Random musings on gender

Last week I entered the communal kitchen at work to find two female colleagues discussing how useless men are at keeping the house tidy. One said that despite being at home all day her partner never lifted a finger to clean the place and argued that he didn’t know how to use the vacuum cleaner. She in riposte had written him a guide to using the vacuum cleaner, with instructions coded in the colours of his favourite footbal teams.

Last month I went to the local sports centre to sign our 6 year old daughter Anna up for swimming lessons. The lady behind the counter was genuinely surprised that, as a man, I knew my own daughter’s birth date and felt the need to congratulate me on this amazing feat.

I don’t know if I’m just a very unusual man who doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes. Maybe so. I don’t think my wife would mind me saying that I do the majority of the tidying, cleaning and cooking in our household. She does plenty of other things, we strike a balance, and everything gets done. We just don’t divide our labours down the traditional gender lines. (Also I don’t like football, but that’s a separate matter.)

I wonder if this ‘lad’ culture still exists, where masculinity is somehow defined by a lack of interest in your own children or household (or, indeed, anything but football). Are other blokes really like this? Do they just play up to this stereotype because it’s a free pass to be lazy? Is it that domestic chores are still seen as women’s work, so men distance themselves from it for fear of looking less masculine? This is surely what’s behind the child’s birth date example: that the need to know your child’s birthday is primarily domestic, with the mother expected to arrange and the father expected to… show up. (Unless it clashes with football.)

Do some women even play up to this stereotype because as toxic as gender roles can be they’re also reassuring, a source of shared identity and camaraderie? Because otherwise I can’t see why any woman would put up with a partner who acted in such a fundamentally selfish way. Are these men secretly contributing to household chores in other, un-grumbled-about ways that I don’t hear about?

I’m probably overthinking something that’s partly just harmless banter. Maybe we fall into these shorthand ways of griping about the opposite sex without really buying into them. We know it’s not the whole story, but we say it anyway, slotting our relationship grievances into neatly gendered boxes. If so it’s fascinating the extent to which people play their expected roles in polite conversation, adopting banal positions, marking time with small talk.

I just don’t recognise this cultural portrait of a husband and father. It perplexes me that I’m so far out of step from, what? The norm? The perceived norm? Does everyone else feel the same way? I know many women chafe at traditional gender roles and with far more cause than my vague sense of peevish alienation. As adults we’re all affected by the social norms we absorb through our upbringing and the degree to which we identify, conform or rebel. There’s also the degree to which we’re even aware of gender roles as culturally imposed rather than genetically hardwired, and there I’m sure education plays a part.

I suspect I’m traditionally blokey in other ways (like being useless at remembering things my wife has asked me to do – sorry wife!) I guess all I’m getting at is that, no matter how much I think I’m learning about gender, sometimes I still get forcibly reminded that our society is profoundly gendered. The roles we expect men to play are inextricably bound up with (or in opposition to) the roles we expect women to play. And, day to day, we all collaborate in keeping it that way. I didn’t even argue with the woman at the sports centre. I sort of grunted non-committally. I chipped in on the example of the partner not cleaning, but what can I really say? Hey, I do the cleaning in our house. I can’t tell that woman her experience is false. I’m just interested in how true it is more generally.

(Disclaimer: Obviously the above implicitly assumes heterosexual relationships, since that’s the context in which the issues came up. This may all differ with sexual orientation. Or class. Or country. Or degree of geekiness, for all I know.)

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