A few years back, we bought some newly married friends a game called “Battle of the Sexes.” I think we played it twice with them, and I regretted ever buying it and playing it. Maybe some of y’all have heard of it and love it, but it’s about on the same level as Monopoly to me. I hate it. But it is instructive and sad in how it reveals how disconnected the genders often are. I don’t know if stereotypes are a cause or a result, or both, of this disconnect.
I’ve heard that generalizations, and their crazy uncle Stereotype, are useful as a kind of shorthand to quickly give a picture of an entity or group. It’s usually understood that there’s variation within the object of discussion. For instance, you might say that “The Republican Party is for _____”, with full knowledge that not everyone who is a registered Republican lines up just so, but that the Party is characterized by _____. We usually all understand that.
Here’s a question that’s been bugging me though. Just how useful are these generalizations relationally? I’m thinking specifically along gender lines here, although surely this applies to other areas like race, age, career, etc. We’ve all heard them–grown up with them, taught them, get bombarded with them in memes–and if we’re honest most of us have them. I don’t know about y’all, but my mind tends to be wired for ease and categorizing – it likes to automate things. It’s much easier to apply previously learned characteristics to the new object in the group without having to go through the trouble of learning it afresh in its entirety. That’s not inherently a bad thing, and it can be a helpful, time-saving process in my line of work.
But people are not objects. Radical notion there, I know. Stop the presses.
Let’s examine gender stereotypes for a minute. Just how helpful is it to say that women are not governed by logical thought processes? Or that men are? Forget that I firmly believe that that’s not true anyway. I know plenty of men who are decidedly not ruled by logic, and plenty of women who decidedly are. I don’t think that stereotype holds water, but that’s not really what I’m getting at here. I think what is bugging me is more fundamental.
When I meet a new female constituent, how helpful would it be to size her up like so before engaging:
Bad at math
Likely wants to seduce me
Probably judging my tie/shirt combo and trying to get a view of my socks to see if they match.
Not a visual being, but be careful about physical touch. Avoid the handshake.
Needs love more than respect.
It’s a little absurd, yes, but see what I mean? Where is any of that going to get me? Even if those were dominate traits across the gender (and again, we know better), how does that really help me relate to the person sitting across from me? I’m not meeting “women” or “men”, I’m engaging a unique person, with a history, an education, unique genetic makeup, strengths, weaknesses, and ideas. And good lord, I need not even bring up racial profiling. Use your imagination in how this might play out in that sphere.
Maybe I’m over-simplifying things, but even thinking in terms of generalized traits when dealing with individuals strikes me as counterproductive. My mind is setting me up for failure, for minimizing, for dismissing people and ideas with a wave of my hand, before they’ve said a word. I’m not targeting a demographic, or trying to sell a product, when I sit down with someone for a chat. If I start out a conversation with a man with the assumption that men accept appeals to logic far more readily than women, I’ll be sorely disappointed. Or I might not, but that’s the luck of the draw. Why not get to know him? Screw stereotypes.
Now here’s the balance where I may just be missing the mark some. I’m not a pastor caring for a church and preaching sermons regularly, nor am I in charge of people at work, nor am I a salesman. Most of my interactions are one on one, by choice. I’m not exactly Paul on Mars Hill, here. So maybe the dynamics are different in a group setting? I’m aware of my ignorance there, and maybe I can get some insight from someone out there who enjoys reaching crowds. Weirdos.
So I guess I’m reacting here to some of the relational advice and guidelines I see given that are based on generalizations which strike me as meaningless on the personal level the advice is targeted at. For instance, dating advice based around “women like _____” – are you dating “women”, or are you trying to get to know the person right in front of you?
What is especially harmful is when we pass these generalizations onto the impressionable – our children, young believers, the newly married/engaged, etc. They become self-fulfilling prophecies. It becomes more than (perhaps) faulty advice to cope with the challenges of a relational world, but pressure to conform to a standard. The descriptions become prescriptions. Demands creates supply. Before you know it, everyone’s chasing their tails, and the ones with the truly rewarding relationships are those who think outside the box and happen to find each other, or realize quickly that their spouse, friend, or colleague is a unique individual and deserves to be discovered in their entirety, and their gender/race/etc is a characteristic of their individuality, not the other way around.
To start bringing this around to a close, another dangerous side effect, I think, is the disconnect we often see between the sexes. We’re often waiting till dating or marriage to start trying to understand our partner, and the opposite sex in general, or at least that avenue of learning is far on the back burner until we’re forced to consider it, so we tend to project our knowledge of our spouse onto the rest of their gender, since he/she is our deepest reference point and knowledge base. That leads me into a discussion about cross-gender friendships, but I’ll pass over that right now. But in my opinion one can never even get to that point when there’s such a disconnect – when someone of the opposite sex is little more than the complement to your own sex. I think we all know better than that, but we don’t know what to do with that idea, and we just default to an immature understanding and practice to protect ourselves. Or maybe I’m just projecting, but that’s a thought for another time.
Here’s a final thought I’ll add which was sparked by a good friend’s pushback, and may fill in a large gap in my original draft.
Why bother? If there is some truth to some of the stereotypes, and it’s just going to be a fact of life we all deal with, why bother fighting it? Why not just accept that and move on? I of course won’t deny that biological abilities or lack thereof will often provide a different path in development and therefore different perspectives and experiences. The sexes are not the same, and I don’t know of anyone who would say that. But again, I would say that these are at best merely descriptive, and not prescriptive. Because I’m a male, I’m not less of a man because I really don’t give a darn about cars and couldn’t fix one to save my life, nor is the missus any less of a woman because she lacks any kind of mothering gene, and childbearing and all that goes with that is just short of horrifying to her. Perhaps she has a different purpose here. Perhaps God will grant her that experience and the strength to deal with it, in His own time? Who am I to say. But back to the matter at hand.
Why bother? Because stereotypes hurt people. Stereotypes imprison. Stereotypes pressure us into things we regret. Stereotypes breed distrust, fear, division, and oppression. Stereotypes breed complacency – I am what I am, and why do I need to change? Why do I need to understand? Why are you unhappy I treat you this way?
Example: How many times have y’all seen emotions minimized as untrustworthy – sort of an unpleasant, complicating side effect of the human experience that we need to let our intellects rule over? How damaging do you think it can be, therefore, to perpetuate and put into practice the stereotype that women are inherently more emotional beings than men? Essentially, you’ve told half the human race that they’re inherently less trustworthy than the other half. Again, how does this help you understand and relate to the person sitting across from you? This is living out the Curse, isn’t it?
I bother because though we live under the effects of the curse in this world, has Christ’s work made us new creations? Does His work have any real power to change us? Are we content to carry on in a cursed world of “boys will be boys”, of male domination and female resentment, or were we shown a better way? Do we, with new hearts, have the ability and will to conform to His image, and also raise a generation that seeks understanding, that’s kinder and gentler, that strives for unity? Can we show a better way? Is the pattern for the transformation of our hearts and wills a fallen world, or is Christ our Supreme Example, the Pioneer of our faith? I think we know the answers to these questions.
So what do y’all think?