Fun With (Gender) Stereotypes
So, the other day some friends and I were talking about some gender stereotypes, such as:
- Logical, emotionless, ruthless, decision makers. Make decisions based on facts, not emotion.
- Detached, unemotional, trustworthy, reliable.
- Highly sexual, passionate creatures who struggle with their sex drive
- Illogical, passionate, empathetic, unable to stick with a decision. Make decisions based on emotion, not facts.
- Wildly emotional, hypersensitive, untrustworthy, unreliable.
- Cold fish, ice queen, no sex drive.
Obviously, these gender stereotypes aren't a) the only ones out there b) accurate or c) news. I just think these specific stereotypes:
are particularly fascinating because they're essentially the same, but flipped. Men (supposedly) are logical, but not in control of their sexual urges. Women (supposedly) are illogical, but completely in control of their sexual urges. They exist in a sort of opposing tension-- without the contrast of one, the other falls apart.
It's interesting though, because although the perception of men as passionate (whether their passion is of the anger or sexual interest variety) has, largely, almost no negative bearing on the overall perception of men (both collectively and individually) as logical, rational beings capable of behaving in logical and rational ways, it's the exact opposite for women.
A man-- especially if he is wealthy, well-connected, or famous-- who loses his temper and publicly berates or attacks an individual is covered in the news as having "lost his temper," or having been "pushed to the edge" (similar language is deployed for sexual assaults, as though a man is incapable of controlling himself). His other qualities-- his work ethic, talent, business acumen, etc-- are still considered as outweighing the passion which has been displayed. This clearly messages that in these cases, it is the display of passion that is considered the character anomaly, while the body of their work/ career is considered the true indication of their character.
In contrast, when a woman in a similar situation loses her temper and berates or physically assaults someone-- or is even perceived as losing her temper, by dint of standing her ground/ maintaining boundaries/ disagreeing with someone-- such an exhibition of emotion (passion) is often called "irrational," and "out of control," and considered indicative of her total character in lieu of her actual body of work.
While men's passion is too often equated to "biological imperative" and used to excuse behavior such as breast ogling, street harassment, and rape; women's passion is too often represented as the default (irrational) state of feminine personality, and used to explain basically anything a woman does, says, or thinks that society finds annoying or disagreeable.
I find the contradiction endlessly amusing (in a laugh or cry sort of way), and have for years. I've often wondered how genuinely sexist people justify this type of thinking. You know the type-- those people who honestly believe all women know instinctively how to be compassionate, caring, loving mothers; or that men are incapable of performing caregiving/ parenting duties (and call dads "babysitters" when they watch their own kids); or that victims of sexual assault/ rape brought it on themselves because they somehow provoked the biological imperative of the rapist. Those types-- the ones who say stuff like, "I'd never vote for a woman president-- what happens when she gets PMS?!"
Hur de hur. Because get, get it-- you can't trust a woman near a nuclear bomb, especially when she's on the rag! Everyone knows you trust rational, clear-headed men with weapons, not ladyfolks and their uteruses! That's the winning policy that's so drastically reduced all these issues with mass shootings and domestic terrorism!
... Wait. I feel like ...
Y'know what, nevermind. Moving on. My point is, sexism-deniers and outright misogynists don't think they're the same, but it's just degrees of denialism, and it's hard to understand the comfort and acceptance of perpetuating gendered and restrictive roles through sexist jokes and casual conversation. I don't get how they can't see that what limits one gender limits both.
I mean, I do get that most people just grew up in situations where sexism, racism, and homophobia were casually and regularly expressed, and never had the opportunity or inclination to personally examine the views/ attitudes/ vocabulary that so casually infused their world. When confronted or called out (especially publicly), people will often double down defensively without really thinking about it-- sometimes just being patient and non-judgemental and listening as someone talks about why they believe what they believe (or think they believe) is enough for them to talk themselves around.
Being non-judgmental and patient is hard, though, and I think it's just as important to draw boundaries and not put up with bad behavior-- which sometimes requires calling out (sometimes publicly) retrograde attitudes and behaviors. Even then, it doesn't mean writing the person off-- I remember in an early shared apartment, realizing we didn't have a dishwasher and I expressing shock and outrage:
"What? We don't have a dishwasher? What kind of place doesn't have a dishwasher in this day and age?"
My (guy) roommate who just shrugged it off and didn't really respond-- this was a lower income apartment, thems the breaks kind of deal. Later, when his dad stopped by to look over the place and heard my complaint, the older man responded, "He has a dishwasher," and stared pointedly at me with a little smirk floating around his lips, waiting for me to "get it."
I didn't get it.
I mean, I did eventually (it had to be explained to me-- that's how unfunny the joke was), but when the "joke" was initially made, I seriously didn't get it.
See, I might have been raised LDS-- which is a pretty hetero-gender-normative, conservative religious tradition-- but even I didn't grow up in a house with gender-divided chores. Everyone living at home was assigned chores on the chore list, regardless of gender or chore type. I never thought of dishes or cooking as "something women do," because men do them, too; just as I never thought of mowing the lawn or cleaning the roof gutters as "something men do," because women do them, too. To my mind, chores are and always have been defined as distasteful, repetitive tasks that everyone hates to do but are necessary parts of living a responsible adult life, and they're gender-neutral tasks.
So when my roomie's dad jokingly equated me, based solely on my gender, to an inanimate and replaceable machine that explicitly designed to complete a distasteful, boring, and repetitive task, my initial reaction seriously was, huh?
