How Do We Define and Articulate Gender and Roles in the 21st Century?

Gugu / 16 May, 2018

I make it a point to create my best culinary items for my son. One, because I know he loves food and secondly because his appreciation of my efforts makes me happy. Very happy. Recently, I cooked a dish whose recipe I’d recently discovered and had intended to make soon enough. I think I’m pretty mean in the kitchen but I can also easily admit that I’m probably as lazy as they get in that department. Pretty paradoxical, right? Honestly, during the December/festive period downtime, which is when this incident occurred, my laziness trumps most other life activities & I’m fine with it. It’s just me, the couch, lots of quick fix or take away food and the television, the latter being something I do not indulge in under normal circumstances. So for me to go to all that effort of cooking a special (and not merely a “for survival purposes” type) meal for my son during the Christmas break is indicative of how good that high from his positive reinforcement is. Occasionally, some of my creations are misses & he’ll tell me as much but generally, I live for the glee on his face when he’s being served a dish prepared by yours truly. It’s a priceless exchange of affirmation and appreciation.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think I’d go to all these lengths to get a daughter’s approval of my cooking, not because I wouldn’t want to feed her as much as I do my son, but maybe, just maybe, because food isn’t typically a little girl’s thing. Now, before all the feminists come out with their cutlasses to flay me for being so blatantly “sexist” and reinforcing certain gender stereotypes, let me say that this issue is the very crux of this piece. I write it with a most sincere curiosity and some perplexity. I am an unashamed feminist and I have, over the years, taken my sweet time in working out my own schema of feminism and this issue presented here remains perhaps the “last frontier” in my sorting out and categorisation of certain sex/gender “characterisations”.

When it is said that ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’, is this untrue? It certainly has a ring of generalisation to it, but in the main, the statement can hold, as evidenced by my and many others’ own experience with males. Indeed, there is no denying that certain behaviours are more manifested by one sex than another. Of course, where gender is concerned, a lot of these are learnt behaviours and are not necessarily inherent as a result of sex. But what do we do then about hormone influenced and induced states such as PMS in women? Do we ignore the very real differences that are as a result of the different hormonal regimes between men and women? This has been said numerous times as a critique of feminism and it bears repeating: that many feminists seems to advocate for the eradication of acknowledgement of ALL differences between the two heteronormative sexes/genders. Many people who do not take the time to think critically about what their feminism means to them find themselves frustrated when they hit such normative kinks and speed bumps. And with the growing spotlight on transgender people, the confusion around what one can safely or confidently classify as typical female or male behaviour has increased. One can argue that this is all for the better as it is pushes society away from harmful stereotyping and gender framing. In a sense, everyone can and should only be dissected at the level of the individual and not the group level by sex or gender. But how do we deal with and articulate sentiments about certain ‘typically’ masculine and feminine behaviours and energies, because these do exist, and many are not necessarily learned; they are natural.

Archetyping, defining and categorising are very human characteristics and we all like to do these very frequently and even more subconsciously than we may be aware. It is a way of sense-making for us. Is it sexist then that as a mom, I wouldn’t be as stoked or excited to try out certain dishes on a child because she is a girl and I have already established that her reaction to my creations would be disinterest or ambivalence? I do know and agree that stereotypes and even generalisations are harmful. If we use the one statement above that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”, it could also be problematic within an intimate male-female relationship setting because if flipped, it could imply that a woman’s cooking ability is or should be a major criterion by which her suitability as a life mate is judged by a man. As a woman living in the 21st century, I balk at such an intimation. I believe that my intelligence, mental acuity, disposition, values and beliefs should be what a man judges me on vis-a-vis my suitability as a mate. So I completely acknowledge the potential danger and detriment of even “innocent” stereotypes. It is complicated.

