There were quite a few really interesting responses to that post on my sins against gender norms, and many rather confused ones. I think it was a mistake to start writing about breaking gender norms without bothering to even say what gender norms are, or why they’re worth breaking. Can one break them without losing one’s gender identity? And what is gender identity anyway? Is that worth preserving or should we question that too? …
I keep forgetting that this is a Feminism 101 space. I’ve been reading up about this stuff for years, and most of you guys haven’t. There are concepts and definitions and beliefs that I take for granted, unsaid, in my own head, which I need to spell out here. That’s fine: you all have your own areas of expertise, and sharing our expertise is what this blogging deal is about. I always knew I wasn’t – and didn’t want to be – writing for an audience of hardcore feminists alone. So later in this post, some clarification might be in order (though an essay on gender identity itself is too much heavy lifting for this blog post perhaps). The befuddlement of some shall cease!
But first -
Shalaka, Tilo, Mockingbird and Saurabh (edit: and now Heather!) had transgressions of their own to share, a few of which I can’t resist highlighting.
It seems none of us girls have qualms about hauling stuff or assembling furniture or balancing checkbooks or doing yardwork any such supposedly male task. And it seems our male responder has no problem painting his nails and admitting to crying when he read The Bridges of Madison County. (Please tease him mercilessly about this last: not because he “acted girly” but because TBoMC is such utter bilge.)
Tilo mentions one of the crazy expectations that married Indian women living overseas have to contend with: the dreaded “time share” ratio during visits to India. “I live in the US,” she says. “I get to visit India only once a year for 3 weeks. Now, since I am married, I am supposed to spend majority of that time with my in laws and not my own parents?” Well said, Tilo. Those of us who’ve lucked out with awesome in-laws (aided by the prodding of awesome sisters-in-law ;D thanks Shalaka!) are truly in the minority.
The Indian Homemaker astutely points out that men are also severely constrained by gender norms (a concept known in feminist circles as PHMT – Patriarchy Hurts Men Too). She says, “It would be so wonderful … when men refuse to be forced to be guardians, bread winners, protectors of the morals of women and helpless victims of male egoes.” Hear, hear.
Heather writes, ” I talk about sex with my 15 year old son. Sure it is uncomfortable, but I don’t hide behind my husband and expect him to do all the talking, just because I have boys.” That is so awesome, and I can’t believe I hadn’t thought about this much. (In my defence my son is TWO.) I’m keeping this in mind for when Angad gets older though. Isn’t it important for kids to hear about sex from both parents?
And Mockingbird shares a moving, honest appraisal of motherhood. “Motherhood was not all it was hyped up to be,” she says. “It is so rewarding in ways I couldn’t have imagined before becoming a mom, but it, more often than not, sucks balls, and has taken a toll on my marriage. There, I said it.” It’s difficult to overstate the degree to which honest discussion of motherhood or even pregnancy is taboo in our society. Where babies are involved the straitjacket of “cooing happy momma” is forced on every single woman, to such an extent that to merely suggest that motherhood isn’t all roses is a revolutionary statement. To say, as Mockingbird and I have, that becoming a mother, even though it has compensations, more often than not sucks balls is – well, I’ve literally never heard anybody else say it. So thanks for sharing that, Mockingbird. It’s good to know I’m not the only mean, bloodsucking, less-than-perfectly-thrilled momma in the world.
And finally, both Shalaka and Mockingbird included lists of ways in which they do live up to gender stereotypes. This is an excellent idea! My “Flipside Of Sin” list goes like this:
- The few skirts I do wear, I wear with JOY. There’s really nothing like something twirly and colourful hanging off your hips to make you feel 6 years old again, is there?
- I like hanging out with women more than men, in general. It used to be the other way around up until I was 19 or 20… I have no idea what changed. I seem to have an easier time bonding with women ever since I hit adulthood.
- Shopping is AWESOME, I am constitutionally incapable of going to a reasonably-priced shop and buying nothing.
- I love to cook. I love demystifying the cooking process, mainly, making “opaque” foods suddenly doable in my own kitchen. For example, until a few years ago, pizza to me was just… pizza. Never really cottoned on to the fact that it was basically an open-face sandwich even though I’d been eating it for years. (Yeah, OK, I’m a bit retarded.) It was something of a revelation to look at a pizza recipe and see that it was just bread and toppings and cheese and sauce. I’ve been unstoppable ever since!
