The Gender Contract

14 07 2009
My good friend Gabe once said something to me that was very wise, and that I now only partially remember and am about to horribly misquote and rip out of context:

We were talking about rules and decorum in society. There was a time in my life when I saw these societal norms – things like “politeness” and chivalry – as arbitrary and annoying. But talking with Gabe one day, I was led to rethink this.

As Gabe put it, there’s actually something really good about these rules: They give us some sense of an understood mutual contract in society that tells us how we are to relate to the people around us. True, rules can sometimes be annoying and restrictive; but when articulated and implemented well, they actually bring stability, joy, and freedom to our relationships. So when a man knew that it was his role to open the car door for his date, or to stand in the presence of a lady when she entered the room, there was a clear understanding of how mutual honor and respect could be expressed. (“Namaste!”) Both could rejoice in this ceremony: the woman joyfully received the honor and care that was given to her from the man; the man rejoiced in lowering himself to honor the woman.

[ If you google-image “chivalry”, this is something that comes up: ]

But when we eliminate these rules, we lose that mutual contract that governs our relationships. We no longer know what it means to honor and respect one another. (“If I open the door for her, will she feel honored, or will she feel offended, as if I think she’s inferior as a woman and can’t open the door for herself? I’ll just back off and let her open it… better to not risk it.”)

Of course, there are many ways that the individualism and anti-authority bent of Western culture affects our lives – both positively and negatively. But as I said in my first post on this topic, I’m thinking now about sex.

When we lose touch with our sense of what it means to be a man or to be a woman, there can no longer be any mutually understood contract of how we are to relate to one another. What are our roles? Who should ask who out on a date? In my life (and long history of screwed up relationships with both sexes), I’ve often thought things like, “I don’t know what it means for me to relate to her as a woman. So what do I do? Do I just treat her like any other friend? Should there be a difference between how I talk to a woman-friend and how I talk to a man-friend?”

If you’re reading this, maybe it’s because you’re really interested in finding out what I think. But that’s not why I’m sharing this with you. Rather, I’m sharing it because our society is clearly asking these questions, and hasn’t yet come up with any clear answers.

I love looking at pop culture for trace evidences of underlying intuitions that the creator of this or that piece of art may have had. So let me pull out an example or two (or three).

COMING UP: The next three posts will be ultra-exciting analyses of three recent popular stories, and a short look at what they tell us about our sex.




3 responses

15 07 2009
Nintendo Samurai

Hmmmm, Contracts. My first year of law school an upperclassman told me that all law was based on contract law. Whether a social contract or a business contract, our society is driven be an understanding of what is expected of them and what they may expect of others.

I have many branching thoughts from that relating to your blog, I'll try to keep it brief.

As Fiddler on the Roof put so well, Tradition was once the way we knew "who we are, and what God expects us to do." Modern society has killed God and rejected tradition, but as you say, we still crave the comfort and stability of knowing where we belong. As a people, we strive to have contracts at every turn, so everything is understood.

When you have a contract, people aren't offending by the idea of one side getting something different than the other. We don't consider it unequal that the painter gets money and the homeowner gets a new color on their home. Those things are not equal, but because of the contract, we say that both sides are happy. A man opening a door for a woman and a woman walking through the door are unequal roles, but if we accepted them as being a part of the contract, each fulfilling their role, it would not be offensive.

Last thought. There is a concept in the legal world of a hortatory law. The idea is a law that you pass, not so much so that people will obey it for fear of punishment, but simply to encourage them to do the right thing by letting them know what it is. Many recycling laws are a good example of laws that serve a greater function by informing and enabling people to do a good thing, rather than punishing them for not doing it. The reality of law as I see it after 3 years of law school is that all laws serve some kind of hortative function. Most people do the right thing as a function of conscious, not because the law will get them if they don't. The sex contracts of old (and of now) were the same, we followed them because it informed and enabled us, not because something bad would happen if we didn't.

Hortatory, interestingly, is based on the more religious word "exhortation" but in law we try to pretend that we don't need the spiritual realm to keep people in line. By using words that are different from their religious counterpart ("ethics" instead of "morals" is another example), we pretend that we aren't relying on spiritual authority, even though we are.


17 07 2009

I also see the value in social codes of conduct; my trouble with many of these rules (whether or not people adhere to them), is in the inequity I often see in them. I think all genders ought to treat others based on equal codes of respect.

Opening a door is straight-up polite. I don't mind having a door opened for me, and I will happily open a door for a person of any gender. I *do* mind when a man won't let me open a door for him.

I see many of those codes as misconceptions of supposed inherent weakness in "feminine" people, not a definition of respect agreed upon by a non-homogenous group of people.

(your cousin Elizabeth)

22 07 2009

Elizabeth – I agree that it is often the case that these types of rules have become about redefining femininity as weak, insufficient, and inferior, which sucks. I'm curious how you view these things – i.e., what differences DO you see between men and women, and how do you think that affects the way men and women live and relate in the world?

Anyhow, thanks for commenting.

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