In adulthood, we find that we all have some unlearning to do in order not to offend the new world order. Be patient with and kind to yourself and also your partner. Repeated conditioning has such a strong, often unnoticeable, effect on our behaviour and expectations and the source of these, our thought (subconscious and conscious) life. Be that as it may, the current status quo begs the question: are we (feminists) calling for the obliteration of roles? I dare say that that’s impossible. As long as we have to exist and co-exist in set-ups such as marriage, and relationships in general, there will be some role-adoption and the success thereof depends on each party fulfilling/acting out their role for harmonious co-existence. I agree that the problem is the meaning imputed to certain roles. For example, statements such as ‘cooking is for girls’ or ‘boys fix cars’ have certain inferiority or superiority attributes attached to them. If what feminism is calling for is role-fluidity then I get ‘it’. If what feminists are advocating for is that there shouldn’t be a set of tasks ascribed only for one gender, which the other is not expected to ever undertake, then I am on board. Yes, there is still that issue of biological differences and their impact on roles and expectations. For instance, testosterone dictates that a man can pick up a 10kg box with ease whereas I would struggle. Must it now be an issue that, in my world, I prefer a man to do the heavy lifting?

Role fluidity is relatively simple for me. I feel that these spaces must be left to individual determination between partners and they must not be dictated by feminists or the rest of the world. If certain set ups work for two people then no one should judge that or impose their own different expectations of how roles should be defined on those people. But this works easier in adult relationships. Children may be the victims of very sexist environments and it is not enough to say to each his own. At a meta level, there must be some standard which is accepted as norm. The problem lies in establishing and inculcating this norm in everyone, especially child-rearers. Regarding sex-linked or biologically influenced differences, I don’t have the answers. I wish I did, especially for my own mental “ordering”, but I do not. I’d be happy to hear from you if you have a different perspective or have also grappled with this issue and given it thought.

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1 thought on “How Do We Define and Articulate Gender and Roles in the 21st Century?

  1. So many truths and questions I myself struggle with sometimes – especially being a young married woman in the 21st century. I struggle to fit into some roles and take up some roles because in my mind it makes no sense that some things are for me and some things are for him when we should all be capable of doing the exact same things – so why don’t we? Particularly the “woman’s place is in the kitchen” stereotype, this I fight A LOT because for me it is in fact “ a person with capable hands and feet, old enough to know that oil is hot don’t touch it, and what salt and pepper are for, who’s place is in the kitchen.” And I think this is a lot of us women today, to the point that we now get so excited when we see a man cooking, or when we find a man that likes to cook – because it’s not the norm and because that’s “our job” and they are being so nice to relieve us of our job.. but, no. Is you hungry or nah?

    Then of course like you said there is a flip side, and eish, I am guilty of not being fair when it comes to this because I won’t go around changing the lights in the house or fixing leaks when there is a man around to do that – I can, but I don’t -which is probably what I assume men go around thinking too – they can, but don’t because there is a woman around to do it. Which I guess keeps us in this constant loop of our fixed gender roles, because there’s always someone else that should be doing it.

    It makes sense sometimes and others it doesn’t because like you said – how we are built determines some of these things.. there are just certain things a man can do with more ease than a woman would be able to, and vice versa (I don’t know what that is though.. pee sitting down? 😂 – I’m joking). But for real, some gender roles are fixed because they have to be and it makes sense that way.

    But I also know that certain men (and women) pride themselves in doing things they know the other can do but would rather do themselves (which, I don’t know, perpetuates the gender role even more?) like the cooking thing – I get ‘it’ too but some women won’t even let a man step into the kitchen, and so that man will forever believe that HIS place isn’t in the kitchen.

    Sigh, it’s so complicated.

    But you’re right, “I feel that these spaces must be left to individual determination between partners and they must not be dictated by feminists or the rest of the world. If certain set ups work for two people then no one should judge that or impose their own different expectations of how roles should be defined on those people.” This is the ultimate truth! There’s no one standard to everyone’s situations. Some people prefer to work within traditional definitions of gender roles, some people are so new age that they’ve scratched all that and it works – but it really just depends on the people, as it should.

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