Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Gender Complimentarianism

 I'm developing a habit of starting drafts for posts based on articles that I want to say something about, but then waiting until the article is old and dusty and maybe not worth commenting on anymore. But it's not like I'm part of any larger time sensitive online conversation...and in this case, the article itself isn't time sensitive at all either. So here is my attempt to just spit it out.

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times magazine had this article on gender complimentarianism. I find this kind of stuff fascinating, because I think it underlies a lot of current political divisions (Why would a  conservative couple in a rural red states care passionately enough about whether two gay men can get married in San Francisco to donate money? Because of what it says about gender roles in their own marriage), because unlike energy or foreign policy it's easy to have a layman's position (I've been biologically female for 26 years...that makes me an expert, right?) and because ultimately I think I occupy an intermediate position between the two sides (Gorillas, chimps, and orangutans show dramatic gender differences, so why on earth would we expect humans not to? But at the same time, any observation of human beings shows that gender roles are at the very least incredibly flexible, and I don't know how any pragmatic approach to the world could refuse to account for that).

The world view portrayed in this article I think is ultimately more idealistic than pragmatic. Women should submit to their husbands, husbands should in turn be natural leaders, and if it doesn't work out that way one of them must be failing at their gender role. I imagine that they are free to argue whether the failure is because the wife was too overbearing and emasculating or because the husband just plain wasn't man enough. I think it's interesting that the example of submitting to a husband's will used in the article is choosing the name of a child...i.e., a decision with no actual real world consequences whatsoever. What about a woman whose husband insists on driving all night when she sees him nodding off and swerving around on the road? Or one whose husband wants to buy a house she doesn't think they can afford? It would be much more interesting to see how their philosophy translates to those kinds of decisions. Do they actually believe that men have some inherent wisdom that women should always defer to? Or maybe that even if women might know better in some situations, they should only assert themselves carefully and as to avoid undermining the fragile foundations of true manhood, potentially sending their husbands on a downward spiral of unemployment and sex clubs? Or does it really just boil down to mutual respect, a reminder that whoever you married once made it through life perfectly fine without you telling them what to do, and may have to again (with your children!!!) if you die or become incapacitated, so you should be able to accept the decisions they make even when you disagree with them. (Of course, in that case, it would go both ways...but I can see how speaking to a mostly female audience you might focus on the wife's part).

The article mentions the possibility that they're making a distinction without a difference; that ultimately the decision making process in "complementarian" partnerships looks almost exactly like the decision making process between two Berkeley gender studies professors married to each other. I think there's a good chance that's true. But I think it's also very interesting why that distinction might become so important to people. (This is a complete cop out of an ending, but I don't seem to have a better one).


  1. I don't quite know why, which is what you were exploring in this post, but the original article makes me very uncomfortable...

  2. I think for those of us who grew up surrounded by the "Girls can do anything boys can do, and it's awesome!" mindset, it's jarring to realize that it's not universal, even in the US...but at the same time, I think it's something that it's good to be aware of, and spend some time thinking about why that "works" for people, even a lot of women. You don't win many arguments by being oblivious to the way the other person thinks.

    Of course, there's also just a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in the article, which is unsettling to anybody who tries to think things through = )