The Gender Role We Leave Unexamined

Y’all may have missed the two humongous feminist “controversies” this past week–Twisty calling the blow job a tool of patriarchal oppression and Linda Hirshman taking elite women to task for not doing enough to advance feminist goals–and so you probably also missed the very interesting comments about those controversies.

When I was walking Mrs. Wigglebottom this morning, what struck me is that many of the comments surrounding both issues can be boiled down to this: “If you don’t validate my life choices, I won’t be a feminist.  So, you’re ruining feminism.”

I’ve long thought this was bullshit on the level of “Oh, sure, you’re willing to take all the hard-won benefits of feminism–your job, your education, your name on your own credit card, your ability to go about unescorted, etc.–but you don’t have the courage to honor the folks who won you those benefits.  Nice.”

But what I realized this morning is that it’s bullshit on another level, too, because, inherent in these criticisms of particular feminists is the idea that these women aren’t being careful with the feelings of others.  Just let this sink in for a second.  I’ll say it again, the objections to these women’s arguments often center around the fact that these women aren’t being careful with the feelings of others.

Here we are, a bunch of… let’s say women with progressive ideas about gender roles (since we can’t say “feminist” because some of them appear to threatening to turn their backs on feminism in order to punish the individuals they don’t like) who all think that a valid criticism of a woman is whether or not she’s being careful enough with the feelings of others.

Holy shit.

Y’all, this is how deeply some of these ideas are ingrained.  In our example, even women who should know better are unreflexively complaining that other women aren’t taking care of them.  Women who should know that it’s nobody else’s responsibility but her own to take care of herself are hurt that these particular feminists aren’t being careful enough with them.

On the other hand, that’s not to say that there hasn’t been some good critique of these controversies.  Check R. Mildred’s take on the blowjob controversy, for instance.  But I think the important distinction here is that, rather than being all “Oh, you hurt my feelings, because you aren’t taking care of me,” R. Mildred is pissed off (hurray for anger) and she and the commenters in this thread have smart, substantive critiques.

So, ha, suddenly I feel like I’m undermining my own point or not being clear.  But what I mean is that there’s a way in which too many of us are avoiding the intelligent pissed-off rant in order to continue the pouty, flouncy “but you hurt my feelings” bullshit that is very bound up in traditional gendered expectations of women–both in terms of how women are always supposed to consider the feelings of others and how our reaction to conflict is supposed to be either to resolve it or to flounce off in a cute little huff, leaving the real work for the grown ups.

17 thoughts on “The Gender Role We Leave Unexamined

  1. True. I also think you’re seeing the split between second-wave and third-wave feminists. Sexual politics in the context of a broader social politics vs sex as a personal politics unto itself.There’s a lot of confusion about what feminism is — and American women in general want to believe that if they think it, it must be feminism. They’ve got it confused with a gospel of personal empowerment. Anyone who doesn’t agree with them then can be dismissed as a feminism cop. I only wish I were so powerful as to be able to create and enforce binding definitions of feminist acts just by posting comments on a blog. I simply would point out that what helps any one woman get off or get through might not tend towards the broader advancement of women as a class. And if the latter is not your concern, you’re not grasping the fundamental concept of feminism. I don’t see what’s so difficult, however, in admitting that feminists don’t always behave in every moment in feminist ways. It’s an ideal and a practice, like Christianity; one can aspire, fall short, come close, fail utterly, and try again — all on the same day.

  2. I think you’re right. I hadn’t considered the generation gap, but certainly that plays into it. And I keep thinking that this again returns us to the idea of feminism as a moral position, as if we should all be feminists because feminism makes you a "better" person or because we’re already "better" than men or whatever. Because, again, the shock in both of these things seems to be this idea that a feminist might hurt someone’s feelings.

  3. Very good post! I’ve been reading all I can about the Hirshman issue, even though as an never married, childless woman – the work vs. childrearing issue has little personal relevance for me.You are the first blogger I have come across to mention the whole "hurt feelings" issue – an excellent point. This is similar to one of my major pet peeves about my gender (disclosure: I was raised, in some ways, to develop emotionally in a very male-like manner – I can elaborate if you want). And that pet peeve is: why the hell do so many women care so much about what others think anyway? I find this to be true regardless if a woman is conservative, liberal, radical, you name it. I would love to see more woman adopt more of an "I don’t give a rat’s ass what you think" mentality.

