“Yeah, my husband will change diapers when I ask him to, but only if we have the man-friendly/easy-to-use ones clean.”
“Sure he says he’ll clean the bathroom, but he’s a man, it’s like he doesn’t see the dirt.”
“My spouse is such a GUY — fifty things to do before my family comes over, and he spends an hour on one that’s not even on the list.”
I hate hearing phrases like these. Hate. (Loathe might be a more accurate word.) They drive me absolutely up the wall, and occasionally send me to a safe space (or Twitter) to rant about how much I cringe upon hearing them — and I do, seemingly inevitably though to greater or lesser extents, any time a group of women (especially mothers) gather together.
A short list of the problems with these and similar phrases:
- They extrapolate from one man to all men as though men are a monolith, each identical to the other. (Sometimes this is “reduced” to “only” straight men — because “gay” and “straight” are two discrete categories, and within each all individuals are the same.)
- Related, they extrapolate from “once” (or, granted, a historical pattern) to “always”, thus encouraging (which is not to say entirely creating) a self-fulfilling prophesy.
- They assume inadequate performance is due to inherent incompetence rather than cultural learning (or lack thereof).
- They assign said incompetence to gender — or sometimes, explicitly to (inevitably cissexist) symbols of gender, such as cocks or Y-chromosomes.
- They excuse, and thus encourage, said incompetence — after all, he can’t change that he’s a man/guy/has a penis; plus, who wants to do more of anything that gets them berated?
- They exclude men from the domestic sphere, leaving women as the ones who must be competent at home, thus denying them the freedom to move into the public sphere.
- They’re wrong, both factually an morally, for all the above reasons.
Yet — I almost never say anything when they’re said. What could I say? I’m one of the “lucky” ones1, so any protests would read as either bragging, preaching, or rubbing their noses in what many others don’t have and I do. Yet murmur vague concurring noises, and I’m agreeing to sexism — not “reverse sexism”, but the logical sequela of women-need-to-stay-at-home misogyny. Go off on a rant about society and the damage of kyriarchy, and I’ve both lost my audience (a minor issue) and completely ignored the emotional content of my friends’ complaints (a rather more major one).
For there are reasons women complain about the incompetence of the men in their lives, not least because it’s true — if not as a generalization, then for them, in their lives. And it’s crappy, and of course they want to complain and vent to a supportive audience of their peers, many of whom experience similar personal aggravations and injustices. These phrases do reinforce misogyny and sexism, both personally and culturally, but ultimately it’s not women’s job to make sure men do theirs, not our job (alone) to eliminate sexism, and in many relationships it’s just not as simple as stepping back and changing our words and trusting that suddenly, magically, the men will step up and do their share.
I wish that were always the case — and it sometimes is, and I invite you to decide to what extent that’s true in your relationship, because I surely am not going to attempt to — but sometimes leaving things up to a woman’s partner puts her children at risk; sometimes ceasing to excuse him increases the antagonism at home; sometimes it increases verbal/emotional abuse, or risks turning it into physical abuse. Complaining, though often counterproductive, is sometimes a woman’s only coping mechanism in a situation where she has little power and a very small set of crappy options. Furthermore, generalizing those complaints to “men” instead of her man places her in solidarity with other (male-partnered) women rather than (falsely!) placing the blame on her and her “bad choice” of a partner. I can’t — won’t — deprive someone of their coping mechanism, won’t condescend to presume even that such is true for every woman I’m listening to, won’t offend by assuming ill-intent or laziness.
And so I cringe, say nothing, and think of my child — self-declared boy, statistically likely to be straight and one day woman-partnered — and I hope that he never gives his lover cause to evoke these phrases, never is hobbled in his parenting or partnership by these all too pervasive cultural ideas.
ETA: And just in case we needed evidence this is hardly a mothers-started idea, making it even more pointless to blame individual women, here’s evidence of just how pervasive the-incompetent-dad idea is.
- A phrase which itself silences the few complaints with my partner I may have, because then not only would I be placing myself as “perfect” — hah! — to his “imperfect”, I’m also not “appreciating” my “luck”. ↩