"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Posts tagged ‘gender roles’

Chesterton on gender roles

This is an excerpt from the essay Cockneys and their Jokes in the collection All Things Considered.  (No relation to the NPR program of the same name.)  Chesterton begins by discussing humor, and asserts that humor holds truth some of the time.  It’s the plain and vulgar jokes that tell the truth; the hoity-toity humor of intellectual satirists does not.  Then he delves into the following examples.

As a matter of fact, it will be generally found that the popular joke is not true to the letter, but it is true to the spirit. The vulgar joke is generally in the oddest way the truth and yet not the fact. For instance, it is not in the least true that mothers-in-law are as a class oppressive and intolerable; most of them are both devoted and useful.  All the mothers-in-law I have ever had were admirable. Yet the legend of the comic papers is profoundly true. It draws attention to the fact that it is much harder to be a nice mother-in-law than to be nice in any other conceivable relation of life. The caricatures have drawn the worst mother-in-law a monster, by way of expressing the fact that the best mother-in-law is a problem. The same is true of the perpetual jokes in comic papers about shrewish wives and henpecked husbands.  It is all a frantic exaggeration, but it is an exaggeration of a truth; whereas all the modern mouthings about oppressed women are the exaggerations of a falsehood. If you read even the best of the intellectuals of to-day you will find them saying that in the mass of the democracy the woman is the chattel of her lord, like his bath or his bed. But if you read the comic literature of the democracy you will find that the lord hides under the bed to escape the wrath of his chattel. This is not the fact, but it is much nearer the truth. Every man who is married knows quite well, not only that he does not regard his wife as a chattel, but that no man can conceivably ever have done so. The joke stands for an ultimate truth, and that is a subtle truth.  It is not very easy to state correctly. It can, perhaps, be most correctly stated by saying that, even if the man is the head of the house, he knows he is the figure-head.

But the vulgar comic papers are so subtle and true that they are even prophetic. If you really want to know what is going to happen to the future of our democracy, do not read the modern sociological prophecies, do not read even Mr. Wells’s Utopias for this purpose, though you should certainly read them if you are fond of good honesty and good English.  If you want to know what will happen, study the pages of SNAPS or PATCHY BITS as if they were the dark tablets graven with the oracles of the gods.  For, mean and gross as they are, in all seriousness, they contain what is entirely absent from all Utopias and all the sociological conjectures of our time: they contain some hint of the actual habits and manifest desires of the English people. If we are really to find out what the democracy will ultimately do with itself, we shall surely find it, not in the literature which studies the people, but in the literature which the people studies.

Sweden attacks gender

Once in a while one reads about a claim or movement so outlandish that one wonders whether the people involved are really having a jolly good spoof.  When the movement in question involves an entire nation, that possibility can be ruled out.  So it is with the recent Swedish attempt to “entirely erase traditional gender roles and stereotypes at even the most mundane levels”.

Here’s a link to an article, for those who haven’t heard.  It is not about any single change or agency in Sweden doing this, but rather about many minor demands and choices from many parts of Swedish society.  Among the highlights:

A Swedish children’s clothes company has removed the “boys” and “girls” sections in its stores, and the idea of dressing children in a gender-neutral manner has been widely discussed on parenting blogs. A Swedish toy catalog recently decided to switch things around, showing a boy in a Spider-Man costume pushing a pink pram, while a girl in denim rides a yellow tractor.

The Swedish Bowling Association has announced plans to merge male and female bowling tournaments in order to make the sport gender-neutral. Social Democrat politicians have proposed installing gender-neutral restrooms so that members of the public will not be compelled to categorize themselves as either ladies or gents. Several preschools have banished references to pupils’ genders, instead referring to children by their first names or as “buddies.” So, a teacher would say “good morning, buddies” or “good morning, Lisa, Tom, and Jack” rather than, “good morning, boys and girls.” They believe this fulfills the national curriculum’s guideline that preschools should “counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles” and give girls and boys “the same opportunities to test and develop abilities and interests without being limited by stereotypical gender roles.”

So what to make of all this?  One might first look at previous examples of nations or groups who have tried to wipe out gender.  That approach would run into a roadblock: no nation in history has ever done such a thing, as far as I know.  There have been fringe groups such as the Shakers that have tried to radically redefine gender roles, but they did not go as far as trying to wipe out all distinctions between genders in terms of housing, clothing, language and so forth.  So Sweden is embarking on something entirely new here.

It’s new, but is it good?  I say the answer is no.  If humans have always had gender roles and they’ve always stayed within certain parameters–and anthropologists tell us this is the case–there’s probably a reason for that.  It’s probably because there actually is such a thing as human nature, and gender roles are part of that nature.  It’s probably because, when given the choice, virtually everyone will choose to follow a certain gender role.  To accomplish what the Swedes want to accomplish it will require a lot of strong-arming, a lot of convincing people to act against their natural instincts, and a lot of brow-beating and isolating people who don’t cooperate.

But will it work?  That is the question, as Shakespeare might say.  In my opinion it won’t.  All available evidence suggests that an ordinary person cannot be convinced to take up a gender role different than the one he or she was born to.  For instance there’s the tragic case of David Reimer.  He was born a boy but had his you-know-what cut off in an accident.  Afterwards his parents, acting on advice from doctors, attempted to raise him as a girl, complete with appropriate clothes, toys, and pronouns.  It didn’t work, and David rebelled against it.  The attempt to feminize him most likely contributed to depression and other mental illnesses that David suffered throughout his life, until he committed suicide in 2004 at age 38.  This story and others like it ought to give pause to anyone who tries to flip a child’s gender away from the norm, particularly to anyone who wants to do it on a national scale.

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