Complicated Gender Roles

A number of posts are in the pipeline: some more thoughts on Brave New World, some reflections on what I’m currently reading, Terrorism and Communism by Leon Trotsky, especially regarding the infamous ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. I’m also preparing some comments on the recent events in Guinea-Bissau.

Right now though, my attention has been caught by two recent posts with interestingly contrasting points.

This post, by the Loner Grrrl, discusses the reaction to that woman who won University Challenge, and the way that intelligence in women is often unexpected and seen as unfeminine. So intelligence is associated with masculinity. Got it.

But wait! As argued in this post, by Hugo Schwyzer, intelligence is actually often opposed to masculinity. He talks about the US presidency, but the same pattern can be observed all over the place: the ‘real men’ are the active, muscular, ones, not the ‘nerds’.

So wait, intelligence is opposed to masculinity. So it’s a bad thing for both men and women?

Yet something else that the latter post points out, and which can be confirmed by anyone familiar with racial stereotypes in western culture, it is precisely the stereotype of that unintelligent masculinity, thuggishly aggressive, athletic, gansterish, virile, hyper-masculinity, that is used so much against black men. And this hyper-masculinity hardly serves to help them – instead it’s part of the narrative of danger and stupidity that helps to imprison and marginalise them.

What does this mean? It means that stuff is complicated. Attempts to hypothesise an archetypal ‘eternal masculine’ and ‘eternal feminine’ are not just false to reality, they’re false to the very ideological categories that they try to absolutise.

For example, if I had to describe my gender identity, it would be very much a male one. But at the same time, it’s very different from – indeed, in opposition to – the most conspicuously and emphatically male identity. I’m intellectual, pedantic, socially awkward, hate sports, don’t eat meat, etc. This identity is a common one, and a very definitely male one, but in relation to watching-the-game-having-a-bud, it’s defectively masculine. I don’t remotely identify with ‘men’ as a category, or feel like ‘one of’ ‘the boys’, but I don’t feel remotely feminine either.

Yet in other settings and frameworks, that ‘dominant’ masculine identity can be the basis of marginalisation, when it gets situated as either animalistic (in contrast to the rational, dignified, human) or as child-like (“the savage natives must be educated before they can govern themselves”).

5 Responses to “Complicated Gender Roles”

  1. ubuntucat Says:

    It is not simplistic, of course, but it’s also not that complicated either.

    Society teaches us that the smartest people are males or masculinized females.

    It also teaches us the most feminine women hide their intelligence.

    Just because some men are able to be masculine males and unintelligent doesn’t invalidate either of those teachings. We’re not taught that all males are smart or that to be smart is to be masculine.

    We’re taught that men can be as smart as they want and women have to hide their intelligence to succeed or risk being labeled “too masculine” or “unattractive.” We aren’t taught that it’s unmasculine to be dumb.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “Society teaches us that the smartest people are males…Just because some men are able to be masculine males and unintelligent”

    Except that their masculinity is built in part specifically on that unintelligence, or rather on that un-intellectualism. The intelligence is treated as a sign of impotence and effeteness.

  3. DOMINO Says:

    You might be interested to know that over the past few weeks that I’d been reading your blog — I really had no idea if you were a man or a woman. I thought about asking once, but then decided it didn’t matter. What was important to me is that you liked wolverines.

  4. DOMINO Says:


    And mongooses.

    (You do like wolverines too, don’t you?)

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Cool. Yeah I have sometimes had people rant about me in the third person as “crazy feminists like her”.

    Wolverines are very nice. They have an impressive feistiness, and annoy trappers and hunters by outsmarting them. Plus relative to their size they are probably the strongest animal in the world (well, for a certain range of sizes, things like ants are pretty strong, but you take my point).

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