Gender Roles

by Will on September 29, 2010

Tonight I was talking to a guy with a child who was born intersex. The child said early on she wanted to be raised as a girl, and so a girl she has been. Now she’s a teenager so this is becoming more challenging. I imagine she’ll have to get hormone treatment or adjust her identity. It’s something of a troublesome situation. I was surprised at how calm the guy was about it.

I want to pivot and note that gender roles — like sexual prudishness, the stigma against homosexuality, and the stigma against divorce — are social customs that have outlived their usefulness. Back in the Malthusian nightmare of the pre-modern world, when life was short and brutish, these rules helped people avoid ruin: divorced women and girls who got pregnant out of wedlock would have no way of earning a living, gay childless couples would have nobody to take care of them in old age. Similarly, given the social division of labor that the genders accepted — women take care of childbearing and childrearing, men are the breadwinners who provide for them and get to boss them around — it made sense to encourage the ideals of masculinity and femininity, and to encourage men and women to adhere to them and ridicule effeminate men and butch women.

Happily, we are no longer living in the Malthusian nightmare. Women can now be breadwinners, men can now do childrearing. So the old gender roles are no longer helpful (I concede in advance here that some differences between men and women are by dint of their different biological roles in reproduction; but that does not account for things like the fact that it’s “not masculine” for me to find football wearisome, and “not feminine” for my sister to like beer more than she likes wine).

In fact, theĀ masculineĀ gender role in particular does a lot of harm. When people who hate Jimmy Carter sneer at him, their critique is usually something to the effect that he was not the “tough man” that presidents should be (Ronald Reagan could cheerfully kill Latin Americans, so he was the kind of tough man the job needs). Smears against John Kerry took the same form: he was too much of a wuss. Hillary Clinton spent the 2008 primary facing a vicious double-standard: if she stressed her femininity, she got blasted for not being “tough enough” for the presidency, if she played up her masculine traits, she got smeared as “a bitch.” She decided to go the latter route and try to take advantage of the same gender stereotypes by portraying Barack Obama as a wussy hippy loser, to the extent of alienating people like me who probably should have supported her. Expectations that leaders must “look tough” encourage irresponsible brinksmanship in foreign affairs, and make diplomacy less likely (whether we’re talking Mahmoud Ahmedinejad or Dick Cheney). Social-Democratic policy proposals get poo-pooed as effeminate coddling because a Real Man knows that wanting to help people is unmanly and makes you a gay wussy girl.

These mental habits are hard to break, like negative attitudes toward broad groups of people with shared characteristics. Both are things that we must consciously, thoughtfully combat. A world where we are influenced by stupid and counter-productive gender roles is a less happy world than the one we deserve.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

g September 29, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Really well put, Will.


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