What troubles me now, reflecting on this memory, is the rarity of instances where men are described in this way. Of course there are plenty of caring men. But rarely do we prioritise our descriptions of them in this way.
I went to see award-winning American author, Rebecca Traister, speak about her book on the power of women’s anger at the Sydney Writer’s Festival. A female friend told me she was glad I was there to accompany her. She was interested in such issues. “Isn’t Tom interested?” I asked, referring to her boyfriend. She shook her head. “Nah, he doesn’t like it when I talk about stuff that makes women angry. He feels like I am attacking him.”
I imagine gender to be like a straitjacket. It confines us, restrains our capacity for full mobility and expression. It disables men from access to emotions and penalises women who step outside boundaries of “decorum”.
Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider argue in their book, Why Patriarchy Still Exists that the biggest issues western women face – including inadequate reproductive rights, lack of affordable child care, lack of representation, domestic violence, the gender pay gap – arise from the enduring gender roles in relationships and society.
When I sliced off my hip-length hair and got a bob cut after an especially traumatic breakup in my early twenties, a primary school aged-neighbour exclaimed, “You used to be pretty!” Around the same time, a female friend asked me why I’d done such a thing, telling me, “You know guys like long hair and skirts. Come on.”
What bothers me is not the adherence to the behaviours I hear celebrated in young women at their weddings. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with being kind, selfless or supportive. It’s the praising and public validation of these behaviours that bothers me — and the disproportionate allocation of those traits to women.
In the weddings I attended, why didn’t they praise the bride’s intelligence? The groom’s love and support? I’m sure he shows equal degrees of support and love to his partner. Perhaps we’re still conforming because it’s easier to live within the boundaries. To violate the status quo can be discomforting and deeply painful.
If women continue to only be rewarded for being “kind, selfless, compliant and accommodating”, and men for their “confidence, audacity, fortitude” — we won’t see equal representation in the boardroom, or balanced domestic duties at home.
We need to generate new templates. Let’s start praising a man for his vulnerability. Let’s think twice before praising a woman for placing herself second to those around her.