Thursday, November 10, 2011
Gender Expectations (Babble)
(Quinn art: girls and boys with balloons)
I’ve written something about this before. I will probably write something about it again. Few topics interest me more than people’s thoughts on gender, both as it relates to their own personal lives and to society at large. I think it’s something many of us implicitly believe we all agree on to a certain extent, until we actually ask someone and discover how much variability there really is. Sort of like the notion of ‘common sense,’ which is not always so common because what may seem perfectly reasonable to me could sound like a terrible idea to someone else. People’s beliefs about gender are all over the map, despite whatever tacit agreement we may believe we share.
Personally, I’m rather torn. Because there are some basic ways in which I believe men and women, boys and girls, tend to be different. I just can’t decide how important we should think those differences are.
For instance, I remember very clearly when seeing the movie Gladiator (back before children when Ian and I were able to see movies in an actual theater) having an uncomfortable revelation during the opening scene. Men on either side of a clearing are preparing for battle, and when the signal is given, they rush at one another killing anyone they come close to. It’s brutal, and it’s horrible, and even though it’s only a movie, it doesn’t show anything that hasn’t happened in human history countless times over. It struck me as I sat there in the theater that I would not be capable of running toward that kind of carnage on someone’s order. But my husband could. I believe if someone were inflicting harm on my children I would be capable of killing that person if necessary, but I cannot fathom rushing into a battlefield and simply killing whomever. I think the trait of choosing to run toward a battle rather than away from it is more typical in males.
But just because a behavior is exhibited more often in one sex than the other does not give it exclusive claim to that trait. There are many soldiers who happen to be women who are prepared to kill and die on someone’s order. That does not make them lesser women or more like men in my opinion. Men who wish to avoid violence are not lesser men. I can’t think of any one trait that should be held up as a standard by which either sex should be specifically judged. This is probably where the opinions about gender diverge, because most people I talk to seem to draw a line somewhere about what is masculine and and what is feminine, and that line is in different place for everyone I meet.
When I was in high school I had a biology teacher who asked us to make a lists of characteristics that we defined as either masculine or feminine, but we were not allowed to include anything physical. This was a hard assignment, and one I still ponder from time to time. Both sexes are capable of strength, compassion, humor, aggression, weakness, caring…. I honestly would not know what to put on those lists today. But that same teacher once made a stereotypical comment in class about either boys or girls, and when someone spoke up in protest he said, “Quick! Everyone point north!” and all the boys did, and all the girls looked around at the boys first before following their example. I found that fascinating, but is it important?
Innocently offered statements about ‘what girls are like’ or ‘what boys are like’ almost always get my hackles up. Of course there are generalizations you can make about girls and boys. But generalizations are not laws, nor standards by which individuals should necessarily be judged. When people start repeating things like, “Girls are nurturing” and “Boys are active” I feel as if it sets up artificial definitions that imply someone is anywhere from different to freakish if they don’t fit within those limits. I have two girls and a boy. All three of them are nurturing. The most active of the bunch happens to be a girl. I don’t see any of them as stepping over any lines in these ways. They just are who they are.
When I was pregnant with Quinn after having two girls I was shocked at the number of people who jumped to the conclusion we were ‘trying for that boy.’ I honestly didn’t care which sex my child was, but I started to almost wish for a girl out of a weird sense of spite. I know nobody meant anything remotely bad by it, but it seemed insulting to my girls somehow, and presumptuous about what a boy would be. I worry when people express desire for one sex of a child over another, because what if the child doesn’t conform to certain expectations? I don’t understand people who want a girl because they say they want to dress them in pink, because plenty of girls don’t like pink, and it doesn’t make them failures as girls. I hoped to be able to play music with any of my children, but I wouldn’t be disappointed in them if their interests lay elsewhere. We can’t tell our children who they are. They’re supposed to tell us.
I’m not saying there aren’t differences between boys and girls, I’m just saying that the differences that exist within the group that is girls and the group that is boys are wider than the differences between the two groups. Why anyone cares about the sex of another person beyond themselves or a potential sexual partner is a mystery to me.
I think on issues of gender (and many other characteristics for that matter) people need to recognize that a need for conformity has more to do with personal insecurity than some greater good. We feel safer in our own choices when we can relate to the choices and behaviors of others around us, but we need to realize our own comfort is not enough to dictate what others must do or be. The sex of each of my children is an interesting and important part of who each of them is. But it’s far from the most important.