Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Christie and I were talking the other night about a thread on Feministing about what role men would have in a "feminized world". We ended up having an interesting discussion, and she suggested that I try to bring some structure to the ideas and turn them into a post. I wanted to start with a quote from Robert Heinlein:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
I would add a few things to this list, like comfort a crying baby, but mostly I think it's a good list. I also think it's a little male-centric, because there's a focus on fixing problems, which is one of those traits that I identify as male.

But what, exactly, does that mean? In the past, masculine and feminine were discreet categories. That made it easy. Nurturing? Feminine. Strong? Masculine. Creation? Feminine. Destruction? Masculine. (Theorist Mircea Eliade thinks this urge to divide things into discrete groups is a fundamental part of human nature, and I think it's tied to the origin of language, but that's another post entirely.)

Just as we now know that physical gender is a spectrum, we also recognize that these sorts of traits fall along a spectrum (actually, the latter is more readily accepted than the former, but pretending that the controversial is commonplace is an old trick from my literary theory days. Isn't it fun?). Plus we have people who are biologically male, but identify as female, women who fall in love with women as opposed to men, and every other possible permutation, albeit sometimes in very small percentages of the population. In other words, as in every other thing found in nature, there are no sharp lines, just gradations. (Bart Kosko's Fuzzy Thinking is a decent introduction to this idea.)

This might be a good time to introduce a Venn diagram, but there are actually very few traits that fit exclusively into the male or female side of things. Overlapping bell curves probably work better to demonstrate that, for example, the average man is stronger than the average woman, but that the overlap is so great that no meaningful distinctions could be made on an individual level. Reverse that dynamic for, say, nurturing.

That's what I mean when I say that I think of the urge to fix things as a masculine trait. And I choose that example because I love the movie (and book) Holes, and the line "I can fix that" has become, in our house, another way for me to say "I love you", right up there with "As you wish."

I consider the fact that I'm always looking for new ways to tell my wife (and, now, daughter) that I love them to be something of a feminine trait. But I don't care, because I contain multitudes, and because I don't think we should limit ourselves.

While some of these traits are physical (height, strength), most of these masculine/feminine splits happen within the context of a particular culture. The redneck culture my father's family comes from encourages a flamboyance of dress in men not typically seen in mainstream white American culture apart from vacationers in Hawaiian shirts (embroidered ostrich-skin boots, anyone), and that's just one surface-level example.

Feminism works to show women that they are not limited to culturally imposed feminine strengths, feminine virtues, or feminine careers. To a somewhat lesser degree, it does the same with men, but only secondarily. The gay movement has helped as well, and has certainly begun to infiltrate straight male culture (e.g. metrosexuals).

I put that Heinlein quote up there because I can't think of a single trait for a "good man" that isn't also a trait for a good woman, and therefore a good human being. And in the end, as Terence said, "Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto", or, "I am a human being, therefore nothing human is alien to me."

Or to put it differently, I have no hopes for my daughter that I would not have for a son: To find a way of being in the world that makes her happy and makes the world just a bit better.

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