Monday, September 29, 2008

so over this: men's stereotyped behavior as the default

I've been reflective about marriage and relationships lately. We celebrated our four year anniversary last week (I really. Really. Really liked Burn After Reading, by the way) and the election has brought up some gender stuff... And I've been pondering, with kind of obsessive intensity since I conceived, about the essential nature of femaleness- if there is such a thing. I've intuited that part of the parenting differences between Bu and me is maybe biological. It feels biological, the need to nurse the baby*, to wear or carry her in my arms, to encircle her at night. I think his bond with her is significantly different.

I know that I can't define this as globally female, of course, as many women don't feel that motherhood has anything at all to do with their bodies. Given the obvious need for heterosexual reproduction in our species, however, I'm sure there must be something to my feeling that ancient evolutionary forces are at work in my interaction with my daughter.

So, I'm thinking about things that are innate, and things that are learned, and how we really can't empirically decide which are which because we've learned to assume so much unconsciously. It's naive and weird to imagine that there aren't fundamental gendered attributes, so I don't think that I'm questioning that. I'm also not drawing any conclusions about what our differences are. Just sort of an ongoing musing... but there is a thing that's sticking in my craw, and that is this:

Why, when we discuss commonly accepted men's traits and accepted women's traits, do we always discuss it in such a way that men are the default. Like this article on CNN via Oprah, where wives are told to stop talking out problems, because it makes those poor husbands all uncomfortable. If we assume that women communicate better (and I do operate under this assumption even as I question its biological root, based on my relationships) why don't we say that men have a deficiency here, and here's a nifty little how-to guide to help them interact better? (I'm tempted to use this catchy little pop phrase and tell these doods to Man Up and zOMGoddess just talk to their wives.) Why, when we discuss women as "too emotional," don't we worry about men's diminished ability to feel deeply and emote? Why, instead of worrying about whether a (*cough* qualified) mother can be a great politician, don't we ask why we should trust men- who aren't traditionally the family's counselor, mediator, and nurturers, and schedule coordinators- to lead nations?

This is a weirdly amorphous post poured unfiltered out of a nonlinear, wandering mind, but I'm bothered by this. I do it myself some, and I'm just sort of placing it here for consideration. So, um, consider.

*But possibly, not anymore? She hasn't nursed in a few days- lost count, and that thing where moms say you won't remember the last time you nurse is in my head being all sentimental and sniffly while also I'm relieved and happy and proud of my big girl. And by the way, I've noticed that I call her "pretty" and 1,000 times more than I do "smart" or "strong" or any other actually meaningful praise. I'm going to try to stop, but she really is the most gorgeous creature I've ever seen, and so it's difficult. My daughter. I don't think I'll ever fall out of love with that phrase.


  1. It's so funny because I have been struggling with gender roles lately tooever since that post on Feministing about baby girls wearing pink clothes with butterflies and how boys have trucks and firefighters. I didn't realize how much we feel the need to categorize children; put them into these boxes and role; where fathers aren't as rough-and-tumble with their daughters and sons can't play with dolls if they want to.

    And it's patronizing to men; like "oh don't be so hard at the poor little mens" and how men always look like bumbling idiots in commercials and sitcoms. They must get tired of it.

    I think that gender roles are weird. I feel like everything else in our society, we've exploited what MIGHT be some small biological tendencies (ie: women's brains have more connections between left and right, better at multitasking) and we've made anyone feel strange for not fitting the norm. I'm finding it more and more fascinating my attraction to people who blur gender lines, because honestly, who does fit into that little box?

    Yay rambly comment! I actually read a study that says children who aren't TOLD they are smart actually do better because they end up trying harder. If you praise there hard WORK rather than telling them how smart they are, they will learn to rely on their work ethic. So if you are going to compliment Bird, you should tell her she's such a good helper or praise her efforts on a piece of artwork, etc. Does that make sense? Sure does to me.

  2. @Laura
    Yes! That makes much sense, and it rings true with my upbringing (as a "smart," "gifted," lazy fucking slacker) so I do try to praise work and effort with her... as much as you can do with a toddler:)

    It may be too, that I'm overemphasizing gender here... that's part of my totally-devoid-of-any-conclusions It is definitely true that men suffer as much (ok not as much, but they suffer) from this junk too. Fo' sho'.

  3. As the mom of a XY enabled toddler, I have to say I HATE gender stereotypes even more now. ZOMG, today I got told off (yet again) for having not cut Remy's hair! His fucking HAIR!

    G-d forbid people see him wearing one of his pink shirts.

    But yes, the default is male. White male. That's what we privilege in this society. It makes me sick. (Privilege isn't always a good thing for the person who has it, it can be a confining box just as much as a ticket to success, especially if you fall outside of the norms society holds for you...)

