Oops, I Performed My Gender Role Again

hqdefaultThrough my permanent gender lens glasses, I feel like there is very little that people in heterosexual relationships do in those partnerships that can escape the reproducing or the defying of gender roles. Gender is so endogenous to the way we perceive our personal identities and interact with other people. It’s not surprising that the process of gender performance shapes people’s love lives with the opposite sex. (And probably also shape many personal and professional relationships outside of romance.)

On an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT NOTE, my husband and I just set up our record player in our dining room. Now we spend time at home listening to full albums, including rare gems recorded from his childhood home of St. Croix that he found at the flea market there. It’s certainly improved my quality of life at home. But even with my increased enjoyment of music on a regular basis, it’s nothing near how it’s affected his excitement at having time at home to listen to records.

So when I saw this post on “the Uncomfortable Gender Politics of ‘My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection’” by Judy Berman on Flavorwire, I knew some chords were about to be struck (music pun intended). My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection is a cute blog where the author reviews records in her husband’s collection in an accessible and enjoyable way, myself being probably a similar music listener as her and appreciating vinyl record nostalgia. I also sympathize with the background story of being a partner of someone who owns records that just take up a lot of space.

But Berman brings up something bigger happening here underlying the unexpected popularity of the blog. After numerous people, who all happened to be men, shared the blog, she writes, “the subtext couldn’t have been more clear: The people who love music, are frighteningly knowledgeable about it, and accumulate enormous record collections are dudes. Women know very little about music, find this behavior entirely alien, and could stand to educate themselves rather than hollering at their husbands to get rid of these goddamn dusty records already.”

I am all in support of any person broadening their horizons and enjoying culture, and sometimes a partner’s interest can spur this, and that can be great. But what Berman is getting on to is akin a phrase I once heard. When (heterosexual) people get married – two become one, and one becomes the husband. While it is great to learn about the person you love by learning about the things they love, there can be a tendency in relationships for the man’s interests to dominate over the woman’s interests, where the woman makes an effort to be a part of his interests without reciprocal effort on his part to learn about her interests. Berman brings up that this is just a reflection of “the more general, ’70s-Woody-Allen-worthy idea that heterosexual relationships revolve around men educating women.” In addition to this, I’m sure many of the men sharing this article don’t mind another story about a woman trying to please her man and make herself more appealing to her man.

Although this may explain part of the popularity of the blog, what about the intention of the author and her relationship with her husband? Does the personal politics of the author matter and how much should it matter? Gender role performance is so deeply ingrained in us that we unconsciously continue to perform our gender identities, despite our gender politics. It’s useful to analyze the gender politics of the popularity of this blog. But does that mean that the subject matter of the blog itself is a reflection of traditional gender roles or not?

Sometimes even the most seemingly non-gendered things we do, like listening to records, can mimic traditional gender roles when we look at the larger context in which these activities or circumstances take place. The blog author listening to her partner’s music is not a traditional gendered activity per se (this is not the stuff of a 1960s Mad Men-style marriage), but she is doing it within the context of the masculine culture of music expertise and the tendency for wives to be eager to learn about their husband’s interests as a way to be closer with him.

For many, there can be a struggle between how one individually lives their life in a heterosexual partnership and the ways in which it unintentionally mimics traditional gender roles, sometimes despite even the most feminist politics. How much does the intent of the people in a relationship matter against the inadvertent performance of their genders? I ask this, because I actually really want to know for my own relationship. Even though there are many ways in which we don’t perform our genders in traditional ways in our lives – I’m an economist and my husband works in the arts, two fields that can be described as masculine and feminine respectively – our personal relationship with each other often just happens to appear to be a totally traditional marriage, including the traditional gender roles of a time we thought we were enlightenedly beyond. For example – one BIG example – my husband is currently working to support both of us. Granted, this is because I am finishing my PhD and he can attest to what a lousy housewife I’d make, sometimes I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt over feeling like I’m housewife because I am supported by my hardworking husband. I know I’m not a housewife because my current work situation is due to my investment in my professional career, but still… We can’t deny that we do appear to be replicating traditional gender roles in the historical context of marriage that has upheld those uneven roles for thousands of years.

My own uncomfortable gender politics goes beyond the observations made about My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection. But is the antidote to this defying gender roles at every opportunity? There needs to be a place to judge the relative importance of gender role performance alongside the why and how the roles are being performed. Sarah O’Holla may be performing her gender role, but she is also doing this alongside gaining more expertise in the male-dominated world of music. I might be supported by my husband for now, but this is so I can be a feminist economist in my career. In order to live feminist gender politics in ones personal life, do we need to completely deny anytime that traditional gender roles just sort of happen without acknowledging the intention behind them? When is it okay to be mimicking or plain ol’ reproducing traditional gender roles and when isn’t it? Furthermore, is this criticism of that blog a constructive discussion of gender politics or is it harping (and even this word is gender-laden) on the relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of the feminist revolution? Here is where the role of intentions of those reproducing gender roles can matter, but more so, acknowledging the interplay of intentions and social context that influence these intentions.

In the meantime, I will continue to work my way through my own husband’s stupid record collection.


Categories: Angry Feminists, Arts and Entertainment-1, Means of Reproduction

2 replies

  1. In Melissa Harris-Perry’s talk with Michaela Angela Davis there’s an interesting moment during the Q&A where Michaela Angela Davis asks Melissa Harris-Perry where she goes for comfort and she answers “my husband.” She apologizes because she thinks it’s such an un-feminist answer and, while I’m woefully unqualified to critique Melissa Harris-Perry on feminism, I wonder if it really is an un-feminist answer. To choose a partner who is supportive of you, respectful of you, and gives you some feeling of comfort and home seems like a remarkably feminist thing to do.

    This is vaguely unrelated but I also think that there is nothing un-feminist about female-identified people choosing feminine things and taking feminine roles. The great thing about feminism is that it not only makes masculine identities available to female-identified people, it also increases the value of feminine identities, making these roles available to people of all genders.

    All this to say that I don’t think folks should be immediately concerned if they find themselves reproducing their gender roles (in part because some people really genuinely love their gender roles) but rather be concerned if they’re feeling forced to reproduce gender roles or feel like they’re reproducing them all the time such that the power is permanently imbalanced in one person’s favor (something that’s true of all relationships, regardless of gender identity).

  2. I’ve been researching the topic of Intimate Partner Violence for the past 2 years as a Ph.D Student. I’ve also raised a son and this is a second career. I’ve come to think that there are gender qualities; however, they are on a continuum, the culture socializes to the extremes, and that continuum is very individual specific. My sister-in-law was having heart surgery and scared. She told me that she wanted my son to have her nick-nacks because he was sentimental and would want them. Whereas her daughter and my son’s half-sister would not be interested. While the gender continuum might average out, at an individual level it is very unique.

    My concern is that we only seem to value the male qualities. Today, girls are encouraged to take math and science yet boys are called gay if they want to be cheerleaders. The school primers have girls doing “boy” and “girl” activities, whereas boys only do “boy” activities. The concern for me is not that there are gendered qualities, but that socially now both feminists and patriarchal culture devalue “girl” activities. I think that men can support feminist activities by engaging in “girl” activities with boys. And women can stop attacking those women who enjoy traditional roles and those women who enjoy traditional roles stop putting down women who work. For in my eyes, what we now do to each other is tragic.

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