Debunking the Myth of Man as Breadwinner – Provider, Part 2

This is Part 2 of Debunking the Myth of Man as Breadwinner – Provider. Part 1 can be found here.

Part 1 focused on my psychotic need to defend my position as stay-at-home-father against real perceived threats. It also addressed why I found myself in the position of “lifestyle self-defense”, and we began to explore the topic of the Breadwinner – Provider “myth”. I left off by offering a rather scintillating bit of bait to ensnare you and bring you back to read more. I mentioned that anthropologists had been doing research on how to dismantle the old gender-driven paradigm – the so-called “way of things.” I’ll admit now that this isn’t the most recent bit of research; however, it continues to hold sway as one of the most cited articles in sociology. It has been cited in four different articles this month alone – and it’s only April 2nd. So there. I’ll get to the details in a moment, but first let us journey back in time once more, to the land flowing with milk and honey…

I wanted to revisit the fertile crescent during the birth of agriculture. I don’t want to tarry here too long, but I need to make sure we’re all on the same page. I mentioned in part 1 that it was during this epoch that men began being perceived (perhaps enforcing this “perceiving”) as breadwinners and providers. I want to make it abundantly clear, before we move ahead, that this was a perception. An idea that began forming in the minds of the blossoming farmers and bakers and artisans of the human race. This was a novelty, a concept, an experiment even. It seems unlikely that at some point the villagers huddled together and said, “let’s make sure the women don’t leave the huts, because over there [pointing toward the furrows aligned against the afternoon sun], over there, that’s our work”. Hell, who knows? Maybe this is precisely what occurred. I wasn’t there. But neither were you, so you’re going to have to go along with me for now.

Whatever the case, men began to locate themselves more in fields, while women were found a bit more each day in huts and communal areas. Even so, men weren’t clearly, biologically, pragmatically superior to women. They weren’t “meant to work in the fields while the women tended the cooking fires”. For one thing, it only takes so much force to cut through topsoil with the blade of a hoe. (In Uganda, young children are often given “cute” child-sized hand tools and set alongside their parents – tilling, weeding, hoeing, cultivating. Whether the children view it as “play” or “work” is irrelevant: their work is valued as a necessity come high planting season. They can swing a hoe or machete as skillfully as the next person) This nascent division of labor was merely an arrangement that made sense to humans as they made the journey from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists; as they left the deepest forests and began to coalesce in more populous agriculturally-driven units. Someone had to plant the crops, tend them, harvest them; just as someone had to feed the kids, teach them, succor them. It just so happened that women’s bodies lent themselves quite nicely to raising children. Men got off the hook easy.

Phew. I hope I’ve not detoured too far. I just wanted to attempt to prove (to myself as much as anyone) that the division of labor based upon sex was not simply one of biology – though that played a significant part, to be sure. Rather, like pottery or rain dances or cave paintings – and like these things, in that at one point in time they were deemed essential for survival – it was a facet of cultural expression. So: division of labor = biology + culture + social needs.

So what? Who cares? (Rhetorical questions, earnest questions, questions I’m asking myself with hands waving about.) Well, I care. And not because I’m some neo-hippie with a man bun. This seems like an absurdly relevant issue for our modern world, our modern workforce, our modern home life. What if we wholeheartedly adopted the idea that work was work was work? Would more men sign up to stay home and raise their children as opposed to handing them over to someone else for the day? Would women feel more empowered to seek out their passions in the workforce and the horizons beyond the homefront? Could we dispel anachronistic haze around terms like “male nurse”, “female lawyer”, and (my least favorite) “Mr. Mom”? (Like a friend of mine put so well, “I believe the term you are looking for is ‘Dad’”.)

But, you ask, if one were interested in enacting change, how could one go about this? What is a practical step we can take right now, in this moment? Well, I’m glad you asked.

According to Candace West and Don Zimmerman in their seminal 1987 paper entitled Doing Gender, gender is not something we are but something we do. They contend: “Doing gender involves a complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine ‘nature’”.

At this point it’s vital that we understand three distinctions: sex, sex category, and gender. A person’s sex is the anatomical “stuff” they are born with; their “junk” if you will. (I will.) A person’s sex category is the way they are perceived by others, as in “what category do you fall into” – male or female. Gender is a bit more ambiguous a beast. It is, according to West and Zimmerman, a complex of “configurations of behavior” and “an emergent feature of social situations: both as an outcome of and a rationale for various social arrangements and as a means of legitimating one of the most fundamental divisions of society”. It’s the stuff you do on a moment by moment basis, much of it rather unconsciously, that shows people you are a man or a woman.