Once they explained the "joke," I was pretty pissed off, which (of course) they found hilarious. Then, to make things worse, after the man left, my roommate started in on the shtick, laughing at my obvious irritation and growing frustration-- see, because I just didn't have a sense of humor, get it? Because it's funny to equate a human being with depth, emotion, and variety to a one-trick replaceable machine!
I finally got him to stop. It took a few months (too many months), and I had to cycle through a ridiculous amount of parallel metaphors (Q: Would you feel comfortable joking about a black/ hispanic/ asian coworker only being worthwhile as, essentially, an inanimate machine? A: That's different.), but, eventually, we hit on one that worked for him and helped him understand on a personal and visceral level how depersonalizing someone like that is hurtful, dick move.
I forget exactly what the metaphor/ bridge moment was-- I do remember it had something to do with something said to him that (to me) seemed trivial, but he found incredibly personally offensive. I believe it was something to do with classism-- perhaps the time someone inaccurately assumed he had a college degree, based on his vocabulary and depth of knowledge about the conversation subject; and he found the assumption that only people with college degrees are intelligent enough to possess extensive vocabularies and research complex subjects in-depth to be insulting.
Whatever it was, that moment of feeling "unseen," and depersonalized ended up, eventually, being the conversational touchstone/ segue that he used to connect his lived experience with feeling "othered" by language and terms and assumptions which had stripped away all the important and personal parts of him, the individual, and turned him (however briefly) into a one-note caricature and invisible joke to the experiences of others. Although as a cis white male, he benefited from a lot of race and gender privilege in our society, his lived experiences with socio-economic disadvantage, mental health struggles, and LGBT rights became the intersectionalities through which, though invisible to the casual observer (people look at him and see a muscular, bearded white guy who looks like he should own a gun and listen to country music and vote GOP), he connected to intersectional feminist and progressive values.
Since that conversation so many years ago, my roomie-turned-best friend has really done a 180 when it comes to noticing and talking about this sort of media and cultural indoctrination of gender stereotyping, and because of his example, I do have a tendency to assume everyone is capable of this kind of personal growth and attitude shift.
Or at least, I did. That belief is slowly getting strangled as I learn about virulent groups of misogynists online, who encourage and support one another in a writhing snakes' pit of poisonous fury-- MRAers, Incels, and PUAers, all dissatisfied with their lives, and all attributing the destructive power of women (individually and/ or collectively) for their personal and individual misery.
The manchineel tree of their hatred starts with the poison roots the belief that not only have women achieved equal rights, but now actually rule society and are subjugating men left and right. This notion drifts as a toxic miasma through their forums, and the smouldering fumes of their discontent are occasionally fanned into an ugly backlashing rage against women for various complaints: women who dare to assert bodily autonomy, or seek equal wages, or desire the right to acquire an education/ job/ family without negative societal repercussions (having to give up one or the other) due solely to their gender.
I guess it's been on my mind lately, because of sentiments like "5 Ways Modern Men are Trained to Hate Women," with the whole biological imperative argument (I can't help looking, it's in my genes!) are popping up in a variety of forums and blogs. The biological imperative argument always baffles me, because it seems to assume that women have no sexual drive or desire-- that we can't possibly understand attraction or how it feels to be inappropriately and overwhelmingly attracted to someone in a social/ business situation.
When I returned to college as a late-start student, I had this one class with a super handsome professor. Although he was in his 50's, he looked like a young Peter O'Toole -- full lips, a tight curling cap of snowy white hair, and brilliant blue eyes. The only indicator of his age was his hair color.
He was intelligent, sexy, and challenging. The subject he was teaching meant we often had student-teacher meetings in his office, where we would go over my assignments. I was deeply attracted to him, but I never indicated it in any way. Why?
Because my reason and intelligence are stronger than my biological imperative, and the risks of showing any hint of the deep attraction I felt for him were simply not worth the potential and very temporary rewards. I am happily married. I have a family I care about. I was his student.
Beyond those personal reasons, even if I'd been single and unattached, I still wouldn't have hit on him.He was happily married. He had a family. He had a career to think about.
See, biological imperative isn't an excuse. It's possible to sit across from someone who's insanely sexy and intelligent-- someone who is so incredibly hot there are at least one or two interactions where you walk away and realize you can't remember anything that was said because you spent the entire conversation fantasizing about making out with them-- and still not in any way whatsoever indicate that interest to the other party because it's not appropriate.
There's a time and a place for expressing interest in someone, and in any situation with an unequal power dynamic-- professor/ student, management/ hourly, boss/ employee? No. Not appropriate. Not professional.
Any situation where one (or both) parties are in a long term relationship? No. Not appropriate, not professional.
Just because attraction or interest is felt doesn't mean it has to be acted on. It doesn't benefit anyone. There's no reason to share the information. One is capable of self-control-- ergo, the biological imperative argument is flawed. Biological imperative should not be the ruler by which acceptable behavior is measured; but compassionate morality, informed consent, and do-no-harm.
I realize that anytime a massive social movement occurs, there's a backlash from that segment of society who is afraid of or challenged by progress. We've seen this happen in history time after time. I realize this is the nature of social progress. I guess my surprise and disappointment is because I thought this was a done deal. I thought we all agreed sexism exists and needs to be addressed. I thought we were debating the question of "how to implement the changes to address said sexism" -- I didn't realize we were still at, "So, does sexism exist, yes or no? Men, raise your hands to vote -- ladies, bake some pies."