Reshaping gender expectations: Slow work – but exciting
Recently, New Zealand’s prevailing notions of gender were memorably and amusingly skewered by Michelle Duff at Stuff: “If New Zealand is a person,” she wrote, “he’s your Stubbies-wearing uncle from Eketāhuna who thinks he’s enlightened because he once watched a women’s rugby match and drank a glass of Prosecco by mistake.”
As Michelle points out, in some ways, gender roles in New Zealand are more restrictive for males than females: it’s more remarkable for cis-men to wear pink, be a fulltime caregiver or to knit than it is for cis-women to wear blue, to be the household breadwinner or to play sport.
These restrictions on males are a – sometimes unexpected – consequence of the patriarchy itself, which accords higher status to activities and appearances coded as “masculine” than those seen as “feminine”. So to patriarchal ways of thinking, it makes sense that women would lean-in and aspire to “masculine” success (such as the charismatic young heroine in the recent Enola Holmes movie disdaining girly needlework to become a detective like her big brother Sherlock), whereas men who chose lower-status feminine markers can bring into question the very aims and foundations of the entire gender hierarchy.
The status imbalance between feminine and masculine is of course an embedded disaster, encouraging and enabling physical and psychological gender violence. Males are trained to expect to have power, and when they don’t, their socialised outlet can be destructive rage. Michelle quotes an interviewee from the recent Stuff podcast on masculinity He’ll Be Right who felt rage “over things as seemingly inconsequential as controlling what his children were eating”. He would shout abuse when he felt “angry and frustrated at life, at everything not going my way.”
The dominance of the Western gender binary also has racist consequences: it over-shadows different cultural understandings of gender as multiple and/or fluid. In He’ll Be Right, Scout Barbour-Evans talks about the intrinsic link between their non-binary gender identity and their Ngatī Kahungungu tūpuna. Reading Elizabeth Kerekere’s work on takatāpui, they realised “people who have not fit the Pākehā gender binary have been present in our whakapapa right across Aotearoa. That’s when I began to understand that that’s who I was.”
So, how does Uncle start accepting all his family, no matter what their body hair or gender expression, and start acknowledging his own penchant for quiche? (There really are blokes out there who avoid eating baked egg because it’s supposedly ladies-only!). We call for compulsory, intersectional-feminist-informed gender and sexuality education for children and young people, to help replace negative stereotypes and behavioural straitjackets with positivity about variety and choice and acceptance. We celebrate needlework, childcare and other “feminine” activities that the patriarchy attempts to teach us to sneer at. We urge the government to rapidly and dramatically increase their funding for primary violence prevention, especially the long, slow but exciting work of reshaping social expectations.