vol. 3 #6, August 8, 1997
HALF A HUMAN
I was doing hard, dirty, sweaty work in my garden, cutting down thistles and baby trees, and as I was getting scratched and blistered and itchy, I realized my mind was saying to me, "Some man should be doing this for you." And I wondered where this idea came from? Not from my experience, for sure.
My dad didn't do yard work, but I did. My husband did the mowing only until he mowed down my brand new tomato plants four times in a row, and I took over the job. When I introduced my son to the concept "weed," and sent him forth to do battle, he left most of the weeds standing but cut down ALL my creeping phlox. Now whether this was some weird Y chromosome thing, or some sort of acquired weed-recognition deficiency syndrome, it did the trick. In the interest of saving my garden, I took the yard work back from my gardening-impaired men.
But the real question here is, why is this notion embedded in my brain after years of experience to the contrary? What is this cultural imperative to regard all men as tough and resourceful people we can dump our unpleasant, heavy, unrewarding jobs on?
Being male and being female is a matter of physiology. But being masculine or feminine comes from years of conditioning to develop only certain parts of our personalities. When my brother, the cub scout, was learning to survive alone in the woods, my Bluebird troop was learning to make tissue paper flowers and apple and clove pomander balls. My toys and games told me my world was small and interior, and my job was to stay inside and take care of it. His toys and games told him his job was to explore the world outside and change it. If I wasn't that good at being a girl (I disliked dolls, though I enjoyed the real life babies my brother and sister let me play with), I realize now my brother wasn't all that good at being a boy--his talents were for art and chess and words. (And though I knew boys had more fun, my envy was tempered by knowing they played war games because they would be sent to fight the real wars.)
The stories people told us also sent powerful messages about who we are because we were boys or girls. The boys were Jack-the Giant-Killer and Lancelot, fighting dragons and doing heroic deeds. Girls were Cinderella and Rapunzel, sweet, long-suffering, and always waiting around to be rescued. What a bore. No wonder girls liked Nancy Drew--smarmy little twit that she was, she at least got to DO something.
Now, we don't have to end up in these roles. When we are born, we have countless possibilities, an abundance of neural connections waiting to be used and turned into pathways. In effect, society spends the first few years of our lives turning some switches off and some switches on in us. And my question is: what happens to us when those switches are turned off, when we give up big hunks of ourselves to match our gender roles? Some of us cut off our toes to make the shoes fit (and maybe find out the shoe still doesn't fit and the prince still doesn't love us).
When little girls are taught to sit quietly and request permission to speak, they may never learn to speak at all. When they watch and cheer, while boys play, they learn to be bystanders. On the other hand, when little girls apply bandages and comfort, and talk with their friends about their experiences and feelings, they learn an emotional luxuriance the boys will never know. They are learning connectedness, while the boys are learning separation .
I worry more about the little boys, especially the boys who are not born rough and tough. They will be forced into toughness the hard way, fighting off bullies as best they can because grownups will not protect them. They will learn to reject their mother's comfort, even when the hurts are deepest. They will be taught that tears are unmanly, but rage is okay. They will be taught to love their freedom more than their friends and family.
I know what it costs girls to shut doors on ourselves. I know what it's like to stop being visibly smart in school, in hopes that boys will like us better (didn't work, either). I know what it's like to give up walking at night because it's not safe for a girl to do that, and to be careful about the clothes I choose because I might send the wrong signals to a prowling male. And I know that my mother, a housewife sheltered from all knowledge of the family finances, gave up some kinds of competence in return for protection--she would have been hopelessly unprepared to be on her own with children to raise.
What I don't know, though, is what it costs boys to become men, to turn off the switches for tenderness and dependence. What is it like to be told to play hurt? To work up the nerve to ask a pretty girl for a date and have her make fun of you? To always be the ones who do the heavy lifting? To hear people worrying about female soldiers being sent home in bodybags, but not about men in bodybags, because we're willing for men to die in war? Isn't it difficult to always have to seem confident and in control? To never be allowed to admit that you are scared or uncertain? I think Dorothy Allison is right when she says "Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that no one is as hard as my uncles had to pretend to be."
I know that amputation is painful for women--it can make us bitter and resentful, if we are forced to raise children when we'd maybe rather be raising money or orchids. But isn't amputation painful for men too? Doesn't it make resentful overworked underthanked moneygrubbers of men who might prefer to spend more time with their wives and children?
If we choose to reject our gender roles and become misfits, finding comfort in other freaks and outcasts, there is a cost there as well. Girls may have more options today than we ever had before, but the constant artillery barrage against Hillary Rodham Clinton is a reminder of the limits past which women cannot safely go. Men can become intellectuals, professors, musicians, computer techies, but at the cost of being irrelevant and powerless, treated contemptuously by "regular guys," men who may be stupid and mean, but nonetheless see themselves as more masculine than "eggheads" and "geeks."
One of the few rewards growing old offers us, I think, is the opportunity to become ourselves and not just our genders. It's a chance to see what we have missed all these years, and grab at it. And I, for one, am reveling in it, even if it means I chop my own trees down and do all my own heavy lifting. My hope is that all of us will seize the chance before we die to go back and flick some of those "off" switches back on again.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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