Weird gender expectations vs. acting like a decent human being
The night before last, I didn’t make it to a birthday celebration for someone I really like but, between one thing and another, haven’t seen in person for several years. My back was out, and then a migraine kicked in, so it was probably a good thing I didn’t try to head into Central London for a night out at the pub. That was disappointing, and I hope they don’t think I just don’t want to be around them. (Yes, this has been something of a theme the past few years.)
At any rate, Nigel did go, and ran into an interesting phenomenon. A couple of the other people there hadn’t met him in person before, but mostly through LJ–and were surprised to find out that the bear of a man with a big red beard was the person they’d gotten to know online. They’d assumed he was also a woman.
And he did not take this as some kind of insult.
I found this interesting not so much in a “my Nigel is a special gem” kind of way, but as an indication of the kind of masculine behavior which is considered normal.
Nigel goes by a gender-neutral username (actually his first name in ROT-13). One of the things I thought of right away, since I’d been reading one of them, was that a number of the mini book reviews he’s been posting lately have been of urban fantasy by female authors, with prominent female characters who definitely pass the Bechdel test; the cover blurb on a number of UK-issue Kim Harrisons (one of which I was reading) is a bizarre “Action packed…chicklit with a supernatural twist – The Times“. A good number of men would not buy a book branded that way, even if they would otherwise be interested in it. (Hell, that would be almost enough to turn me off it, for a different reason: not girl cooties, but just not enjoying a lot of the stuff getting the “chicklit” label.) Which, indeed, indicates some differences in attitudes.
What did they mention? A certain lack of macho posturing and knuckle-dragging behavior, which they’d come to expect to crop up at least sometimes, dealing with men online.
That made me think of a train-wreck fascinating thread on the IBTP forum when it was still up, on some positive traits too frequently associated with femininity and, therefore, weakness. Like public displays of kindness. This was another discussion I found even more interesting, coming from a rather different cultural background–hell, the “feminine”=”weak” does not really map in the first place–and some of it did explain otherwise baffling behavior I’d run into. And, indeed, there was some discussion of how what is considered acceptable masculine behavior varies a lot across cultures, mostly from women who had married or otherwise gotten to know men from cultures where the same level of posturing and running roughshod over other people’s feelings (while pretending you don’t have them yourself) is not expected.
Nigel just doesn’t do a lot of the posturing and blustering discussed; apparently, he doesn’t feel that insecure in what other people think of his masculinity. (Or very different traits and behaviors are also assigned to masculinity in Sweden than elsewhere in Western/Northern Europe, which I haven’t seen much other evidence of.) That’s one of the reasons I respect and like him, because he generally behaves respectfully toward other people. He takes other people’s feelings into account, and tries to put himself in other people’s shoes. He doesn’t feel compelled to put on a show of chest-pounding to demonstrate that he is not as girly as he considers the conversational topic at hand. He doesn’t feel a need to bluster and cover up that he is a basically kind person.
And he thinks of and treats women, members of other ethnic groups, disabled people, etc. as human beings very much like himself. I sometimes get irked at the privilege showing in his “why can’t we all get along?” attitudes, but they’re sincere. He really does think egalitarian, though that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of other people don’t. At all. As dodgily as this kind of claim is used sometimes, his friends really are a pretty mixed lot, which I considered a good sign when getting to know him. (And he has never, to my knowledge, pulled out the old “But one of my friends is a Pakistani trans person with spina bifida!” Urgh.)
In short, he comes across as a decent human being without that much to prove. This should be the default, as far as I’m concerned, not somehow deserving of cookies. And not shocking behavior from a man. Talk about low expectations which start reinforcing themselves. 😐
Then again, I suspect that Nigel might also identify primarily as “geek”, if pressed; he just hasn’t had to think about it very much. He just doesn’t seem to think about his gender presentation much if at all; AFAICT, nobody’s given him a bunch of crap about it. I think this also has something to do with neutral things getting read as masculine by default. Not to mention the uncontrived bearishness factor. 🙂
Before this, I hadn’t really thought about it, but this is one of the major things I found attractive about him in the first place. But, I’m not that used to men feeling compelled to pretend they are somehow above things like empathy and compassion*, and acting like it’s unreasonable to expect them to show that they care about the people around them. There is something seriously wrong with that, IMO, and it certainly doesn’t make anybody’s life more pleasant. I have some pretty stiffnecked relatives–and come across that way sometimes myself–but there’s not so much gender difference in expectations there (and it has nothing to do with actual displayed levels of empathy and compassion). And I’ve known as many women who felt a need to turn gruff when displays of kindness were pointed out.
* Just one of the problems I have with Simon Baron-Cohen’s (binary) gender essentialist fantasies. I’d have slightly fewer objections if he admitted that most of his “empathy” is really saying and doing the socially expected things rather than, erm, empathy.