Published:  01:08 AM, 18 July 2017

Feminism and traditional gender roles


"I'm not a feminist - I like men!" "I'm not a feminist-I think women should be able to stay at home and raise children if they want to!" "I'm not a feminist - I wear a bra!" The above quotes by Lois Tyson tell us a lot about the prevailing misconception surrounding feminism as an ideology. An ideology, from the Marxist perspective, is a belief system, and all belief systems are products of cultural conditioning. So the society we live in and the culture we uphold have a lot to do with the way we look at the extent of right or wrong for its inhabitants.

One common misconception is that a feminist is necessarily one with hatred towards men. Many of us have brought feminism down to whatever we reckon its most objectionable element and, on that ground, have rejected it. This attitude points to the oversimplified, negative view of feminism that still persists in our culture. For it is from the culture at large-the home, the workplace, the media, and so on-that we have come to have the antifeminist bias we sometimes bring into any discussion on the same.

To elucidate how this negative oversimplification works to blind us to the seriousness of the issues feminism puts forth, we can bring on one of the most maligned feminist claims: that we should not use the masculine pronoun he to represent both men and women. Such use of the masculine pronoun is also termed arbitrary gender because it is used as an anaphor to refer to an antecedent that is an indefinite pronoun with no reference to any particular sex like in the following sentences:

 Everybody should do his duty.
 or,
 Anyone can do this if he tries.

Many view this claim as an instance of the trivial, even infantile, nature of the feminist demands. Will it make a big difference if we use the "inclusive he" to refer to members of both sexes? We know what we intend when we do it: it is simply a convention of language that includes both male and females. These are people who believe that feminists should just concentrate on getting women an equal share at the dough and be oblivious to all this nonsensical fuss about pronouns. But in reality the use of the pronoun he to refer to members of both sexes reflects and helps to perpetuate "a habit of seeing," a way of looking at life itself, that uses male experience as the standard by which the experience of both sexes is evaluated.

To put it differently, despite the claim that the inclusive he represents both men and women, it is, in effect, a part of a deeply rooted cultural attitude that ignores women's experiences and blinds us to whatever points of view they may hold. The damaging effects resulting from this can be seen in a number of areas. To cite just one example out of the lot on offer, we can think of most Hollywood films where, even today, the camera eye (the point of view from which the film is shot) is dominantly male: the female characters, not male, are the objects gazed on by the camera and often depicted in an enticing manner as if a male eye were there to view them, as if the point of view of the universal moviegoers were male.

The most chilling example of the detrimental effect of this can perhaps be found in the world of modern medicine, where drugs prescribed for both sexes have often been tried out on male subjects only. As a result, women may have to go through untoward side effects while male users are unaffected. The cultural habit of seeing male experience as universal must have played its part.

We can actually put the whole ideology down to some traditional gender roles from which such perceptions regarding women usually spring. We will now look at these traditional gender roles that seem to attempt to put men on a higher footing than women.

Any woman in any given society is what we can call a patriarchal woman. By patriarchal woman I mean, beyond a doubt, a woman has internalized the norms and values of patriarchy, which we can define as any culture that privileges men by promoting traditional gender roles. Traditional gender roles present men as rational, strong, protective, and decisive while on the flip side, they cast women as emotional (irrational) weak, nurturing, and submissive.

These gender roles assigned to both with no strong proof to validate them have always been used very successfully to justify inequities against women in all spheres of life, which still occur today in different forms, such as segregating women from equal access to leadership and decision-making positions (in the family as well as in politics, academia, and the corporate world) paying men higher wages than women for doing the same job (if women are ever able to obtain a job), and convincing women that they are not fit for careers in such areas as mathematics and engineering. Many might claim that such inequities are a thing of the past because of the enforcement of antidiscriminatory laws, such as the law that guarantees women equal pay for equal work. However, these laws are often side-stepped. For example, an employer can pay a woman less for performing the same work as a man (or for doing more work than a man) simply by giving her a different job title.

Patriarchy is thus, by its very definition, sexist, which suggests it promotes the belief that women are innately inferior to men. This belief in the inherent inferiority of women is a form of what is technically termed biological essentialism because it is founded on biological differences between the sexes that are considered part of our unchanging essence as men and women.

A striking illustration can be found in the use of the word hysteria, which originates from the Greek word for womb (hystera) and refers to psychological disorders deemed peculiar to women and characterized by overemotional, extremely irrational behavior that almost borders on insanity. There is no gainsaying the biological difference between men and women but it is absurd to indulge in the belief that such differences as physique, shape, and body chemistry serve to make men naturally superior to women: for instance, more intelligent, more logical, more courageous, or better leaders.

Feminists therefore distinguish between the word sex which refers to our biological constitution as female or male, and the word gender, which refers to our cultural programming as feminine or masculine. In other words, women are not born feminine, nor are men born masculine. Rather, these gender categories are constructed by society, which is why this view of gender is an example of what has come to be called social constructionism.

A patriarchal woman is socially programmed, as are most women and men, not to see the ways in which women are oppressed by traditional gender roles and a recovering patriarchal woman is one who is learning to recognize and defy that programming.  The point is fairly simple: patriarchy continually exerts forces that undermine women's self-confidence and assertiveness, then points to the absence of these qualities as proof that women are naturally, and therefore correctly, self-effacing and submissive. In short, women are programmed to fail.

A recovering patriarchal woman is also very aware of the ways in which patriarchal gender roles are destructive for men as well as for women. Because traditional gender roles dictate that men are supposed to be strong (physically powerful and emotionally stoic), they are not supposed to cry because crying is considered a sign of weakness, a sign that one has been overpowered by emotions. For analogous reasons, it is considered unmanly for men to show fear or pain or to express their sympathy for other men. In addition, men are not permitted to fail at anything they try because failure in any domain implies failure in one's manhood.

Last but not the least is the role played by language itself. The persistence of repressive attitude towards women's sexuality is still visible in language. For example, we use the negative word slut to describe a woman who sleeps with a number of men while we use the positive word stud to describe a man who sleeps with a number of women.


The writer is Vice Principal cum O Levels English Language Teacher, London Grace International School, Bangladesh

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