Since posting my original article on gender, I’ve received and thought of a few questions. This is one of them.
How far can femininity go within Man? Since some men wear women’s clothing, does that mean that all men should be allowed to wear women’s clothing?
I think the person who asked this thought that he was only asking one question, but the way I see it, the two discussions are definitely distinct. The first question is asking how similar to a woman a man ought to be. It can perhaps be phrased like this: Is there a difference in how men and women ought to behave in general? The second question is asking why the actions of some men do not validate the actions of others. Maybe it is asking this: Why should we obey gender norms?
I will answer the first question and then the second. Allow me to rephrase the discussion, and hopefully the issue will become clearer. I am going to argue that genders are almost entirely descriptive and are only very slightly prescriptive, while the prevailing view is that they have a pretty equal mixture of descriptive and prescriptive elements. That is, I think genders exist only to describe the way the sexes are, while many others think that what gender tells us about the sexes ought to guide us in our actions. They either say that we ought to strive to conform to the gender roles that fit our sex, or that genders are made up to cajole us into certain patterns of behavior. For example, men are told to be brave handymen, while women are told to be empathetic cooks. So let’s examine the two parts of the discussion.
First, let me reestablish that genders are definitely descriptive. For now let’s say that it is possible that they are also be prescriptive, but I want to ensure that it is undeniable that they are descriptive. That is mostly what my original post was about. Femininity describes what women typically are like. At least, that is what it is supposed to do. The womenfolk might tell you that femininity does no such thing. But it stands that correct gender is the story of the two sexes; it is built from the sexes, so the experiences, tendencies, and behaviors of the sexes are built into the genders. That means that the description of Man must include me, because I am male. That is, if I cannot find a place within Man in which I truly belong, then my vision of Man, of what it means to be a man, is incomplete.
The only objection to this that I can imagine is that people do not have natures. This is basically the core of existentialism; “existence precedes essence.” People are only who they want to be, and this can mean anything. If this is true, then any broad interpretations of the sexes would be mistaken to their foundation. But first, a God who is a Creator removes this possibility. He gave us a nature. Second, life experiences tell me this is not the case. I sense that I do have a nature, and am comfortable with that. Anyways. I do not think this needs to be seriously argued for very long.
Now, is gender prescriptive? Is there a grand epitome of Man and Woman that we ought to actively try to be? In short, I say gender is not prescriptive in itself, but other commands are prescriptive that require a loose following of gender norms.
One problem with gender being prescriptive is that many people have different ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman. Some think that women ought to submit to the authority of men in all things, and some think that every woman has a duty to throw off the patriarchy. So which rule should a woman follow? It is clearly impossible to follow both.
Perhaps this can be solved if we have one perfect, correct view of what the two genders are and ought to be. And maybe this comes from God, who created us, and whose words are delivered to us in the Bible. Well yes, that makes sense. I agree with this, actually1. But the nuance with my view is that I don’t think the Bible treats the two genders incredibly differently. The primary command is to love God and love your neighbors. That’s what God himself says is of utmost importance. To be holy, compassionate, courageous, hard-working, reverent, generous, bold, pure, prayerful, humble, wise, and overflowing with love. That is the important stuff, and I tend to think it is also the harder stuff, and it is certain that both genders are commanded to be all of this.
Outside of the Bible2, this makes sense too. Viewed as moral agents we are all equal, so we have the same obligations to each other. Some of us have different strengths, yes, but virtue is demanded the same in all of us. The fundamental rule has always been love and reciprocity. I can’t really begin to prove this because philosophy is complicated, but it seems true. If you want philosophy, check out Kant’s categorical imperative.
But, if this is the line of reasoning I am deciding to pursue, then I must acknowledge that in the Bible, there are indeed some differences in role, like those found in Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 14, or others3. In addition, when I imagine the perfect man and the perfect woman, they have slightly different characteristics. I am certain that some of this is my upbringing, but I’m not sure that all of the differences present in my imagination are reducible to mere conditioning. So if virtue is demanded in the same way in all of us, why do differences in action arise in our prescribed behavior?
Let me illustrate what I mean when I say that virtue is manifested differently. Some Muslims think that men suffer from uncontrollable sexual desire, so the ladies should help us out by not allowing any part of their body to be seen in public. It seems that the Qur’an agrees, except I added the word “uncontrollable.” But the Qur’an says that women do not struggle in the same way, so the rules for men are not as stringent. Is this a different prescription for the two genders? Not really. For both genders, the law is, “Do not cause another to lust after you.” For Muslim women, this means wearing a burqa. For Muslim men, this means don’t actively try to seduce a woman. It is the same rule, but applied with alleged knowledge of the different inner workings of each biological sex.
