Over at reappropriate, I was half responsible for hijacking one of Jenn’s threads, The Sexism of Father’s Day, with a lively debate on gender roles and choice. I highly recommend reading through the post itself, as well as all the comments, because there is a lot of interesting discussion on all sides.
phillyjay drew me into the debate when he said:
I just don’t think it so bad if men and women live up to their gender roles.
I responded with:
I would just like to say this outright: there is nothing wrong with people choosing what is best for them, whether it fits in the accepted gender roles or not, what the problem is that society in many ways forces it on us.
And, really, that sums up what I think is one of feminism’s biggest points: people should have the right, and opportunity, to choose to do what’s right for them. Now, there are obvious limits; my ability to choose ends when it impedes someone else’s life. Debates within and outside of the feminist community arise because that division is not a simple line to draw, but, at the root of it all, the feminist ideal is that of choice.
One traditional stereotype of feminists is that we look down upon women who choose to be homemakers or stay-at-home moms. While some people devalue that choice, it is completely anti-feminist to believe that. Ideally, feminists want homemaking and stay-at-home-parenting to be seen as a valuable activity, one that can be (and should be) open to either gender. Many feminists advocate the elevation of these “caring” activities (and professions such as nursing and teaching) to the same level as traditionally masculine jobs. If that is achieved then it will bring us one step closer to giving people a real choice in what they do, whether that be working outside of the home or inside of it.
Now, we feminists say we want choice. Some people may wonder how all of our social activism comes in. Some may argue that, instead of equalizing society we’re just trying to gain supremacy for women. I mean, we live in a world that seems, on the surface, to be pretty equal and no one is forcing a gun to our heads to make us act a certain way, right?
I address this a bit in my response to phillyjay:
Most times it’s more a very firm pressure that implies that if one steps outside these preordained roles then they will be branded as an outcast for the rest of their lives.
We have in our society what I like to call a “cult of masculinity” and a “cult of femininity”. What this means is that, from birth, we’re presented with images of what a “man” is and what a “woman” is with very little room for anything in between. This can be as simple as the “pink for girls” and “blue for boys” regimen, or as devastating as forcing a transsexual or intersexed child into the gender one wants them to be. We are, in many senses, robbed of the choice to be exactly who we are from a very young age. Sometimes all it takes is growing up and becoming aware of the issues to take back some of your choice. To say things like, “it’s ok for me to like racing cars” or “it’s ok for me to like makeup.” In a truly equal society, there would be nothing wrong with advertising that shows women in nurturing roles or men in overseer roles, because there would be other things to show the opposite is ok, too.
Freedom of choice means that a person should be able to be who they are without fear of being ridiculed because they don’t fit the traditional norms. It also means that they should be able to be without fear of being ridiculed if they do fit the traditional norms.
While feminists fight for choice on many fronts, we aren’t some perfect beings. We aren’t the Borg and there is no hive collective. Not all feminists want the same things, think the same way, or hold all “feminist” ideals. The same is true for non-feminists and anti-feminists. I know many people, women and men, who don’t identify as feminist and yet hold many feminist ideals and act in very feminist ways. And yet it is feminists who are held to some standard of “man-haters” as if that’s one of our basic tenets.
But, get this, feminism isn’t about hatred, it’s about giving people the choice on how to live their lives. It’s about letting women choose to use power tools, to read romance novels without shame, to work on the same level in the same jobs as men, to be valued for the work done at home and not be seen as “lazy” or “freeloaders” because they don’t earn a wage. It’s about letting men choose to play with Barbies, to watch sports on TV, to be able to enter “caring” professions without being branded a failure, to be able to contribute to the work done at home without being seen as some bumbling man incapable of even the easiest domestic tasks. It’s about seeing those who don’t fit into the binary of “man” and “woman” as people instead of freaks, to allow transsexuals to explore their gender identity without fear of being teased or worse, to stop the barbaric hospital procedures that force the intersexed children who are born with both a penis and a vagina into being “female” by removing their outward male organ, to let those uncomfortable with the implications of male and female exist as they are. It’s about all that, and much, much more.
People need to be free to choose who they want to be. But we’re not. And that is why I fight. That’s why I blog. And why I debate. And why I want to educate people out there about the world beyond constricting binaries. That’s why I sometimes come off as angry or, as two people close to me have suggested, “man-hating”. Because I am angry. I’m angry at the institutions that have taken away my ability to choose how to live my life. I’m angry at the media that has told me and the people I love that a feminist is a “man-hater” and that if you attack a dominantly male institution then you must be attacking the men that make it up. And I’m not going to stop being angry until I have done all I can to give the choice back to people.