  4. While staying out of your intra-feminist debate, I do want to ask a question that interests me.B: "…because, inherent in these criticisms of particular feminists is the idea that these women aren’t being careful with the feelings of others."ALF: "And that pet peeve is: why the hell do so many women care so much about what others think anyway?"Is this part of something that women do because of nature, or because of nurture. I believe that you are implying that female emotionality (and thus caring about hurt feelings) is a nurture issue encouraged by the patriarchy. But is it a nature issue? Is this one of those biological issues that divides men and women by more than just our sex organs and hormones?And does a crossing of the wires, so to speak, account for effeminate gays and butchy lesbians?

  5. Lee:I think those are excellent questions, as I do often find that biological/evolutionary explanations for behavior are often very apt. For example, I wonder if the fact more women have insomnia and sleep issues is that for various reasons, we sleep lighter and wake easier…so we can wake up if our infant needs feeding in the middle of the night.I guess the point I would raise in response is that in this modern age, we have so many, many MANY "inputs". That is, we are exposed to so many more opinions regarding our lives than the "old pre-industrial days". Therefore, it would be prudent to do some sorting – knowing which opinion are important, and which to ignore.

  6. Lee, let it never be said that you only ask small questions! Cripes. I’m not even sure where to start.1. Sometimes, I think we mistakenly believe that, if something is "natural," that makes it right, so if we could somehow devise experiments that determined if women were just naturally more nurturing than men, it’d be fine for women to continue to be more nurturing than men, even if men could learn to be just as nurturing. Do you get what I’m saying?I mean, if we look at how women have lived throughout recorded history, it would have been perfectly natural for me to be married by 16 and getting pregnant every couple of years. I could have been pregnant eight times by now and, considering the abysmal rates of child death even in this country even a 150 years ago, I’d be lucky if I had four living children.That’s "natural." That ain’t right and I’m glad that I have a greater measure of control over my own body and can work with my partners to plan pregnancies and with my doctors to insure that the resulting children live longer than two years.All of this is just a tangent to point out that the idea that "natural" equals "a fine way for things to be" is just not true.2. I think the strides men have made over the last 100 years would have prevented you from even wondering if women are more nurturing than men. Look at how many men, when given the opportunity, jump at the chance to nurture their children. Read Knuck or Ryan or Josh Tinley or Dean Dad. Now, I think there have always been nurturing dads, but I think it’s a lot more common now. As much as parenting is hard, it’s also fun and rewarding and I think you’re seeing a lot of men coming to terms with that. I secretly suspect that it’s an unforeseen positive side-effect of our culture of divorce. If you have the kids all weekend and one of them falls down and skins her knee, it’s on you to pick her up and brush her off and give her some tender words of sympathy and encourage her to get back out there.If you have the kids most of the time, it’s on you to make the meals and get them in bed and all that stuff that used to be "what women did."Well, a hell of a lot of men discovered that they could do it to, and that, even when it was hard, it was worth it. And I think that knowledge has had a positive impact on dads in intact marriages as well.I think it’s kind of exciting to see y’all learning this about yourselves–that you too are nurturing.3. I think it’s clear that women are conditioned to take care of others. People are inherently selfish and want to do what makes them feel good. I’ll grant you that what makes women and men feel good might be different. Women might be hardwired to find picking up a baby makes them feel good and men might be hardwired to find that bashing Tonka Trucks into their sisters makes them feel good. I doubt it, but I don’t know.But the thing is that what we’re talking about is not a "taking care of others" that is rooted in selfishness or pleasure. It’s rooted in selflessness and, a great deal of the time, misery, because it always puts the needs of others ahead of the needs of one’s self often to the detriment of one’s self. You have to learn to find that rewarding. It doesn’t come automatically. Women are no so different than men that we aren’t driven by the same basic urges.I think that this is in part what ALP is asking–why are women so concerned with what other people think? Because we’re trained to view other people’s wants and needs as more important than our own. A lot of us are so out of touch with our own wants and needs that we can’t even clearly articulate them.That’s why it relieves me to see women like R. Mildred getting so pissed off. To just say "You hurt my feelings" as if that’s the job of the other woman to fix it is bullshit. But to say, "God damn it, you piss me off and here are the 99 ways you did it and the 99 ways you’re wrong" seems almost revolutionary.R. Mildred isn’t asking Twisty to fix things in order to make R. Mildred feel better. R. Mildred doesn’t, I don’t think, expect anything other than to be heard.Whew, how’s that for a long answer? Anyway, ALP, say what you want when you want for as long as you want. That’s how it works around here. Glad to have you.

