Thursday, May 5, 2011

Who's the woman in a gay relationship?

Last night's episode of Modern Family addressed the fact that in a homosexual relationship, heteronormative society still expects one partner to fill the masculine role and the other to fill the feminine one.  Cam felt hurt, offended, and marginalized when he was treated as an "honorary mom" on Mother's Day.  Because Mitchell goes to work while Cam stays home with their daughter Lily, he is regarded as the "mother."  When Mitchell brings him breakfast in bed, it's hurtful enough for Cam that his partner views him "as the woman" in their relationship.  Later at Lily's play group's Mother's Day picnic, all the other childrens' parents refer to him in the same way.

Modern Family may include a gay partnership and an inter-ethnic/trans-generational second marriage among its characters, but in all three of the nuclear families portrayed, one partner stays home to parent full-time while the other works outside the home.  In the two straight partnerships portrayed, the stay-at-home parents are women.  This episode did very little to challenge the strictly enforced rules that women are the nurturers, the ones who parent instead of working, the ones who like the color pink.  None of the other families at Lily's play group seemed to have a stay-at-home dad, two parents who share work/home duties, or outside child care help while both parents work.  Being a stay-at-home dad made Cam "the woman," and it was roundly accepted by all but him.

These rules are so hard-wired into our society that people expect for homosexual couples to adhere to the same binary.  I'll tell you right now: when two men are in a relationship, neither one of them is the woman.  And when two women are in a relationship, both are!  When a man and a woman are in a relationship, and the woman works while the father stays home to look after the children, the woman is still the woman and the man is still the man.  I'm reminded of a blog entry I once read by a new mother who was tired of constantly being asked, "Who's watching the baby?" or, "Is your husband babysitting tonight?" whenever she was out somewhere alone.  It was presumed that the mother and the baby would never be apart, and when the father was caring for their child, it was referred to as "babysitting."  This is demeaning both to women who cannot be allowed to carry on with their daily lives without being harangued as to why they are not with their kids, and to men who are viewed as incapable oafs unable to keep their children alive.

This is all part of a bigger problem (isn't it always?).  Being viewed as feminine or womanly is a bad thing.  While it is fair for Cam to be incensed that he is being incorrectly defined against his will, it is made very clear that to be "the woman" in the relationship is to be inferior, to be weaker.  He even directly tries to counter this assertion by stating how physically he is much bigger and stronger than Mitchell.  When women dress in men's clothing, it is acceptable, fashionable, even sexy.  When men dress in women's clothing, it is laughable, or demeaning.  If a man throws "like a girl," it implies that he is weak.  "Be a man," they are told, meaning, "be big, be strong, be better."  Women are the "fairer, gentler, weaker" sex.  Society continues to reinforce the binary, that a couple must have a man and a woman, and the man is superior over the woman.  The sooner we can equalize our expectations of both genders, the better off we'll all be.

(For the record, I believe gender performance is partially socially constructed, but that there are inherent gender traits we all have.  Some men are more masculine/feminine, and the same with some women.  I don't think we should all forgo gender definition and live in some sort of Barbie-crotched world of neutrals.  But I think if we let people define their own identities a little more freely instead of immediately putting our babies in worlds of pink OR blue - never both! - we'd stop judging people so harshly when they don't conform.  Next thing you know, they'll be giving women the vote!)

1 comment:

Sara Mitchell said...

So good! I loved every word of your post. I was just thinking about this topic the other day. I can remember when my cousin and I were little girls and we were talking about gay men couples. She was sure that one was the man and the other was the woman but I always had a really strong feeling that it didn't work like that. I remain unconvinced.