Friday, February 8, 2013

Defining Women and Men

There are times when I feel like as a society we are getting on a more enlightened track about gender issues.  That there is a broader range available to people about what is tolerated or even acceptable when it comes to personal expression of gender and it makes me glad.

Then a media story will spark the debate anew and people, even people I like and respect, will start writing reactions that I don't agree with or even fully understand.  The most recent example to catch my attention was back at the end of last year when there was a story on Fox about how men aren't as interested in marriage currently because women essentially do too much for themselves, and a blogger I admire agreed, saying it made sense to her since, "Women aren't women anymore."

I think about gender issues a lot.  I find them fascinating.  There are so many variables that impact how we think about gender including culture, history, technology, tradition, fashion, science, religion, sexual orientation, biology, parenting....  Some elements seem fixed, others fluid.  The questions about what is masculine and feminine, and what is male and female, are so obvious on the surface, until you start to break it all down.  Under close examination very little is obvious, and all of it is interesting.

When I was in high school I had a biology teacher who gave us an assignment to write down two lists: one of characteristics that were masculine and one of characteristics that were feminine.  The catch was we were not allowed to include any characteristics that were physical.  It seems like an easy assignment until you really start to think about it.  To this day I am still thinking about it.  (Now that's a good high school biology teacher.)

If physical strength is discounted as a defining characteristic, as is anything delicate in appearance, where do you go next?  I suppose I would say at this point in my life that I see boys and men as generally more reckless, but is a cautious and sensible man less of a man?  No.  And whether or not a woman is more of a risk taker has little to do with if she's perceived as feminine in my opinion.  (I suppose it depends on what kind of risks.)

Men as protectors comes up a lot.  And yet, if you need the ultimate example of ferocity in the service of being protective isn't it always of a mother bear defending her cubs?  The most basic view of a good mother, which by definition is the most feminine role one can hold, is of a woman who will protect her children at any cost.  Is she stepping over into masculine territory at that point, or is that fundamentally feminine because it is so basic?

Women as nurturing also comes up.  And yet I personally don't know any man who when given the opportunity to be involved in the life of a child finds himself incapable of caring for one.  Just because traditionally men may not have often been as involved with child rearing does not mean they aren't up to the task.  My children are lucky to have a stay at home parent as kind and patient as my husband.  And no way in hell is he less of a man for being there for them.

Here is where I think the real problem with the discussion lies: 
There is no set of behavioral characteristics that can be defined purely as masculine or feminine as if they belong to one sex alone.  We all embrace a variety of traits on a continuum, and we all display them in some kind of balance.  Unchecked and taken to extremes none of them are beneficial.

Aggression, strength, ambition, and power may all be connected to what we think of as masculine, but if not tempered by compassion, gentleness, and caution, it's monstrous.  A man who beats the crap out of his wife is a perversion of manliness, not its embodiment.  A woman who lacks any ability to exert control and provide for herself is merely helpless, not feminine.  Maybe it's a mistake to ascribe certain traits to one sex over another just because they are exhibited more often on an average day.

It's the combination and balance of any of those traits that gives them weight or meaning.  It's endearing when a man is being tender and kind with his daughter.  It's inspiring when a woman stands up in the face of danger.  We all must learn how to provide for ourselves and accept help when we need it, and that takes a complicated assortment of skills, regardless of sex or gender.

I am not denying for a minute that there aren't general differences between men and women.  As someone who is attracted to men I'm glad there are differences, but that doesn't mean I don't have trouble defining them.  I don't think of myself as particularly feminine until I try to imagine if I had to live as a man.  I suspect I would make an unconvincing one.  But why is that?  If I walked with more swagger is that masculine?  Would I have to talk less?  Suddenly think sports are interesting?  I have no idea.  Because there are women who move with confidence, speak little, or think sports are worth their attention that I don't think of as less feminine.  I'm certainly attracted to the masculine elements of my husband, but I can't always isolate what they are.  His strength is certainly one of them, but is it different from my strength?  He makes me feel safe, but so did my mom when she came to help me with the girls and the new baby when Ian was deployed the first time.  I'm not sure where the degrees and distinctions are, or sometimes even if they matter, but I think context plays a role.

