The first time I cooked for him, he kissed me on the neck and whispered, “It’s so good to see a woman in the kitchen again.”
There are many ways I could have taken that remark, but the kiss told me I was making him happy, and that’s what I aimed to do. So, I shut my inner feminist in a mental closet while I basked shamelessly in the male gaze. It was early in our relationship, and I was much more interested in changing his eating habits than fighting sexism. My kitchen-witch is a mash-up of Shakira and Betty Crocker.
When I moved in with this guy, I had been on my own for a long time, taking care of myself, managing my life alone. On my farm, without a partner to rely on to mow fields, plow snow, fix the electric fence and split firewood, I learned that I really don’t need a man. Now my cohabitant makes very funny jokes about that and how it confounds him. Then one day he said, “I wish you needed a man. But I like the way things are getting done around here.”
I was monopolizing the management of our domicile. An alarm bell went off in my head and I heard my mother say, “You have to make him feel like a man.” So, I started asking him to help with the trash and the recycling. He’s glad to do it and it brings balance to our division of labor. Lately, he’s been setting the table while I make dinner. I didn’t ask him to, it just happened. Then he washed the kitchen floor. So, we’re evolving.
Growing up in conservative 1950s Illinois, from the beginning we were forced into the cookie-cutter of traditional gender roles. I’m cis hetero female. He’s cis hetero male. Our complementary biochemistry is magnetic. But we’re not hetero to conform to someone else’s idea of what’s acceptable. We have many friends who are not hetero, and we support their right to express their gender as they choose. We all live in a human body. We have a right to control our own biology. Traditional gender roles are a made-up story, a cultural artifact, a trap.
And yet, although we may reject traditional gender tropes when we stop to think about them, they persist in our learned behavior. A few months after I moved in here, he said, “You know I’d make an honest woman out of you and get married.”
No, my head did not explode. He watches John Wayne movies. Hondo is one of his favorites, including this line of dialogue. “A woman should cook good.” These gendered phrases come out of him all the time and they can be hysterical. This morning on his way out the door to the gym, he said he needed a wedding ring for protection. He called it a no pest strip. I laughed, but yes, I hear the misogyny. Still, I’m not taking the bait because I’m trying to practice gender tolerance.
We were born into this rules-based system with its definitions of what is considered moral, the primacy of hierarchy, and submission to authority. Our vocabulary, pronouns, sentence structure, and identity are gendered by thousands of years of patriarchy, TV shows like Father Knows Best, and role models like John Wayne. This is what traditional culture has done to us. And yet, I’m glad to be here. I don’t need to prove my feminist bona fides. Gender is a trap I’m side-stepping. I love him just the way he is. Masculinity is in his DNA. I signed up for these contradictions because after years of being my own man around the house, I kinda like having this one.
4 thoughts on “The Gender Trap”
12 years after my divorce from someone who never loved me unconditionally, I am in a wonderful relationship with a really great guy. Everything is comfortable and happy until he says things like ‘you are my everything’ and ‘you are my lighthouse.’ I know I should be thrilled but i’m worried about letting him down, bursting his bubble. I want to please him in every way I can but am afraid to have to be his ‘everything.’ Thanks for your blog, you make me think.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Holly. I wouldn’t worry about those comments. Enjoy the affection and just be yourself.
Thanks for mentioning our podcast. You are one of our favorite interviewees and it was a pleasure getting to spend time with you.
Thanks, Judy. Great to hear from you. I enjoyed doing the interview. It was good therapy for me! You and Bruce have a very cool podcast with Couples Therapy in Seven Words.