Kate of the blog “Kate's Musings of Late: Tales of a Sojourner” recently provided some reflections on the books Wild at Heart and Captivating on gender identity, which were (are?) rather popular in certain circles. Kate writes:
These books narrowly define men and women into categories which suggest the secret to distinct, deep longings for both sexes. [...] Men aren't the only folks who have a deep desire to be respected. We confine girls to these specific roles of waiting to be pursued and learning how to possess some kind of seduction techniques which help men be more masculine. I, as a woman, have no responsibility to help a man be more masculine. I do have a responsibility to love and respect my brother as well as my sister. I do not have a responsibility to wait around to be pursued by someone; I do have a responsibility to pursue justice, mercy, and kindness.
The trouble I find with the kind of claims about gender that seem to be in these books (caveat: I haven't read either book, myself) is that it seems rather difficult to provide any grounding for them based on scripture (or at least, I haven't come across one, yet). Sure, there may be some vaguely gendered statements in early Genesis or a couple of the epistles, but not nearly enough to found such a strong normative theory of gender identity as some Christians would like to believe. (I guess there's also that passage about the capable wife in Proverbs 31, but do we really want to say that being hardworking, shrewd, and just are only qualities for women? And interestingly, some of the verses seem almost to suggest a woman breadwinner, which does seem at odds with the traditional stereotype....)
Lately I've been reading through Robert Jordan's fantasy series The Wheel of Time. Jordan paints incredibly vivid pictures of the cultures in this alternate reality, and it's interesting to compare the fictitious world with our own. One thing I noticed was that men and women in The Wheel of Time tend to have very strong gender identities, and they each find the other incomprehensible. However, despite their apparent differences, to foreign ears (namely, mine), the two genders end up sounding more subtly alike than different: Women think men are stubborn wool-heads, and men believe it impossible to get past a woman who has taken her stand. Both want to be in charge and find that the other requires “special handling.” And no one wants to look a fool. Despite the strong gender division, social power is strikingly egalitarian in all of the nations depicted, if exercised in different ways. The similarity is driven home in book 4 when Perrin overhears Mistress al'Vere give his lady-friend Faiel some advice about how to deal with men (“Letting them have their way when it isn't important makes it easier to check them when it is”) only to have Master Cauthon give him nearly the same on how to deal with women not hours later!
I find myself a little envious of the arrangement (perhaps in the same way that I was a little jealous of the Aiel's strong national identity, having no strong conscious national identity of my own)—at least they all (think they) know where they stand. In my corner of U.S. culture, we seem to have lost all of the main mechanisms for forming gender identities (or I didn't have access to them, at least), while still holding on to the stereotypes and expectations—and the arrangement is rather less than satisfying, to put it mildly. I find the same problem with our lack of ritual to form adult identities, as well—there is no mechanism to tell youth that they have been inducted into the circle of adulthood. With increased parental support through college and delayed onset of responsibility, adolescence is taking longer than it ever has before; and with no clear end point, it's hard for young people to know when they're supposed to start doing “what adults do” (whatever that is).
Perhaps we would do well to reintroduce some developmental ritual for youth to mark the transitions from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to adulthood. When children reach adolescence, we could bring them into the community of men or women and tell them “You are now starting your journey toward joining us as [men/women]. Here are some examples of [men/women] who are living their lives well. Notice how they love God with all of their lives and how they love their neighbors as themselves. They seek peace, resist the oppression of others, promote justice, act mercifully, and walk humbly. This is what it means to be a [man/woman].” I think this would, ideally, be paired with the formation of a close mentoring relationship. When the youth has gone through the years of adolescent training (surely not later than age 18, since that is the age of legal adulthood in the U.S.), the community of men or women would welcome the young adults as full members among them, reminding them of their training, and conferring on them the responsibility to bring up others in the same love of God and neighbor.
Each generation has its own strengths and weaknesses, and each generation responds to the generation before, who raised them. If youth now have little guidance in how to become adults, perhaps when they come to their senses and have little youth of their own, they'll try a different strategy.