  7. I was going to say what Lee said, but in a much more inflammatory fashion. I’m a rabblerouser.<i>All of this is just a tangent to point out that the idea that "natural" equals "a fine way for things to be" is just not true.</i>You might be right, but I think it’s for the wrong reasons. I suspect when Lee said ‘natural’ he meant what you mean by ‘hard wired’. Some inherent thing that triggers when you’re XX instead of XY. Getting married at 16 is certainly not natural in that sense.Perhaps women aren’t trained to worry more about the opinions of other people. Perhaps it’s part of some genetic feedback loop that requires input from other people. "Oh X thinks I’m doing this wrong. I should do it this way instead." I mean criticism from others is a sometimes valid path to self improvement. It just can also result in much angst by giving too many people power over your life.

  8. I love dishing out food for thought, so here are some…entrees, or side dishes, or…1. In Asian cultures (my SO is 1/2 Japanese, so we discuss Asian cultural issues a lot), EVERYBODY worries about what others think – both men and women. So much so that when one has disgraced others, suicide is considered as a remedy. So I guess that blows the whole gender thing out of the water, eh?2. RE: bearing many children and how "natural" it is…Have any of you read anything relating to the "no period" movement? There are theories out there proposing that because western women have so few children, or none, they end up ovlulating incessantly…every month, year after year..and that this is partly to blame for the rise in cancers in female organs? Very interesting stuff.

  9. Rabblerouser. Whatever. I’m beginning to suspect you just think I’m cute when I’m righteously indignant. That and the thought of me smelling faintly of beer, it’s probably all you can do to keep from driving over here and giving me a good squeeze.Your point, however, is ridiculous on all kinds of levels. We might as well hypothosize about the mating habits of the Loch Ness monster as to sit here and guess about whether this one time we think we’ve uncovered some universal rule about how women are and thus might speculate on whether it’s genetic. Plus, you take for granted that our chromosomal arrangements are clear determinants of our gender identity. And yet, there are XY females and XX males. Not to mention that 1 on 1000 "boys" is XYY, and one in 500 to 1000 is XXY. XXYY is less common (1 in 17,000) but that’s still pretty common and then there are a lot less common variations.In "girls" 1 in 2500 has just an X and 1 in 1000 has XXX.True, those variations aren’t as common as XX "girls" and XY "boys", but they do nicely illustrate the foolishness of linking cultural constructs, such as behavior, to genetic arrangements, especially when those genetic arrangements aren’t as easily stable as one might like.

  10. W is correct in that when I said natural I meant hard-wired. For that is a good point you make B about men exercising their nurturing muscle more than centuries past. But even if men can raise their nurturing levels from say a 4 to an 8, does that negate the fact that many women seem to achieve a natual 10 on that same scale. Is that ease based solely on society?Second, forgive me for this, but let me use a cow anology. When a cow gives birth, it is naturally tender and protective of its calf. The bull cares only for the next cow in heat. Is there not some similar residue of this natural, hard-wired instinct in the human species, manifested in women as a more natural inclination towards being nurturing, compassionate, and therefore caring more of hurting feelings? And in men the more aggressive pursuit of sex and tendency to aggression in general?While letting these natural impulses run unfettered is of course not a good thing, I do not believe that completely suppressing them, or denying their existence, is a good idea either.

