After my father’s hip surgery back in June, a member of the staff at the place where he lives asked me to get him some elastic-waist shorts and pants so he could get dressed more easily and with less pain.
“What he really needs,” I said, “is a dress, a nice loose shift that can go on over his head.”
The aide laughed. We both knew it was impossible. My father has always supported women’s rights, especially since he had a strong-minded wife and two feminist daughters, but there’s no way in the world you could convince a West Texas man like him to wear a dress.
Women can wear anything they want to these days, but real men still don’t wear dresses.
What I want to know is why.
OK, to be honest, I know why. We’ve made a lot of progress in making room for women in what used to be all-male worlds — the courtroom, the operating theater, the lab, the field of combat, even football. But while there’s been some movement in the other direction — there are more male nurses and elementary school teachers, not to mention house husbands — it’s still more acceptable for a woman to operate in a male sphere than vice versa.
Coaches still insult their players by calling them “girls” if they play badly. (In fact, even coaches of women’s teams sometimes do this, which I find very odd.)
And when I wrote the story “Walking Contradiction” (available in the anthology Imaginings, edited by Keith R.A. DeCandido), I had to push myself to have my ambigendered characters — people who were both male and female — do things that seemed traditionally female, like wearing dresses.
We’ve all grown up in a culture that types everyone for gender and sets certain boundaries based on that gender. And no matter how much we may think about it, some of that conditioning still operates on a deep level. As Anna Fels points out in her superb book Necessary Dreams, the changes that have allowed women much greater opportunity and freedom are relatively new, and it’s going to take us time to adjust to them. (See my review of the book here if you want to know why I think everyone should read this book.)
A lot of people are threatened by those changes, including a number of supposed scientists who keep trying to convince us that there are huge differences in the male and female brain. A lot of that work has been debunked as junk science — see my essay in the Cascadia Subduction Zone (PDF alert) — but that doesn’t keep people from latching onto it.
Two recent articles in the NY Times Magazine provided some thoughtful perspective on this subject. The first, “What’s So Bad ABout a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?”, addressed the proper gender attire issue head on. It points out that only with this generation of children are boys being allowed to play and dress in ways previously restricted to girls, instead of being forced into boy roles by corrective therapy.
The article is not just about boys who think they were born in the wrong body, but also about boys who just enjoy some things that are supposed to be girls only. It offers this observation:
“It might make your world more tidy to have two neat and separate gender possibilities,” one North Carolina mother wrote last year on her blog, “but when you squish out the space between, you do not accurately represent lived reality. More than that, you’re trying to ‘squish out’ my kid.”
The second piece I almost skipped because of the headline: “Who Wears the Pants in this Economy?” I immediately assumed from the headline that it was a story about the poor men being left behind by the so-called feminization of the workforce.
It turned out to be a much more complex and thoughtful piece than the headline implied. Yes, it was about women who are finding career success even as their husbands are losing their jobs, but it didn’t engage in a bunch of cheap rhetoric.
Interestingly, the women discussed in the article did not consider themselves feminists, and a lot of the people interviewed belong to fundamentalist Christian churches that teach that women should be submissive to men. But while most cited economic necessity as the reason the women were working, I came away with the impression that the women liked their new positions. A subtle shift was going on.
The author, Hanna Rosin (the piece is adapted from her forthcoming book, The End of Men and the Rise of Women – an equally scary title, especially if you’re afraid women are taking over the world), argues that men have been less resiliant than women in this economy. Women are more willing to go back to school and get trained for new jobs than men. She quotes from one of the men she interviewed:
“A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.”
Which brings us back to dresses. A man who still thinks jobs are gender-defined is definitely not going to wear a dress.