John Gray’s bestselling Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus begins by asking its readers to recognise the differences between Martians and Venusians as the first step towards solving conflicts between men and women. This is what he writes: “Both Martians and Venusians forgot that they were from different planets and were supposed to be different. In one morning everything that they had learned about their differences was erased from their memory. And since that day men and women have been in conflict.”
The book begins with the assumption that men and women’s constitutions are inherently different which is why they behave differently. It also suggests that only when this difference is recognised and maintained, will men and women be able to live through happy and hassle-free relationships.
It is not an argument that goes down well with feminists, not because they don’t believe that men and women can be different, but because they feel that the subordination of women stems from this idea of difference being naturalised, as if that is the way it is and nothing can be done about it. Like women are naturally dainty and men naturally chivalrous, and because men and women forget that they are supposed to be this way, it results in conflicts and eventually heartbreak.
Irrespective of whether we agree with Gray or not, we need to be attentive to what is meant by the term Gender. Feminist thinkers used the term gender to challenge the way in which Sex (male/female) was used to justify women as weaker and inferior to men – or simply different – because of biology. Distinguishing between men and women using sex would only refer to the biological differences between them – men have penises and women have vaginas and breasts. But how can these differences alone be used to explain that men and women also think and behave differently, and are expected to be that way? Do men think through their penises and women through their vaginas? Does sex explain why a woman is expected to like pink and a man blue? Or why women become nurses and men join the military? Or why is it that wives mostly look after the household and husbands run it? What in the constitution of sex results in men and women assuming very distinct roles in society?
This is where gender steps in and explains that while sex is biological, gender is social, meaning that the logic of biology is used to bring up boys and girls in a way that they acquire masculine and feminine traits.
Biology actually does not assign men and women distinct roles in society, but socialisation does. And this happens from the time that a baby is born. It is common knowledge that when a little boy cries, parents will spontaneously say: “Don’t cry like a girl!” This explains how gender roles and responsibilities for boys and girls get constructed. Such a statement suggests many things: that crying is a girl-thing, that boys don’t cry because they are strong and brave, but girls are weak and dependent. We also see that same thing happening when during our growing up days boys are given G.I. Joes and girls, Barbie dolls. And this is exactly what Simone de Beauvoir, a feminist thinker and author, said in her book The Second Sex: “One is not born a woman, but becomes one.”
The same applies to men. Both men and women are socialised to take up roles and responsibilities to ensure an imbalance in their positions of power in society. One classic illustration of this power imbalance is seen in how work or labour is highly gendered: men’s work is primarily located in the public sphere, while women’s work is in the private sphere. More men take on remunerative work outside the home whereas women do household work. While both activities are ‘work’, and are equally taxing and burdening, they are not accorded the same respect. There’s no remuneration for household work and no recognition of it as real work – it is something that is taken for granted that women must do irrespective of whether they also work outside the home – as domestic helps and agricultural workers in the days before women were well educated, and in offices and a variety of other workplaces in more recent times.
Eyebrows are seldom raised if an educated woman is exclusively a ‘homemaker’, but if an educated man takes on that role he will be considered a layabout or scrounger shirking his responsibility of being the breadwinner. Conversely, if a woman, especially one who is married, chooses not to be a homemaker but to work outside the home, she will be called a bad wife and mother.
This division in the assigned locations of men and women also translates into men and women taking up certain kinds of professions. Like the army is for men and nursing for women; humanities for women and science for men. We seldom see a man working as a nursery school teacher, or a woman as a truck driver.
Why make a hue and cry about this? The problem with this gendered division of labour is that it continues to take place on biological assumptions about women’s capabilities. Since women give birth and are considered the physically weaker sex, they should be the ones rearing the children and taking care of the house. Since men are physically stronger, they should be outside earning a livelihood and running the family. While on the one hand this gendering of work puts men in a more powerful position than women because they earn and own property and have control over it, it can also put a lot of pressure on men to live up to the role of breadwinner. It also makes it extremely difficult for men to show their emotional side without inhibition: a crying man is a sissy.
The social construction of gender can thus have disadvantages for both men and women, but its overwhelming disadvantage for women is that it puts them in a subordinate position to men. Women’s long fight for their emancipation, which began in western countries and has gained strength to a limited extent in other countries and societies, is changing that equation somewhat. There are many more women choosing to work in what were once traditionally male domains. Socialisation, though, is an insidious thing and will take much longer to change. So, while advertisements (a good indicator of socialisation), will admit that little girls too can dream of careers, it is the father who has planned the savings scheme that will finance her education, while mama beams from the background seemingly having had no part to play in her daughter’s upbringing. It is the retired man who decides to treat his wife to a holiday in Singapore, suggesting that only men retire because only men work.
Gendering gives certain mental and social attributes to men and others to women: men are brave, primary breadwinners, competent, chivalrous while women are good homemakers, graceful and emotional. Such stereotyping works against women when it comes to jobs, for instance, and is termed gender discrimination. A man may be preferred over a woman for a promotion because he is seen as more competent with no family ‘distractions’. Family property devolves exclusively through men and not women because they are considered better able to control and administer it.
In its more acute form this discrimination translates into violence against women to force them to remain in their assigned role. A woman is often subjected to physical and mental violence if she does not fulfil the role of the dutiful wife or daughter, if she does not bring in the required dowry, if she doesn’t have tea ready when her husband returns from work, or decides she doesn’t want to have sex with him that night, or wants to marry a man of her choice. Culture and tradition are often used to justify that violence. Thus when women were beaten up for visiting a pub as happened in Mangalore earlier this year, the reasoning was that ‘decent’ Indian women don’t go to pubs, and if they do, they must be taught not to. Beating them was a way to put them back in their place.
Challenging gender in the light of the above becomes necessary for not just feminists, but all human beings who believe in equality between men and women. This challenge must entail questioning the basis of the roles and responsibilities men and women are made to assume because they are men and women. This is not to say that men and women cannot be different, but that differences that are used to discriminate need to be resisted. John Gray’s thesis is then in crisis. Mars and Venus are not exclusive to either men or women. Men and women are from Earth, and they can be in any other planet they wish to be in, together – as long as they are not boxed as Martians, Venusians or Plutonians.