Pondering how much of what we define as being characteristic of one gender or the other is entertaining until it intersects with real life in ways that become tragic.  The story of David Reimer as described in the book As Nature Made Him is heartbreaking.  A boy disfigured in a circumcision accident, he was raised as a girl as was recommended by experts at the time.  Since he had an identical twin brother he was perfect fodder for that kind of social experiment in the 1970s, and the confusion and torment it caused him and his family was devastating.  How do we innately know what sex we are?  David knew somehow.  Would I?  If I were in the wrong body would it matter?  If I had enough freedom to express myself regardless without ridicule or discrimination would I care?

Because the sex you are is not even as simple as biology as much as many would like to assume it is.  If you are born with XY chromosomes but have androgen insensitivity you may be genetically male, but have developed outwardly as female.  Do women in that situation simply get to be thought of as women with additional medical issues, or as male or female with some sort of asterisk?  Who decides?  There are many degrees of being intersex where both kinds of sexual characteristics are present and the individual must decide for him or herself which sex to identify with.  Some take a while to choose, and there are even some who simply don't.

But I find it interesting that most people feel they must know what sex someone is.  We don't allow a middle ground, even though there are people who exist there.  We are uncomfortable without the right pronoun to use, but why is that?  The sex of my husband matters to me, but the sex of anyone else really shouldn't since there is no one else I plan to have a sexual relationship with.  Of what importance is that information if sex isn't involved?  And yet, I love a good girls' night out, so there is a distinction.  I just can't figure out completely what it is.

My own personal theory is this:  People are social beings who want to feel like they belong.  We have tribal instincts and form our own identities based on the groups we are a part of.  We have a need to define ourselves and know what we are in relation to others.  The earliest categories of people we are exposed to are men and women.  And it becomes important to us to know which camp we are in.  If you know you are a boy or a girl you can either go with what you observe your group is doing, or rebel against it, but either way you are defining yourself based on those basic categories.  To suggest maybe those categories are not so clear cut is unnerving.  People are uncomfortable with deviations in others because it challenges how we've learned to define ourselves.  But I don't think it has to be this way.

Part of what bothered me with the whole concept of "Women are not women anymore" was that the examples laid out were based on traditional gender roles about division of labor.  That men work and change flat tires and women keep the house nice and enjoy being cared for.  I don't have any problem with couples for whom that works.  But part of the reason that idealized 1950s vision didn't last was that it not only limited women, it limited men as well.  Not all men want to be excluded from the daily lives of their kids or shoulder the entire burden of being the breadwinner which often forced them into jobs they didn't like.  Personally, I like being home and taking care of things there more than I get to, but I also like being in the world.  I like running a store with my husband.  I like being an example to my kids of creating my own work to help support us.  Does that make me not a woman?  Or less of one?

To suggest that because women can do more for themselves now than in the past makes us "not women" seems crazy to me.  Because you know where some cultures draw the line?  At things like reading.  There are parts of the world where simply educating girls is seen as a threat against what people want to define as masculine and feminine.  There are many places where women still don't have a vote, and in Saudi Arabia women aren't allowed to drive.  People impose artificial distinctions and requirements based on sex all the time.  The ones we're accustomed to or match our own sensibilities seem natural, and the ones on the outside seem irrational, but all of them need to be examined periodically to make sure people aren't being unintentionally suffocated under the weight of arbitrary distinctions that we enforce like rules.

A big problem I see with trying to define gender differences in stark terms comes down to devaluing women and girls.  One of my biggest pet peeves is when I hear men trying to motivate other men or boys into being tough by comparing them to girls.  I think by being on the receiving end of most sexual acts we are considered deserving of less respect somehow.  In recent years I've come to realize I'm also guilty of ranking 'girlie' things as lesser.  It's not better if my girls are playing with trucks or robots over dress up clothes or dolls.  I'm just happy they are using their imaginations and expressing themselves, but there was a time when I cringed at the color pink.  But pink is just a color.  To pretend otherwise is to give it power it doesn't have.  (And, actually, pink is kind of magical since in reality there is no pink wavelength.  Our brains process a combination of red and violet to get pink, but you could almost define pink as a state of mind.  That idea keeps me entertained in the Barbie aisle at the store, anyway.)

