Three-letter word—November 16, 2007

By Sid Branca Cook

A long time ago, for a class I still haven’t gotten a grade for, I started writing a paper about gender roles. Exciting, I know. I had read the autobiography of a male-to-female gender crosser, and sometimes I wanted to bang my head against a wall. I admire the author, Deirdre McCloskey, greatly. She has been very, very brave, but I was so frustrated because she was still caught in the gender roles she was raised with. Her language so often seemed to emphasize some vast gender divide. Women behave one way, men another, and to change behavior is to demand a change of biology. McCloskey’s book, Crossing, is full of behavioral differences:

“American men don’t help each other. The theory of American maleness is that your special woman takes care of you when you’re sick, but aside from that you are supposed to do everything alone. Help among men is shameful, because it shows incompetence. Among women help is the point, because it shows love, ‘love’ in its full sense: care, sympathy, providing for need” (p. 182).

This paragraph made me angry. I felt insulted, like all of my friendships with men had been belittled, and that some vast percentage of the people close to me had been accused of being even worse than unsympathetic. I yelled at my kitchen table as I read. “But it isn’t true! Is it? Well, not for me! Not for us!”

I started to claim that gender roles don’t matter. I don’t mean in the grand scheme, of course. Out there, in the world of the news and the real and of significant hardship, people were getting mutilated or favored or talked about in different tones because of the contents of their crotches. That was and is the case. But my intellect, or something different and more important, recoiled. I refused to acknowledge that these biases—ones I felt were so outdated and limiting—were a significant influence on all my heartfelt interactions. “No!” I said. In my social circles, this tiny part of a tiny part of Chicago, we would never think of pigeonholing (doesn’t that word look disgusting?) each other like that! But sometimes in my life I realize that I’m full of shit. I confess: Until something guides me otherwise, I treat people with penises differently than those without. (Feel free to take a pen to this newspaper and come up with some less phallocentric way of saying that, but breasts are perhaps less suited to dramatic emphasis.)

While I was waiting for the bus this morning, a homeless woman came up to me. She told me I was beautiful (for a white girl), and asked me about my background (New York, Italian). She rearranged her blanket of possessions, tucking a bagel further in, and once she had her pillow properly arranged she lay down on the ground next to me. She kept speaking, but I understood few words. Flat on the sidewalk, with her head near my feet, she seemed so vulnerable. If I hadn’t had to rush off to the bus, I would have offered her something. The anecdotal point is that I was not afraid. Or rather, I was afraid of the guilt her presence (and my departure) instilled in me, but not of the woman herself. If that had been a man, I would have been freaked out, starting with a comment about my physical appearance.

But maybe this example doesn’t really relate. This is an incident outside my zone of comfort and familiarity. Compared to friends, it is something different to pigeonhole strangers. You have little else. But what about my grandiose claims about my personal life? I worry that I don’t, in fact, treat everyone equally. I’ve noticed, unhappily, that I tend to be a little quicker to let my friendships with women fall by the wayside when I get busy or insane. Maybe I’m a little quicker to do something nice for a male friend. Maybe I think I have something to prove. I don’t know. I’m inconsistent and these things are so difficult to assess.

There’s a chance I’ve misinterpreted myself entirely. It’s been known to happen. This could have less to do with gender and more to do with attraction. I’m attracted to men more often than I am to women, but the difference is not huge. (Admittedly, tangentially, I feel ridiculous saying I’m attracted to men. More accurately, I’m attracted to guys, and pretty ladies.) Maybe instead of being a misogynist or afraid of older men (both of which are likely), I simply want to surround myself with people I find attractive. Instead of being a hyper-feminine continuation of stereotypes, I’m bisexual and shallow. I don’t know if this is any less disheartening.