he could muster. That’s plausible and is almost certainly a component of my annoyance, but I think there’s something else going on, if you’ll permit me to explain.

Let’s check the dictionary for some help, shall we?

Effeminate

1. Having qualities or characteristics more often associated with women than men.
2. Characterized by weakness and excessive refinement.

Ok, the first one isn’t bad, but the second definition definitely gets at what we all know we mean by effeminate: foppish, fastidious, helpless, etc. A little lower, we read the following etymology:

Middle English effeminat, from Latin effeminatus, past participle of effeminare, to make feminine.

So the word, being a past participle, means “made feminine,” which suggests a maker (God, another party, or the effeminate person him/herself). I suppose I can buy this, as I’m in the process of “making myself feminine.” Let’s continue to the synonyms:

Adj. 1. effeminate – having unsuitable feminine qualities
cissy, emasculate, sissified, sissy, sissyish, epicene
unmanful, unmanlike, unmanly – not possessing qualities befitting a man

Aha, now we’re getting at why I grate at this word. There are few, if any, qualities here that a man (or a woman, for that matter) would really aspire to–they’re all negative or embarrassing. If we think of the good qualities of femininity and women (compassion, nurturing, flexibility, etc), I find them missing entirely from these definitions. If “effeminate” really encompassed “the characteristics of women,” as the definition at the very beginning suggests, then the connotation would be much more positive.

What about the word “feminine?”

Feminine

The first thing to notice is that the etymology carries no sense about making or being made, but is fairly straightforward:

Middle English, from Old French, from Latin femininus, from femina, woman

Among the definitions in the dictionary and the thesaurus entries are the following:

  • befitting or characteristic of a woman especially a mature woman; “womanly virtues of gentleness and compassion”
  • womanly
  • characterized by or possessing qualities generally attributed to a woman.

I don’t see any of the negativity in this adjective that we see in “effeminate.” Even men, if they aren’t panicked by the comparison to being like a woman (as some men are), would be portrayed in positive light by being called “feminine.”

Besides the differences in connotation, the agency behind the words reveals something relevant to my own identity crisis. “Feminine” is inherent and innate, while “effeminate” requires an additional process of “making” in order for the object of the making to be “made feminine.” The artificiality of the term and its derogatory connotations suggest to me a Frankensteinian sort of artificiality, an affected attitude, and a whole suite of concepts like fake, forced, and false, to name a few.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the binary between genuine and fake is in the front of my mind these days, as I find myself genuinely perplexed as to my own identity most of the time. By taking the steps to supposedly become more real, or more my “true self,” I ought to be acquiring descriptions that capture that authenticity, that truth. “Effeminate” does just the opposite, bumping up against my identity as a continual fake, regardless of the steps I have taken, or may take in the future.

Ok, so this is probably just a dictionary-based academic argument to justify to myself why it hurts to be called “effeminate.” I’m wondering, however, about the difference in these two sentences:

  • “You have become quite feminine lately”
  • “You have become quite effeminate lately”

These two sentences are very different, aren’t they? Would it make any difference if we use proper names? Would it matter if we use the male name (George) instead of the female name (Joyce)? As long as I’m presenting as male (and apparently not doing a very good job of it), is the only reasonable adjective that describes me “effeminate?” When I begin presenting as female, will the adjective magically switch to “feminine” without any prompting? In other words, the qualities I seem to be acquiring, either through hormones or therapy or imitation (and I don’t really know where they’re coming from), only make sense in a man if he’s homosexual, or effeminate, and the adjective connotes the unnaturalness. Those same qualities, when they are manifest in a woman, are something natural, with an adjective that connotes that naturalness.