Sunday, December 23, 2012

Benevolent Sexism Part 3: Tradition?

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask 'Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?' Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!
I didn't used to care much about tradition.  Then I got married.

I don't know exactly what happened, but somewhere on my way down the aisle, I got totally overwhelmed by the idea that I was about to partake in a ceremony that literally billions of people had gone through for thousands of years.  According to Stephanie Coontz,  there is only one documented culture throughout all of history that did not build it's society on marriage (can't remember the name now....though I believe it was somewhere in Asia and formed family structure based on siblings all living in the same household).  It was the most connected I've ever felt to the rest of humanity (until I had my son), both to those here and the faithful departed.

Since that time, I've always been a little dubious of those who want to evaluate cultural tradition as though those deeper roots shouldn't count.  In case you can't see where I'm going with this, this happens a lot in sexism research.  Recently, a study performed at UC Santa Cruz suggested that men and women still think men should do the proposing.  The most cited reason by the participants was "a desire to adhere to gender role tradition".

This whole thing caused some hand wringing, with my favorite Slate writer, Amanda Marcotte commenting that it is "benevolent sexism that leeches women of much of their autonomy beyond just the right to say yes or no".


Alright, here's the thing.  We've kept the tradition, but the whole back story?  It's changed.  Nobody gets engaged at random anymore(okay, someone must).  People talk about this stuff first.  Women even initiate a lot of these conversations.  The tradition has stayed, but a woman's agency to ask where the relationship is going, to discuss rationally if marriage makes sense as a next step, has developed.  This study did not ask men or women what they envisioned leading up to the proposal, just what that one moment would look like. All the articles I read about this talked about "how little had changed" in the realm of marriage when it came to equality for women.  Poppycock.

The traditions haven't changed, but all the behavior around them has.

One of my favorite advice columnists is Dan Savage, a liberal gay male who is most notable for creating Rick Santorum's "google problem".

I listen to his podcast, and he routinely gets callers that say things like "I've been living with my boyfriend for 5 years, and now I want to get married but I can't propose because I'm really traditional so I don't want to bring it up" or "my boyfriend of 2 months and I are having sex problems, and I think it's because he's a really traditional Christian guy".  He gets straight to the point with these people:  a traditional Christian does not have sex with someone they've been dating for two months.  A traditional couple does not live together for 5 years before talking about marriage.  Those things were unacceptable for most of history, and you need to come to grips with that.  People love to call themselves "traditional", but most of them don't like to act like it.

So give the college kids a break.  Women have an unprecedented level of say over who they marry and when, they're just trying to keep their balance.


  1. As for proposing, CS Lewis used it as an analogy to prayer. He proposed, but did she not want him to? Isn't there at least some chance she was the driving force all along? Think Jane Austen. So too with our requests to God.

    Many traditions change, yet keep their outward forms. Anger at that usually revolves around believing there is only one true interpretation for a tradition - that it must necessarily mean that culture A is hung up about sex/drugs/R&R but culture B is healthy.

    It is interesting that at a certain point, the real traditionalists start to take the same view as the tradition-droppers. The ritual is now empty, and needs be abandoned to reveal reality. The furor about Holiday Trees and forbidding Santa are a good example. Christians had those as decorative add-ons, separate from the main issue, long ago. Our traditions have long been excised from the culture. If the add-ons are now been struck down, maybe that's a good thing.

    1. Interesting point about the proposal. I have seen quite a few men gripe about how "so I'm supposed to spend all this money, come up with this whole way of proposing so you have a good story, arrange everything, and then all you have to do is say yes or no????"

      Let's be honest, if this tradition were the other way around, Marcotte would be griping about it.