We speak a lot about the patriarchy and how it hurts all of us. How creating strict rules on masculinity or femininity limits our ability to be ourselves. But there is one nagging, persistent issue that I have never fully discussed with anyone: the subtle (and not so subtle) ways that strict adherence to gender roles can negatively impact romantic relationships. Basically, I am tired of being told to “let a man be a man.” What does that even mean?
Like many privileged enough to attend college, I began thinking analytically about gender and sexuality in undergrad. Namely, questioning what I’d been taught — both directly from my family and by society as a whole. For the most part, I grew tired of thinking about the number of things I’d been taught not to do because I’m a woman. Not just rape-culture driven “how to prevent sexual assault” tips, but daily microaggressions that I never realized were problematic until … well, I joined Twitter, and began following people who were able to write clearly and nonjudgmentally about sexism, gender roles and feminism.
In recent years, I’ve been thinking about my persistent need to be “nice,” my inability to give a definitive “no” and the roadblocks that narrowly following gender roles create in my romantic relationships.
For reference, I’m a 20-something, cishet Black woman, so recent discussions about the end of traditional gender roles that centered on women in the workforce and men becoming stay-at-home dads did essentially nothing for me. Black women in America have always worked outside of the home. I think I’ve only known two stay-at-home moms in my life. One was a pastor’s wife and the other is raising five young children — both of which are full-time jobs in and of themselves. Having/being a stay-at-home parent has always seemed more like an unattainable luxury.
Fortunately, I’ve never dated anyone who undermined my career goals. (In fact, the only person who has ever suggested that I’ll stop working once I get married and have a few children was an out-of-touch Uber driver. I gave him two stars). Instead, my problem manifests itself in other, more nebulous ways.
Men I have dated have had an inordinate amount of trouble requesting and receiving help from me. It can be about small things, like following my directions to a restaurant, or larger, more important issues, like knowing when it’s time to quit a terrible job. For some men, strong and independent masculinity means ignoring all advice and stumbling through problems alone. It might be harder, but this isn’t about convenience, ease or efficiency. This about control and feeling self-sufficient. It is about ego. It’s kind of like the modern-day, city-dwelling man’s version of killing, skinning and butchering their own meat. It’s peak “manliness.” Extra points if you do it with a full beard.
“Only date men who like women as people” is some of the best dating advice my ever-wonderful mother has given me. I didn’t fully understand what she meant when I was younger, but as I matured and began to critically observe her relationship with my father, I realized exactly what she meant.
My father has three sisters, is still incredibly close to his nonagenarian mother and has helped raise four daughters. As a result, gender roles were never a noticeable factor in my parents’ house. Household chores were divided up based on our individual schedules. My father shared all of his interests with me, from yoga to horror movies to yardwork. He and my mother are best friends and I know that he values her counsel and vice versa.
I’m currently in My Most Serious Relationship Yet and honestly, my partner reminds me so much of my father that it’s a little unnerving. He’s caring, funny, smart, and always willing to rewatch “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” with me. The one problem? Strict adherence to gender roles occasionally gets in the way of us having open and honest conversations about things not related to our relationship. It’s a problem I’ve encountered with others in the past: I feel like I can’t give him advice that he’ll listen to because he is “a man and needs to figure this out for [himself].”
From work decisions to handling issues with landlords, school, etc., I feel like he has to experience the worst of it before he is willing to listen to advice from me. And I honestly don’t feel like this comes from a misogynistic place. It’s not that he thinks I can’t comprehend his troubles because of my delicate lady-brain. It feels like that “masculine” sense strength and independence is more important than going the easier route and LISTENING TO A WOMAN WHO CARES ABOUT YOU AND HEARS YOUR GRIPES EVERY DAY.
This is one of the ways that the patriarchy hurts men: telling them that the only way to succeed and strive for what they want is to go at it alone. It’s a myth for the majority of the successful people whose quotes float around inspirational Twitter / Tumblr blogs: the idea of pulling up one’s bootstraps, demanding the job you want, struggling until you reach your breakthrough and then surviving said struggle in a fantastic fashion. But this idea is pervasive and false. We all need help. We all need for someone to listen to us, and to pinpoint finer points about our problems that we might have missed because we are too close to the situation. We all need someone to tell us that our feelings are valid.
Asking for help is not weak. Crying and confiding in people you trust does not make you burdensome. Understanding one’s emotions and not discrediting them as something “weak” or pejoratively “female” is powerful. Refusing to listen to solid advice is not bravery. Narrow definitions of manhood and masculinity do not leave room for a person to actually love and live freely. Instead, they create boundaries in even the healthiest and most loving relationships — all in the name of “letting a man be a man.”