Thursday, January 10, 2013

Gender Roles in “Fun Home” and in Society

I found “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” (Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston and New York: Mariner Books, 2006) to be an intriguing book on many different levels, including issues concerning conformity in a small town environment, marriage and family, perceptions regarding life and death, parent-child relationships, and gender roles in our society. Of these multi-faceted issues, the one that caught my attention was how gender roles were addressed in the book.

American society has a rather strict set of prescribed gender roles amongst the countries in the industrialized world. Although there are still quite a few countries in the world that have even more rigid codes of dress and behavior for men and women than

our country (many countries in Latin America, Africa, and the Arabic world), America has stricter codes compared to the Germanic and Nordic countries of Europe (Germany, Sweden, Norway, Iceland). It is interesting to note that the Latin American countries have their own brand of “machismo” ingrained in their culture, and that it is a different type of machismo than what is found in Arabic nations, or even that which is seen in the English-speaking world (United States, Canada, Australia, Britain). Historically, the English-speaking world was founded by colonial Britain and grew to prominence under a “frontiersman” mentality that prevails in the gender stereotypes and behavioral expectations of both genders to this day (perceptions that men are stronger and braver than women, whereas women are seen as being more domestic and passive). The fact that America has been a warring society since the 1800’s has only helped to perpetuate this dichotomy in gender roles. Since many females oppose warfare and the devastation wrought by it, warring societies belittle women and their roles in an attempt to dominate the agenda.

“Fun Home” focuses on societal expectations of gender appearance as well as that of gender roles and hobbies. Bechdel states, “I hate pink! I hate flowers.”(Ibid. p. 7) “I developed contempt for useless ornament. If anything, they obscured function. They were embellishments in the worst sense.”(Ibid. p. 16) Was Bechdel rejecting the differential socialization of gender roles that put forth the notion that females should “adorn” themselves in order to attract a man? This demonstrates a common trait by LGBT individuals of rejecting (or at least revising) gender standards that are bestowed upon them by family and society at large.

            “Of all his domestic inclinations, my father’s decided bend for gardening was the most redolent to me of the other, more deeply disturbing bend. What kind of a man but a sissy could possibly love flowers this ardently?” What is meant by the word ‘sissy’? Why would a man who loved flowers and gardening be perceived in such a way? It may not be a “macho” hobby (like hunting, or football), but one should keep in mind the fact that many hobbies and professions that were once thought to be the exclusive domain of one gender or the other have since shifted in our society. In the 1800’s, it was unthinkable to have a woman work as a secretary (Dr. Watson was Sherlock Holmes’ secretary). Women writers had to publish their works under male pseudonyms because no one would publish a woman’s work otherwise. Amelia Earhart had to battle discrimination when she decided to become a pilot. Mozart’s sister, Maria Anna, didn’t get the commissions and recognition that he received because she was female, despite the fact that she was a talented pianist and harpsichord player, as well as composing her own music. After 1769, she was no longer permitted to show her artistic abilities once she reached marriageable age. ( How many countless men and women in history did not reach their full potential because the society in which they lived in discouraged their talent and abilities solely based on which gender they were born as? To call a man a sissy for his taste and choices only serves to reinforce nonsensical gender codes and discourages more individuals of both genders from freely choosing their hobbies, interests, professions, and behavior in their lives. The entire spectrum of human possibilities should be available to both genders. Those who break free from societal expectations of gender and carve their own path in life shouldn’t be viewed as sissies but rather as brave individuals. The real sissies are men who hide behind crew cuts, macho attitudes, drab, ill-fitting clothes, and a dilapidated appearance.

            I remember feeling a surge of hope in the 1990’s when many young men I knew grew their hair long and brought color & texture into their wardrobe. I thought, “Wow! Men are finally breaking free from the boring old mold.” That, sadly, was short-lived because next came grunge with its lame colors and the “rockstar who still milks Bessie in the barn” look. Men’s hair styles got short, color and texture disappeared again, tattoos were in and style was out. Now, both businessmen and “avant-garde” artists & musicians alike shave their heads under the mistaken impression that that constitutes masculine beauty.

            The shifting norms of gender roles are important to LGBT individuals because first of all, it affects how these individuals view themselves, secondly, how the LGBT community perceives those within the community, and thirdly, how society at large views the LGBT community and those individuals within it.

