I attended a holiday celebration when I was home from school after fall semester and was seated for dinner with a large group of people. The woman to my right was explaining why she had to leave early, and she briefly mentioned that her husband would be driving to the restaurant in downtown Chicago from a distant suburb to pick her up. The man across from her laughed and said, “we’re going to have to take his man card away” in reference to the woman’s husband. I had a number of responses to that statement in my head, but as I have in many other instances of casual sexism, I found myself with my mouth sealed shut.
I spent the remainder of the evening considering why our associations with specific activities, styles, preferences, and etc. are contingent upon our perceptions of gender. It appeared absolutely ridiculous to me that a husband doing his wife a favor by saving her a long train ride home was somehow emasculating. The assignment of gender was entirely arbitrary but nonetheless commonplace; what we believe to be masculine and feminine has neither rhyme nor reason. However, while these categorizations are blatantly incorrect, they exist because we are in a state of being in which performing “feminine” activity is looked down upon because on a societal level, being a woman is thought to be inherently degrading.
Let’s take a moment to dig into that assertion. For some, this degradation of the feminine might not initially be visible. Of course being a woman is not legitimately a shameful thing, but rather the ideas that have historically surrounded gender dictate our regard of being a woman as being an insult. It is seen as unacceptable for men to wear stereotypically feminine things (like dresses, skirts, and etc.), or for them to wear makeup or paint their nails. In a non-physical sense, men who are stay-at-home fathers are ridiculed, and in that same vein I’ve heard men referring to take care of and spending time with their children as “babysitting” and not just “parenting.”
The notion that men should be embarrassed by doing things by doing things traditionally relegated to the feminine real is a product of a society that sees anything “womanly” as intrinsically inferior. When women present themselves as more masculine with things like their choices in attire it is (for the most part) seen positively because the current standard is that being more “manly” is something to which we should all aspire. Young boys are socialized into calling each other “girls” when their athletic capabilities are deemed sub-par by their peers. Women in prestigious professions or powerful positions are regarded as go-getters because those spots have been reserved for men for quite some time, so they are viewed with far more respect than a man occupying a space in what has been designated as the feminine sphere. Consider your own expectations for a moment. When you think of a person who provides home cleaning services, what do you think their gender is? What about a person who performs maintenance services such as a plumber or electrician? Or a successful entrepreneur? The point is this: when we consider what people have which occupations, we make assumptions about their gender without even realizing how that might be damaging, and those same assumptions extend beyond the professional world and into what we think people should and should not look like and further.
This is, I should mention, not to say that women no longer face sexism when they occupy the “masculine” realm. Discrimination is pervasive throughout practically every profession, and is compounded upon when the person in question is a woman of color, is not straight, and is not cisgender. There is much improvement yet to be achieved, and it would be incorrect to assert that women who present themselves more masculinely or perform activities that historically have only been for men do not face challenges because of their gender. In order for this progress to develop, we must break the association between femininity and negativity. It is not shameful to be a woman or to present as feminine, and the hierarchical structure of gender will begin to crumble once the practice of shaming others for their styles, careers, and etc. ceases to exist.