you know what they say

On two separate occasions in recent memory, I was called upon to act like a girl.

The first time came when we were visiting a quaint little town in Oregon with the beau’s parents. The beau and his dad decided they wanted to go get a drink at a pub, and his mom decided she wanted to browse the shops. They all turned and looked at me, waiting to see which one I’d choose.

Honestly? The very idea of shopping makes me want to stab myself in the face with a carving fork. But as I quickly assessed the situation I noted that:

  • Beau and his dad could probably use a little one-on-one bonding.
  • If I went to the pub, Beau’s mom would be completely alone.
  • Having had two sons, Beau’s mom had never before had the opportunity to go shopping with a daughter-like figure.

Seriously, the decision was made for me. Browsing the stores it was.

The second time came when I attended a housewarming party. Everyone had just settled in to watch a sporting event on TV when the hostess of the party sighed, muttered that she hated sports, then turned to me and asked if I wanted to go upstairs and look at the dresses she’d had made by a seamstress. Uh… no? But I couldn’t say that, of course. I was a guest and the only woman there besides the hostess herself. If not by manners, then I was bound by a common set of genitalia. Up the stairs I trudged for an interlude in making my face look way animated than I actually felt.

The splitting of groups by gender has always made me feel extremely uncomfortable, not least because I usually end up getting shafted. I was once a guest at a wedding for which the day-before activities were segregated thusly: girls were to attend a spa day, and guys were to go golfing. Um… what’s the designated activity for folks who feel terrified at the prospect of either option? That would be sitting in your hotel room drinking by yourself, yes?

The point is not that girly spa days are stupid, of course, or that anyone who enjoys anything remotely “girly” is bad. I sometimes participate in girly activities, myself: I like dresses! I wear eye makeup! The other week I willfully watched the E! True Hollywood Story of Full House, and I was riveted!

What really gets me agitated is when these behaviors are just assumed of men and women. I’d like to think that we all know better than that, but go ahead and scan the comments of any YouTube video or news article if you need a quick reminder about how moronic most of the population is. I’d like to think I would have let go of even caring about any of it by now, because it’s such a needling little thing. A quick comment here. A tired joke there. A totally-missing-the-mark-gift there.

Like the Debbie Gibson cassette and purple hair crimper I got for my ninth birthday, when pop music and hair styling couldn’t have been more foreign concepts to me. I remember feeling strangely guilty about these presents, because they strongly hinted at markers of “normal” girlhood that I just wasn’t living up to. With her feathered bangs and coral lipstick and smart beret, Debbie Gibson looked exactly like everything I wasn’t, and was probably never going to be.

And I’m still not. Especially with regard to the feathered bangs.

We all try to assimilate as best we can. We all catch subtle cues from others about what’s expected from us. More than being the nice thing to do, I knew I was expected by the beau’s parents — especially his dad — to choose shopping over a pub. More than being the polite thing to do, I knew I was expected by the people at the housewarming party to prefer looking at dresses over watching sports.

What, then? I could just whine about how that’s unfair, and point to the usual suspects behind behavioral conditioning — patriarchy! media! toy manufacturers! gluten! — and maybe shake my head indignantly. What for? Stereotypes are dumb. People are dumb. We’re expected to do things we don’t always like to do. Boo fucking hoo, right?

Are these expectations really such a bad thing?

I wonder.

Here’s what I want to know: when does being polite become compromising ourselves? And are we sometimes… well, too polite?


Would speaking up about our genuine preferences actually do anything to reverse the cavalcade of gender assumptions that filters through our fields of awareness on a daily basis?

The cynic in me says probably not.

But still, I wonder.

I like to speak up. Not at the expense of being kind when called to do so — in the end I’m glad I went with my mother-in-law on that shopping excursion, even if it did tear quietly at my soul. But every time I’m asked if I’m putting my husband in the doghouse, or if it’s insinuated that I’m withholding sex to get my way, or that all women want giant diamonds dripping from their bodies, or anything that makes me bristle, I try to say something.

Whether a brilliantly cutting joke, or a quiet reply: “Yeah, that’s not the way it is.” Anything.

It makes me feel better, anyway. A little more normal, again.

What do you think? Put up or shut up?

25 Responses to “you know what they say”

  1. I run into this a lot as well! Actually, so does my husband. For example, when his sister got married, the bridesmaids (including me) had afternoon tea together at a swanky hotel while the groomsmen (including him) went to a dive bar and drank a lot of beer. My husband would *much* rather have had afternoon tea but … yeah. That’s hard to say to your future brother-in-law and his old fraternity brothers.

    I’m with you on wanting to speak up about this stuff when we can. I’m fine with “going along to get along” when it’s about family bonding, but when someone assumes I don’t like bourbon, or video games, or sports, or that I demand diamonds on my birthday just because I happen to have girl parts, I do feel the need to gently correct their assumption. (OK, sometimes not-so-gently correct their assumption.)

    • In this circumstance, I don’t think the bridesmaids and groomsmen get much of a say even if they don’t like the activity because it’s related to one gender more than another. It’s about the bride and groom and what they like to do. In this case it so happens to fall under traditional gender activities, so I think the people in the wedding parties just have to play along.

