Growing up, my world was complementarian, which is a fancy way of saying everyone was waaaaay too into gender roles.
We viewed men as stronger, braver, and less prone to irrational emotions. They were the federal head; the point of representation for their families. I remember asking my mom why we were moving states if she didn’t want to move; she said she must submit to the decisions of her husband, and her husband’s decision was to move.
I remember our pastor’s daughter sleeping in a bunkbed at home at the age of 22 because she was required to always have male headship, and thus couldn’t leave her father’s house or go to college until she had a husband to take on that role.
These are two easy-to-convey examples, but there’s a thousand more that manifested in tiny, insidious ways, that I can’t do justice to in this short an essay.
Men could be pastors and elders in the church, but not women. Men were the gender that God had created to symbolize His relationship with His bride, the church; in this symbolic sense, men were to women as God was to mankind.
From the outside view into my old culture, the patriarchy ends there. Men, in charge, oppressing women.
But this view of male rulership also put a lot of pressure on men, and so the standards and punishments for them were higher. My father was an ordained minister and served as an elder in a church; he taught that eldership was contingent on having believing children. If someone under his headship screwed up, like hypothetically renounced her faith and did sex work, the formal consequences went to him, and he’s now no longer allowed to be an elder.
The financial success of the family lay entirely on the man – he was expected to work however much it took to support his family (and stay-at-home-wife), which often could grow quite large. Any decisions for his family were his, and if anything bad happened, it was entirely on him.
Social consequences for cheating were also incredibly harsh. Whenever we had our Biannual Adulter Reveal, the offender was stripped of any church leadership or removed from church entirely, and his offense was quietly made known.
The story of Adam and Eve reflects this – Eve fucked up first, and spread the fucking-up to Adam, but as Romans 5:12 says, “just as through one man (Adam) sin entered into the world, and death through sin, so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” This is what men were taught – that they lived in the symbolic role of Adam, and that when shit hit the fan, they were the ones responsible.
I suspect this is how most traditional gender role systems work. I once spent a long layover in Saudi Arabia and had a discussion with a man about their gender roles. I told him that in the US, people feel bad about the way women are treated. He seemed taken aback – women are queens, he said. Men’s role is a burden; all the pressure is on them. Women’s domestic lives are lighter – they are protected from external threats, and get to live in a softer internal bubble. He viewed the pressure on men as a huge, forgotten element, so important that all the restrictions women suffered were worth a release from that pressure.
In ye olden times, everything was scarier. People starved, killed each other, and died from teensy adorable infected scratches way more than today. When people are competing for resources, threats to the family increase drastically, and the role of men becomes way more apparent. The “male strength and responsibility” extends an expectation that they die for their country and family – or at least use their bodies at higher levels of risk. I mean, we still have a compulsory draft for men and not women. I’m dangerously getting close to spouting random theories about evolution here, but I suspect that men are physically stronger than women for a very good reason – males were subject to literally stronger physical pressure than women throughout our evolutionary history. Male strength is a living example of the weight their male ancestors had to bear in order to keep surviving.
I suspect that most people were more chill with the patriarchy in the past because the whole “men go to war” and “men have to earn enough for their family or else” thing made being a man way less exciting, and the benefit of safety for a woman, as touted by the Saudi Arabian man, was actually a way more important thing to have.
But the world got way safer – and when men stopped dying, maybe their advantages started looking way juicier. If you and your friend have had a delicate responsibility equilibrium that allows you to fight unique types of foes, and then your friend’s foe disappears, you might look over your shoulder and go hey, wait a second, why do you get to vote and I can’t?
Responsibility is weird. Ultimately there’s no free will and agency is a trick of the light, but we seem to have particular rules for when and where we throw responsibility at something. Sometimes we throw responsibility at the environment, and sometimes at the person. This seems to be mostly based on whether or not throwing responsibility at a person is effective. If someone is depressed, shouting at them to get less depressed isn’t going to work. Eventually our culture seemed to figure that out and now considers the individual mostly blameless. It does seem to work in other cases, though – if someone is very lazy, shouting at them to be less lazy can sometimes work. This also appears very clearly in moral shaming – if you go out and murder someone we consider it your fault, and you are bad, and we take the magic ball of responsibility and put it directly into your dirty, depraved arms.
Responsibility placement seems to occur along political divides, too. Conservatives tend to see everyone holding their own glowing ball of responsibility, while liberals see the responsibility in the environment and the cruel, unchangeable past.
We also seem to have different standards per person or role. We put the glowing ball of responsibility way more into the arms of people in power – people like to say Trump is an asshole more than they say Trump probably has dementia. Cops are held deeply responsible for every mistake they make, while the people they pursue are often far worse than the cops themselves. Basically nobody puts the glowing ball into the arms of kids – in the world of children, it’s their environment that’s aglow with fault, despite their brains being equally responsible for their movements and words as any adult. The placement of responsibility corresponds strongly to power in the environment, but gets a bit messed up with moral violations; we’re ok with the environment being responsible when an impoverished man steals a loaf of bread, but less ok with it being responsible when he steals an old woman’s medicine to sell for heroin.
Responsibility is not uniformly a good thing. It tends to occur with power, but increases pressure and consequences for failure. Having responsibility placed in the environment can be an incredible relief – to have a doctor say we know what’s been causing your mood swings, to marrying a very wealthy person, to being taken care of, to your suffering not being your fault, to don’t worry Eve, sin didn’t enter the world through you.
In my old society, men were formally and strongly given the glowing ball of responsibility. This was great, and it also really sucked. It sucked bad enough that I’m not totally sure being a woman was worse than being a man.
I talked a bit about the ‘men being expected to go die’ thing, but there’s another aspect here too.
