Posts Tagged ‘gender roles’

Undervaluing the feminine

The view that computers are technology but sewing isn’t is a sexist stitch-up, via The Guardian.

I think the article suffers a bit from using a more academic definition of ‘technology’ than is generally used–while I don’t think many would argue that a sewing machine is technology, sewing itself probably wouldn’t fall under most people’s definitions. Beyond that, though, it does make a good point that those skills assigned to ‘female’ activities are generally not as valued as those assigned to ‘male’ ones, even when they’re similar skills. I especially like the anecdote comparing welding to icing a cake. The author found them to be very similar skill sets…yet how many people would consider them to be of comparable difficulty?

It’s kind of weird, because feminine skills are often seen as being ‘easy’, and thus aren’t valued, but even our humour tends to tacitly acknowledge that they are indeed skills, something learned. How many commercials, cartoons, etc. have used the trope of the man who is helpless in the kitchen, or cleaning the house, or any other feminine chore? Just as women have long been dissuaded from learning ‘male’ skillsets, so have men been dissuaded from leaning ‘female’ ones–a man trying to sew a shirt for the first time would probably be just as lost as a woman trying to change the oil in her car for the first time. Yet when women lack ‘male’ skills, it is seen as a sign of inferiority. When men lack ‘female’ ones, it isn’t. Sometimes, it’s even a badge of pride to be so inept at such ‘easy’ chores. If they’re so easy, why is it funny when men struggle with them, rather than sad?

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The Stay-at-Home-Parent trap

It’s a perennial argument between feminists and anti-feminists–whether women should stay at home or not once they have children. It’s not one I really want to get into (I’m fine with woman staying at home if that’s what they want to do–it scares the heck outta me though), but I think there’s one thing people tend to miss when getting into this argument–identity. Or rather, lack thereof.

The cultural meme is “think of the children”. Children are always supposed to come first, at least to their parents (meet a screaming child in public and see how many bystanders are more concerned with how it affects them than why the child is crying). Combine this with a culture that teaches women to be self-sacrificing in general, and myriad factors that lead to women being SAHPs more than men, and you have a recipe for many women losing themselves as the center of their identities. And that’s ignoring the specific pressures put on women in more conservative segments of our culture.

The primary problem I see stay-at-home-mothers (and possibly fathers) facing is taking care of others becoming the sole focus of their lives. It’s not healthy, especially as the children get older and leave home. I know one woman who wasn’t allowed to work when her children were growing up. She got divorced around the same time that they were all moving out, and she just seemed so lost. She’d spent most of her life taking care of others, and when she lost all that, there wasn’t anything left. A few years later and she is still always looking for ways to help others. Which isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, but it’s the source of her identity. Her life isn’t centered around herself.

No matter what else we are, we all need an identity that is about who we are, not about how we relate to other people. Parents, and particularly mothers, are encouraged to ignore themselves in favour of their children and families. And that’s damaging, to the individual and to the family as a whole.

Role models

A recent conversation with my husband got me thinking…girls have a really lousy choice of role models that are provided by the mainstream media. The vast majority fall into one of three categories:

  • Bookworm: The shy, sensitive wallflower.  She usually only shows up if there’s another female character around.
  • Cheerleader: Popular and obsessed with boys, clothes, makeup.  Probably also wears mainly pink. Often, though not always, female protagonists will have this one as a rival, even when they fit into it themselves.
  • Rebel: The most common one, and pretty much the defacto girl you’ll see if there’s only one female character among the main cast. She’s usually loud, tends to butt heads with others, does not let herself be pushed around, and frequently plays the role of group feminist. She is also prone to having a chip on her shoulder about having to prove herself as being as good as any man (the implications of which I will not address here)

These three females are what young girls have to look up to. My aspirations tended to fall somewhere between bookworm and rebel; the former because I naturally tend towards that personality type, the latter because, honestly, I thought it was what was expected of me. Neither is a particularly good role to take if you want a social life (and most people do).  The bookworm is passive, quiet, and basically easy to overlook.  The rebel is too combative–it puts people off. The cheerleader is by definition good at being social, but has a lot of other baggage to deal with (Daria’s sister, Quinn, is a particularly good example of this).

All this is on top of being in a world that is dominated by depictions of men doing, well, everything. Worse, this is far from confined to just women–other oppressed groups have to deal with the same lack of role models.  Women probably have it fairly good by comparison.

So what–Essentialism

Last week I talked about how social justice movements all boils down to one thing–treating individuals as people first. One common argument against doing so is the essentialist one–“Women are better at socialising,” that sort of thing.  Now, there’s plenty of reasons why this argument fails and I’m not going to get into them today, but instead I’m going to assume that there are significant differences between groups of people.

So what?

Why does that negate treating (insert oppressed group here) as people? If those differences really are there, then trying to be more equal will still result in unequal results. So what is there to lose?

It’s for this reason that I’ve concluded that essentialists are afraid. They’re afraid of finding out that they’re wrong, and they’re not really on the top of the heap. See, deep down they know they have it good, regardless of if they consciously acknowledge it. They have things easier, and it allows them to pretend that they’re better than other people. Equality erases that advantage, and those with privilege who aren’t so great will find themselves displaced by people who were formerly oppressed who are more capable.

We like to think we live in a meritocracy, but we don’t. There are too many unspoken assumptions, too many unconscious biases, too many systemic issues that prevent that. Sometimes someone manages to climb up from the bottom of the heap–more often, those at the bottom are too busy trying not to slide down further to work on climbing up. And often it’s because of things they can’t control. Think of the social ladder as a curve.  At the beginning the curve is steep, making it harder to climb but easy to slide down. The closer to the top you get the flatter the curve becomes, making it far easier for a person to maintain their place. There’s many reasons why those born at the top tend to stay there, and vice versa, and actual ability is a minor part of it.