      And I’ve heard complaints that groomsmen get cool gets (flasks, cigars, etc.) and that bridesmaid get tea and pink stuff, but what if the bride legitimately likes tea and pink stuff and wants to share it with her friends?

      • Good point about these things being about the bride and groom and what they’d like to do with their friends — I agree that this falls under “family bonding” scenarios where it’s more about the people you’re with than the particular activity. I don’t think S was honestly resentful of going for beer instead of tea, but technically he was standing up on his sister’s side as a “bridesman” (he even held her bouquet during the ceremony!). Because he’s a guy, though, everyone assumed he didn’t want to go to tea with all of the ladies.

      • Argh, yes. I didn’t do very well in explaining this post at all. Often we do have to just go along with stuff to be polite and because it’s not always about us. I guess I was trying to put my thoughts down about my discomfort with continually getting lumped into “girl” and “boy” activities in social groups, which ties into always hearing male/female stereotypes echoed by others in group situations. And if there was ever a chance I could do anything about it. See? I can’t even explain it well now. Fail.

  2. I used to run into this all the time in my old job. There would be me, and then all the guys I worked with, and their wives, who expected me to talk about kids and clothes and shopping, but I really wanted to talk shop with the guys.

    I usually made small talk for a few minutes and then found a way to excuse myself.

  3. YES.

    I like hanging out with girls. Like planning things. But I also like sports, enjoy conversations about beer, and play video games. I get REALLY frustrated when it’s assumed that since the other female is bored I might be. I also get very annoyed when it’s us and another couple and I get completely pushed into something because of what other people want to do.

    I am okay with it every now and then, being kind. But I am NOT okay when it becomes a pattern. Or an expectation. Or I don’t receive the same in return from the dudes.

  4. Will your speaking up help reverse gender roles and pave an easier path for women around the globe? No.

    Will your speaking up help make *your own* life a little easier and make you feel better about yourself? Perhaps!

    Craig’s family is full of this gendered balogna. He and his bros and his dad and all the dudes are way, WAY into golf, and there are many family events scheduled around golfing all.year.long. It is customary for “the womens” to go do something equally horrible and boring together, like shopping in po-dunk Ohio or sunbathing or CRAFT FAIRS OMG SO MANY CRAFT FAIRS.

    For the first year or two I went along with this stuff to try it out, and good lord I was miserable. And I’m not so good at hiding my feelings, so everyone KNEW I was miserable. Finally, I just started to say things like “actually, I think I’ll just stay at the house and read.” Or, I’ve been wanting to take some time just just chill out and write/nap/call a few folks, so I’ll just hang out here until you get back.” And I told Craig to back me up when they inevitably asked him why I was such an antisocial weirdo.

    And now it’s the new status quo. I’m just that weird in-law who likes to sit at home with a book and a cocktail. They don’t feel like they are leaving me out, and I don’t feel like I’m being a jerk.

    ***I realize this doesn’t work with every situation, or even really with the ones you mentioned in the post. But, if it comes up a lot with in-laws or other people who are going to be around often and forever, I think it’s good to start a new precedence.

  5. My husband and I will be celebrating our 2 year wedding anniversary in April and my family is still baffled and shocked that I do not order him around. My mother has actually stared at me with mouth open as if I had two heads because I did not force my husband to come to Christmas Eve mass with us. My husband and I agreed a long time ago that we are adults and we are free to make our own choices and if one of us doesn’t want to do something, then don’t do it. And as long as we make the right choices, which we have been, we haven’t had any issues. That leaves me to do what I want and he does what he wants, and neither of us is nagging or bossing around the other.

  6. Oh, yes. I think for me when it is within the confines of my closest people (my immediate family, J at home, and some close friends) I do not hesitate to make that joke or remark you speak of to break down those expectations. At Christmas my Dad poured all the men a glass of port after dinner and I had to say “I’d like to try the port too, please” when I was thinking “what do I have to be, an old man?” and of course he looked at me and immediately said “i’m so sorry! Of course! I’ll get you a glass!” – so even to him it was an almost subconscious thing.

    However with a broader group of people I am definitely a go with the expectation kind of person. I make salad in the kitchen while the men burn the bbq meat. It sometimes annoys, and sometimes gives a weird sense of comfort, which I can’t explain. Hmmm.

    • The port story reminds me of when I order red wine in a restaurant and my husband orders white. Nine times out of ten, the waiter gives him my Cabernet!

      • Ha, I feel weird whenever I order white because I’m a chick. Living the typecast dream!

        • I moonlight as a waitress, so I like to play the “who ordered this meal” game in the 5 seconds before I put the plate on the table. 9 times out of 10, the chick orders the salad, and the guy orders the huge burger, but every now and then, it’s the other way around. I kind of want to high five those people, but that’s kind of weird, so I don’t.

          • Haha! When we were first dating, my young man often ordered a salad, while I ordered fried chicken and a Manhattan. The waitress gets this wrong pretty much 100%. That doesn’t bother me, what bothers me is that sometimes people are much quicker to refill the man’s drink than the woman’s.

            I guess I’m a little more of a salad person these days. Also, I don’t order white wine because of the typecasting!

