“Hey!” I greeted a date with a smile as I got into his car. While he was on the way, I’d expressed frustration with him being as late for our fifth date as he’d been for our third and fourth. But, after an apology, I was ready to let it go and have a good time.
“Huh, interesting,” he said with a pensive expression.
“Well, I once read somewhere that masculine energy is like a river leading into the ocean. It knows where it’s going and it flows there in the most efficient manner possible. Feminine energy, on the other hand, is the ocean, with wild, beautiful, tumultuous waves.”
In other words, by changing my mood so quickly, I was being “feminine.”
“I just felt like we were done arguing and wanted to have a good night.”
“Okay, maybe I’m overanalyzing it.”
He was, but he didn’t make this up. I’d heard this idea of “feminine energy” before, sometimes from feminists. I’d even found some liberation from internalized misogyny through it.
Growing up, I was taught to perform behaviors that our Western, capitalist culture perceives as “masculine” (and therefore valuable), such as to achieve and value work above all else, repress my emotions, and assess my self-worth based on money.
Others may have different definitions of masculinity, but the people in my life associated these traits with men and superiority.
Hearing about “feminine energy” from some feminist friends and New Age books gave me a way to identify why it felt like my fixation on logistics and rules and structure existed at the detriment of my passion and creativity.
I learned that the former traits were “masculine” ones imposed on us by Western society, the latter were “feminine,” and the way we associate these traits with gender shapes how we view them.
Since I’ve learned how masculine qualities and behaviors get prized over “feminine” ones and why that’s harmful, I’ve gotten more in touch with my wild, intuitive, nonsensical, disorderly side that wants to do things like spend a day with no plans and cry just because it feels good.
But after seeing how these ideas can lead people like my ex to pigeonhole people, I started to question them. After all, I’m a woman who struggles with being too “masculine,” so hearing that I’m innately “feminine” was super alienating to me.
And who was I, as a white person, to claim to understand concepts borrowed from Hinduism and Buddhism based on a few books largely written by other white outsiders’ version of feminine energy?
Feminine energy, I realized, sounded suspiciously like the Western stereotype of women and masculine energy sounded like the stereotype of men. And that makes it dangerous to propose that there’s some spiritual, culturally transcendent principle behind both.
I understand the appeal of affirming the set of qualities commonly labeled feminine. After all, these are the traits patriarchy has deemed inferior, leading people to misinterpret strengths as weaknesses just because they’re associated with women.
I also see the appeal of making these affirmations spiritual.
The symbolism associated with gendered bodies and roles can be powerful, and some of us really experience gender as an “energy” – something too intangible to be defined more concretely.
But as a woman, a non-binary person, and a feminist, the concept of feminine energy has ultimately harmed me. It’s caused people to misinterpret my behavior because they’ve projected their idea of gender onto me. It’s led people to make assumptions about me based on my physical appearance.
It’s also part of a larger pattern of white people appropriating concepts from Asian and Native American cultures. The concept of masculine and feminine energies – and the whole “New Age” movement they’re part of – often represents a warped version of ideas borrowed from Hinduism, Buddhism, or Native spirituality.
Here are some reasons why white people, particularly white feminists, need to stop talking about “feminine energy.”
1. It Associates Certain Personality Traits with Certain Bodies
Discussions of feminine energy often use metaphors involving wombs, breasts, or vaginas to illustrate that the feminine is capable of nurturing life.
Consequently, even when people who believe in “feminine energy” admit that not all women are feminine, they usually say that most are because the “female body” lends itself to nurturing, softness, gestation, and other things considered “feminine.”
The implication for me is that because I have a body that other people read as female but don’t identify as feminine, I’m just not in touch with my inner goddess.
The implication for trans and non-binary people in general is that since they don’t identify with the “energy” their bodies supposedly contain, they’re not being their true selves.
This is a perfect way to claim authority about everyone’s gender: If they think they’re not the gender that “matches” their bodies, they’re just repressed. That’s super invalidating to those who are actually being themselves by being gender-nonconforming.
In reality, your body can mean whatever you want it to mean. The power of certain bodies to give birth is beautiful, but your uterus doesn’t have to be a nurturer of life and your breasts don’t have to symbolize your potential as a caretaker or erotic object – they can just be there with no meaning at all.
Your vagina doesn’t have to indicate how receptive and passive you are. It can show you’re fierce, and active, and literally able to engulf someone – or, once again, mean nothing at all.
It’s okay to employ this symbolism as long as we understand it’s not objective. You can assign whatever symbolism you want to a body, and making a body read as female out to be “feminine” is just one possibility.
2. It Promotes the Idea That There’s an Objective Definition of Femininity and Masculinity
I once mentioned to a friend that aggression is part of our culture’s definition of masculinity, and he responded that the real definition of masculinity is assertiveness.
You hear this a lot: “True masculinity is showing vulnerability. Real men respect women. Femininity actually is powerful.”
While these are seemingly more positive definitions of masculinity and femininity, we shouldn’t be defining masculinity or femininity at all.
When we talk about masculine and feminine energies, we’re usually implying that while certain cultures and unique individuals may see these genders a certain way, there’s also an objective way to see them. As the above examples illustrate, we may even contrast cultures’ definitions of gender with their “true” definitions.
But you can’t separate femininity or masculinity from their cultural constructions because they are cultural constructs. In other words, no matter how much it resonates with us, femininity is a concept that we were each taught.
