The Dawn of the Era of Feminine Excess
As Patriarchy Fights to the Death, a Cultural Shift is Stirring
Since last summer, I’ve been watching Megan Rapinoe revel in herself. It’s something of a hobby, bearing witness to feminine ardor; I chase it like a cat bewitched by string. And so, although I am illiterate in matters of sport, I was quick to notice Rapinoe and how, in turn, she insisted that we notice her this year—how she luxuriated in our attention, embraced it as fitting tribute. During the 2019 World Cup, she celebrated goals with a now-iconic posture: arms wide open and chin elegantly aloft, at once claiming the world for herself and defying any contest it might tender. Her team newly minted as four-time World Cup champions, Rapinoe posed jauntily on a float, grasping both her trophy and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. “I deserve this!” she hollered.
Rapinoe is attuned to her maximalist, candid tendencies. In an interview with The New York Times in July she referred to herself, with frank self-awareness, as “a pink-haired, unapologetically gay lesbian” (the shade of her pixie cut varies from pink to purple to bleached blonde, and is always styled to be slightly punk). Her demeanor is assertively kinetic, and a traditional news outlet like the Times is likely, in transcribing her responses, to redact a few enthusiastic profanities (no one can deploy an f-bomb with Rapinoe’s charisma). She rejects the notion of separating her progressive, explicitly anti-carceral politics from her sports career and famously told an interviewer, “I’m not going to the fucking White House.” She swaggers, and she charms, and all the while conservatives froth at the mouth, aghast at this queer female soccer player’s audacity.
“When [arrogance] comes from a woman, they’re like, ‘How dare she,’” Rapinoe said in a Marie Claire interview. “‘How dare she know she’s one of the best players in the world? How dare she take a moment to let 55,000 fans absolutely adore her?’…We don’t allow women the space to be that way.”
In the United States the last decade has been marked by pestilent swell of machismo: masculinity warped into its most bigoted, deadly embodiments. Gun violence has surged, undergirded by xenophobic, racist, and homophobic sentiment. Nationalist fanaticism has infected political policy, manifesting as concentration camps at the country’s border and broadly abusive immigration regulations. The unscrupulous competition endemic to capitalism has rendered labor ever more precarious, as many of us attempt to eke out livelihoods in an increasingly gig-reliant economy. And all the while, the slash-and-burn ideology scaffolding our mightiest corporations—and which propels an insatiable, unquestioning yen for profit—also wreaks havoc on our planet.
Then, of course, there is Donald Trump, the fulcrum for so many of these moral emergencies: a leering, Big Mac peddling sex criminal who, despite wheedling his way into the highest office in the land, cares for little more than his own immediate indulgences.
Toxic masculinity has a notorious and extensively grim track record, but lately it has exerted itself with amplified determination. And, as ever, it is really fucking things up. When patriarchal excesses are permitted to run amok, the effects are ruinous, and claustrophobically so. This arrangement certainly leaves no room for feminine excess—and hardly room for women at all.I want a culture impelled by rigorous compassion instead of punishing taxonomies and patriarchal directives. I want for us to delight in our excesses—in tears and food and sex and flesh—without branding them as such.
Of course, men are not the only people responsible for our existential predicament: we are well aware that over half the white women in this country voted for Trump in 2016. Rather, patriarchy and its near and slightly-more-deranged neighbor, misogyny, while historically originating from the inclinations and prejudices of cisgender men, have accumulated the kind of might that can no longer be traced to any particular body. They are structural maladies, imbuing our preeminent institutions and narratives. Centuries of reiteration and endorsement have naturalized a specific iteration of masculinity: one that is punishingly white and heteronormative, frightened of softness, and suspicious of women.
So assiduously has this story been plotted out—this is who a man is, and this is what he does—and so zealously has it been protected, that it can muddy the clearest vantage points. Even now, as gender conventions are met with crucially liberating challenges, it can be difficult for many to remember, or even to conceive, that other versions of maleness are not only possible, but valid.
And to be sure, this is the story to which many Americans—most of them white, cisgender, and straight—tenaciously cling. The brutal paternalism that has propelled so many right-wing lawmakers to attack reproductive rights—this is styled as a passionate devotion to the unborn. The National Rifle Association is not guilty of diminishing our country’s gun violence crisis for monetary and legislative gain, but rather committed to safeguarding the Second Amendment (ought not a man be free to protect his family?). Menacing, herculean entities like Exxon Mobil and Goldman Sachs and billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk signify America’s flourishing economic progress and the blessed fruits of the human work ethic—not waxing chasms of income disparity and class inequality.
A society so glutted with these white masculine fever dreams of unchecked wealth and virility has little interest in accommodating the rest of us; those who thrive in a climate saturated with opportunism and greed, buttressed by feminine submission, cannot abide by noisy women who take issue with this country’s rusted, prejudiced-warped mechanisms. The apoplectic backlash to Megan Rapinoe’s celebrity—and, more specifically, to her activism—lays bare not merely intolerance to dissent and protest, but also a percolating fear. Although the last ten years have seen right-wing ruthlessness gussied up as allegiance to American values, the traditionalist dogma underpinning this trend has not withstood meticulous interrogation. Instead, ancient and beloved lies have cracked open, their integrity betrayed as fallacious: xenophobic warmongering has masqueraded as patriotism; masculinity has been inhospitably limited to John Wayne. Finally, slowly, light gleams through the fractures.
