You’re an adult speaker of English; what does the word “effeminate” convey to you? A man who acts too girly, right? It’s the main gay stereotype, the flaming queen in bright colors and loud patterns with exaggeratedly feminine voice mannerisms and florid
Of course “effeminate” is a word almost always applied only to men. After all what would it mean applied to a woman? Well, it seems to me it would be the female equivalent of “macho”. It’s the equivalent exaggeration of stereotypically feminine behaviors and attributes.
“Effeminate” is an example of how language changes and especially how semantic shift reflecting change in the culture, and an example of how gender roles can evolve and change. When people say gender is constructed, this is what they ought to mean – not that someone sits down and designs it, but that bearers of a culture develop it a bit at a time, with a comment here and an expectation there. So masculinities and femininities can vary in the details, sometimes substantially. For instance in the Gulf States, men give gifts of cologne to each other, especially in business dealings. In China religious belief is considered that real men don’t indulge in – deep spirituality is fine, but all the cultic stuff and true-believerism is something for mental weaklings and foreigners.
Our culture underwent a polar flip, not so long ago, along at least one of its axes of definition of the male gender role, and it may surprise you.
Towards the end of his masterful treatment of the Reformation where he is discussing the cultural effects of all turmoil, Diarmaid MacCulloch makes an interesting observation about newly Protestant churchmen in England marrying late in life, for love, and what kind of comment those marriages elicited. These men were called “effeminate”. Specifically they were called “effeminate prelates.” Not only were they supposed to stay celibate (and in the clammy bosom of the One True Church), but that behavior, marrying out of love, was unserious, and men were to be about serious business, not dallying with damsels and bending to the domestic life. Wanting women enough to make an issue of it was “girly” behavior. Real men got married when their parents finally managed to pressure them into it, for the sake of the heirs and the family of course (how very Santorum.) Wenching and getting bastards on a tavern table was something people did on the sly, and snickered about it later. But love affairs and all that was for fops and courtiers, and marrying for love was for weakwits.
MacCulloch says that it was Archbishop Cranmer himself who wrote this into the order for marriage in the Book of Common Prayer:
Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony. The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.
The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.
This was revolutionary. It’s been five hundred years since then, and that may seem like a long time to some people, but in the span of Western Civilization it just isn’t that long ago. It was revolutionary and it took hold slowly. Before this people married to form economic arrangements or dynastic unions, and everyone high and low needed children for their various reasons. Gentry needed heirs and peasants always needed extra hands. But marrying out of love trivialized marriage back then.
“Getting the girl” is a major component of modern masculinity, a major metric. Guys who are successful with the ladies are winners and the ones who aren’t are losers. Virgin-shaming is how this usually manifests itself. It’s the basis of various anti-male shaming tactics – Code Pink, Code Tan and Code Lavender Not getting the girl is bad enough, and having not even having any interest in getting the girl is the ultimate surrender to loserhood. Every instance of the most caustic homophobia I have ever experienced or heard of centered around failing to want women. It was the core of my own internalized homophobia. well, it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when going after the girl was considered effeminate.
Part of the reason it was considered effeminate was that it was considered feminine. The cultural stereotype was that women were the horndogs, and this continued right up to the Victorian Period. Women’s supposedly raging sexuality was just another aspect of their basically bestial and sub-rational nature in this misogynistic memeplex. The Victorians changed all that – women were not panting vamps, no, they were pure vessels of sweetness and light, ethereal and incorporeal, in touch with higher and more delicate sensibilities. (Wow, how familiar does that sound?) That sounds even more misogynist to me, hardly any kind of improvement.
The overwhelming majority of the homophobia that saturated my childhood centered around despising gay men for not wanting women, failing at getting the girl, their supposed immaturity of not providing for some little lady. It wasn’t “femmephobia”, because that bile was never directed at girls. It was hard-core, bitter misandry. That was what was considered effeminate.
It turns out that concept of what is effeminate was a modern degeneracy
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