Monday, May 23, 2011

Unexamined Gender Views

There has been a lot of discussion on the following post about perceived differences between men and women's attitudes towards being single. One thing I have noticed is how often these kinds of conversations deteriorate into "men are like this, and women are like that," even in these supposedly more feminist influenced days. Consider this exchange between myself and a woman named Margo.

I wrote:

I don’t believe in such fixed dichotomies, nor does my behavior reflect that. This morning, I lead a meeting as the president of a non-profit board. This afternoon, I listened and gently supported a friend. You could split those two activities into masculine and feminism spheres, or you could recognize that in we have the opportunity – in a more liberated world- to let people be whole, instead of trying to act from a gendered role all the time.
Some women might dismiss me. That’s fine. I’m not interested in catering to the traditional roles – even though I can certainly act like a “traditional man” when it’s called for. But I still sit around and wonder about all these expectations many seem to have about both men and women acting in certain ways. Women (and some men) have been right pushing to break down patriarchy for decades. And yet, when it comes to intimate relationships, most of us seem to struggle to let go of the old ways of being, which were primarily determined by a system of male domination. Instead of working towards more equal and fluid relationships, so many want men and women to mostly act out the old patterns.

And she responded:

I agree with what you are saying concerning the concept of equal participation in dating/relationships, but only to a certain degree. I think you have taken the concept too far.

Men and women behave differently in many ways due to innate characteristics that are reinforced by societal influences. This isn’t going to change. Like I said in an earlier post, men are born with the urge to protect, provide and take the lead in a love relationships. If a man doesn’t do these things, he’s not really a man.

If he fails to do any of these things, it’s akin to the woman dating a gay man that has chosen to play the female role. So then, everything can’t be equal or there is something wrong. One of the things that will happen is that the woman, assuming she’s mentally healthy, will quickly lose respect for the man.

I found her "he's not really a man" comment a bit offensive to be honest, but here is what I wrote back.

I really don’t think anyone can say for certain how much of gender differences falls on the side of biological differences, and how much is from social conditioning. And when you throw in all those people who really don’t fit the gender binary, then it gets even muddier.
You say someone “isn’t a man” if they don’t lead, protect, etc. That’s your view. But lots of men don’t fit the mold you desire, and until someone is able to prove that it’s biologically determined that men must do X and women must do Y, all your comment can be is a preference. It’s fine to have a preference; we all do. But it’s not a fact about men.

Although I think Margo's views are more extreme than those of most of the women I have dated, there does seem to me to be an internal struggle occurring within many women between wanting men to conform to the old, stereotypical male roles and behavior models, and wanting men to be more flexible, sensitive, and desiring of equal partnerships. And there's also, from what I have seen, a corresponding internal struggle within some men around a similar dichotomy of stories about women. In fact, I have even seen these struggles occurring in relationships amongst my GLBTQ friends, which goes to show you how much the old heterosexual norms have impacted everyone living in this society.

What do you think about all of this? I'll have a lot more to say about some of these issues in future blog posts, but would enjoy hearing others thoughts.

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