This is something that has bothered me for a while, and as I surfed the internet in my past two days of illness, reading reviews of books that feature “real” women because they’re chubby or strong or don’t like dresses or think for themselves or do or don’t have curves or are asexual or are unabashedly sexual or are introverted or are confident, my ire was rekindled. What I learned is that there are two ways of being a “real” woman according to these articles: you can reject stereotypical femininity or embrace it.
Well, that seems to cover everyone, so we’re all real. If all women are real women, then it’s rather redundant to put “real” in front, so let’s just all avoid pleonasms and stop it.
While I see men out there writing about “real women” who have x, y, and z qualities, I mostly see women committing this semantic crime that excludes every woman but the type they’ve described (usually the type they are). In general, I think they mean well. “Let’s get some real women on TV” or “Let’s see some real women on the cover of magazines.” I get it. But, no matter how well-intentioned, it’s harmful. Instead of making us one group of women, it attempts to expel a certain type. It creates the kind of animosity that keeps people from uniting — and what a great way to keep women down: have us divided amongst ourselves. Instead, we could demand diverse representation of women — not because the ones being most often represented now aren’t real, but because they are not inclusive. I want to see the very same variety of women in fiction and media as I see in this world. That’s what we should demand: representation. We can critique, “These women aren’t representative” instead of “These women aren’t real.”
I’m sure there will be some “but what about…” responses to this post, so let me see if I can combat them before they come.
1. Trans women? Real women. Think about it: one of the great bonds we women share is that we have to go through some shitty things that men don’t. Maybe cramps and childbirth are among them, but plenty of us can’t or won’t have kids, and menopause doesn’t make us suddenly stop being women, so the physical simply can’t be it. It’s the expectations, the judgments, the assumptions, the unwanted whistles and aggressive flirting from people who won’t take a hint, the reality of sexual assault, the social roles we fill (or the judgment we get when we don’t fill those roles). Trans women take all of that on and then some.
2. Porn stars, actors, and fashion models? These groups of women get a lot of flak, and it’s unfair. Yes, the media in its myopic view of what an ideal woman is sets up unrealistic expectations that can be psychologically and physically harmful, but to go so far as to not call the models themselves real women? That’s wrong. Sometimes the airbrushed and photoshopped images are not real, but we should call them out as such — doctored images — not strip the model of her entire gender and sex by calling her, the woman herself, fake. The picture is fake. The build is not possible nor should be desireable for all women. The woman herself is real. We should absolutely demand better of the media, but let’s do it without attacking the women who are employed by that media.
3. Women who get plastic surgery? Boobs can be fake; women can’t be. Some people get work done to bend to societal pressure, some to reconstruct after an illness or accident, some in a futile effort to not age, and some simply because they want to. No matter the reason, who the hell gets to decide that that decision makes them not a “real” woman anymore? No one. That’s who.