Lifting the Gender Box

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What's good for the goose...

This week at work, I was chastised by two female co-workers because I let another female co-worker pick up a box and carry it to her office on the next floor. "Aren't you going to help her with that box?" they asked. "No," I responded. "I'm not". They sighed.

"Look," I said, "she can handle that box all by herself. She isn't weak and the box isn't too heavy. If she needed help, she would have asked me." This young woman is very independent and healthy. Even when she was nine months pregnant she told me that she didn't want me to carry things for her, and I didn't have a problem with that. Nonetheless, here I was, being scolded by two other women because I didn't pick up that box for her.

I tried to explain to my critics that I didn't understand why I should carry a box for someone else just because she's a woman. "Oh," they said, "It's not because she's a woman. It's just that you should do it as a sign of respect." Respect? Is it a sign of respect to suggest that they are too weak to carry a small cardboard box by themselves? If offering to carry a box for someone is a way to show respect, then why don't old-fashioned women like the ones in my office offer to carry boxes for men?

Of course, the truth is that the expectation that men will carry things for women is not based upon respect. Such expectations are nothing more than leftover aspects of the traditional gender roles that men and women are supposed to follow. Women are supposed to pretend to be helpless little things that need men to do physical work for them, giving men the opportunity to show how big and strong they are.

The truth is that I'm not big and strong. I'm not small either, but I am just about average, and I'm okay with that. What I'm not okay with is some woman coming up to me and trying to flatter me by telling me how big and strong I am so that I'll carry things she's perfectly capable of moving around for herself.

Through the Looking Glass

In order to understand the absurdity of on-the-job-man-lifting, let's examine its mirror image: the expectations for women in the home. Traditionally, men are supposed to act as if they don't know how to pick up after themselves, giving women the chance to pretend to be domestic goddesses, taking care of us men as if we're little children. Well, I can pick up after myself. I can take care of myself, and my version of respect doesn't have anything to do with having a woman clean my house while I sit around doing nothing. The expectations I encountered at work are merely the converse of the old demands for women to be our merry maids.

Not surprisingly, my female co-workers were shocked at my reactions to their demands. "Wouldn't you open a door for a woman?" they asked. "No," I answered, "or at least I wouldn't open a door for a woman just because she's a woman. If she really needed the help, that would be another matter." "But, it's the polite thing to do!" they protested. Why? Why does a woman need to have a door opened for her? Is her wrist so weak that she can't do it for herself? What's really doing on here?

What's really being defended through this sort of insisitence upon ritual interactions between men and woman is the traditional set of roles that each sex is supposed to follow like a script. This system of roles is set up to perpetuate the myth that women are weak, needing protection, and that men are strong and should protect the weaker sex. Traditionally, women are supposed to stay at home where it's safe, while men go out and interact with the world, fighting with each other, risking their lives to protect their women, whom they own. In return for such protection, women are supposed to submit graciously to men.

Unfortunately, Not So Out-of-Date

I know what you're thinking: no one believes this kind of stuff anymore, right? This is all old news from the sixties, right?

Wrong. There are still plenty of people out there who would like men and women to go back to their traditional roles. Most prominent among these people are the Southern Baptists, represented by the increasingly conservative Southern Baptist Convention.

Here's what the Southern Baptist Convention has to say about the relationship between man and woman:

The marriage relationship models the way God relates to his people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has te God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ."

The Southern Baptists claim to believe that men and women are equal because they are both made in God's image. Even in theory, this claim doesn't hold up because these same Southern Baptists believe that God is a male, a HE (If God is really fully male, what is he supposed to mate with?). Therefore, men are made more in God's image than are women. If you follow the logic of the Southern Baptist Convention's language, men are closer to God than are women, superior because they resemble him more. In the words of the statement above, women are like the church, but men are even higher -- they're like Christ himself.

The Southern Baptists want wives to treat their husbands like their husbands treat Jesus. How far do they want wives to go? Should a wife pray to her husband? Worship him? Sing hymns about him? The marriage relationship that the Southern Baptists propose is not a relationship of equality because it demands dramatic submission. Submission destroys equality, and it should never be performed graciously.

Equivalent but Different?

When one tries to force people into roles based solely on their gender, one always creates a system of inequality and inequity. Some people, including some feminists, like to claim that men and women should not have equal roles but should maintain roles that are equitable, in which inherent differences between men and women are recognized and supported but the differences are managed so that both have the same amount of power and respect in society.

While such a system would be preferable to one of absolute inequity, it is inherently impossible. One of the freedoms denied by such a system of segregated gender roles is the freedom of self-determination. When we demand that women be feminine and men be masculine, we deny them the right to select identities on their own. Remember that masculinity and femininity are social constructs, not biologically determined. Men do not have an instinct to open doors any more than women have a natural urge to wear lace. There is no gene that makes women want to wear their hair long, nor is there a genetic basis for men to prefer beer over wine and pizza over quiche.

If a woman wants to cut her hair short and stop wearing makeup, she shouldn't be chastised for rejecting innately feminine qualities. We ought to support her right to be who she wants to be. If a man decides that he doesn't like sports and really isn't interested in cars, that's his right too. Let's not dwell on the superficial. Our choices go beyond simple tastes into the realm of fundamental choices about the kinds of lives we want to lead. Does a woman want to devote her life to a career and stay single? Does a man want to stay home and raise his child? Why not?

return to irregulartimes.comFollowing traditional gender roles is fine for some people. They have the right to act in whatever way they choose. On the other hand, a young woman in an office has the right to carry a box by herself without being hounded by helpers, and I have the right not to help when help is not required. I have the right to cast off parts of the traditional rules of masculinity if I want to, but it isn't easy. We've all been trained to expect things from each other based on our gender identities, and it's hard to step outside of that. Nevertheless, there are many who desire the freedom to explore their own paths without the interference of those people who are frightened by ambiguity.

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