      • This happens to us with beer – my husband prefers Hefeweizen and other light beers and I like the porters and stouts. They are almost always served to the wrong person!

  7. When it comes to shopping with the mother in law, I’m not sure there’s much you can do there. I’m not sure you were forced into going shopping with her because she thought you wanted to. It sounds like that’s what she wanted to do and she wanted to bond with you. Let’s say she had chosen an activity that didn’t have a gender bias — I don’t — maybe skipping stones. But you don’t like skipping stones. I’m sure you would have still done it, because it was more about the bonding and what she wanted than an assumption that you wanted to do that too.

    But regarding the woman at the game watching party — perhaps next time say, yes I’ll check out your dresses (being polite) at halftime (indicating your preference for watching sports to looking at dresses). I don’t think this would offend anyone, and it would still get across the message that you prefer the game to dresses.

  8. I don’t know, I feel like in those situations, someone asked you if you’d like to do something, you should just be honest. And yes, I know that you know what their expectations were…but why do they get to ‘win’?

    I guess what I’m saying is, they asked you ‘would you like to do a or b?’ or ‘How about you come do that thing you hate, would you like that?’ take them at their word. Answer them honestly.

    It would be completely different if MIL had outright asked you to go shopping, in a ‘let’s go shopping and hang out, just us girls’ kind of way. I couldn’t say no to that. But they gave you a choice.

    I understand you felt pressure, but I’m not sure how they are supposed to magically know your preferences.

    • They’re flawed anecdotes — I was using them to kind of explore why I bristle at traditional girl stuff and talk about how this tends to happen in social situations, that we get lumped into “boy” and “girl” activities. I’m more inclined to just go along with stuff in order not to stir any waters or make it difficult on anyone else in a group, but you’re right, I should probably state my preferences more often.

  9. I have one social group that breaks down into the guys and the girls, and I’m really not a fan. Unfortunately these group of guys share a very specific interest that the wives/girlfriends happen to not be into, and once they get going it’s hard to get them to change conversations. I wish they were more inclusive, but I suppose that’s a post about social skills and not gender assumptions.

    I do push back on the language, though. Someone saying their wife “let them off the leash” or something similar. Ugh, I can’t stand it and won’t be quiet about it.

  10. Totally not the point of your story, but I was definitely an adult before I realized that the “put up” in “put up or shut up” meant “put up your fists” as in fighting instead of “put up with the dumb stuff happening” as in not stating your opinion. It was a very confusing cliche.

    You know what sucks? When I WOULD actually rather do the “girl” thing than the “boy” thing. Am I a terrible feminist? Should I go get my apron and quit my job?

    • Definitely not!! There’s nothing anti-feminist about enjoying stuff that’s traditionally coded “female.” I love putting on a dress and having afternoon tea, and I own a lot of pink and purple accessories, but you can pry my feminist card from my cold, dead hands.

  11. Ugh, I speak up. And apparently it makes me a giant asshole but OH WELL.

    I started out just being honest, “no I don’t like that” or “I don’t spend my time dissing other chicks, so I don’t want to join in on your female rite of passage” but that resulted in, well…having no friends, ever. So I guess my compromise is to not be AS honest as I’d like to be but still getting my point across, or at the very, very least….making them forget what they were talking about or suggesting to begin with.

  12. I think you do your part, or maybe just the best you can?, in those moments that you feel comfortable enough to say or do something that feels right for you. Whether it effects any change/enlightenment, though, is a whole other issue (and as you note, most people are idiots…which is to say, you get caught up in a way of being long enough and it’s realllly difficult to break out of that mindset – change is hard! And that’s why so many go along to get along…).

    I just really admire you.

  13. I love it when you and I are in the same headspace. I think about that older post about breaking into gender groups all the bloody time, including when it happened to me again a week or so ago.

    I am a complete failure as a woman. Except when it comes to gushing over Ryan Gosling. And Ryan Gosling tumblrs.

  14. A lot of the time I DO fit into the gender stereotypes so it works when people want to lump me in them, but in the instances I don’t it becomes even harder to try to step out. I’ve made it clear I like shopping, so therefore why even bother including me in the conversation about last night’s Canucks game? And when John and I bring a dish to a family dinner, obviously I’m the person to thank and provide commentary to, even though chances are good John made it. These things bug me a touch but I can get past them because I realize that it’s not entirely a gender thing here – John’s sisters are nowhere near stereotypically female – it’s more just them drawing a conclusion based on what they think they know about us.

    What drives me bonkers though are the insinuations about our roles in the relationship. You know, wives as the bitchy control freaks and men as their beleaguered sidekicks. The problem with comments about this is that they are almost always delivered as jokes, so to try to argue is to not go along with the joke, not be fun, and therefore prove their bitchy wife stereotype right then and there. And I’m not nearly clever enough to be ready with a cutting, equally jokey, remark. When the joke comes from a friend or (god fobid) John, I don’t go along with it and I set them straight. Often with a few swear words peppered in. But when it comes from the in-laws…. well I just smile and continue to go along my quiet way of proving them wrong by not being the stereotype.

Leave a Reply

Back to top