Saturday, September 17, 2011

Gendered Relationship Narratives

Over at one of my favorite blogs, Kloncke, Katie offers a look into her relationship with her boyfriend, and then examines it through wider lens of cultural critique. The whole post is really worth checking out, but I want to take up the following piece:

Ryan tells this funny joke sometimes about one method, half-conscious at most, by which person X tries to evade domestic work and pile it on a partner. “But you’re so good at [cooking, doing laundry, calming a fretful child]. If I do it, I’ll just fuck it up.” A passive-aggressive compliment-trap, which leaves the other person feeling obligated to do the thing they’re so much better at doing.

Obviously, this is one of the big problems with the naturalization of gender roles in heteronormative family requirements. Men are raised to believe that they don’t have to learn how to cook/clean/mend/mind children because women are so naturally good at it. Jay appears to have no clue that his wife was brought up to learn how to be a “good woman,” which means acquiring certain social and reproductive skills, including staying attuned to the needs of her socially-sanctioned husband and children. She might enjoy learning those skills; she might not. The point is, the skills aren’t endemic to her based on her gender. For a whole host of reasons that I won’t get into here, she’s not really free to self-determine her own gender identity and presentation, fertility, or (as a working-class person) the circumstances of her productive and reproductive labor.

First off, the "Jay" she mentions is a character from James Agee’s Southern novel A Death In the Family, which Katie offers readers a passage from just above the section I quoted.

About an hour ago, I called my grandmother. She's 88 years old, today being her birthday. We had a very short conversation, about 4 minutes, but two things struck me about it. The first was that I mentioned cooking myself dinner, and she started offering me suggestions on how I might improve on it. Which didn't bother me, but did get me thinking about the whole cooking thing and gender roles. The second thing that struck me was that after she asked me how I was doing, she said "Are you working yet?" I've been mostly unemployed the past year, picking up a bit of freelance writing here and there, while I'm going through a yoga teacher training program and expand my online "presence." Anyway, I told grandma that I hadn't found a job yet, but was doing a lot of other things. She proceeded to talk more about jobs, as if anything else I was doing was secondary. And I thought to myself "Would she do the same if she were talking with my sister?"

Now, a few things to add to this that complicate things. My grandmother and I haven't always had the easiest relationship over the years. Whereas my sister seems to get along with grandma well enough to talk with her more in depth about her life, and what she thinks about the world. So, to some extent, today's phone call to grandma was like most I have with her - short, and thin on specifics. Besides my relationship with grandma, there's also the fact that Americans in general rely on "work talk" heavily to begin and/or even sustain conversations. Anyone active in the dating world can probably attest to the fact that work often is one of the first subjects that comes up on a first date.

However, even with both of factors, I still feel there's some interesting gender role stuff to unpack in relation to that phone conversation.

As a man who has done an awful lot of volunteer work and unpaid non-profit development in the community, I have noticed over the years how such efforts aren't taken as seriously by potential employers as "paid work" is. This is most definitely a function of capitalism's definitions of "value" being tied to making money and producing, but I also wonder if there is a gendered element going on. Do women who put more time and energy into volunteering and unpaid community work get more "kudos" from employers, given that such unpaid efforts were often more in the "women's realm" historically? Or perhaps a better question might be "Is volunteering and unpaid community work" just devalued in general due to it's historical place as something more women did with their "extra time"?

The cooking issue, I think, is a little more clear cut. On the whole, as Katie mentioned above, men aren't seen as "naturally" able to cook. And although I do believe things have changed to some degree in that there is less direct expectation that women take up the cooking duties in a household, I also believe that the majority of men still are raised without much in the way of cooking skills. Which tends to lead to situations like Katie's "passive-aggressive narrative," where dudes who can't cook still figure out ways to lean heavy on the women in their lives.

This has definitely not been my experience. I started learning how to cook at around age 10. Having to help care for a little sister while your mother works puts you in a different position than the average kid might be in. I learned to cook, clean, and do my own laundry before I finished elementary school, and didn't really consider the gendered quality attached to those household chores until much later on.

In recent years, I have taken to wondering what people mean when they speak of wanting "traditional" or "old-fashioned" relationships. I see this kind of talk online. I see it in dating profiles. I've dated women who have said such phrases.
And when the issue gets pressed a little bit, I find that definitions are kind of all over the place. However one thing that does seem true is that the majority of women speaking about "traditional" and "old fashioned" are not talking about wanting to return to staying at home, and being solely responsible for things like household chores and raising children. And yet, I bet you that a percentage of men - upon hearing such language from women - think that this is what they're speaking about, at least to a large degree. Perhaps they figure she will work, but will also take care of the children, clean the house, and cook most of the meals. Something that is nearly impossible to sustain. And isn't really desired anyway.


  1. I sometimes wonder how all these men who supposedly aren't good at cooking, cleaning, doing laundry etc cope with the single life. I've been living on my own for the last six years or so, and learning to cook and do laundry has been somewhat important in keeping body and soul together. I'm still struggling with cleaning, but I can do well enough to avoid being completely embarrassed by my hovel when visitors call!

    In fact, for Christmas my Aunt (who knows I like cooking) gave me a book called "Cooking For Blokes" with simple recipes in it - and she was smart enough to write a note apologising for the sexist assumption implied by the title.

    It's also interesting that professional cooking is dominated by male chefs, particularly in the media. When cooking is "proper", paid, work, it's totally cool for men to be the experts but when it is unpaid work in the home, it's Woman's Work.

    Typically, I avoid people who use "traditional" or "old-fashioned" to talk about the relationship they want, because it sounds like they want to push me into a role that isn't me, and those terms with respect to dating and relationships just sound like so much un-negotiated, assumed consent to various things.

  2. You're totally right about the division between professional cooking and unpaid cooking. It's very telling of the way things still are.

    I do wonder how some of these single guys make it. They probably just barely do. Women have commented on how clean and organized my apartment is. And what's funny, is that when I look around, I can agree that it's pretty clean, but still see all the dust under everything.

    What I think is interesting about the "traditional" and "old fashioned" comments is that they haven't, in my experience anyway, meant anywhere near the same from woman to woman. For one, it might mean being kind and respectful to others, and close with one's family. For another, it might really just apply to the initial dating phase (i.e. a desire for a man to control things, woo her, chase her, etc.) While still others have had strong allegiance to those old gender roles.

    Trying to figure out where amongst those someone falls isn't always easy, but if I get the sense that the first view is what is being talked about, I want to give it a chance. Because kindness, respect, and closeness to family are all things I'm about, and sometimes do feel are "old fashioned" compared to how a lot of folks are these days.

  3. I know how to cook many dishes and I can take care of the house, however, I don't like doing these a lot when a woman is around :)

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