Tuesday, July 30, 2013


This is intended to be a companion post (maybe second in a trilogy) to my earlier post on Marriage.

Babies, outside of the biologically obvious (when changing a diaper), don't have gender - not really. My daughter's hair has grown slowly; she's often confused for a boy. Everyone is really apologetic when they get it wrong. I'm not sure why. Outside of societally accepted color schemes, there's very little way to tell.

Prior to WWII, all babies essentially wore white gowns until they were three or so. Why? Because babies poop. A lot. If your baby poops and color safe bleach hasn't been invented yet, white is the easiest color to keep clean. It was a near universal attitude that during those first few years, they're babies before they're anything else.

It was only as the US economy transitioned to a consumption-based model, that pink and blue came into style. Clothing companies needed ways to sell baby clothes and compete for market share. Unisex white gowns wouldn't bring in the dough. Fast forward 70 years and we've got such differentiated clothes, even someone (like myself) attempting to keep neutrality in my daughter's wardrobe is completely befuddled (really, you take the same exact outfit with a bear on the front, but you have to put a bow on one and overalls on the other? Really?). The colors and designs of her clothes have been decided by someone else, some place else - and I'm told it only gets worse as they grow older.

We certainly have plenty of societal and historical expectations - and plenty of stereotypes - but what does gender actually mean? Are there things only men should do and things only women should do? What if you're a man who doesn't do "man" things or a woman who isn't down with the female list?

There is the obvious - men and women have different reproductive organs. There are clear delineations between roles in reproduction. Even the intersex (humans born with some combination of male and female genitalia) cannot be either a mother or a father (most are sterile). Women tend to be more physically capable of extremely long endurance activities, but lack strength and musculature to excel at shorter physical endeavors. Hormones are different for different people. But beyond the biological - is there a definable difference?

For thousands of years, the answer was, "of course, you silly, weak, dainty, intellectually inferior little girl." Gender tended (and still does tend) to be defined by power dynamics (and women's more complicated hygiene needs, coupled with the sheer dirtiness of the majority of human history didn't help either). But from Katherine Switzer, to Marie Curie to Queen Elizabeth, a lot of those misogynistic judgments have come into question.

In the biblical account of creation, "Adam" refers to a generic human without designation for gender. It is a collective noun. It is only after the infamous fruit-eating incident, that the man takes the title "Adam" (or human) for himself and relegates the woman to a lesser status.

Even the word translated "helper" in Genesis 2 can be confused easily without context. The Hebrew word here is often used as an attribute of God. We often read the female as "helper" and think subordinate or assistant or apprentice. It means the opposite - an indispensable partner. In God's understanding of humanity, humanity itself doesn't exist without men and women in equal and equally supportive roles.*

This might, I suppose, still lend itself to specifically defined gender roles - a sort of cosmic "separate, but equal" policy. (We all know how well that worked out other times we've tried it). Instead, I've come to think of gender as much more about complimentariness. We supply what others lack.

I'll be honest, I come to this from a selfish point of view. I have few of the characteristics typical of men - and almost none of those associated with "real men." (I'd add Tim Allen's signature grunt here but, typically or atypically, I find it off-putting rather than endearing.) My wife and I went to one of those all-day marriage seminars early in our marriage. We spent the whole day scratching our heads about how little any of it made sense, until, right before we left, the presenters said, "Oh, and if you're one of those rare couples where the gender tendencies are reversed, you work differently and none of this stuff will apply to you."

Comment Card: Maybe you should lead with that next time!

I'm enough of a man to admit I'm the wife. Except I have enough of the typically male traits not to be the wife. I cook most of our meals, but I'm not particularly good at it. I don't clean well. I watch a lot of sports. No one who knows my wife would suggest she's somehow mannish. We're very different people and we defy the stereotypes pretty firmly. Yet we're exceptionally complementary.

The stereotypes are important because they represent completion. Passive-aggressive, hefty-dainty, emotional-rational. Those are necessary opposites; one without the other is dangerous. Our society is made to work together. We literally can't function without complementary relationships. If any human interaction lacks any of these important elements, things will go wrong. Just because there is a tendency for one gender to do some of these things better than others, doesn't mean its universal - nor is it determinative.

I talk about marriage because that's where this is most clearly identified - our most intimate relationships require this essential human complimentariness more closely than others - but it applies to any scenario where people partner together. Marriage isn't for everyone, but we all have to work together. We were created as relational, interdependent beings. This is basic, foundational stuff.

I want to state again, I'm not saying that gender is only a biological determinant. Our biology is inextricably intertwined with our personality. You can separate soul and body. Certainly our biology dictates tendencies between the genders. Men and women are not identical, but then again, neither are any two individual human beings. There is a real place for gender as a collective and representative designation in some areas, but we need to move beyond gender as a fixed, definitive label to explain individuals. Man or woman, we're better than that.

*You can read more of the biblical exegesis stuff here.

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