A version of this piece originally appeared at DrCoffeesBrainBanter.Blogspot.com
“Jesus. You’re such a fucking feminist.” Those cutting though partially jovial words were uttered by one frustrated lover to another…namely my girlfriend to me. Feeling as though we were supposed to be splitting life’s labors, I’d declined to do one of my male duties (carry extra bags, provide emotional support that I had overlooked, etc.). The problem is often that I can’t get out of this damned rabbit hole of evolution and biology, where one’s perspective on gender roles takes on a fairly predictable yet no less enlightening shaping force in one’s head. The result is what anyone else might call “insensitivity.” Go figure.
My mother raised me to hold chairs for women, to carry things for women, hold doors for women (and, to be fair, the occasional man should he be decrepit enough), and didn’t hesitate to call me a “womanizer” to my face at one point years ago. Women are to be properly courted (an alleged exercise in showing one’s respect for the person: You, men, shall use your resources to cover her needs (more on this in a bit).
Her mother, who made it to a triumphant 102, was the ultimate matriarch in a household of six men and two women. I mention these two women not only because they were (and are) such forces in my life, but because I think their two generations (1910 to now) have spanned one very large (and still evolving) cultural change toward, but not yet to, gender equality. They’ve enjoyed the fruits of chivalry—the feeling of being “taken care of” at least in some small but systematic ways. They’ve also fought for equal pay and higher-powered jobs with an amiable take-no-shit attitude.
This, to my eyes, is the unfortunate Catch-22. It’s difficult, or perhaps should be, to take oneself seriously if consistently enjoying the fruits of chivalry while arguing one’s complete equality.
Imagine, if you will, what this equality looks like between two young professional heterosexual 20-somethings. They met at a party where he didn’t ask for her phone number, but waited for her to ask, or at least “friend” him on Facebook later and then send him a message as well, asking him to go out (unlikely occurrence #1). They go out for dinner and drinks, which goes very well, but the bill comes. Instead of taking care of it all, upon reading the bill, the male gazes across the table and perhaps waits for her to say, “no, I’ll get it,” or hands it over to her, with his card in there, ready to split the check (2). They go to get their coats and upon simultaneous arrival at the coat rack, although they’re both easily accessible, he grabs only his coat, not hers (3) and/or allows her to carry the extra food (4). As they go to walk out, he let’s her stay in front and hold the door for him (5).
No doubt you’re thinking, “You’ve set up a false dichotomy. The best relationships will work together—one grabs the coats, the other the door. One the drinks, the other the food.” I agree. But practically never on the first date. Even the more gender-role conscious women I’ve dated have expected a basic level of chivalry.
Consider how many more dates the jackass in our example will enjoy. Despite having a wonderful first impression, he didn’t ask for her number. Unlikely she’ll track him down even if she’s interested. He doesn’t offer to pay the check in full (not a deal-breaker for any woman who isn’t herself secretly a sexist against her own kind, though “poor form” on his end). He doesn’t get her coat, and doesn’t offer to carry the extra take-home food (obviously not a matter of strength, but just a “nice gesture” that will make him, but not her, look like a socially clueless clown should he decline to make such an offer). Lastly, he lets her waltz out and handle the door (again, not an issue on its own, but these are potential points off for him, not her, if he doesn’t open and hold the door).
To be clear, this is not a “life is actually real tough for us men!” argument. It’s a “these are difficult constraints to work within, showing both chivalry and zero sexism.” These bizarre constraints are, after all, just byproducts of other evolved but antiquated social expectations that linger on to this day, partly due to a need to impress and/or be impressed that just won’t die.
The point is simply that the creation of these constraints I keep calling “hypocritical” was indeed a dual funded affair: Men contributed as much as women to our current situation. We liked having only resources to focus on, rather than complicating things with empathy and having to deal with the intricacies of human interaction.
No doubt there will be those who call these “common courtesies” to women, reflecting the ideals of a respectful society. Perhaps you, dear reader, are a woman yourself who has enjoyed the niceties of being taken care of in this way. I plead with you that if you do not help your partner in equal ways, you are only supporting the spread of these roles, and will have a seriously difficult time when arguing for “gender equality.” Arguing one’s equality while enjoying the fruits of ingrained gender roles is, in my view, quite hypocritical.
The next barrier to complete equality of genders may indeed be these very subtleties of interaction. The overt sexism is, like overt racism, an obvious and easy (though no less legit) problem to point to. The refined sexism connoisseur, as many of you may indeed be, will notice these standardized gestures from men and reciprocate them as soon as possible so as to neutralize their one-sidedness, or perhaps simply refuse to accept them at all. “We’re splitting this bill,” or “no need to open my car door for me, I wasn’t born with atrophic arms,” or “great, [male], I’ll pick you up at 9.”
To reiterate, I’m not arguing to kill chivalry here. I’m arguing to diffuse it out toward everyone, and recognize that these subtle gender roles do play an integral role in halting great steps toward true gender equality.
I’m a hypocrite about this, but I’ll argue it anyway: To expect men to court and then still remain frustrated with the state of gender inequality is, I believe, to step on one’s own feet.
Is true gender equality possible? Will men just be dickheads their whole lives? Given the hormonal and genetic differences of the two sexes, is it even reasonable to expect exactly identical and equal roles and behavior between them? Is this even the best model to create the least suffering for humans?
I don’t have answers to these questions, but I do know that if we can knock down the barriers to reciprocal equality we’ll be one wall closer to the real thing.
Will Jaffee was born in Lexington, Mass. After studying philosophy at Oberlin College he worked as a Quaker camp trip leader and high school teacher in Connecticut, and is now a third-year medical student in Florida. He’s the past president of Nova Southeastern University’s Medical Students For Choice chapter and is actively involved in abortion rights and reproductive health.