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Opinion: Can professionalism be pink? The flirty trend and the feminine expression

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This post was updated on April 5 at 12:37 p.m

Pink ribbons curled, swirled and entwined across the UCLA campus. Whether at the end of braids, on backpacks, or printed on phone cases and T-shirts, there doesn't seem to be a single student who hasn't seen or worn a pink ribbon.

In response to the trendy flirty aesthetic inspired by Lana Del Rey and nostalgic childhood items like dollhouses, women are turning to bows as a new outfit staple. Popular brands like Miu Miu, Simone Rocha and Sandy Liang have capitalized on the TikTok craze and increasingly incorporated feminine bows into their designs.

However, beyond the bowing obsession, it is important to evaluate what role this trend plays in modern gender expression, contributing both positively and negatively to the creation of a feminist future.

The flirtatious trend has its roots in television shows like “Bridgerton,” which is heavily associated with femininity and bows, said Claire Saul, the writing director of Forward, the fashion and arts magazine at UCLA. Many took to social media to recreate this aesthetic, which brought the bow back into popularity.

“In 2014 we had 'it girls' like Bethany Mota, the YouTuber, or Ariana Grande and her 1950s aesthetic, always wearing bows. It gives us a feeling of nostalgia when we think back to the originality of the bows from that time,” Saul added. “Nowadays it has been reclaimed to a more sophisticated aesthetic.”

Perhaps one of the bow's biggest advocates was Dance Moms star JoJo Siwa, who created her own retail bow line in 2016. However, today's fashion world scoffs at the dazzling, comically large, hot pink bows of the past and only accepts the present's sleek, sophisticated ribbons.

“I wore these bows from elementary school through kindergarten to third grade because that was the dress code at school,” said Natasha Tabbush, a second-year business administration student. “I feel like it's been completely redesigned now and styled to suit you…like a cute, grown-up version.”

Bows are often used in the media as a tribute to young people, including in the pop band Japanese Breakfast, Saul said. Lead singer Michelle Zauner dresses to represent her younger self, incorporating schoolgirl-esque ribbons and puff-sleeved dresses into her look.

“It shows me that they (women who wear bows) are a little more in touch with their feminine side. They are not afraid to speak out and are not afraid of judgment,” Tabbush said. “They are not afraid to participate in trends because sometimes people look down on it or act like other girls.”

Bows can empower women and create a community that encourages uncompromising expression of femininity.

Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies and chair of UCLA's interdepartmental program in social sciences, said the previous idea that women could only succeed in a man's world by conforming to male characteristics is now labeled as false feminism.

This is perhaps a motif for the new trendy women's fashion.

“The true liberation for women comes when we can be as feminine as we want and not be treated as inferior because of it,” Williams added.

The idea behind the bow is that women can express their feminine side as much as they want and still earn the same opportunities and respect.

Female idols in popular culture, exemplified by the 2023 Girlboss Barbie and the classic head-to-toe pink Elle Woods with her fluffy pen at Harvard Law School, challenge viewers to view women as stereotypically feminine while pursuing their career goals to reach. However, this is not always possible in the real or professional world.

“This creates a dichotomy for women because professionally, what it means to be a competent and successful professional still requires a departure from traditional stereotypical femininity,” Williams said. “Sandra Bem argued that the most psychologically adjusted and successful people in society are those who are actually psychologically androgynous.”

While gender expression is important, hyperfemininity can lead to altered, undesirable perceptions of a person, especially in the workplace, where bow ties can be associated with incompetence and a lack of professionalism. Instead of being neutral, the bow brands you as the epitome of femininity, which can then relegate you to a subordinate category.

“Playing up hyperfemininity in these situations … treats gender as a style, a preference or a fashion rather than a structure that creates inequality,” Williams said.

At the end of the day, bands are easy to put on and take off, but gender and the biases that come with it are not.

“We don’t live in a world where hyperfemininity goes unpunished,” Williams added.

Essentially, there is a double-edged sword embedded in the simple loop. While acceptance of femininity should be encouraged, one cannot ignore the negative stigmas and barriers that women still face. Wearing a ribbon identifies someone as a woman or a female individual, which can lead to additional scrutiny and discrimination.

Although this probably always happens. Renowned philosopher Judith Butler claimed that gender itself is a performance embodied from generation to generation. We play gender roles every day in every action. So if we naturally represent gender and divide ourselves into categories, would adding a bow really make a difference in the way we are perceived?

But hyperfemininity trends like the bow actively reinforce the binary and shift public perception to associate these symbols with what it means to be a woman.

Additionally, there are benefits to being in this category and meeting traditional standards for women's appearance. It appears that while hyperfemininity contributes to the argument of being female without stigma, it also allows women to not lose the normative privileges of being a cisgender woman at a time when there is hostility toward feminists, Williams said.

The bow reaffirms previous notions of women as doll-like, tied up, and gratifying the male gaze with hyperfemininity. Therefore, “unfeminine” women can be displaced because they do not conform to traditional norms. This inverts feminism's core ideas that women can express themselves however they want, be it through bows or buzzcuts.

Tabbush said wearing bows makes her feel less intimidating and more approachable, potentially changing the way someone perceives a girl.

“The paradigm shift is interesting because it represents the evolution of society. As it's become more free from the constraints of gender, we've also magnified the stereotypes and packaged them into this niche aesthetic where we now associate ribbons with hyperfemininity,” Saul said.

The divide this trend creates alienates those who don't participate or embrace traditional femininity. By reinforcing traditional stereotypes, it potentially hinders alternative definitions of how a woman should look and behave. This further polarizes the rigid distinction between men and women and leaves no room for a middle ground or spectrum of genders.

Still, the ribbon can be used specifically to convey unique messages of gender expression. A friend of mine keeps a bow in her laptop sleeve and uses it to help represent herself in tech labs and clubs that she believes are dominated by men. Women who see each other embrace femininity can replace shame with celebration of femininity.

“I think it's good that overall, because of this trend, girls are more in touch with their feminine side and are not afraid to express themselves and be seen as feminine,” Tabbush said. “It’s empowering in a cute, pretty way.”

There is a strong belief that a simple, visually appealing accessory allows women to feel comfortable in their identity and gender expression. Especially because society may not be as accepting of flashy camouflage in the army, pink pantsuits in the office, or frilly smocks in the lab. However, the bow can exert power in a patriarchal, male-dominated society.

“I like the gesture of marking one's difference in places where it is disturbing,” said Williams. “But I wonder if a bow is really the way we want to symbolize what it means to be a woman.”

Although the bow began as a TikTok trend, it raises a larger question about whether the acceptance of hyperfemininity in a society where gender equality has not been achieved reinforces traditional gender roles and assumes that the feminist movement's goals have already been achieved became.

Maybe collective expression in fashion can change our world. But the arc needs to be reset – not to pretend that feminism is over, but to continue to promote women's rights. Only then can every victory be awarded with a pink satin ribbon.