Justice & Equality

What Roman Art Taught Me About Gender

Gender. It’s a hot topic right now. And despite all of our efforts to make sense of it and understand it I still feel like we’ve gotten it wrong. While traveling in Italy I found a work of art that really made me think.

Please bear in mind that I’m not an art scholar, this is just my opinion, and sometimes more just thoughts than solidly formed opinions. I also want to make clear that the purpose of this post is not to debate the morality of, benefits or negatives to, or anything else about the homosexual, heterosexual, or transgender lifestyles. Rather, I simply want to engage with and think through our society’s current gender construct.

What is a woman? What is a man?

We used to have a very defined perspective of gender roles. 1950’s men were to be the working bread-winners, tough, handy, interested in sports, tools, beer, and not given to emotions. Women were supposed to be loving, emotional, housekeepers, good cooks, gentle, quiet, pretty, and caregivers to children and the elderly.

Then we had the femininist movement, the sexual revolution and we are now in what I am going to call a gender revolution. 60 odd years later, we’re now in a place where men are to be working bread-winners, tough, handy, interested in sports, tools, beer, and not given to emotions. Women are supposed to be loving, emotional, housekeepers, good cooks, gentle, quiet, pretty, and caregivers to children and the elderly.

Yes, I just said the same thing twice. No, that was not a mistake. 60 years and three movements later I don’t believe things have really changed that much. Sure, everyone gives lip service to “do what you want” and “be yourself” and “gender equality”, but do we really mean it when we say that?

We are still judged by how well we fit the stereotype. Men who aren’t interested in sports and tools and who are more inclined to be aware of and expressive of their emotions don’t feel like they fit in. In fact, I’ve personally heard several men say they just don’t fit in with other men because they’re in some ways more like a woman.

Women who are tough, blunt, choose to prioritize a career, and terrible cooks think themselves to be “bad women”, “bad wives”, and really more like a man. I think that way sometimes about myself and I know other women do too. When we don’t fit in to the stereotype, we wonder if we are really a man or a woman.

Some people feel so strongly that they don’t fit in with their gender that they primarily identify with the other gender. Some of those people go so far has to have sex change operations. And ironically, after they have a sex change operation, we still judge them by the stereotype, primarily discussing how the man-turned-woman is or isn’t pretty and sexy. Or judging how the woman-turned-man just looks like a boy because he lacks those typical muscles. Or we endlessly discuss how in transgender or homosexual relationships the partners often do (or maybe should) take on stereotypical roles.

The judging hasn’t ended. We are still comparing everyone (straight, gay, and trans) to the stereotype that we supposedly don’t care about anymore.

And what if we do actually fit the stereotype? Well, then men are judged for not being in touch enough with their emotions and women are judged for choosing to stay home with their kids. Neither of the phrases “You’re SUCH a man” nor “You’re SUCH a woman” are positive. In fact, they’re just feeding the issue. Not only are we back to ground zero, but in some ways we’ve gone backwards in the sense that now almost everyone is judged for something regarding their lifestyle choices.

But why do we even have to have this perspective that some things are “manly” and some things are “girly”?

Why is pink for girls and blue for boys? Why are emotions for women and sports for men? Why is paintball for guys and tea parties for gals? Why must we call difficulty communicating and processing emotions a “man thing” but then if a woman has the same problem we send her to counseling? Why do we call insecurity and difficulty making up one’s mind a “woman thing” but if a man has the same problem we just tell him to “buck up and be a man”? Why do we justify unhealthy interactions and relationships by saying that it’s because of our gender?

While in Rome I came across this piece of art. I’m not sure what it’s called or who made it, but I love it.

IMG_1536

I love it because in it I see hope for all this gender confusion. I see a man who on the one hand is a warrior and a hunter  – tough, strong, brave. And yet on the other hand he’s a Daddy – loving, nurturing, protective, affectionate. This man is a well-rounded person, who has some aspects of stereotypical manhood and some aspects of stereotypical womanhood.

This statue expresses to me that both men and women are tough, nurturing, career-minded and home-minded, loving, emotional, and handy. These are not man traits or woman traits, they are people traits.

We can have a tension within us between interests of both genders precisely because all people have aspects of each gender within them. Just because a woman is interested in sports, the outdoors, struggles to articulate emotions, and is the primary breadwinner of the house does not make her less of a woman. Just because a man likes to talk, is emotional, and can’t fix a thing doesn’t make him less of a man. And when someone chooses to come out as gay, lesbian, or transgender, we shouldn’t start assuming they will act like the opposite gender’s stereotype.

Maybe people’s interests and personalities are spread out on a continuum of stereotypical manhood and womanhood. But even thinking of it in that sense rather ruins the point. Why do our personalities have to be on a gender continuum at all? Can we just be us? Can we just have aspects of people, not genders?

I am who I am, and I am a mix of a lot of things. Get to know me, and then you’ll know just one woman, not a stereotype. And I’ll get to know you too.

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