But as a new class of progressive representatives makes small, painstaking inroads towards an empathic politics—one that is intentionally feminist, diverse, and anti-corporate—misogynist teeth gnash, wolfish and hell-bent on survival. Trump’s election is the most obvious cri de coeur, one that will continue to bear lethal ramifications. Yet Trump was largely extraneous to the vitriol aimed at former Congresswoman Katie Hill, whose sexual indiscretions became fodder for a fallen woman campaign. Her subsequent resignation hardly quenched the thirst for her public penitence and self-degradation, a reminder that within our cultural framework there is no redemption available for women who have faltered (while, meanwhile, abusers like comedian Louis C.K. are granted various avenues to rehabilitation, no matter how they squander these opportunities).
Abortion access has sustained vigorous attacks ever since it became legal to terminate pregnancies, and now, with a Supreme Court stacked in right-wing favor, reproductive choice—which has never been codified as federal law—is in danger of becoming a historical relic in conservative states. Abiding suspicion and stigma are directed at women who do not perform a particular white, genteel femininity: queer women, trans women, women of color, fat women, sex workers—in a political and cultural context that can only flourish through female subjugation, practically any woman is in danger of being called excessive or dangerous.
For years, women have chafed within an impossible and punitive milieu: we are expected to be immaculately good while we are simultaneously accused of being despicably bad—instructed to be angels who are evermore atoning for terrible debasement. This is a claustrophobic paradox, and over time, many of us have renounced its strictures. We claim for ourselves the liberty of unruliness, or rather, we attempt to do so. I attempt to do so.At the moment, there’s no clear trajectory to this glittery new world order.
As I peer timidly at the horizon, a new year and decade still murkily opaque, I fantasize about an empathetic and emotionally capacious ethics—dare I say, a feminine one?—that engages our ability to owe more to one another. What I want is the liberty to be excessive—though, in the spirit of excess, this is certainly not the only demand on my list. History has corsetted women with unyielding, binaristic, and often contradictory significations. We have been angels in the house, chaste mothers, virgin daughters, bad, bad girls, sluts, hysterics, and because it is convenient to attribute imperialistic military endeavors to a near-erotic love of (always femininized) country, we are the faces that launch thousands of ships. I am not so naive as to think that we can exist apart from symbolism; living within language necessarily means that we will always grasp for meaning.
Yet I think we could be far less single-minded, and not so inclined to fetishize particular supposed truths about how women ought to be. We could surrender space to one another, unlace corset strings, and, at last, draw full breaths in bodies that navigate the world according to our own predilections. When I champion feminine excess it is not to reify a binary, but instead to contest the dualistic notions of gender calcified by elevating one narrow conceit of masculinity. What I want for women, particularly the most vulnerable among us, is the opportunity to live without the stigmas that have long coded us as fundamentally excessive. I want a culture impelled by rigorous compassion instead of punishing taxonomies and patriarchal directives. I want for us to delight in our excesses—in tears and food and sex and flesh—without branding them as such.
At the moment, there’s no clear trajectory to this glittery new world order. Over the last ten years, the beauty and horror of my own excesses have lived in restive tension. I married a man, had an affair with another, was hospitalized for a suicide attempt, divorced the first man, married the other, left my English doctoral program, watched my mother die from ovarian cancer, wrote a book and, now, I have just buried my maternal grandfather. Set against America’s accelerating political and social cataclysms—and the persisting sense that we must serve as spectators to all of it, always—this personal superfluity has, at times, seemed certain to shatter me.May we glut the coming year with everything we are missing.
Of course, there’s something of a privilege in carrying on about the tumult of the decade, because it rightly suggests that I’m not accustomed to bad, or even very trying circumstances. But despite my considerable privileges, this freedom feels elusive when the enduring, paramount expectation of women is smallness. I am weary of accounting for myself, whether for being sensitive or loud or queer or divorced. And while I understand the insidiousness of social hard wiring, I frustrate myself by succumbing to little prickling urges of performative femininity: whether suppressing my tears in public so that I may seem prim; taking gym selfies to signify a pursuit of wellness; or forcing myself through the rigmarole of applying makeup because I’m going to the post office. Megan Rapinoe and I are the same age, and yet I admire her like a child beams at her poised and worldly older sister. Because, in the thick of a world that looks askance, she dons her emotional extravagance like a cloak. I shift under the bulk of my own, desperate to conceal it—knowing that is impossible—and, all the while, afraid that it will swallow me.
I must confront the stakes of defending certain excesses while shying away from others. Mine have certainly contributed to the turmoil of my recent history. And while I am prepared to champion women’s right to be vexing and brazen—while, increasingly, I yearn for this political emotional reckoning—I could never in good conscience advocate for it carte blanche. Loving and putting one’s trust in women merely because we claim a common gender is a myopic and ostentatious folly. I cannot countenance individuals like Kellyanne Conway or Tomi Lahren who might argue that they are persecuted for bucking convention, but who in fact are despicable for their hollow morals and rank corruption.
While the frenzy of the last decade may superficially seem like a cry for moderation, I still, in spite of everything, do not believe in being moderate. I always prefer for everything to be too much, rather than being condemned to the opposite: a constant, aching lack. May we glut the coming year with everything we are missing; may we throw ourselves, our femaleness, into the spaces we have for so long been denied.