Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Playing Pretend

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.


tomindavis said...

I really enjoyed this blog, AMS. Your personal story was fresh and candid, and resonated for all of us who realize that modern relationships, while often free from error in the abstract, can create quirky realities in practice.

Your reflections on your different needs, and of your different personas as a woman, were very honest. They also are very common, I bet. Also, I appreciated your insights into men, and their sense of role in a feminist world, even as the constraints (see: Joan Williams) continue to expect and force them to retain masculinized roles as the "breadwinner."
Perhaps the playing pretend is not altogether a bad thing. If used by all as you say you use it, then it is an exercise in sexual intimacy and gender roles, played out not in public, yes, but controlled by the two of you in a private way. It would allow healthy exercises of femininity and masculinity, such as making the cookies, or picking up the tab. It would indeed be "playing," and as long as it is couched that way, it might not be all that bad.

S said...

I echo tomindavis's compliments AMS. I, too, play pretend. However, when I play pretend, I cannot help but feel a bit guilty. I begin to wonder: Is this me having my cake and eating it too? Am I seeking to be a feminist (the delicious cake of liberation) while simultaneously preserving the traditional Latina/o notions of traditional gender roles? When I begin working this contradiction out in my head, I realize that I do not have a firm grasp and understanding of what a feminist relationship looks like.
I cannot help but wonder how eschewing traditional gender roles in favor of liberated and equal significant others would translate in a relationship?

A. M. Ayoub said...

GREAT post! Very honest and I think many men and women can relate to the "playing pretend" situation. In my dream world chivalry is not dead, and men are comfortable enough with women's success that there is no need to force the "breadwinner"/dependent roles.

I also think I should say that this dynamic is also prevalent in same-sex relationships (at least all of mine!). Subtle roles seem to develop that neither party really wants to acknowledge or confront. There are tendencies to adopt or mimic the traditional hetero roles, no matter how progressive the couple. I haven't found a solution, but I will say that these roles are difficult to combat and often challenge my ideas feminist/masculinity/femininity balance.

Ringo1985 said...

I think that this blog touches on gender dynamics that are often not spoken of openly. More importantly, I think it also brings up another pertinent topic of "playing pretend." When a woman, a self-declared feminist, allows for her husband or significant other to "foot the bill," how much of her independence is she ceding to her other half?

I am very ambivalent about this issue myself. Sometimes, when I meet women who espouse feminist ideology while living lives subsidized by a working spouse, I find myself frustrated. I don't mean to turn this into a class issue, but "S" said, having your cake and eating it too seems a bit problematic. For lack of a more articulate phrase, it may not be fair to "turn" independence "on and off." Although I do it all of the time, it doesn't seem to right to pronounce my views on financial independence and women's rights one day, and that night retreat back into the arms of my boyfriend who will pay for my dinner and buy me wine. How do I fit these two seemingly inconsistent traits together? I"m not exactly sure. A part of me thinks that as long as I hold onto my ideals on feminism and feminism, that's better than nothing. On the other hand, the other parts of my life that are characterized by a traditional heterosexual relationship seem to "counteract" the other side...

Alejandro said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking post AMS. Since reading this post, I've spent some time considering the questions you've raised here. Unfortunately, I've been unable, like some of the other posters here, to come to a definitive conclusion with regards to this issue.

If "playing pretend" is simply, as another poster here suggested, a healthy exercise in femininity and masculinity played out in private, then there shouldn't really be any problem here. Such playing would merely be a way for couples to express love and intimacy with one another. In my opinion, this seems to be the correct view of what you've described in your post, though, in time, views on this topic may gradually shift to reflect the widespread changes occuring in male-female roles in our society.

Rose Sawyer said...

I agree with other commentators; I like the notion of "playing pretend." In a utopian world, where gender roles were not rigid/assigned but fluid/willingly adopted, an individual could playfully assume any role that he or she desired.

In many relationships, "playing" publicly is inextricable from "playing" privately. Perhaps one partner picks up the tab -- but also, that night, is more giving in bed. Or maybe one partner paints another's toes. Who's in charge? It is this sort of dynamic, constant interplay that makes relationships exciting, interesting and fun.

Gender equality exists when both parties feel self-actualized, appreciated, and happy. There's not anything wrong with dominant and submissive or active and passive roles, per se, as long as they are not reflective of underlying expectations, but are instead playful.

Megan said...

I really liked your title, "playing pretend" because it made me wonder—why did we play pretend as kids, and are those reasons the same today. So, I looked it up and apparently, pretend play is very common for pre-school aged children and is incredibly important in cognitive development and gender identification. For children, it is a way to try out different identities and to create a world outside of “real life.” For adults, however, it is not the imaginative game it once was. Instead, it is an acknowledgment that we are creatures of tradition and habit. We don’t play pretend to experience the lives of beings different from ourselves. It is not an exercise of creativity. Rather, as you suggest, it is a game of conformity. And I play it too.

Unlike heterosexual couples, however, my fiancĂ©e (we discussed this over dinner) will sometimes do or say something “feminine” in order to disprove a generalization—that all lesbians are butch. For instance, I will sometimes catch myself commenting on someone’s shoes in a check-out line—something along the lines of, “Cute shoes! Where’d you get those?!” I really don’t care about her shoes. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever bought a pair of shoes unless I had to.

It’s not that butch equals bad. Rather, we are afraid of being stereotyped immediately just because we are in a same sex relationship. I am not the most feminine of people, but I do not want my femininity stripped from my identity simply because I am lesbian. So, I overcompensate.