I recently watched Elysium. And in it, like a lot of Hollywood movies, a strong, heroic man saved a helpless woman and child. And as a feminist I felt irritated. But as a woman I felt something else. I realized I saw the appeal in being saved by a strong, heroic man. Those same cultural influences which make helpless women and heroic men tropes give me warm fuzzies at the thought of a man who could take me into his strong arms and protect me from harm. A man who can meet my needs.
But, appealing as that is, watchwords ring through my skull: A man big enough to give me everything I want, is a man big enough to take away everything that I have.
In truth, I don’t think men want to take things away from me. I don’t think the trope of helpless women and heroic men is perpetrated by some conscious patriarchy hell bent on keeping me in my place. I think the ideas behind gender roles are supported by people with good intentions. They are, namely, the well-meaning but ultimately pernicious desire to do right by women by having men protect them, and the view that gender roles are dictated by a biological framework which cannot be overcome, and which will defeat anyone who attempts to challenge it.
When I say “the ideas behind gender roles,” what I mean mostly and most basically is the idea that men are one way, and women are another. Men are physically strong, women are physically weak. Men are rational. Women are emotional. Men are good at math and science. Women are good at English. Men should work. Women should take care of children.
Many of the aspects comprising many people’s idea of proper gender roles are based in biology. Others are more cultural. Many of the differences we previously thought were biological are actually based in bunk science. People used to believe all kinds of things, from riding horses to walking, would cause miscarriages and make women infertile. In addition, many biology-based limitations, gender-based and otherwise, are being made obsolete by advances in technology.
But regardless of their origin, gender roles are limiting. When girls are reminded of the stereotype that women are bad at math, they do worse on math tests. Gender roles give women the idea that certain characteristics and activities are “feminine,” and that women should be feminine. This discourages women from developing characteristics and participating in activities which are “masculine.” It does so by telling women that they are likely to fail in their masculine endeavors simply because they’re women. It also makes women afraid that acting masculine will cause them to be rejected for not properly fitting into their role. The same is true of men as well.
To make it more concrete, former Harvard Dean Larry Summers got into trouble for indicating he believed biology played a role in women’s underrepresentation in the highest levels of science. Some studies have indicated there may be evidence of truth to this claim. But the result of telling women who would otherwise be interested in pursuing a career in science that they are biologically handicapped is that fewer will try. Though not intended to, gender roles work to effectively limits women’s options.
This might be somewhat good. If women are worse at science than men and better at raising kids, why let poor Martha waste her time getting a PhD she’s not talented enough to use? Meanwhile her eggs are going to waste. But why not go further, and IQ test every person, and tell them which careers they should pursue? Why don’t those physical fitness tests in elementary school dictate who should be a lawyer and who should be a police officer? It seems more efficient for people who “know better” to softly dictate what people should do based on their gender. But It’s actually really hard to predict what people will be good at based on gender, IQ, or physical fitness.
The inability to accurately predict what people will want and be good at producing is what makes markets superior to planning. And as the breadth of choices for exchange grows, so do the gains from trade. Innovators are not people who feel chained by external forces upon which they have limited control. Freedom, not constraint, produces prosperity.
Limiting women’s choices limits their ability to fully participate in markets. A woman who thinks she is one way or should be one way who is reality an exception isn’t gaining from the trade she isn’t making.
Gender roles as they are currently constructed provide a feeling of security for women. They provide a feeling of doing good for men. I see this as similar to how state control provides security to citizens and the feeling of doing good to bureaucrats. But, ultimately, those feelings come at the very dear price of freedom. The coercion in gender roles is less overt than that of the state. But both effectively limit trade, and for the same reasons.
Part of me, whether due to biology or culture, will long for a big strong man or government to keep me safe. But a bigger, better, stronger part longs for the freedom to make my own way. That part of me looks at the amazing prosperity free and open trade brings, and she wants in. She wants to participate fully, not as a woman, or a man, but as an actor with agency.