            Media and popular culture depicts gender roles as being based on nature (“that’s just the way man/women are”). In fact, gender roles are based more on nurture than on nature. Boys and girls are taught in our society to play with different toys (toy soldiers vs. dolls), play different ways (rough-housing vs. dress up), and are encouraged to pursue different hobbies (skateboarding vs. making beaded jewelry). This sort of dichotomy is actually counter-productive for individuals as well as counter-productive for society at large. For example, when boys are taught how to fight and defend themselves against attack and girls aren’t, then many girls grow up not knowing how to defend themselves in a domestic violence situation or against a would-be rapist. I grew up in a rough neighborhood and, as a result, was able to fight. That ability has helped me on more than one occasion in which I was confronted with would-be rapists (on one occasion, I successfully fought off two males who tried to gang-rape me). This is an important skill that every woman must have, it makes no difference that society views fighting as un-ladylike. By the same token, when girls are given baby dolls and taught how to change nappies, feed hungry babies, and rock them to sleep, yet boys are not taught these skills, some males grow up conditioned to believe that taking care of babies is a woman’s job. This sort of conditioning only serves to perpetuate the epidemic of dead-beat-dads that plagues our society. That, in turn, contributes to poverty (since dead-beat-dads rarely contribute economically to their children’s standard of living), over-population (dead-beat-dads often irresponsibly and haphazardly ejaculate without concern for the consequences of their actions – they rarely use birth-control, again, viewing that as a solely woman’s responsibility), violence (since boys with no father-figure often are filled with anger at their father’s rejection of them). If society were to teach young boys parental skills, like what is being taught to young girls, perhaps the major societal woe of dead-beat-dads would wane.

            It is important that we, as a society, re-assess gender roles. Many of these codes of dress, behavioral expectations, hobbies and interests are clearly arbitrary and not based on any innate differences between the genders. What our society sees as effeminate, other cultures may view as masculine (skirts vs. Scottish kilts, for example). Why shouldn’t girls skateboard? Females have better sense of balance, lower center of gravity (hips instead of upper torso in males), and smaller stature. From a physics standpoint, these attributes could only help females become talented skateboarders. Why shouldn’t girls play chess? Females can assess different positions on the board and think moves out in advance as well as any male chess players can. The Polgar sisters (Susan, Judith, and Zsofia) have won numerous Chess Championships and are rated as some of the highest ranking players in the world. Susan Polgar is a 4-time World Chess Champion, 5-time Olympic Champion, and the first women to break the gender barrier in Chess. Judith ranked #8 in the world in 2005. Zsofia ranked #6 in the world. Why shouldn’t women be successful pilots? All we need do is look at Amelia Earhart successfully breaking numerous world records in aviation. Why shouldn’t men be interior decorators or gardeners (As Bechdel’s father was)? Why shouldn’t men sew or knit or be stay-at-home-dads? Some stricter individuals in our society may view such “gender-benders” as gay or lesbian. Rather, let us view these individuals who are open to broader possibilities as being more rounded people. I am proud to say that I know straight men that either wear earrings, or have long hair, or wear eyeliner, or love being stay-home-dads, or love to cook, or dress well and groom themselves.

            After all, what is gender, anyway? Technically, gender is what role one plays in sexual reproduction, that being either the producer of spermatozoa in the testes or the producer of eggs in the ovary. Although society views gender in black & white (male & female), gender in reality has huge gray areas. There are transsexuals, transvestites, hermaphrodites, hijra (third gender in Indian society) (Kelly, Gary. Sexuality Today: The Human Perspective. Guilford, Connecticut: Dushkin Publishing Group, 1994 p. 97) , and berdache (third gender in numerous North American societies) (Ibid. p. 97) just to name a few. Where would these individuals fit in if we were to have a black & white view of gender? What would their roles in society be? What hobbies would be “permissible”? These are all complex questions requiring complex assessments of the question of gender and gender roles.

            What is gender determined by? From a Psychosexual Development standpoint, gender is determined by 1) Chromosomal Gender at fertilization, 2) Gonadal Gender in utero in the first trimester, 3) Hormonal Gender third month onward in utero, 4) Internal Sexual anatomy, 5) External Sexual Anatomy (4 and 5 during second and third month of life).(Francoeur, Robert T., ed. A Descriptive Dictionary and Atlas of Sexology. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991 p. 748, see attachment)

            It is commonly viewed that testosterone is the “male” hormone and estrogen is the “female” hormone. Yet, males need estrogen in order to have healthy spermatogenesis. Estrogen in males is produced in small amounts in the Leydig cells in the testes. (Ibid. p. 341) Females, in turn, produce small amounts of testosterone in the ovaries and adrenal glands. (Ibid. p. 659) This only illustrates that we are all a mixture of the both genders. It would be healthy for us as individuals to embrace that fact of nature.



Works Cited


Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. New York: Mariner Books, 2006.


Francoeur, Robert T. (ed.). A Decriptive Dictionary and Atlas of Sexology. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.


Kelly, Gary. Sexuality Today: The Human Perspective. 4th edition. Guilford, CT: Dushkin Publishing Group, 1994.


“Mozart, Marie Anna.” 1 March 2009. <


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