  4. You know, I read that article and thought-I need to internalize some of this, because I don't have a talker. I really don't. What that article said was true-and I've been fighting it for ten years, forcing him to do things my way.

    Not cool. At all.

    Gender is such a mallable thing, and we, as parents can influence so much. It's really been brought home to me with Rosalyn-she is so much her own person-she flounces around the house in a Barbie Princess dress while trying to drop kick her sister, holding dinky cars in both hands. Backing off, guiding them where seems to work. Instructing them on gender in the media, helping to protect's working.

    It gets harder every year, but I'm comitted to it. I want them to be sure of themselves, not their dangly/non dangly bits. Emphasizing my non-belief in two genders helps as well. :)

  5. @thor Post about this! I want concrete examples of how you teach your kids. Um, y'know... please?

    I guess I get the value of that article if you have been trying to force him to your framework, but to me it just sounded like, C'Mon girls... don't make the boys THINK or TALK about feeelings.. ergh. No.

  6. @lex No cutty the hair! It's so beautiful:)

  7. It's so hard to put motherhood instincts and emotions into words, but you've done a good job. This was a wonderful post, and we really enjoyed it.

  8. As little as I like Palin, it deeply angered me when people suggested she might not be fit for the job not because her opinions are crappy, but *because she was a mother.*

    My feelings towards motherhood have been ambivalent at times. Ciaran was so high-needs as a little guy that I struggled really, really hard to work through the post-partum depression and care for him without completely losing control. Sometimes I did lose control and I am grateful every day that I never let myself go so far as to *hurt* him, although I wonder if his deep preference for anybody BUT Mummy is because I screamed at him so much...

    But lest I start crying at work, I digress. I guess my point is, being the mother of a boy is tough because I try to fight the stereotypes while wondering how much I inadvertently reinforce them. It's hard to know the *right* path to take...and I'm always and forever paranoid as to how much damage I'm doing his poor little psyche in the process!

  9. There is a long, long history of men being the "universal" or default assumption, but this is starting to fade and break up in small and large ways. The Oprah article is probably a bad measure of this, however, because the audience is largely women, and the options are limited if you want to speak to men. It's either a rah-rah "it's not your fault," an open letter to an audience that isn't there, or a sort of Cosmo "change your man without him knowing" unrealistic article. I agree fully with your premise, but that isn't the place to look for the answer. As someone who is/was trained in communication styles (and they were only minimally gendered), and as someone who studies gender philosophies and discusses them with students in class, I can say that the conversation has moved monumentally in the past few years. The women in my classes are as confident in their default status as the men. The larger culture has not caught up yet, but it is moving in that direction. Look for it in the general audience (especially young adult) publications. It's happening.

    I also agree with your "almost biology" take on behaviors. I attribute it to bodily experience. Most of my friends and family with kids experience parenting differently, but most of it seems to be experiential. There is something different about carrying and nursing a child that shapes much. It may or may not have an innate or instinctual component, but it seems MUCH overshadowed by the physical experience of the process.

    And fyi, my nephew LOVES my painted toenails and wants the same. My partner is thrilled because she does a good job painting them. You might imagine that the parents are horrified at the gender crossing...

  10. It's the comparative thing that's a problem, for me. Things can't just be different. We have to ascribe notions like better and worse. More and less. We think in this way, in twos, in opposites. Then we read the world and everything in it along such lines It's nonsense.

  11. I'm so glad now that I wrote this post, or more accurately that I left it intact after reading it and fretting a little bit about it being a little reductive and falsely simplistic. But I'm really happy with the conversation here:)

    @Mara, my experience was similar with yours in an academic setting, but it's just taking too long for my taste for that progress to kinda of trickle into mainstream thought. I was definitely not looking to Oprah for model feminist thought (although often I *am* a cheerleader for her) but I saw the headline on CNN and was intrigued to read on. Your nephew's toes made me laugh out loud; when the grandies painted the Birdy's toenails pink I had a fucking breakdown:)

    @Dana Yes! Binary oppositional, linear thinking is the bane of my existence. I blame Jesus's peeps, I mean... err, the dominant Western patriarchal, monotheist paradigm.

  12. i have been wondering about those gender issues for a long time now.
    i do love my femaleness - my physical femaleness, wide hips, big breasts, you know. but i don't really believe in those stereotypes. my man and i are the perfect example to unprove most of them. i am rational, he is impulsive. he loves to shop for clothes, i hate it. he's the talker, i'm the quiet one. he spends 30 minutes in the bathroom, i'm out of there in 10.
    if i look back on my ex-guys (i can count on my 2 hands) i realise most of them were pretty "female", if you judge by the femaleness stereotypes. but i don't think maleness/femaleness is genetic. it's mostly education.