This weekend LL took me away for my birthday to a terrific retreat center is that is so very NorCal. That is to say, it’s clothing-optional and populated by the expected melange of dreadlocked hippies, tattooed hipsters, a smattering of queers, and a heaping dose of Sonoma County New Age yuppies.
This last faction is stereotypically known for its attraction to self-help books of many stripes, a genre which tends to speak of people in broad swathes for easier digestion. Particularly around relationships and sex, this leads readers to speak of genders as “capital-m Men” and “capital-w Women.”
While stargazing near the pools, I heard a man was describing the teachings of one of the more well-known relationship gurus on the market to a couple of other folks. He recited some of the guru’s theories of how men typically behave and how women respond. While I have no doubt that the teachings were well-intentioned, they also sounded painfully myopic. “See, men want to do a good job,” he said. “And women want to be listened to.”
Funny, I’m a woman, I enjoy doing a good job, and I’m pretty sure that men want people to listen to them when they’re talking, too.
Back before second-wave feminism, it was socially acceptable to tell women who they had to be and how they had to behave. “Girls don’t…” was a common phrase. Now, blessedly, with the advent of feminism and its pop-culture derivatives like “girl power,” it’s woefully out of fashion to tell women that they can’t be astronauts or doctors. This isn’t to say that cultural expectations of proper behavior aren’t still in effect, because we all know they are.
Unfortunately, the other end of the double-standard is still very much in fashion. It’s still culturally acceptable to assume that (straight) men shouldn’t be nurses or stay-at-home parents. The gender expectations for men are even fiercer than those for women now.
The problem with self-help gurus who claim to understand how Men and Women act is that they speak in absolutes. Even the minor, modern upgrade of the word “most” still assumes so much about “proper” gender expression. Because while it may seem common-sense to someone over 50 that “most men want to be successful” and “most women want to be pretty,” what people hear when they’re growing up and forming their identities is “if you’re a boy you must want to be successful,” or “you’re not really a girl if you don’t care about being pretty.”
If you’re a boy who wants to be pretty or a girl who wants to be successful, the phrase “most men” or “most women” is telling you that you are wrong. You are in the minority. You don’t count.
I can’t tell you how many men in my life have discounted my opinion by saying, “But you’re not a normal woman.” They present this as a compliment, as if by not acting within the confines of socially-approved womanhood, I’ve somehow escaped being a crappy, pain-in-the-ass person, i.e a “real” woman.
As a kid, I was taught in school that if you have a question, odds are, there’s someone else in the room with the same question. If I have a gender non-conforming opinion about something, odds are there are other women with the same opinion. Do they not count either? If we’re in the minority, does it mean that, rather than expand the definitions of gender, our ideas should be dismissed as outliers? At what point does this end?
Whenever someone says how men are or how women are, they are telling us how to be, what to want, who to look up to. Assuming that our gender defines our behavior is backwards and reductive. It tells boys that they can’t have emotions and tells girls they can’t be smart. This is the logic of books like “The Rules” or “The Game,” using the most warped aspects of our gender norms to police behavior and maintain status quo.
The gender binary hurts everyone by categorizing our behavior as perverted or proper based on completely arbitrary rules. Instead of telling us who we can be and what we can accomplish, it tells us only what we cannot want and shouldn’t be.