Talking about “feminine energy” and “masculine energy” implies that there’s a universal way to think about gender, which leads us to put some cultures below others based on how “natural” they are and to police people based on whether they’re performing their gender “correctly” or not.
Feminism should be doing the opposite: validating all the different ways to express and identify with a gender, regardless of what body you have or what culture you’re from.
3. It Misrepresents and Disrespects the Cultures from Which It’s Appropriated
Psychiatrist Keith Ablow wrote in Fox News that an ad celebrating a boy’s decision to wear nail polish was disrespecting a “creative force in the universe” and “the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race.”
This is just one example of people using New Age concepts appropriated from Eastern cultures to enforce Western gender norms and oppress those who don’t, can’t, and refuse to assimilate. The idea of a balance of masculine and feminine energies, for example, comes from yin and yang, and the concept of a creative force sounds a lot like Qi.
Many white people’s versions of masculine and feminine energy – masculine is strong, feminine is pretty, and so on – sound like Western masculinity and femininity, which is not what these terms originally meant.
The actual spiritual concepts of the masculine and feminine have nothing to do with nail polish. The notion that women are more beautiful and concerned with looks is highly Western.
As someone outside the belief systems that created them, I’m not going to claim authority on them. Instead, I will provide some links so that you can read about what they mean to the people who know them best – but be sure to note that they don’t represent everyone like them, since there’s a lot of disagreement within these communities.
Here’s an interesting interview on the meaning of the feminine in Buddhism. Here’s an explanation of the masculine and feminine in Hindu yogic philosophy, and here’s an analysis of an ancient South American text regarding the masculine and feminine.
All describe these sets of qualities as ones we can all cultivate, not specific to men and women. And here’s a more general critique of the use of “masculine” and “feminine” in a spiritual context.
These concepts don’t mean what many Westerners might assume based on their own culture. Trying to use these terms ourselves just spreads misconceptions about ideas that are sacred and helpful to many people.
When we appropriate concepts from other cultures, we end up replacing them with a whitewashed version of them – which really means erasing them.
This contributes to the silencing of oppressed cultures, spreads the harmful myth that white people know best, trivializes the oppression that led white people’s version to become dominant, and denies those who came up with the ideas their due credit.
As Maisha Z. Johnson and nisha ahuja write of the appropriation of yoga, “You may not mean to participate in the system of white supremacy by doing this, but it’s part of how the system operates – by removing any trace of people of color from the positive things we create.”
The same way developing a yoga practice that’s only about physical stamina or hot bodies makes the original Hindu custom and its benefits less accessible to us all, reconceptualizing masculine and feminine energies to reflect Western gender norms deprives everyone of the original spiritual philosophies.
So, ultimately, white people are harming themselves by seeking liberation through a superficial, Westernized version of these concepts. They’re not gaining what they could from the actual teachings, and they’re reinforcing the very gender norms they’re seeking liberation from.
4. It Promotes Negative Stereotypes About Women
“Masculine energy is very straightforward and simple, like a line. Feminine energy is all over the place, like a rollercoaster, which is why women are insane,” I once heard a speaker say to a group aimed at women’s sexual empowerment.
Aside from being ableist, this statement illustrates how ideas about “feminine energy” stem from and feed into negative stereotypes about women. This particular talk promoted the idea that women are illogical, emotional, and unpredictable.
But there’s nothing wrong with these states of being. In fact, the validation that they’re equal to “masculine” ones is really interesting, actually. It’s certainly made me rethink the way our culture values things like logic, lack of emotion, and career-orientedness.
But shouldn’t everyone be given the opportunity to embrace these qualities in themselves and others? By calling them “feminine,” we imply that they only apply to women, which puts pressure on other genders to deny these parts of themselves.
Plus, the idea that women or feminine perceived people, in particular, possess them has some insidious roots.
For example, men often complain about women being so complicated as a way of dismissing their needs and not trying to understand them – or claim that they’re irrational as a way to gaslight them. They often don’t even realize they’re doing it. It’s just ingrained in the way we talk about people, and making it out to be a spiritual truth doesn’t help matters.
“Feminine energy” also gets used to imply that women are motherly, nurturing, and caring. Again, these aren’t negative qualities. But their association with women stems from the idea that women are naturally more equipped to care for households and children and less equipped for offices.
Similar to “biology,” ascribing gender roles to “energy” has become a way to get away with promoting them. But these stereotypes are just as offensive no matter what you believe their roots are.
The concepts of masculine and feminine energy have stuck around despite all this because many people find them inspiring. I would know. I’m one of them.
But the liberation I gained through these concepts could’ve happened without assigning them an inherent gender or using spiritual concepts we don’t really understand. That may be a convenient way to group them, but they’re not really about gender.
We can express that certain ideas about femininity resonate with us without using “feminine energy” or related terms like “yin and yang.”
We can, for example, say that we enjoy being spontaneous rather than analyzing everything. We can say that we appreciate our bodies’ ability to carry or feed children.
We can even say that we identify with the Western idea of femininity – or certain aspects of it – and think these qualities should be valued more.
In addition to giving women more room to define themselves, these ways of speaking also invite people who don’t identify as women to embrace these qualities.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating different versions of femininity. We just need to remember they’re neither universal nor exclusively available to women.
And without projecting a false understanding of anyone else’s spiritual beliefs, we can still cultivate our own individual ones to help ourselves become more complete people.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss. Read her articles here.