DINH: Gender norms corroding

Indie singer and actress Zooey Deschanel once tweeted, “I wish everyone looked like a kitten,” and she writes a DIY art-and-crafts blog for women. In an interview with Allure magazine earlier this year, she defended her seemingly frivolous and decidedly girly style. Regardless of whether Deschanel is a disgrace to womankind, she says — rightly — that society views femininity negatively and associates it with being weak.

We shouldn’t shun femininity entirely. The textbook for the psych survey class “Attraction and Relationships” claims that both men and women look for partners with qualities associated with both masculinity and femininity. A desirable partner is both sensitive (a typically female quality) and assertive (typically masculine). Meekness (hallmark of the damsel-in-distress) and aggression (hallmark of the macho man) are destructive in either partner in a relationship. These findings suggest that masculinity and femininity each contain valuable and repulsive characteristics and that, in reality, any person has a mixture of masculine and feminine qualities.

Gender as a social construct is a well-known modern idea, and it’s frequently discussed in WGSS classes. The argument for the nonexistence of biological gender is compelling. Evolutionary theory can explain why we expect certain behavior from males and females and why those expectations are grouped by sex and not some other distinction like class or nationality.

For example, women are slated as committed to relationships and picky about partners because they have to carry a child for nine months and thus must invest in a good, stable partner. The evolution story says that the man is all about dispersing his genes as widely as possible; he still has to choose a healthy partner, but reproducing with as many women as possible is apparently a better investment than raising a child with just one.

The advent of contraceptives and equal education has led to a mixture, a spectrum of types of human beings: If we created a list of all people who can be described as promiscuous, meek, flamboyant, strong, intelligent or sardonic, we would find unpredictable numbers of male and female names on each list.

Yet my recent observations lead me to think there wouldn’t be equal numbers of men and women on each list. Equal numbers would support the idea that gender is societally constructed. But no, I think that we’d find a gender reversal in a lot of cases.

I don’t think women and men are equal or arbitrarily divided by gender characteristics. Lately, I’ve been finding evidence that women increasingly exhibit the admirable qualities traditionally associated with men and still retain admirable feminine qualities; in other words, I’m suggesting that women are no longer catching up to men, but that maybe men will have to catch up to women.

In relationships at Yale, I’ve noticed that the women tend to be psychologically stronger and more stable. Women are also bolder. I’ve known more women who’ve asked men out on dates than the other way around. Other observations: Women tend to partake more in campus events and clubs, are less awkward, are more likely to own up to mistakes, are more open-minded, have more comprehensive and accurate viewpoints in discussions and are more likely to be friendly and introduce themselves at social gatherings. In my family, my mother’s job brings in more income than my father’s. In my extended family, the wives tend to be more active in financial decisions than their husbands and are more vocal and social at family parties.

My argument has many flaws — Yale and my personal experiences may not reflect society at large. Or perhaps there’s a tortoise and the hare effect: Women are getting ahead while men aren’t looking. We are seeing the residue of old gender constructions: Women are reacting against the criticism of femininity by taking on masculine qualities.

But it’s important to ask what it would mean if we’re entering an age where females have found the perfect blend of femininity and masculinity. It would mean that femaleness is no longer self-contained, and so corrosion of the definition of maleness may follow. Males may then be spurred to emulate positive feminine qualities, while females can feel free to be both empowered and girly. Ultimately, the function of gender in our identities may be only to signal biological compatibility.

Catherine Dinh is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at catherine.dinh@yale.edu.

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