Another way of looking at all of this is:

Sex = private(s); things you don’t let generally let the public see. (Though occasionally, like in the act of streaking, you might let some people see.)

Sex category = the things that everyone sees, whether you choose to present them or not. Your body shape and ownership or lack of things like facial hair, breasts, bulging muscles, deep voice, etc. Sex category is what most of us use to judge people: “Oh, he’s the guy with that nasty facial hair. She’s the chic with humongous knockers. He’s the weird guy with the pronounced adam’s apple.”

Gender = what you actively do to prove your sex to others. Behavior, clothing styles, voice affectations, mannerisms, displays of “manliness” and “womanliness”.

Think of the swashbuckling hero saving the helpless damsel in distress. Unless we’re watching a porno, we can’t see their genitals, so we can’t prove definitively whether the hero is a man and the damsel is a woman. So we move onto sex category to see if they match up with anything we know: well, that hero is rather large and in charge, he’s got a 5 o’clock shadow and rippling muscles. The damsel is positively bursting out of her bodice, has big pouty lips and long lush hair. They are clearly male and female. If there was still any doubt, we could look to their actions (their gender): the hero is arrogant, reckless, laughing in the face of danger and death, skillfully swinging his saber. The damsel is shrieking, cowering, crying, pleading for salvation. We’re inclined to say: “Yeah, that guy is a man!” and “Whoa, that broad is a woman!” Again, we’ve not seen anyone’s junk. We’re going on their portrayals.

Now that we have a good grasp of how gender is different than sex, we can return to our conversation about undoing it. (Which, hopefully by now, you have realized that I am not harping about “undoing” the fact that I have a penis and you may have a vagina. Again, I’m not into that. If you are though, more power to you.) And it’s not that I’m even into “undoing gender” on a mass. I am interested, rather, in the ways in which “undoing gender” can begin to reverse centuries of damage done by a strict adherence to a set of “rules” whose only authority lies in the daily sub/unconscious cultural upkeep of them. That is, how can we redefine or erase some harmful stereotypes that are keeping everybody from living more harmoniously?

I think we can all instantaneously dredge up imagery for which sex would be doing the following things: changing a diaper, firing a rifle, cooking a meal, vacuuming a rug, chopping down a tree. Though these stereotypes are being challenged more and more every day by amazing people all over the globe, the fact remains: You probably, unconsciously and through no fault of your own, instantly paired a person – male or female – with a given task listed above. Through no fault of our own I mean to say, we have all of us been so thoroughly enculturated, socialized, dogmatized, indoctrinated, that even though we may outwardly scoff at the notion that we assigned genders to each task above, somewhere deep down – perhaps buried by years of actively practicing a mindful way of thinking – we hold on to those things which ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ planted in us from before we could speak. That is, we thought to ourselves: “Easy. A woman is changing the diaper, a man is firing the rifle, a woman is cooking a meal”. How dare you. How dare I.

There is hope, however. We need not all turn into our grandfather’s generation. We can, instead, practice “undoing” gender. That’s correct. Undoing gender. Let me explain.

If the concept of gender is not merely biological in nature, but also cultural (as so many smart people have already stated, far too many, in fact, to bother trying to cite them here), then it stands to reason that there should be more than one way to go about shape-shifting, as it were. To biologically change sex requires some rather drastic medical steps. I wouldn’t personally want to exchange my twig and berries, but I certainly have nothing against a person who would. It takes a lot of balls to pull off a complete gender transformation. Balls, and money, and patience, I would imagine. (Again, I have no experience whatsoever in this area.) But there are other ways to challenge and change gender without going under the knife. West and Zimmerman offer us a simple solution: stop doing what you’re doing.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi (a tiny nation in East Africa), I often sat quietly in the evenings wondering if what I was doing with my time was worthwhile. (It was, mostly.) The question plagued every volunteer. It was obvious any time we happened to be gathered together in large numbers. (Like Tusken Raiders. Swarming, pillaging, the whole bit.) I can’t count the number of times I found myself, late in the night, “well-oiled” on local brew, discussing issues of international development, foreign aid, sustainability – all under the stars or in the midst of stinky paraffin lanterns. The infamous “question” would always get asked: usually by someone too gutless to stick around for the intensity that would immediately follow. The questions was seemingly simple: What if… every foreign aid agency, every form of development aid, every NGO, every church group and semester abroad college student, every military unit and volunteer and UNICEF agent… what if they suddenly all left, all at once, tomorrow.

