This morning I changed a wheel on my car for the first time in my life. I felt ridiculously proud of myself for completing such a simple task. Then I climbed out of our bathroom window onto a roof and cleared up some broken glass that’s been there since the storm smashed one of our windows last week. Meanwhile, my husband looked after the kids and did the hoovering in an attempt to win the war against fleas that he is currently waging. Things seem to work out this way in our household. I am drawn to practical tasks that are usually considered a traditionally male activity, and my husband often finds himself looking after the kids. This is partly why I felt so proud of myself for changing the tyre, not only because I had the sense of a task well done, but also because I know that I am stepping outside of my traditional gender role and proving that women can do anything they want. This might seem like a big jump to lots of people -it’s just a tyre after all, but I think it’s significant.
As a result of my obsession with gender roles, one of my guilty pleasures is watching the occasional reality TV show, and over the past few years, I’ve become a bit addicted to the Island. I’m always fascinated by the group dynamics and class and gender are often fascinating factors in how people interact. For those of you who don’t know, the Island involves dropping a group of contestants onto a uninhabited tropical island to see how they survive on their own without any creature comforts. Last year, they had two groups of people on two different islands – men on one, and women on the other. Initially I got a bit annoyed at the way the women seemed to be a bit useless at first, but by the end of the series, they had built shelters and beds, were able to light their own fires and were hunting and killing wild boars. All in all, they showed that they could survive just as well as the men and it was gratifying to see. This year however, they dropped the men and women onto the same island (without telling them) and after a few days they found each other. Initially, the women had found a good base, lit their fire and were getting on pretty well on their own, whilst the men flailed around, unable to light a fire or establish a base and generally doing badly. When the two groups united, there was a brief honeymoon period under the leadership of a female soldier which ended when she had to leave the show. There was then a noticeable and depressing shift. Male members of the group openly expressed concern at having to “look after” the women and how this would impact on their ability to survive the weeks on the island. The women who had previously been harmonious as a social group, started flirting with the men and conflict erupted. The men began to insist on going out on hunting missions on their own, clearly seeing this as a male sphere of activity, whilst the women soon began to concern themselves with keeping the camp clean and limiting themselves to more traditionally female activities such as making fishing nets which the men would then swim out and check. The change was obvious and depressing to anybody watching this through a feminist lens. Women on their own are more than capable of surviving and doing any of the things that the men could, but when you add men to the mix, they are instantly told that they are weaker, less capable and a burden. Subsequently, their behaviour changes and they mostly begin to conform to preassigned gender roles.
This may be a fairly extreme example, but this kind of conformity to gender roles pervades the whole of society. A while ago, someone I know made a comment about feminists getting annoyed at men holding doors open for them and how ridiculous that is. The image of the irate feminist refusing to allow a man to simply be courteous, is a common stereotype but when I checked how it made me feel, I realised that it does bother me too. Of course there is nothing wrong with being polite, but it isn’t about that. I have often encountered men who refuse to walk through a door that I am holding open for them, just because I happened to get there first. An embarrassing little dance usually ensues, ultimately concluding with the man taking the door and me shuffling through after him as custom dictates. The custom isn’t simply that it’s polite to hold the door open for your acquaintance, but that it’s polite for men to hold the door open for women. I have had similar scuffles with various men in my life when I have attempted to shift furniture across the room or carry anything heavy. Now, not to blow my own trumpet, but I am stronger than I look. I’m no delicate little flower and I’m entirely capable of lifting and carrying a fricking chair across the room. Similarly, I can lift tables, shift wardrobes, carry my own suitcase, manoeuvre wheelbarrows, build sheds, put up blinds and now it seems, fit a tyre.
These may all sound like small things and I can already see the “Oh my God, haven’t you feminists got anything more important to worry about” comments on the horizon, but it is these hundreds of tiny examples of gender policing that combine to make women feel weaker, less competent, more impractical and in general need of looking after, than men. It starts with “You throw like a girl” and “That’s not the sort of thing that girls do”, and continues our entire adult life with men insisting that we are not capable of completing fairly simple basic tasks. It’s not enough to say that these men are just “being polite” without analysing where the concept of “politeness” comes from in the first place and having a think about why exactly it is that men feel the need to wrestle anything heavy away from us the minute they get the opportunity. What is this saying to women and girls if not, “Let me do it. You’re not as capable as I am. I need to take care of you” And that is exactly how gender is socially constructed. It is only by challenging these gender roles that women and girls can break out of the stifling prison of femininity and prove that they’re just as good as the boys. Learning to change my spare tyre is just one tiny piece of the jigsaw but it’s a start….