When Modern, Progressive, Heterosexual Couples Retreat Back to Traditional Gender Roles Without Actually Retreating
My feminist boyfriend and I shared all the costs of our recent vacation 50-50. Well, sort of. Originally per his request, and ultimately per our agreement, I deposited my half of the share directly into his bank account.
Why did I agree to this, you ask? Honestly, I wanted to play along. See, during our trip, Boyfriend really wanted to act the romantic role of the chivalrous gentleman. He wanted to buy me dinner and take me out for a great time without disrespecting my ability to take care of myself.
I found myself attracted to the idea too. The prospect of one less responsibility, coupled with a week of feeling pampered, seemed like a well-deserved departure from “real life.” Ultimately, discovering that Boyfriend’s bank also had the better exchange rate sealed the deal.
The young, modern, educated woman wants it all. She wants independence, equal pay, equal access to career opportunities, and the freedom to decide whether or not to have her own family. Yet, she also wants to make the best cookies on the block, own the most stylish apartment in her neighborhood, find a partner who knows how to pamper her, and sometimes even submissively flirt in public. Women work hard; we deserve it all!
But in the context of the heterosexual relationship, what does this mean for the young, modern, educated men in our lives? I’d venture to say that even progressive, feminist men sometimes feel challenged by our success. How do we balance our success and our partner's emotions in a world that’s still growing accustomed to the female breadwinner?
In Joan William’s book Unbending Gender, she explores the strong connection between men and their traditional role as providers. According to Williams, men give themselves heart attacks and drive their bodies to impotence in order to achieve success at work. Citing Ellen Israel Cohen, Williams points out that, for blue-collar, married women in the late eighties, “their husbands’ sense of manhood [was] contingent on the shared belief that his paycheck [was] ‘supporting the family.’” Thus, many men tie their identities to their role as providers.
I’d like to hope that, over twenty years later, men have begun to separate their collective “sense of manhood” from the traditional breadwinner role. I mean, many men now recognize that they can be feminists. That seems like progress. Yet, according to Eve Weinbaum and Rachel Roth, it appears that we have a long way to go. Weinbaum and Roth remind us that while women still face a "motherhood penalty" in the workplace, men receive a "fatherhood bonus." Additionally, as Unbending Gender revealed, just as many modern women still feel obligated to work the second shift, many modern men still feel obligated to serve as the family breadwinner—even when their female partner is employed.
So, as young, modern people slowly accept “breadwinner wives” and stay-at-home daddies, what are we doing to simultaneously respect successful women and avoid emasculating the men who challenge the status quo?
We play pretend. While both partners might privately agree to very feminist ideals of equality between the sexes, many of us retreat to our traditional gender roles in public. I know I’m guilty.
A friend who loves to cook always pays for the ingredients that go into her homemade meals, but she never protests when her man pays at a restaurant. Many women take their husband’s names-- often without thinking twice. Other women let their male partners carry the heavy shopping bags.
Does playing pretend represent a healthy way to transition to a more feminist world, or does it set the movement back? Must chivalry die to accommodate feminism? Must women avoid supporting strong (and often sexual) feminine roles to allow feminism to progress?
Our game of pretend might challenge feminist ideals, but it may also be nothing more than the typical give-and-take of a healthy relationship. For now, I think I’ll savor the break and enjoy my game of pretend.