- Like Shalaka, I always wish I had a better dress-up sense and make-up skills. I wish I could look as polished as some women manage all the time!
- I love being a mom. Yes, there were times that I even loved breastfeeding. What can I say? It’s a love-hate relationship I have with this motherhood deal.
- I love, love, LOVE being female. Well, OK, my privilege plays a huge part in this love, of course: if I was poor and lived in India I’m pretty sure I’d much rather be a man. But in my circumstances, as a reasonably well-off, educated, vocally feminist woman living in the US, whatever my other handicaps, I have greater freedom of self-expression than men. It’s great! I wouldn’t trade that for a little extra money or the ability to not become pregnant. Don’t you guys sometimes wish you were able to cross strict gender roles more easily? See, these posts on breaking gender norms are not totally a selfish exercise…
And that’s my list. Guy Who Commented Jokingly (I Hope) On Facebook (“I can understand you women wanting to be like us, but wearing only pants won’t get you there – nor will cussing.”) and Anonymous (“I sometimes find that the women who take up the mantle of women’s rights … suppress the feminine aspects of their self…”), please note: we who try to break gender norms don’t suffer from penis envy (or vagina envy). Really. To the best of my knowledge none of us are transsexual. I’m not trying to become a man, and the men who’ve responded are not trying to become women.
Of course, some people define “woman” and “man” according to prescribed behaviour rather than biology or preferred self-expression. Anonymous seems to be suffering that very affliction. “If you act like men all the time,” he says, “I’d have to be gay to like you. No? If you want to deny your feminity, then also stop expecting men to take ownership of the yard work, the heavy lifting etc. not to mention, opening that pickle bottle your mom sent you.”
Dude, I think you’re suffering from an overdose of 60′s-era Bollywood heroines. What, women are defined by their behaviour now?! Walk with swaying hips, grow your hair long, cultivate an air of helplessness around men (but be strong enough to do all kinds of heavy lifting in reality), lower your eyelashes modestly when men smile at you… Thus Spake The Handbook Of How To Be A Woman. And here I was thinking women are defined by, like, vaginas or boobies or choosing to be female. But what do I know, I even thought gay men were attracted to people with penises, when apparently any woman who can open her own pickle jar will do the trick!
Look, Anon, I don’t want to be harsh on you. Like I said before, this is stuff I’ve been reading up on for years, I don’t expect someone who hasn’t read much sociology or anything to do with gender studies to be attuned to the implications of everything you’re saying. But FYI, in just those two sentences, here is what you managed to say:
1. Womanhood and manhood are defined by adherence to certain behaviour, not biology/brainsexing/choosing to be a woman or man.
2. Gay men are not really gay, they are attracted to women who act manly.
3. To break prescribed gender roles is to deny my femininity.
4. Only men ever take ownership of yardwork, or do any heavy lifting, or open pickle jars.
5. It’s unfeminine to do yardwork or heavy lifting or open pickle jars.
6. And as a corollary, manhood is defined, in part, by yardwork and heavy lifting and opening pickle jars.
7. Women who break gender norms deserve the punishment of no man ever helping them when they need help with yardwork or heavy lifting or opening pickle jars.
8. And as a corollary, the chains of gender norms are the just price for women to pay for simple helpfulness from men in the areas of yardwork, heavy lifting and opening pickle jars.
9. It is the duty of women to be sexually attractive to you; this supercedes their desire for self-expression. (You’re free to like ultra-feminine women, of course, but you’re saying all women need to be that way.)
10. And as a corollary, all women are interested in is to garner the sexual attention of men like you. (Some men are attracted to butch, some women are interested in men at all, and many women are of the opinion that men can take it or leave it, we are who we are.)
I hope I don’t have to tell you that every single one of these statements is sexist, and several are homophobic and transphobic to boot. I don’t think you mean to be sexist or homophobic or transphobic. What you said is probably the result of unexamined beliefs rather than conscious bigotry. But don’t you think it’s time you examined your beliefs a little more thoroughly?
It would also help if you didn’t assume that everything feminists do is about men. (“[Feminists] suppress their femininity in the belief that if men like it, it must be a form of oppression.”) I assure you my little brain is capable of having preferences in what to wear, how to behave, etc. all on its ownsome; the purpose of my life is not to spite men but to live free.
All in all, Aamba summed it up perfectly when she said, “Here’s hoping for a future where we all get to choose the way we live our lives and what our likes, dislikes, and actions will be regardless of our gender!”