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14.4.04

Gender Roles

Act Like A Man

... In the beginning, I was delighted by my children's gender-defying personalities. My feminist credentials are impeccable, beginning with ERA marches and a stint at Ms. magazine and continuing through my children's hyphenated last names. So it was understandable that the special wish I made was for an active, tomboy daughter and a sweet, sensitive son. A fairy godmother must have been listening.

... Liza pays about as much attention to gender expectations as she does to my entreaties to keep her braids out of her dinner plate. When she wrestles with the boys, no one perceives her behavior as a "problem." So why should Matt have to toughen up? What's wrong with being scared of violent battles? Our expectations of how boys should behave are as deeply rooted in our psyches as our expectations of wolves. Wolves, and boys, are not supposed to step out of character.

A friend asked if I'm scared my son will be gay. Right now, the question seems irrelevant. And right now, like any mother, I love my son in all his specialness. Like any mother, I just want him to feel accepted. I don't want him to change; I want the world to change.


I agree entirely with the comment by ampersand, who was like Matt growing up:
Boys don't need gender socialization - they need to be rescued from gender socialization.

I wonder how many of the boys on Matt's soccer team would have been happier at cooking camp with him, but who lacked either the personal strength or the parental support to be different, and thus slipped into conformity with gender expectations and into enforcement of those expectations against Matt.

What interested me, though, is the author's secret wish to burnish her feminist credentials by having a tomboy daughter and a sensitive son*. I can understand the desire. Gender roles need loosening, and that's more likely to happen if the Matts of the world are paired with the feminist parents like this author. It's an unfair burden to place on the shoulders of a kid just for being different, but it would perhaps be even more unfair to assign the duty of challenging gender stereotypes to a boy who really just wants to play soccer (though such a boy would have at the least the duty to not enforce any role, whatever it may be, on others).

More significant, perhaps, is the concern for confirming the anti-feminist view of immutable gender. If Matt had been more like Liza, it would be a constant reminder to his mother that some boys really will just be boys. (Or it could be a suggestion that she failed to keep society from enforcing its gender roles on Matt.)

But the way the author expresses it makes it sound like a desire to set up a counter-hegemony, in which being sensitive is properly masculine, but being traditionally "boyish" is bad. Wouldn't it be better to take a "thy will be done" approach, letting Matt's personality be dictated not by social gender roles or resistance thereto, but by his inherent personality, will, and experience?

The latter sounds nice, but Foucault** suggests reason for pessimism about the possibility. He argues that once society creates categories, it's very difficult to get them to go away. Their presence in society practically forces us to think with reference to them. We get trapped in second-guessing about whether deep down we might be conforming or being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian***. And the bigger the role "nurture" plays in personality development, the harder it is to get outside the categories, because the nurture you experience is coming from a world impregnated with those categories. In such a situation, can there really be an "authentic self" independent of social construction? Perhaps some degree of "nature" is necessary to introduce an unavoidable bit of variation as an anomaly to call into question, even falsify, the prevailing gender paradigm. Alternately, maybe we need some other categorization of personality, built on a more justified basis, that we can use to distract ourselves the gender categories so that they can fade into the background and lose some of their power.

*Interestingly, Matt is not just of a non-dominant form of masculinity (like being a "gamer geek"), but is positively feminine.
**I'm citing a social theorist other than Habermas! Whoa!
***For example, I wrote that passage in a sort of universalizing language that many feminists would argue is typically (and problematically) male. So I considered contextualizing it into my personal second-guessing about my own masculinity. But would I be doing that just to prove that I'm not falling into hegemonic male discourse patterns? If all knowledge is as radically situated and contextual as some feminists make it out to be, I don't even have the "out" of saying that one way of framing my point is objectively better than the other independent of its gender connotations.

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