The nature of holding the glowing ball of responsibility means that if things are hard, it’s your fault, and you’re less likely to complain or try to institute systemic change. It means that your pains are more invisible, because it starts and ends inside of you. When you hold the glowing ball of responsibility, it doesn’t even cross your mind that you try to make the world change – no, what’s happening is yours. Yes, Eve gave you the apple, but the world entered sin through you. There is no room to blame others. You need to be stronger. You need to handle this. Your weakness is yours.
When the glowing ball of responsibility is outside of you, you search for change through others. You don’t consider this a weakness, and thus there’s nothing to be ashamed about. How can society change? You are fine with taking those antidepressants. When things are hard, the world could be better. You shouldn’t have to live like this. Your pains are visible, because making progress requires noise. You need to have higher standards. Your boyfriend shouldn’t be abusive, so you’re going to break up with him, and then speak loudly about signs of abuse and things you shouldn’t put up with and then join facebook groups where you affirm each other and list things you love about yourself.
These two modes have drastically unequal visibility from the outside, which means if you had an equal amount of suffering between men and women in a society of traditional gender roles, this would look like a society in which women suffer more.
The fundamental divide in my culture of traditional gender roles was the allocation of responsibility,and I see no evidence that our current culture is doing much different. Everywhere I look, in our advertisements, in conversations at parties, in our movies, I see men held self-responsible and women as environment-changers.
This is a bit of a meta-problem. Both roles create issues; men tend to be stoic/emotionally repressed (it’s my fault), in greater positions of power (i need to work harder/provide for my family), generally over women. Women tend to view themselves as more helpless than they really are (society is the problem).
But society’s answer to this isn’t to lower the amount of responsibility we give men and raise the responsibility we give women, or even to just acknowledge the responsibility gap at all, it’s to blame the issues that arise from the responsibility gap, on the side of the gap that is built to accept responsibility – men.
Patriarchy? Men’s fault. When women support it, we say they’ve simply internalized the messages of men, and then pluck that glowing ball of responsibility right out of their dainty little hands.
Victim blaming? When we decry suggestions that women alter their behavior to reduce risk of assault (though appearance influences catcalling), we’re shoving responsibility straight into the environment.
There’s almost no body acceptance movement for men. Advertisements portray men as either the butt of jokes or muscular and handsome. Why? The attractiveness of a man is their responsibility. Contrast this to one out of a billion ads for women where their feelings about their attractiveness are taken out of their arms and placed directly into the environment. It’s also easy to find articles that place responsibility in the environment by listing ways workplaces can be more woman-friendly. If women aren’t in enough powerful roles, society’s reaction is to place the fault outside of the woman. Reversely, I tried to find articles on how to make women-dominated workplaces or housekeeping advertisements/communities more male-friendly, but I couldn’t find any.
I want to be clear: I don’t view either of these modes as inherently worse than the other. Both I need to work harder and The world should be better to me have benefits and drawbacks that fluctuate according to a thousand tiny variables in a highly complex system. I’m glad women are speaking out about the difficulties in their life. I’m glad men are conditioned to take responsibility. I’m not glad that these modes seem to be so consistently gendered.
Changing responsibility lines can feel really wrong. Right now we have the narrative that men have wronged and oppressed women. Men are the responsible party, and women are the victims. To change this narrative can feel both like absolving the guilty party of blame (maybe what’s going on isn’t totally your fault, men) and placing blame on the side of the victim (maybe you should push harder for raises and report rapes more often, women). This can feel really horrible.
So my suggestion isn’t to do this, exactly, but rather start expanding the options we give people. Maybe we can consider men fully responsible, but also stop shaming them, and say it’s okay if they want to blame the environment, or be weak – we can talk about how men need to protect women from other men, and also that it’s okay if they don’t want to do that. Maybe we can allow women to feel blameless if they want to, but also say it’s okay to suggest steps women can take to increase agency in their own lives, or take on responsibility themselves. We can simultaneously allow articles on “how to make the workplace kinder to women” and also “how wearing a longer skirt at night might reduce your risk of sexual harassment.”
And to be clear again – I don’t mean to minimize what women have gone through. I remember with great pain what it was like to be a woman in a complementarian household. I watched my mother unable to separate from her abusive husband because the pastor told her she needed to submit and pray more. I remember my parents’ horror when I suggested that I didn’t understand why I should go to college if I was only meant to be a housewife, and that maybe I didn’t want to have children. I remember crying myself to sleep when I was ten, asking God why He’d made me a girl and not a boy, because I had so many dreams I would never be able to fulfill, because I was ashamed at being so emotional. I remember refusing to cry for years, because I wanted to be respected like boys were. I hold visceral empathy for every woman who’s had to wear her gender like chains.
What I do want to do is also evoke empathy for the countless men who marched off to war, often barely more than children, dying in bloody fields far away from home. Or the emotional stifling that readied men for their role as protectors – don’t express your emotions. Do your duty. If you can’t earn enough to feed your family, you’re not worthy of a family. Or the homeless men nobody helped because men should be able to care for themselves. The lack of sympathy or emotional assistance men find in their social lives. Just because my role as a traditional woman sucked balls doesn’t mean roles as traditional men don’t also suck balls. After all – through Adam, sin entered into the world.
I also don’t view the role of women in my old upbringing as ‘victims’ of men. Women reinforced gender roles just as much, if not more, than the men did. They were just as complicit, and absolving them of blame here is doing exactly the same thing that gave my culture justification for putting them in that role.
Lastly, I don’t mean to imply that history has always been fair. There’ve been wide fluctuations in both safety and women’s rights in cultures throughout history, and it seems silly to assume they’ve always evened out into a fair trade. I do think that the gender divide in history was probably fairer than popular narrative implies it is, and there’s plenty of times in history I’d much rather have spawned as a woman than a man.