Joan of Arc and Hua Mulan
When I was a kid, household tasks were divided along the gender line. I was given the chore of washing dishes, while my brothers raked leaves or took out the garbage.
“Why can’t I take out the garbage?” I asked, wanting to trade tasks. But I knew why. Because I was a girl.
“How come Dad doesn’t wash dishes?” I asked after dinner one day, still wanting to buck the system. I was not the most compliant child on the planet. Mom just gave me a look.
When I was ten, Mom said, “You’re going to learn to cook.”
“Why?” (See? Not compliant.)
“Because you’ll need to keep house for your family someday.”
Again, my thoughts turned to my brothers. They also had to eat, right? Shouldn’t they learn to cook also, especially since they would eventually grow up and move away from home? But their learning to cook wasn’t on the agenda. So I asked, “What if my husband keeps house?” I thought this was reasonable, since I was not a very good housekeeper. If I mopped a floor, it still looked dusty after I’ve finished. (That aspect hasn’t changed.) Mom laughed at that and said something along the lines of, “This is what women do.” (By the way, my brothers learned to cook when they left home. They cook way better than I do. I’m a pretty indifferent cook—whatever is easiest. Still, I make a mean pot of coq au vin.)
I’m not trying to pick on Mom or diss the roles traditionally given to women. After all, Mom was a stay-at-home mom till I was fourteen. I honor her for the sacrifices she made for us. And she always told me that if I put my mind to it, I could do anything (well, anything except mop a floor well). So I couldn’t help questioning why I was assigned certain tasks or had to avoid others (like playing baseball in the alley) because of my gender.
In college, I took a class on the sociology of gender roles, because I still had questions. While writing this post, I tried to find a syllabus for the class online so that you could see what we discussed. The only one I could find is one for Onondaga Community College, which basically describes what we talked about.
A sociological analysis of male and female sex roles in contemporary American society. The development of sex roles within the individual and within the society will be explored. This course discusses the impact sex roles have on the lives of men and women in the areas of socialization, education, work, marriage, families, and human relationships. Sexual prejudices and sexual discrimination will be explored, including their impact on both the individual and society. The ramifications of changes in sex-role definitions for both the individual and society will also be discussed.
Good stuff. Interestingly enough, the gender roles class happened a year after I decided to major in radio, TV, and film—a male dominated area at the time. You see, the daughter of one of my dad’s best friends had graduated with the same major several years before I enrolled. After graduating, she became a lighting technician in the film industry and encouraged me to pursue this field.
But the professor of my freshman video class was openly hostile toward me and the only other woman in the class. “We’re not going to help you carry the equipment,” he announced in front of everyone. I guess that was the head’s up for any guy who might have been tempted to help little ol’ us drag the heavy equipment around.
“I didn’t ask you to,” I said, giving him a death look. I didn’t get a good grade in that class, but not because of the professor. As much as I wanted to say, “In your face,” to that professor by acing the class, I didn’t have the passion for it. I wound up switching to something for which I did have passion—the writing program.
As often happens, life sometimes throws you a curve. Years after college, I discovered that due to medical reasons, I couldn’t do what most women could do: have a child. I was the only woman in my family—and we’re talking generations of women—who couldn’t. Unless I adopted a child, the role of mother would never be played by me. You know what’s ironic? As much as I tried to buck the gender-based system, I still defined myself by it. I felt like half a woman because I could not have a child. After some soul searching, I knew what I needed: to chart a new path.
With the advent of the feminist movement, gender roles have been challenged by many others who also sought a new path. But I’m not going to go into all of that. I wrote this post, because I think about gender roles whenever I write fiction. Why do people do what they do? How does their gender affect their socialization? Their choices? Do they ever question the status quo? I find these questions fascinating. But I try not to hold to a twenty-first century mindset if I’m writing about a historical time period. After all, gender roles were different back in the day. Yet, I can’t help being drawn to stories of women warriors like Hua Mulan (Fa Mulan in Disney’s Mulan) or Joan of Arc—women who weren’t exactly traditional. (Like me.) They remind me that someone who doesn’t fit a preassigned role still has worth.
Sometimes life shapes you to blaze your own trail. I’m down with that. Just ask my mother.
(No brothers were harmed during the writing of this post.)
Mulan image from plopper.files.wordpress.com. Joan of Arc from wikipaintings.org. Washing dishes from picgifs.com. Forest path from Jamesczeng.blogspot.com.