Thursday, April 5, 2012

Stereotypes (Part Three)

from here
I’ve written about gender stereotypes before. I’m not sure if I have an overly-sensitive stereotype radar or if I just regularly and coincidentally find myself in situations where I’m forced to think about the differences and the supposed differences between men and women. This week these have included reading Grudem and For Women Only: What You Need to Know about the Inner Lives of Men by Shaunti Feldhahn, and watching a stupid ad for Glade’s headache-inducing spray-a-smell thingies, with the asinine voiceover telling me that this woman loves to make her house all home-y, so she's bought an air freshener that’s “so clever, it only sprays when people are around!“, as if that’s seriously the most exciting thing she’s thought about that day. It’s offensive. Show me a heterosexual guy in a television advertisement getting that excited about making his house into a home that smells like flowers and I’ll show you a small but encouraging example of progress in our journey towards gender equality.

My son also challenges me to think about stereotypes. Although he gravitates towards the pink aisle in Kmart, he’s abandoned his toy stroller since learning to walk prop-free and he’s never grown attached to the doll we borrowed from his aunties. Three of his first five words were ‘ball’, ‘car’ and ‘bike,’ he gets ridiculously excited about diggers and tractors and trucks, and he has scabs on both of his knees and bruises down both shins after some impressive stacks at the park, where he climbs high, runs fast, leaps and hangs fearlessly, and generally stresses me out as I try to keep him alive (I pray a lot at the park). However, when hanging out with other babies and toddlers I’ve been surprised to note that it’s more often the boys who are affectionate and who are far less willing to let their parents leave them alone in crèche. Based on the stereotypes of adults, I expected the girls to be the cuddly, clingy ones.

In recent(ish) conversations with my husband about gender, I realised that I often protest what’s said about men because I hear (in my mind) the opposite implied about women. For example, if someone says “Men are assertive,” it sounds to me like there’s a silent, “Therefore, women are passive”; I tend, then, to disagree with the first part of the statement because I can’t agree with the second. I’m learning to stop myself from reading more into what’s being said, realising that men and women aren’t opposites, black versus white. Indeed, many men and women aren’t even necessarily completely different shades of grey. There are some overlaps in some people, some of the time, and that’s okay. I kinda think we should each celebrate who we are, whether or not we fit into the right box (go ahead and cringe at my self-helpiness, I am). I say this primarily to reassure myself, because, though I sometimes try to, especially when or after reading books like For Women Only by Shaunti Feldhahn, I can’t make myself fit inside the “Woman” box, and I hate feeling tempted to chop off the parts that hang out. 

I read Feldhahn’s book again after many years because my friend mentioned she’d recently bought it, and I had only vague memories of what it said (but vivid memories of its cover; I judge all my books – and all bottles of wine – by their covers). Feldhahn has lots of interesting things to say about how men think and feel, based on research and interviews with hundreds of men, and I learned a lot from her first (second?) chapter on respect which started a helpful and apologetic conversation between me and my husband. This isn’t a book review, though, it’s a post about stereotypes. 

Feldhahn does go out of her way to remind her reader that she’s speaking in generalities, and I appreciate that, but I couldn’t help but wonder as I read: where are the books for me, for women like me, who are normal, though not necessarily “Woman“-box-shaped? Women like me who can happily go for years without noticing a lack of candlelit dinners or “I love you”s if all’s well otherwise, and who are just as baffled by the difference between ‘love’ and ‘respect’ as men are (according to the book). Women who love looking at beautiful things, including men, and who have to stop themselves from fantasising about that guy with the soft lips and the toned body who took off his shirt in that movie and made something in their tummy flip. Women who feel as though they deserve applause and congratulations when they bake, women who feel as though they’re too passionate when they should be “gentle and quiet,” women who can't watch a Glade ad on television without fuming about it for hours afterwards.

Do I feel this difference more keenly because Christians seem to expect their women to be more box-shaped than the world does? I think that’s part of it [insert plug for future posts along that line of thought - I haven’t mentioned Grudem’s name in a while, after all]. For now, I’m just putting this confession out there in the hope that perhaps another woman, even just one (we’re a minority, the book tells me), will relate, and relax. I get it, sister. We’re not sub-female; maybe just a little less square.


  1. I do get it - as a girl who was raised playing both with Tonka trucks and dolls, and never told I couldn't do something because of my gender, and now as a woman who likes to bum round in jeans and t-shirts like a total tomboy, plays mixed indoor soccer and beats up the guys, and who also enjoys getting all dressed up now and again (and secretly has pangs about whether I'm 'feminine' enough). I'm also Christian but not evangelical, so although we still have plenty of battles over women's leadership and roles (my diocese just ordained its first female bishop) I don't feel the equality issues affect me so much on a personal level, except when I get into debates about these things with evangelical friends. If I ever feel called to ordained ministry I know I'll be supported institutionally and that's hugely liberating to me. But I can see where the other side is coming from and I've agonised over these things a lot in the past. Surely there must be more to being a 'good Christian woman' than Proverbs 31? I also have trouble with the 'meek and mild' thing - because I'm often too outspoken for my own good.

    I observed an interesting exercise in stereotypes myself the other day. My work social club was having an Easter raffle and a bunch of us got roped in to help sell tickets. Being Easter, bunny ears were involved as a bit of a gimmick. When the guys wore them it was funny and a bit ridiculous - but when us girls wore them the connotations (and reactions) were entirely different, particularly as this is a workplace which is less than 40% female. And it was strange, but I couldn't shake the feeling that by wearing them (even with perfectly respectable, conservative work clothes) I was somehow selling out the sisterhood...

  2. I love this! I hadn't expected that anyone would comment and encourage me back. :o) Thanks for sharing your story; I've never been tomboyish (I love the idea of you beating up the guys!), but we obviously have the same pangs and possibly the same over-sensitive-sterotype-radar - I realised that my last stereotypes post was the first you ever commented on! It's so interesting hearing about your church; I pray pray pray and hope hope hope for the day that women in evangelical circles who are called to ordained ministry feel that same liberation you talk about.

    It's sad that so many innocent things have been sexualised for women, like bunny ears (I was going to write a list, but got stuck here!! TOO TIRED). I get so cranky watching shows like Australia's Got Talent (rarely, of course), when the girls always have to be sexy (sometimes they're actually told this on the show), but the guys just get to be guys. GRRRRRRRR.

    P.S. I have so many questions for you! How did you find out about this blog? What do you do for work? Will you be my friend? :o) If you get a chance and feel like responding to any of these questions, please email me! spullabam AT gmail DOT com.

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