The human mind thrives on classification. We like to put things in boxes. We love to learn about something that we don’t know by lumping it with things we do; or at the very least, to lump a bunch of things we don’t know about together and declare that we know something about them. This tactic often makes us feel more comfortable and wise and sometimes does genuinely provide information as to how the universe works. For example, it’s quite useful to categorize tornadoes, asteroids, and molecules. However, this system becomes non-optimal when the things we’re putting in boxes are aware that this is happening.
Physicists have a theorem that the more definitively you measure something, the more you end up actually changing it. It’s called The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. When we categorize a person, calling them a Scorpio, an ‘ENFP Meyer-Briggs type,’ or ‘manly,’ we are not just passively saying something about that person; we are actively modifying how they perceive themselves and how they act. This can ultimately be a very destructive tool, because people are told that they must act in a certain way to be themselves. The person’s true personality may conflict with their societally imposed personality, causing a feeling of schizophrenia and internal imbalance.
Ruth Hubbard states in her Politics of Women’s Biology that “most characteristics [of gender] vary continuously in the population…To compare groups…we must use such concepts as the ‘average,’ ‘mean,’ or ‘median’…These numbers obscure the diversity that exists within the groups (say, among women and men).” We see then that no single model can serve as an ideal for a group of people. If men and women have characteristics across the spectrum, it is clear that asking them to conform to definitions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ limits and confines the breadth of human spirit to two narrowly typed genders. We see this narrow typing in fraternity bonding, where incoming pledges are ‘taught to be men’ and are strongly discouraged from exhibiting behaviors outside of the strictly masculine stereotype. Just as destructive are female bonding groups that discourage masculine behavior and reward feminine conformism: one of my friends related her disgust at a Girl Scout camping trip that turned into a (mandatory) makeup how-to session.
This is the underlying problem that gender categorizations lead to: males and females alike are forced into roles that conflict with who they truly are. This problem is exponentially exacerbated in a relationship: there are now two people, each of which is trying to find his/her gender identity, and both of which are trying to understand what box their relationship fits in. While these problems are certainly prevalent in most romantic relationships, marriage in particular has longstanding and well-defined roles for a husband and wife. The act of getting married, hoped to be an innocuous expression of love between two people, causes most people to believe that they should fit into the Barbie & Ken spouse stereotypes to achieve happiness. This process may be conscious or subconscious; when it happens, it can cause increasing tension between the partners.
In marriage, the burden of split personality rests most heavily upon the woman. The man can act according to his will and apart from his family. His work is an expression of his being and varies as he wishes. The woman, however, loses her individuality and her will to the role of housewife. If that role is intrinsic to her, as it may be to a small part of the population, she may yet be happy. The rest, however, must face the choice of suffering a life of split personalities, divided between desires and actuality; changing their personality to fit the housewife mold; or ultimately breaking apart from the relationship. This difference in burden and the assimilation of the woman’s persona into that of the housewife is clearly illustrated in the class movie Saving Private Ryan. Susan Okin also carries this theme throughout her chapter ‘Vulnerability by Marriage’ in Justice, Gender, and the Family: “The traditional expectations of marriage influence the attitudes, expectations, and behavior of married couples.”
Women are especially tightly bound to an ideal in motherhood. The Ideal Mother is a highly typed psychoprofile that is almost sacred. The notion of valid motherhood extending beyond the at-home mom of the 1950’s is generally distasteful to even today’s society. As Shirley Glubka gives account in her Essay on Unconventional Motherhood, stepping outside of this role is difficult even in cases when it would greatly benefit both the child and the parent(s).
In self-contradictory fashion, the ideals of universal motherhood only apply in actuality to well-off white women. Poor women, especially black women, have a different ideal: they are expected to go out into the workforce, for to stay at home would denote laziness. Recent legal movements, such as the Social Reform and Personal Responsibility Act imply that women who devote themselves to raising their children are irresponsible for not finding a job. The boxes into which we are trying to make women fit are in this way not only restrictive, but socio-economically differentiated.