  11. If there’s just one thing I would love for you guys to really consider, it’s this: we understand our world through stories. We constantly tell stories to explain things. Look, Lee, even you just told me a little story about cows and asked if we can extrapolate from that a story about people.And my answer to you is yes, of course you can and that story will seem completely plausible and maybe even like the truth.But, because we’re story tellers, we have to constantly check and make sure that the story we’re telling is not continuing to get told because we have such an investment in it, rather than it getting told because it seems to get at the truth.So, let’s take your story about the cow.Here are the questions we must know the answers to:–Are human women not sexually aggressive?–If they are not, how do we know if it’s because they are naturally not or because they feel that being sexually aggressive, though they would like to be, is bad?–Are men really sexually aggressive? –Moreso than women?–Do women always nurture their babies?–Are women more noticeably nurturing of their children than men are when both are equally given the opportunity to nurture?–Is a cow really raising a calf alone?–Or is the organization of the herd such that the nurturing is spread out across cows?The Professor has lent me this book about female orgasms and I’m not any farther than the introduction, because I’m caught up in my history of pagan Europe, but in the introduction, the author talks about how, for thousands of years, if a woman didn’t have an orgasm during penetrative sex, it was either considered not a problem or a sexual defect on her part.The medical and philosophical establishment was so wedded to the idea that "appropriate sexual activity" was a penis in a vagina that it never occured to them that women might have a broad range of pleasurable responses to all kinds of different sex acts.In fact the vibrator was invented because the most common way to "treat" the sexual "disfunction" of these women was for the doctor to manually stimulate the patient’s clitoris until she orgasmed. This was considered to be tedious and unending work for the doctor, because the proceedure had to be repeated over and over in order as a treatment for "hysteria" and it never cured the woman; it was merely theraputic.My point, aside from the kick I get out of talking about manual stimulation with you and W., is that the drawback to being so clearly a storytelling animal is that we often forget that the stories we tell ourselves can be very wrong, that the stories we find comforting or enlightening or alarming or whatever are based in large part about what our expectations about the truth are.You and W. are so committed to the idea that how things are is just fine, in fact, probably natural, that you can find tons of anecdotal stories that would suggest that how things are is natural.And I respect that, even if I disagree with it.But I’ve got to tell you, what creeps me out about it is that I can sit her and tell you that how things are don’t feel very natural to me and that they’re making my life difficult and me unhappy, and I can tell you that over and over again. And I can tell other stories, that are equally as plausible as the ones you tell that suggest different possibilities for us, ones that would give me some more room to find my way in the world…I’ve got to tell you, nothing shakes my faith in what I’m doing here worse than that–that you can hear me and come to trust my voice as one with valid, if sometimes wrong, ideas and yet your first impulse is to trust that cows tell you more about how women are than the women who are talking to you do.

  12. First of all, I referenced both cows AND bulls. I reference what I know. It just happens to be bovines. It was not meant to be insulting. Jane Goodall and other primatologists study primates and often try to compare their behavior to ours. I tried the same thing with cattle. Maybe a good idea, maybe not. Doesn’t mean I don’t listen and consider what you say with all seriousness.

  13. But, as Donna Haraway and other feminist theorists/historians of science have concluded, primatology has been riddled with observer bias. Researchers have to interpret what they observe and the stories they tell have to make sense to the rest of the scientific community (which was, and mainly still is, dominated by men). So, much of what we think we "know" about the social world of primates is probably wrong and tells us more about our own gender wars than anything substantive about apes and their culture. Haraway’s book Primate Visions is a hard place to start (lots of jargon bogging down her writing), but it does demonstrate how subjective hard science studies are when the subject on the table is gender normativity in relation to the "natural world." After a trip through the Natural History museum in Haraway’s company, you’ll never look at the "mom, dad, kids" grouping of dead animals the same way. And, more to B’s point, we can ‘splain our point of view just fine without adventurous cross-species speculations about what we really should want or be.

  14. Good, now that that’s settled, we can get the Tiny Cat Pants orgy started! Lee, you come sit by me ;).

  15. Hey, I never said natural equals just fine. I never validated that behavior. I merely questioned your reasoning for the motives behind the ‘care what other people think’ drive. You always blame culture, and I always try and make you prove it. That’s how it works here.Asking you to defend your opinions doesn’t mean I disagree with them. I’m just trying to get a better feel for why you think it’s that way.

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