It is a common ideology among Feminist circles that Gender Roles and norms are limiting; that they are oppressive and take away the choice of the individuals participating- yes, even if the individuals participating do so willingly and of their own volition.
I only wish that this was a case of “misconstruing ideology” or simply not understanding the views expressed by certain individuals. It is hard to misconstrue and twist words, however, whenever such an ideology is so often explicitly stated and not beaten around about- with phrases like “These roles are limiting to both men and women and create an “ideal” family image in American’s minds that only reinforces the gender roles and gender inequalities in our society” being relatively common things which are said during Feminist debates about gender norms.
Overall, it has been my experience (and a multitude of Google Searches for Radical Feminist ideology) that Radical Feminism is not friendly to Femininity and Traditionalism in the slightest. Indeed, many proponents of Radical Feminism have a very negative view of Femininity, Gender Norms, and the like. A good number of the ones I was involved with during my own days as a Radical Feminist went so far as to perpetuate extreme condescension, dehumanization, infantilization, and general misogyny targeting femme women- or any woman, really, thatwas perceived as not being “feminist enough” according to their strict idealization of what a modern, empowered woman should truly look like.
To a Radical Feminist- or at least the particular ideology I surrounded myself in as a teen and young adult- traditional Gender Roles and Gender Expectations (including the idea of Masculinity and Femininity) are oppressive social constructs; femininity is a construct created by men specifically for the oppression of women, and in order to be free of their oppression we have to shed our femininity, our makeup, our domesticity, our softness, and anything else that could even remotely be tied to traditional gender roles and expectations.
I heard it for years while engrossed in Radical Feminist ideology myself: Femininity is bad- no ifs, ands, or buts… But I disagree… By disagreeing, though, I am not saying that these constructs cannot be oppressive, dehumanizing, or toxic, and so on. I am saying that I do not believe that traditional gender roles are always oppressive, limiting, or otherwise negative things.
I am absolutely sure that for those forced to participate in it against their personal interests, these gender roles are indeed limiting. I am also absolutely sure that when societal backlash becomes a problem faced by those wishing to break away from these roles, they become oppressive forces. Indeed, for those who cannot conform according to the expectations and standards, they then become toxic and endangering. In all of these circumstances and more it is indisputable that rigid gender roles and expectations become a problematic force and that something has to be done when that type of toxicity is legitimately encountered.
But we hear the argument all of the time that what is empowering to one person is not empowering to another. This is also true in the reverse. What is disenfranchising for one may not be disenfranchising for another. Class, race, religion, and so many other things must be taken into consideration when determining whether or not something is empowering or oppressive- and for most things, the answer is both; what oppresses one may empower another, and vice versa. Hardly anything, though, is genuinely, wholly, and completely one or the other. Gender Roles, in my eyes, are no different.
We must ask ourselves a question that I rarely see an answer to: What is truly oppressive and limiting about these roles in and of themselves on a base and fundamental level? Are they always oppressive? Or only oppressive under certain circumstances- which vary greatly per individual? And since not everyone actually receives the same gender conditioning, what about those who did not receive the common form which we rally so heartily against? And where do the people who have not been forced into these roles, but instead choose participate in them out of genuine fulfillment, interest, and enjoyment, fit in to the equation? And for the love of all that is holy, what is with the penchant of Radical Feminists to infantilize these people at every turn?
And when arguing that these roles were specifically engineered for oppression, how do we know this, exactly? Which of these problems actually came first? Did society’s view of gender (and biological females as the weaker sex) develop first and gender roles follow as a result of this? Or did the gender roles come first due to biological nature, and the social ideology of a “weaker” and “stronger” sex come as a direct result of that over time? It is a question of the Chicken and the Egg, and we will never truly know the answer.
There are a lot of undeniable and indisputable problems with gender norms and one would be a fool not to see them. Does this mean that Gender Roles themselves are oppressive and limiting, however? The answer to that, in my eyes, is a firm and resounding no. They are not; ultimately the legitimate problems that arise out of society’s view of gender do not show me that the gender roles themselves are always violent, always limiting, always restrictive, always toxic, or always oppressive- nor that they were specifically engineered and created to be so; it does not show me that gender roles themselves need to be abolished because they are so toxic that they cannot continue existing.
Indeed, it shows me nothing… Nothing other than the fact that our society itself is ultimately the root of the issue; when you remove society’s ideology concerning gender and the categorization of traits and behaviors into “male” or “female”, you are left with nothing but neutral things which could be applied to anyone. It is society which categorizes these things into “only male” and “only female”, and then conditions us from birth to follow these certain patterns of interest and behavior which are deemed appropriate for us based on our physical genitalia.
The problem, therefor, is not that the base two gender categorizations exist in the first place, but that these categorizations are strictly enforced by our society and deviation from them, their expansion, and their redefinition is considered unacceptable and subject to punishment of varying degrees; it is not that people participate in these roles, but that society tells us they are the only roles in which we may participate- and punishes us for not doing so. Ergo it is society which is warped and must be corrected.
As Erin Matson states in her article On Hating Women, or Respectability is not Dignity:
“So, actually, it is very radical to accept women in all aspects of their lives, perfect or imperfect. Because accepting women “as-is” is a necessary precondition to dignity, equality, and justice for women. Dignity is not respectability […] For that matter, it’s not respectability under the very different terms of some feminists who believe that only women who buck the gendered expectations of femininity, like wearing make-up or caring for children or washing a husband’s laundry, are situated to claim equality […] I want women to be equal. But they are not going to be equal so long as we demand a fixed set of behaviors from them, whatever those behaviors may be […] Supporting women as they are is radical, and a first step to greater political and social gains. If political and social gains come at the price of constricting women who do not fit a particular mold, we are simply applying a new shade of paint to an old straitjacket.”
I do believe that it is completely possible to correct and expand society’s views on Gender, redefine what is “acceptable” for the various Genders (and by that, I mean “anything is acceptable for any Gender”), and end the social conditioning- all without devaluing the traditional roles themselves, dehumanizing and infantilizing the people who participate in them, abolishing them, or making them out to be the root of all evil (among the thousands of additional problems I have seen occur during this debate).
Whatever the solution to that and method of obtaining it, however, I do not believe that the answer is to abolish Gender Roles altogether; I do not believe that the solution is to demand that people not follow them- thus forcing deviation from these roles, often in such a manner that one role is dismantled through the encouraged adoption of traditional behaviors of the second role (only serving to reinforce the importance and superiority of the second role over the first that is dismantled in this process).
The forced deviation from these gender norms- especially for those who genuinely enjoy them, would face socio-economic backlash, or otherwise do not want to or cannot deviate from them for whatever reason- may be as problematic, endangering, limiting, and oppressive in a number of ways which are similar to the forced adherence to these norms; it is genuinely no better or less abusive than the forced participation and conditioning imposed by society on a general level.
When we force people to participate in something despite their own best interest, personal preferences, and ideology [sic], it becomes abusive and toxic regardless of what we are attempting to force them in to. It is important to uphold a person’s choice to or not to participate in the traditional structures which exist for their Gender- just like it is important to uphold their choices concerning any other aspects of their lives.