Occasionally, someone would threaten to do another person bodily harm, but mostly, agreement was attained: Africa would implode, for a time. Complete pandemonium, the likes of which has perhaps never been seen on the planet, would almost certainly ensue. Close to a billion people suddenly scrambling, scrabbling for resources, land, money, waterways, buildings – all up for grabs. The place would go nuts. It would be an absolute shit show. Lots and lots of people would die, be killed, starve. Every conceivable ill that has ever befallen humanity would befall the continent, swallow it alive. The storm would rage a year, or five, or thirty. But eventually, it would pass. And you know what? People would adapt; they would figure shit out. They would rebuild, and reforge, forgive, renew. And the entire continent (save some pockets of extremists, most likely) would be reborn. Not since the age of colonialism would something of a similar magnitude have taken place. And some day, many years from that first morning where the locals were left among the vacated shops and houses and agencies, a boy would ask his grandfather “Papa, what was it like when the azungu lived here?” And the grandfather, stooped and bent, grisled and gray, would reply, “Well, let me tell you…”

My point is, overnight sea change is drastic, insanely difficult, and harrowing. But, it is also necessary, fruitful, and regenerative in the long run. So, we can pose a similar question about gender roles. (Notice, all ye who might be quick to make me out as some gender-confused seeker of justifications: I continually refer to gender roles. Not gender itself, not gender alone. Gender roles. Please take a moment and make sure you are on the same page as me here.) The question we can pose about gender roles is: What if we were all – all of us, bankers, bakers, long-distance runners, nurses, heroin addicts, preachers, convenience store clerks – what if we suddenly decided to stop “doing” gender roles as they’re “supposed” to be done? What if we – every last one of us – flipped the paradigm on its head, starting tomorrow morning?

Why, it would be – like our Africa scenario – absolute mayhem. Pandemonium. (A lovely little word, coined by John Milton in his epic Paradise Lost to describe the scene in hell as thousands upon thousands of demons flapped their spoilt wings in concert.) Shit would hit the fan. Hard. I wouldn’t want to leave the house. For a year. Or thirty. But, one day, like the continent of Africa in our thought experiment, things would start falling back into place. Distorted, dystopian scenes would begin righting themselves, skewed images would begin justifying. And we would be left with a world filled with a much more holistic conception of justice, fair share, responsibility sharing, egalitarian thinking, division of labor.

The thing is, this is happening (to a far less dramatic extent) all over the place. Women are leaving the home in ever greater numbers to look for work. Men are taking the backseat more and more often to allow their partners to join the workforce. And this is not even about making a point: many families are finding that women, by dint of their career choice and skills, have higher earning potential than the men. It’s basic economics. It’s smart financial planning. If I were to force my wife (who will, a year from now, be a license nurse practitioner) to stay at home, citing that “men need to do the providing,” it would be a grave disservice to both of us, and our child. I have never, in all my random years of work, earned even half of what she will make the minute she crosses the graduation floor. What kind of idiot would I have to be to cut my family’s income in half just to enact some stereotypical vision of a “man’s responsibility?”

(For the record, I do work outside the home as well.)

The same folks who I quoted above also posit that one can actively “undo” gender (that is, gender roles, stereotypes, biases) by simply flipping the old system on its head. That same set of completely random tasks I mentioned earlier: changing a diaper, firing a rifle, cooking a meal, etc., should simply be undertaken by the opposite gender that your mind (no offense to it, the lovely piece of biomechanical evolutionary engineering it is) automatically jumped to. Men should change diapers, women should fire rifles (though, I would contend that no one should fire rifles), men should cook meals and vacuum rugs, women should chop down the trees, etc. By doing the exact opposite of what people expect us to do, we are engaging in the “undoing” of gender. And this, it turns out, is really subversive! People don’t like to have to think on their toes, don’t enjoy being caught off guard without a ready response. When people are caught off guard, they are defensive. What “undoing gender” proposes is not for the faint of heart. But hey, there’s a ton of stuff that’s worthwhile about which one could say the same.

This post has become absurdly long, and will apparently require one final part. In part 3, we will take a look at how men in Vietnam are practicing the “undoing” of gender on a large scale, and the resulting experiences. I hope to pop it out in about a week.


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