This marks the tip of an iceberg of structures set up for women that, it would seem, were specifically designed to crush her spirit and destroy her chances for creative living. The woman most capable of pursuing a professional career and using hired help (and a husband!) to aid in the upbringing of her child is told to stay at home and subordinate herself, while those most in need of societal aid to help in raising their children are spurned and called reckless and uncaring if they all but abandon their children for work.
Media images of beauty also seem specifically created to oppose women. They are designed to create a sense of self-loathing within a woman, a hatred that can be soothed but never satiated by an endless stream of consumer goods. An ever-disturbing trend towards sickly thinness has been all the rage in female models since ‘Twiggy’ first appeared on the scene in the 1970’s. This, if anything, is to me the most inexplicable trend: the majority of my male peers find such extreme thinness to be not only not alluring, but verging on the repulsive. This unhealthy trend is a pure product of capitalist marketing: it serves to fulfill no need other than an induced worry. Hair color, wrinkles, and skin blemishes, indeed the very act of aging itself is made out to be horrific, disgusting, and to be avoided via a vast array of consumer products and surgeries at any and all possible costs. Tied to the ideal of the wife holding the family together, she must make herself sexy and attractive not only for herself, but for her husband. Implicit in many of the beauty ads geared towards wives, especially those featured in class in the video Killing Us Softly, is that a man will leave his wife and her children if she does not continuously excite him and stun him with her possession of a vast array of beauty products and a learned skill at applying them. This, coupled with the strain of undergoing an alter ego of loving housewife, creates a nearly impossible environment to navigate.
Women are placed in this position by society, but also by themselves. It is a self-reinforcing system when generations of women pass on the false ideals of the feminine mystique that they learned to accept. What is called for here is a recognition that forced roles often have negative impacts on people unless, by chance, they happen to be well suited for the role. This holds true for men as equally as for women, but given the sheer number of negative ‘boxes’ that women are forced into solely by their sex, it would seem prudent to focus most earnestly on the breaking stereotypes surrounding women, or at least to harness the women’s rights movement to liberate both sexes from restrictive ideals.
While it has been to a lesser extent, it is important to consider the negative effects that the stereotyped male has upon men and the restrictions that are placed on their development. I remember in third grade watching two girls greet each other with a kiss on the lips. I asked, “Why don’t the boys do that?” “Ew,” they squirmed, “then you’d be a faggot.”
Although I myself am a heterosexual, I am more expressive of ‘my feminine side’ than most, and as a result have felt the effects of homophobia. I’ve often been called ‘gay,’ and have needed to procure a date or wrestle a friend to the floor to ‘prove my manhood.’ Societal taboos on homosexuality have made men uncomfortable hugging each other: a man can hug a woman, and two women can hug each other, but it is taboo for two men to hug. At an Argentine Tango Dance two weeks ago, one dancing friend of mine approached my date and hugged her in greeting. I reached over and hugged him, but he pushed me back and looked confused. ‘No, no,’ he explained in his somewhat broken English. He extended his hand.
What needs to happen is this: people need to cast out gendered social roles. They need to interact as purely themselves. Jane must not ask herself “Who am I as a woman?” but must instead ask herself who she is as a person; to ask who Jane is. “What does it mean for me to be female?” should ultimately be classified under the same realm of questions as “What does it mean for me to have freckles?” After all, both your gender and your freckles can usually be noticed and both involve body hormones (testosterone/ estrogen versus melanin). Future discrimination by gender would ideally be roughly equivalent to modern day freckle discrimination. Some would argue that this would end a notion of a ‘Universal Sisterhood’ of sorts, but association or promotion to a group by merit, and not birthright, has shown itself to be optimal in systems of government and economics. For the same reasons that people found an Aryan Brotherhood to be intolerable, I find it desirable to end any notion of being proud to be a man or a woman and to just get on with our lives as humans, as individuals living outside of the box.