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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Ozzie and Harriet

My boyfriend cooked dinner last night, causing me to make jokes about becoming irrelevant. I usually cook dinner, but I had been busting my ass and stressing out all day over house stuff and he took pity on me. I don't mind having to do the lion's share of the mortgage work, since I'm better at it and since he runs the inevitable errands that crop up when fax machines just won't do. But I was glad to be relieved of cooking for one night.
When you live with someone, the various household chores end up being divvied up communism-style--to each according to her needs, from each according to her abilities, at least ideally. The result, depending on individual ability, can sometimes look surprisingly like old-fashioned, Ozzie and Harriet gender roles. I push the vaccum, he pushes the lawn mower. I know how to read the cookbook, which can confound him, but he knows how to read the stereo manual, which mostly just irritates me.
My older relatives used to gloat and warn me in high school and college that oh yes, I may be a feminist now, but wait until I grew up and entered the shiny world of monogamy and marriage and I would learn that "men and women really are different". (And yes, I would point out that even if this were true, it's no excuse for inequality, but that falls on deaf ears.)
But what I learned was not that men and women have inherent biological differences, but how gender stereotyping profoundly shapes individuals. I'm not better at "female" stuff because of some brain chemistry. I was taught, often against my will, to cook and clean. That I know to separate whites from darks, and then to separate the darks into blue-based and red-based colors, and to separate white t-shirts with printing on them to be washed separately without bleach, and that whites take bleach and hot water and darks take just detergent and cold water and that you don't wash jeans or towels with fabric softener but always sheets because it smells nice, but my boyfriend doesn't, is not the result of something encoded on the double-X chromosome. No, I was taught that and he was not.
And that he can change his own spark plugs, set up elaborate systems to wire up everything, including the cat, to a single amplifier, and basically fix shit that I thought took magic powers to fix is less a matter of genetics and more a result of the various jobs he's had that require hands-on work fixing equipment. Work that he was pushed towards in his youth, while girls were being pushed in other directions.
But none of this is really a problem, as we are cognizant of the fact that we have fallen into doing what we do out of convinence and not out of inborn gender roles. And that's why it's no big deal for my boyfriend to cook dinner once in awhile without feeling unmanned. In this, as in many things, it's not necessarily what you do so much as how you frame it.


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