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.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    I have always felt that a woman should offer ME a diamond engagement ring, not the OTHER way around.

    Why should a man be stuck with this expense ( to say nothing of this awkward proposition for partnership with its potential for rejection)?

    And why should a man get on his knees?

    Why shouldn’t a man’s hand be as suitable for diamond-adorning as a woman’s?

    Seems a bit hypocritical of feminists to allow this vestigial remnant of sexism to linger on.

    Sexist rubbish.

    PK

  • penny_lane

    First of all: Why are people always so quick to frame these conversations in terms of a contest?

    Second:
    >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.

    This is a tired narrative and only tells part of the story. Listen to even a brief lecture by Laurie Santos at some point. It’s the least you could have done in terms of basic research.

    The author is absolutely right to question basing her observations on her own limited world. It seems she has only ever glimpsed a very small pocket of white American upper middle class. I just typed “American gender roles” into Google Scholar and selected “since 2008,” and any number of articles popped up about the dynamics of gender roles in other populations. Reading even one or two of these could have added valuable nuance to the author’s argument. Living a couple years in the real world arguably also could have helped.

    Arguments like these appear ostensibly to be pro-woman but ultimately end up being insidiously anti-feminist. As long as arguments in support of women’s equality neglect the experience of men in society and trivialize the conflicts found surrounding masculinity, true gender equality can never be reached. I mean, has it really been that long since anyone watched Fight Club?

  • River_Tam

    > In relationships at Yale, I’ve noticed that the women tend to be psychologically stronger and more stable.

    > more stable.

    > stable.

    Bahahahahahaaaaaa

    • penny_lane

      This was my thought as well :-/

      There’s a line from Grey’s Anatomy that I think applies well to dating at Yale: “It’s high school with scalpels.”

  • JE15

    So many generalizations…so poorly supported.

  • tomago

    How many anti-male, sexist, statements can fit in one piece? The purpose of this article is what exactly? Women are more evolved than men?

    We have certainly come far as a society that not only men have to live as apologists for circumstances they didn’t create, or issues that don’t exist anymore, we now have to suffer insults…for what purpose? Political correctness at Yale has become peremptory hate-speak.

    If I am offended by Ms Dinh’s writing, am I now insensitive to women’s issues?

    Is Ms Dinh trying to balance the scales of obstacles overcome by those before her birth…by insulting those of opposite gender now? Find your own cause, young lady.

    If this is the culture that is currently being promoted at Yale, I am deeply disappointed.

    Perhaps when Ms Dinh ventures out in to the real world, she will realize that the battle of the sexes exist only in the mentally-masturbating world of academia…or kids in a sandbox. Most adults don’t have the time to play this “girls are better than boys” nonsense…we are too busy working side-by-side with the opposite sex than to put prejudices into a petri dish and analyze them.

    The key word I used, that Ms Dinh should familiarize herself with…”adult”.

  • JEThirteen

    “In relationships at Yale, I’ve noticed that the women tend to be psychologically stronger and more stable. Women are also bolder… 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.”
    What a load of sexist crap! The author’s mind wanders into what is probably a feminized landscape (when she speaks of campus events and clubs, I don’t think she’s talking about DKE, the football team or a LAN party) with feminized notions of proper conduct and, unsurprisingly, concludes that women are better at conforming to them. Catherine, congratulations on demonstrating (1) your own normative vision of human behaviour, and (2) the existence of the confirmation bias!

    Seriously, the views expressed in this piece have all the nuance of Rick Santorum. Look what happens when we replace “women” with “men”, stereotypically feminine qualities with stereotypically masculine qualities, and so forth:

    “In relationships at Yale, I’ve noticed that the men tend to be psychologically stronger and more logical. Men are also calmer… Men tend to partake more in campus events and clubs, are less emotional, are more likely to stand their ground, are more sensible, have more comprehensive and accurate viewpoints in discussion and are more likely to be easy-going and tell good jokes at social gatherings”.

    Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Wasn’t this the sentiment that led to women being systematically marginalized and oppressed in the first place?

  • 1215

    This is why Yale needs a Men’s Center. Us men need a safe space too.

    • The Anti-Yale

      Us do.

  • ldffly

    “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. ” Only if your name is Judy Butler, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, J. Hillis Miller, or Geoffrey Hartmann is this simply compelling.

    There is a body of thought beneath what so many at today’s Yale (and so many other American universities) take as common sense and beyond dispute. In fact, this body of thought is highly questionable and should not base common sense. How it happened that mediocre work in philosophy done mainly by literary critics in the Yale English Department finally took the hill of American culture at large is surely a question crying for a good study. In the meantime, maybe you all could read the work of one very senior member of the Yale philosophy department. You might start thinking critically about these matters. You might even come to regard male/female, masculine/feminine as concepts that are natural kinds and not social constructions.

  • penny_lane

    ldffly makes a good point: The evidence that there is a biological component of gender is more compelling than the evidence that there isn’t. Do they not teach about David Reimer in WGSS classes?

    • River_Tam

      The Reimer case is so incredibly sad.

      • penny_lane

        Very, very sad. Not definitive in what the lessons are, given that the prolonged and torturous sexual abuse is a massive third variable, but pretty astounding nonetheless.