COLUMN

The madness of the unisex experiment

While gender roles have some drawbacks, they have great advantages. Only humans would be so potty as to try to deny gender-specific behavior.

BARBARA AMIEL August 28 1995
COLUMN

The madness of the unisex experiment

While gender roles have some drawbacks, they have great advantages. Only humans would be so potty as to try to deny gender-specific behavior.

BARBARA AMIEL August 28 1995

The madness of the unisex experiment

COLUMN

While gender roles have some drawbacks, they have great advantages. Only humans would be so potty as to try to deny gender-specific behavior.

BARBARA AMIEL

I am an avid reader of a little journal called The Women’s Quarterly that is published in Arlington, Virginia, and edited by Torontonian Danielle Crittenden. The writing in it is usually very funny and often illuminating—besides which, I like to read dispatches from the gender wars. The one good thing about political correctness is that it gives women a chance to break all the rules.

This month’s edition, for example, has an article by another Canadian writer, Anne Roche Muggeridge, defending the little savages that are young boys. “Young males exist in a state of nature,” writes Roche, “free wild, untamed, undomesticated. Boys hate to be directed (so, by the way, do their fathers) and they fade noiselessly away to engage in hairraising experiments.” In Roche’s experience, these have included having one of her young sons put a brother in the dryer to see if it would spin with him in it (it did) and doing various dreadful things with electrical outlets.

The point of Roche’s piece was that boys are naturally different from girls, that this difference is not a bad thing (though it must be tamed) and that it is unrealistic to reeducate boys to be girls. I had no idea that home economics classes had been renamed Unified Arts during the madness of the seventies in order to teach little boys how to cook and little girls how to use a chisel. Such folly led to the high point of Roche’s article, which for me was the account of her son coming home in despair at his sewing lessons: “Mom,” he asked Roche, “could you help me crochet a hockey net?”

Our society’s great attempt to go unisex will fail and is failing, but meanwhile we have taken a lot away from both sexes. Gender roles are part of our identity and make life more exciting. There are some exceptions, no doubt, but most men and women enjoy being men and women. While gender roles have some drawbacks, they have great advantages, and only human beings would be so potty as to try to deny the existence of gender-specific

behavior. I wish our anti-sexism police would turn their attention to nature and start a campaign for stags to behave like does.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have women steelworkers or male manicurists. I see no reason why anybody should be thwarted in their desire to be anything, provided they can pass the requirements for what they want to do. The only exceptions are probably in those taxpayer-funded occupations that provide jobs necessary for society’s survival.

For example, when driving with a man in Toronto last week, I was amused to see him nearly rear-end the car ahead when he spotted a young female policewoman on Toronto’s Jarvis Street. It was not her slim, blond being that made me pause, but rather the consequences this would have on her role as a policewoman. A policeman’s function includes that of peacekeeping. The traditional reason for weight and height requirements has been the understanding that volatile situations—such as a pub brawl or a domestic fight—are better defused by the presence of a six-foot, four-inch beefy Irishman than a tiny Oriental woman. There is no dishonor in yielding to overwhelming force, but there is sure-as-blazes shame in a red-blooded male ending his macho brawl-

ing at the command of a slim policette.

Most cultures understand this. A perfect example was cited by author Marq de Villiers in White Tribe Dreaming, in which the condition of surrender for one African tribe was that they should not be put to death by “women or small men of the other tribe.” This is a familiar chord: if you want to incite shame and dishonor in the defeated enemy, turn them over to the women. Or let them face women such as the Women’s Battalion of Death, who helped defend the czar’s winter palace. Lenin’s rioting working classes went haywire with fury when they encountered them. Incidentally, women can make war very effectively when the nature of the warfare changes. Policewomen ought to work very well in functions where they need not rely on a backup male in their most basic duties. Female soldiers are not hampered in guerrilla warfare, which is based on ambush and stealth. Women partisans in Greece did magnificent and highly effective work during the Second World War.

The ray of sunlight in political correctness is that women, thank heavens, are at the forefront of breaking all its shibboleths. The British comediennes French and Saunders, together with Joanna Lumley in the television series Absolutely Fabulous (as seen on CBC), couldn’t care less about portraying women in stereotypical roles. Of course, British comedy has always been hilarious in its political incorrectness. It is not that they want to make a big deal out of being politically incorrect, but when it naturally arises they do things that no one in Canada or America would dare touch. An episode of Fawlty Towers had John Cleese talking to an old colonel who had done service for the colonial office in India. ‘Women?” said the colonel, “Women...yes I knew one once. Took her to the Anglo-Indian Club. Very peculiar creature. Kept calling the Indians ‘niggers’ and I kept explaining to her they were called ‘wogs.’ ”

Finally, the Women’s Television Network was undoubtedly launched under the aegis of soft feminism, but it has turned out slightly differently. I turned on WTN only a night or two ago to see the startling form of Linda Leatherdale, Money editor of the Toronto Sun, discussing Canadian taxation policy. She was sitting in a politically correct trio: one very minimalist-chic black woman who efficiently hosted the show, one grey-haired, soft-left-wing female economic consultant and Linda—thigh-high black skirt, blond hair and Kewpie-doll face, looking for all the world like a dominatrix and dominating the program with her right-of-centre views. She ought to be a cult figure and perhaps she is, but it all goes to prove that women are members of no special interest group, come in all sizes and shapes, and all philosophies and political shadings. Which is a small but significant step on the laissez-faire path back to letting women assume their own gender roles where they can do as they like—and where we can safely leave the crocheting to them while never denying the few motivated ones a crack at the chisel.