Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Real Plantary Differences

I finally got my W-2 form, so I was doing my taxes yesterday--and it occurred to me that, if we do get married in June, I'll be filing a joint return next year for the first time in my life. That feels extremely weird to me.

I always assumed I'd be supporting myself--in that sense, I think I've lived my life more the way men do than the way at least some women do. (There are a number of other senses in which that's true, too, and they may even be related, but let's stick to one topic for now, okay?) I knew that, theoretically at least, it was possible that I'd get married, but I never seemed to find myself in a time, place, and relationship where that seemed terribly likely. More important, though, I remember the early 1970s feminists who pointed out the dangers of depending on a spouse who then leaves or dies, and you've got no work experience and kids and whatever. In any case, I think the expectation that you're going to be supporting yourself makes all the difference in the world--I wonder sometimes if it isn't really at the root of the supposed "problems" between men and women.

That is, the Dr. Phils and Venus/Mars proponents of the world would like us to believe that men and women are inherently wildly different. The unkind version says that men want sex--they want a lot of it, they want it with as many different women as they can possibly have, and they will only do the other things in order to get sex. They will consent to limiting their activities to one woman if and only if she continues to provide this resource and doesn't demand too much in return. This version also says that women want "security" (or something equally fatuous)--they want a Real Man who will support them while they have babies. In order to pick a mate, then, men look for fabulous-looking women, while women look for men who will shower them with baubles and trinkets, which serve as evidence that he'll be able to continue supporting her. Now, I realize that there are men and women who operate in this world and by these principles, and much of popular culture would have us believe that it's "hard-wired" somehow. (To which I say "bullshit," but that's a different rant.) This nightmare vision depends on an underlying assumption of inequality--men want to do hard manly work and have sex, and women want to have children. Thus, manly men are tricked into trading the fruits of their labors for regular sex.

Somehow, I've managed to find an awful lot of people who really don't operate on these principles at all and who find them abhorrent, as a matter of fact. It's almost like we're another species entirely. I've been muddling around with this for a couple of weeks, and I haven't come up with a complete analysis of those of us who seem to prefer partners, but I definitely think it's related to (1) whether the women involved expected to support themselves or expected a man to support them and (2) whether the men and women regard each other as partners or as potential enemies. Both the men and women in question expect to be full partners in the household arena as well as in the income-earning arena. Many of the men I know have spent significant time raising their children (and, in several cases, have been the primary, at-home caregiver for a significant chunk of time). Even my brother--who was clear, before they were married, that he wanted his wife to stay home with the kids for at least a little while--spends quite a lot of time with my nephews; he doesn't do much around the house (like laundry or general cleanup), but he (with some help from a contractor and lots of help from his friends) is replacing the toilet-paper-and-spit addition on their house with one that is a little more substantial and holds the heat a little better. Since last spring, he's spent most evenings and weekends tearing down and then building. At the same time, as my nephews have gotten older, my sister-in-law has increased the amount of work she does for pay pretty substantially. That is, even though the household division of labor is more "traditional," my brother regards his wife as his partner.

I realize that I haven't articulated how the woman-supporting-herself thing fits in here--and maybe it doesn't--but it still seems like it should somehow. Any ideas?

75 Comments:

Blogger kStyle said...

i sometimes wonder if the people who run on the men-want-sex, women-want-babies-and-support principle are descended from a different form of ape than me and my friends. it's possible, different monkeys with different social structures...think about it.

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Blogger Ann said...

Well, if a woman knows she can take care of herself, she can expect different things from a relationship than if she needed the financial support. She can be more selective and take her intellectual and emotional needs into account, and she has more of a say in what kinds of behavior she won't tolerate. Which only makes sense: As women become more independent, they begin to realize that they're no less than half of a relationship, and they don't have to put up with crap.

(I always get a kick out of reading dating advice columns. I just can't understand why anyone would alter her behavior to attract someone who would only see that altered persona. It seems like so much work.)

Incomplete thought: In TV and movies, women who are actively looking for Mr. Right--someone kind, funny, friendly, etc.--are already supporting themselves ("Bridget Jones' Diary," "Ally McBeal"). Down-on-their-luck women, however, just come across Mr. Right--someone rich and/or someone who provides something that's "missing" from the heroine's life--when he steps in to give them a hand in one way or another ("Pretty Woman," "Raising Helen"). Many of the women who fall into this latter category have children.

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Yeah, Ann, I think you're on to something there. And you too, k--I remember reading an article in the NYT a couple of months ago about this group of monkeys who'd had their social structure changed drastically several generations ago but who stayed with the more "cooperative" structure rather than reverting to the structure that was more typical for their species. It was fascinating on a number of levels.

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