Boys and Girls

Some of today’s thoughts about gender roles.

Male pelvis, female pelvis. Image credit: Smithsonian Institute

1. I woke up this morning with an idea for a mobile app. In my mind it was called “Dadabout” or “Dad About Town” and it would resolve the problem that there is no good male-focused counterpart to the local mom’s group. 

Lest you doubt that this is actually the case (and you probably don’t), I just scanned the Meetup pages for relevant numbers, and while Meetup thinks there are around 40,000 “Dads Meetups” members in the world, the largest groups in this list are actually groups focused on single parents. The whole of NYC produces the largest dads’ group to be aimed specifically at men, with 930 members. On the distaff side in NYC, meanwhile, there are over 3,000 members in the “First Time Upper West Side Moms” group alone. Based on personal qualitative research I can also tell you that dads are similarly underrepresented in library storytimes, tumbling workshops, and karate dojo waiting rooms. 

So without groups, how do dads find other dads to chat with while their kids run around? I think there’s a space here for a good tech-enabled solution. While in-person playground friendship development is pretty easy for women, men are more apt to be on the receiving end of a hairy eyeball than a conversational overture. But what if fathers had a geo-location based social network that allowed them to see other fathers in the vicinity of a playground, and could indicate that they were planning to be there? Fathers could co-locate and chat instead of standing mutely around at scattered playgrounds. It would solve the gender-related small-numbers problem without requiring a single dad to pick up a phone.

Then, thinking about this idea a little bit more I started considering the stereotypes of men at playgrounds. Then I started thinking that a service like this might need to publicly advertise that it verifies and screens users in order to pass muster. And then I started thinking about how something that allowed men to know where another person’s children would be might itself be seen as a threat. And then I thought, there’s no exit from this problem, is there? By including a system to prove users were “good” fathers, the service would implicitly criminalize involved fatherhood, with the specific exception of fathers who’d been individually cleared.

And then I got tired, and decided that we only have a few more years of playground monitoring; we’ll just stick it out.

2. Today’s Washington Post came with a section cover-story on being “genderqueer at the gym.” The author is someone who was born female and now identifies as someone in a gray area between male and female. The story concerns the mixed feelings the author has about the public gym. On the one hand, the gym is a great place to get big and impress other people. The author describes enjoying the performance of masculinity through assertive weightlifting, conscious of being territorial over space and not having to say “please” or “thank you” like a woman would. On the other hand, the gym is an oppressive space because the author is still compelled to use the woman’s changing room, against preference. 

I would not presume to tell the author that they appear simply to be male-identified and that they should go for it and just call himself male. However, it was really disappointing to hear someone consider themselves to be genderqueer and still express such an incredibly reductive perspective on what it is to be female. Women are “elliptical addicts” who exist behind a “pink veil.” Female qualities are submission, smallness, cooking, and dancing. Even bio-men whom the author describes are identified as genderqueer because they wear “fabulous pink dresses.”

I know I shouldn’t read too much into what one person who is obviously on hir own journey has to say, but these are descriptions of the performance of a stereotype of femininity. To the extent that the author rejects them for hirself, zhe shares the experience of myself and many of my female friends: the desire to frame ourselves as self-determining and autonomous social beings. The problem of being trapped in reductive stereotypes of femininity is a problem that’s obviously shared beyond the genderqueer community.

Just like it is still challenging to publicly and socially perform involved fatherhood, it is still challenging to publicly and socially perform self-determination as a woman. As we collectively “genderqueer” society by removing limits on what sex will determine our opportunities to be, we’ll have to make genuine new combinations of traits and embrace all of them. 

3. I haven’t seen Frozen yet and I don’t have a strong interest in doing so, but I understand that the movie is seen as one of the “better” Disney movies for girls. I saw Dana Stevens’ article today on Slate about how she wished that the big, liberating musical number for one of the female protagonists didn’t involve the character getting made over into a more-seductive version of herself.

There was the predictable anti-feminist blather in the comments thread; Slate doesn’t seem to do much comment-moderation for anti-feminist vitriol. However, there was also a less mean-spirited argument that this character’s visual sexualization was a representation of her maturation, and that sexuality is an aspect of female power. This argument is consonant with “sex-positive feminism,” a perspective that identifies a woman’s decision to perform traditional sexiness as an empowered choice if she personally chooses it.

Disney is often criticized for its depictions of girls and women – both for the sexualization and the diminution/disappearing of female bodies. However, Disney depictions of girls and women are so challenging not merely because they tell stories we don’t like but because they are child-oriented distillations of broad social beliefs. As a member of a society that has produced Miley Cyrus, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that youthful sexuality appears to be a potent and important form of power.

So what do we do with this? Is Disney the message, the bad model to attack? Or is it just the messenger?

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