What can we learn from this? If genders have any validity as a description of the two sexes, then it would be wise to consider their insights while building personal virtue. That is, while deciding how to behave towards others. In my experience, women tend to appreciate graciousness more than men, so I try to practice graciousness around women more than I do around men. Men tend to like frankness, so I try to practice frankness around men more than I do around women. But this where I dissent with the Arabic practice of enforcing the burqa. While my differing behaviors may work as broad policies, they are not ultimately rooted in genders, but rather in my knowledge of my friends4. Some women appreciate frankness a whole lot, and some men appreciate graciousness, so I try to adjust my behavior to fit this.
All this to say, I doubt that it is wise to base all of our actions on general knowledge of the genders when we have the opportunity to have specific knowledge about individual people. But this final summation could possibly solve the question of why my imaginings of the ideal Man and Woman are not precisely the same. Maybe it is because men and women, on average, are not precisely the same, so the ideal Man and Woman have adapted themselves to be slightly different, so that they can love the two genders best. I hope that makes any semblance of sense.
But back to the original question. How far can femininity go within Man? Though I don’t see major differences in fundamental virtue prescription for men and women, I do see some certain differences in prescribed behavior within my culture. For example, men typically do not wear dresses, other than for comedic effect. This has not always been the case, as tunics are pretty much dresses for men. Similarly, kilts are skirts for men. So clearly these are just cultural norms.
The thing is, I think there is a prima facie obligation to abide by social norms. A relevant Lewis passage on modesty helps with my point.
The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of ‘modesty’ (in one sense of that word); i.e. propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest’, proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste). Some of the language which chaste women used in Shakespeare’s time would have been used in the nineteenth century only by a woman completely abandoned. When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity. But if they break it through ignorance or carelessness they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable: for it is uncharitable to take pleasure in making other people uncomfortable.
I also point out a relevant passage in Scripture, in 1 Corinthians 10.
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.
Lewis is saying that though the cultural definition of modesty is mutable and changes throughout the ages, we should try to follow it anyway. I can walk around without a shirt at the pool all day long, but at work it is looked down upon; it is bad manners, so in Lewis’ view and my own, either I am breaking the virtue of chastity, or I am being uncharitable, or I am just clueless. Paul brings us deeper in the matter at hand. It is lawful, perhaps, for a man to walk around wearing a dress, but it is certainly not helpful. It accomplishes little except making other people uncomfortable, which is uncharitable5.
Finally, I want to make it clear that femininity can go too far not only in men, but in women too, and masculinity can go too far in men. When a woman is too protective to allow her sons to get dirty or play soldier, she is being controlling and selfish. When a man claims that he just wants to get things done and feelings don’t really matter, he is being arrogant and foolish. Of course there are exceptions; I am only illustrating a point.
So in summation, genders are certainly descriptive. However, I’m fairly certain that there are not many major prescriptions that we should strive towards within the genders that are exclusive to our own gender. The few that are there, namely the ones from the Bible, seem to me to be more about roles than fundamental virtues. However, just because few prescriptions come from gender, there are plenty of other prescriptions that apply to both of us equally, such as wisdom and love. Finally, a loose observation of social norms is probably commanded.
Thanks for reading. Know that I feel especially shaky about this post. I would love to hear insights that I missed.
- The problem remains as to how we can know that God exists, that He communicated with us, and that the Christian Bible (yes, even the Protestant Bible) are the accurate words of God. But that is for another time, and a better thinker. ↩
- I’m merely saying that I am relying more heavily on human reason here. The thing is, I am still operating within my Christian worldview, which is derived from the Bible. So I’m not really outside of the Bible. ↩
- It is worth noting that we have two millennia of interpretation in regard to these texts, so some research should be done before declaring that you absolutely know what they mean. Especially ones that offend the modern sentiment. For example, wives are told to “submit to your husbands, as to the Lord,” while husbands are told to “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Both commandments are profound and radical, but usually only one is emphasized. Finally, these commandments, when there is a big difference between them, seem to mostly be about roles, rather than about fundamental virtue. To me, that is a large distinction. ↩
- Of course, the genders help me gain knowledge of my friends. ↩
- Wearing women’s clothing did help in Walt Heyer’s case, at least temporarily. It helped him escape the agony of his childhood by becoming another person in his mind, a person who did not suffer the same way he did. But I am constricting my contemplation to people with healthy mental states. I am fairly sure that wearing a dress accomplishes little. If I am wrong, please inform me. ↩