I'm also bothered by dismissing certain jobs as 'women's work' as if they take less skill, strength, and stamina to do.  The kind of back breaking labor pioneer women had to do to survive, and that many women around the world continue to do, is difficult and shouldn't be considered as something lesser because it is done by women.  I've never understood the difference between things defined as men's work vs. women's work.  Cooking is for women in the home, but professionally more chefs are men.  Teaching is women's work if it's associated with younger children, but many people think of college professors as men.  Nurses tend to be women, often people think of doctors as men.  All I'm seeing in this pattern is a perceived level of status (where women consistently rank lower), and nothing to do with the demands of the work.

But it's one thing to be curious about where the distinctions lie between masculine and feminine, and another to punish someone for deviating past certain norms associated with those labels.  The default position when deciding what reaction to have should always be the question, "Is it hurting anyone?"  And if the answer is no, let it alone.  A boy wearing a pink shirt isn't hurting anyone.  A girl who likes cars isn't hurting anyone.  A person who hasn't come to grips yet with which sex he or she identifies with isn't hurting anyone.  But the need of some to make others conform to their idea of what gender roles should be does hurt people.  And the more we insist that what is masculine and what is feminine is fixed and for some reason important, the more we embolden those who feel entitled to enforce those 'rules' of gender to make themselves feel more secure.

As to the question of marriage, I found the original article rather silly.  When haven't there been more women interested in marriage than men?  I seem to remember a few years back when gay marriage was being used as wedge issue that there were supposedly a lot of men using that as an excuse not to commit because 'until there was marriage for all they weren't going to tie the knot' sort of thing.  Please.  In the same way I will admit I see differences between men and women in how they talk and the kinds of conversations they typically have, the general physicality of little boys compared to little girls, and the inability of most men I know to be able to tackle clutter effectively in a house (my brothers excluded--those guys are neatniks), I think it's fair to say on average women have a greater interest in settling down earlier than men do.  So a story about men finding some reason to resist marriage is not news.

In regard to the question that if women can do everything for themselves, why would men want to marry them, my answer is this:  For love.  For companionship.  To create a family.  Because life is easier with a partner, regardless of how you divvy up the chores.  Leave arbitrary definitions about what makes someone a man or a woman out of it and let people sort things out based on who they are, what they need, and what works for them, without insulting my or anyone else's gender.


  1. If you haven't read it already, I think you would find Cordelia Fine's book "Delusions of Gender" really interesting: it's thorough, scholarly and often funny exploration of the scientific evidence for gender differences:

    My thoughts on gender differences are twofold:
    1) we've never had a society where culture didn't distinguish between genders, so it's really hard to tell what differences - if any - are down to cultural influences and which are 'natural'.
    2) if gender differences are 'natural' and thus inevitable, why do we (as a society) spend so much effort making sure we don't step outside the gender lines?

  2. I have a LOT of the "masculine" characteristics and my husband holds many "feminine" ones. And it works. We compliment each other. Judith Butler has a LOT to say about this. It is sort of thick but worth it.

    My girls are being raised in a home where Daddy is the primary care giver and their play says a lot about how they interpret gender roles. "Hold daddy's hand" "Oh, you have a booboo daddy fix it" Also, daddy loves superheroes so so do they.

  3. I am sitting at Molly's cheerleading game while reading this. Today is the first day the new boy cheerleader is participating. He is an amazing gymnast and asked if he could be part of the team. The girls have been great welcoming him on the squad. It was interesting listening to the discussions about whether he would use poms--since those on considered girlie. Of course, a boy on the other basketball team is wearing pink shoes and no one says anything. When Liam noticed him, he said "hey, boys don't cheer!" when I explained that many boys do, he very easily said, " oh, ok...boy can he flip!"

    Sorry, for the wad just kinda ironic that I read your piece while watching gender roles play out in front of me on such an interesting way. Great writing ax usual :)

  4. There are times when I think we could have been separated at birth, Korinthia and this, most definitely, is one of those times. This is a wonderful piece. Thank you.