The abstract model of gender bipolarity

A version of this article is cross-posted at Bacon’s Rebellion.

Virginia bloggers who are fighting to amend our Bill of Rights to make marriage the exclusive path to creating legal rights within families have recently generated some excellent discussion of the beliefs underlying their position.

Because much of the harm to gay families is done through denying children the security that would come from a legally recognized relationship both with their parents and between their parents, these discussions are often turning to the existence of same sex couple headed families, and to the definition of family itself. The meme “every child deserves a mother AND a father” (or some variant thereof) has emerged as the coordinated message of the campaign to claim that our families are undeserving of protection.

In one of these exchanges with James Atticus Bowden, one of the more active anti-gay bloggers, I pointed out what I thought was the obvious that just because two people are a mother and a father doesn’t mean that they will automatically have a particular set of attributes. I assumed that we could agree on the premise that individual men and women are not interchangeable, like two types of widget, but individuals with a variety of traits.

Apparently, I was wrong about that. I explained that the model he was presenting of men and women doesn’t fit the data very well, and that people in real life aren’t generally exemplars of gender stereotypes, but tend to be more complex. I described his unbending insistence that any given man and woman automatically bring specific, complementary traits to marriage or parenting, simply by virtue of their gender, as an “abstract model of gender bipolarity.”

James has profoundly misunderstood this point, and is doing what people sometimes do when they don’t understand something, which is to make fun of it.

“Homosexual activist bloggers,” he says, “call the idea of men as fathers and women mothers exclusively as ‘get this “an abstract model of gender bipolarity.”‘

As you can see, there is a significant leap of logic from the idea that any given man-woman pair do not necessarily create between them a specific complementarity of traits, and the unsupportable idea that fathers are not necessarily men and mothers are not necessarily women. How did James manage to get there?

What’s this “abstract model” business about?

For those who maintain that “family” exclusively means a biological father, a biological mother, and the children they conceive and raise together, the standard arc of logic goes like this:

Male and female are required biologically to create a child;

Therefore, a father and a mother each bring something unique and irreplaceable to the creation of a child;

By definition, a father is biologically male and a mother is biologically female;

Therefore, a man and a woman must each bring something unique and irreplaceable to parenting;

Therefore, in order to have complete and proper (“complementary”) parenting, children must have a mother and a father.

The problem here is the logical leap from the definitive biological roles that fathers and mothers play in becoming parents to the assumption that fathers and mothers must therefore play equally definitive roles in parenting. In real life, they do not, and the claim that all mothers have a certain set of traits and all fathers have a different and complementary set of traits is precisely to put forth an abstract model of gender bipolarity. If anyone can offer a better term for this fallacy, I would love to hear it.

James conflates the reproductive roles of male and female with sets of attributes to which we have assigned the labels “masculine” and “feminine.” In making this error, he has reduced real men and real women to the two-dimensional symbols one finds on the doors of public restrooms. This is not what real parenting is like, and I don’t think that most people in contemporary American society see their own marriages in these terms, either.

This brings us to one of the strangest memes currently floating about in this debate, and that is the notion of “the two complementary parts of the human organism.” This curious phrase suggests a belief that individual human beings are incomplete, by themselves. I have asked repeatedly for an explanation of this idea, only to be ignored. I have to think that it’s one of those things that sounds sort of mysterious and romantic and lovely as long as you don’t examine it too closely – and having to explain what it means would tend to have that effect.

Not even Freud was this reactionary

As it turns out, this idea does have a history.

Prior to the industrial revolution, the smallest unit of production was a household. Marriage was an economic relationship, not a romantic one, and in fact it was considered somewhat suspect if a couple seemed too affectionate. The idea of sexual fidelity didn’t even exist, at least not for men. Marriage was a business relationship that produced both goods and offspring, and in the upper classes, political alliances.

This all changed with the shift to wage labor. The basis of marriage as a unit of production was no more, and there was a precipitous drop in the rate of marriage among young people who, to make matters worse, had a bunch of crazy Enlightenment ideas about “equality” and “rights.”

Marriage had to be reinvented, one might say “redefined,” as the ultimate source of happiness and human fulfillment. The new basis for marriage became the idea that men and women are incomplete without each other.

This Victorian model of gender was disseminated as the idea of “separate spheres,” in which man is made for the public world of politics and breadwinning and the intellect, while woman is made to be the “angel of the home.” Neither sphere can exist without the other. In this way, marriage was reinvented as a requirement, not for economic adulthood, but for becoming fully human.

There is a weirdly Victorian flavor to much of the discourse being produced in support of the Marshall-Newman amendment, right down to the idea repeated by James that butch lesbians who are mothers are “pretending to be fathers,” and feminine gay men who are fathers are “pretending to be mothers.” This is an idea that leaves gay parents shaking our heads in wonder, but it has its origin in the popular Victorian notion that gay and lesbian people are “inverts” who wish to be the other sex.

The most laughable ideas from that era have gone away such as medical wisdom that said women aren’t meant to use their intellects, or that if a woman engages in athletic competition, her uterus will fall out. Yet, when amendment advocates are pressed to explain why their exclusionary definition of family should be enshrined in our Bill of Rights, they repeat these similarly archaic notions.

It should be positively chilling to straight and gay people alike that a model of marriage, family and gender relations that is essentially lifted whole from the Victorian ethos is being seriously put forward as the basis for amending our Constitution.

Aren’t men and women different?

Sure they are, and some of those differences are biological – mediated by prenatal brain differentiation and hormones. But that’s not the same as the abstract idea that “a man” has one set of traits and “a woman” has a different and mutually exclusive set of traits.

Like all cultures, ours has a way of categorizing people by gender, and we have labeled certain traits “masculine” and “feminine” as a sort of cultural shorthand; but that’s all it is. Some attributes that we identify as “masculine” have the opposite connotation in another culture, and vice versa. Further, the distribution of these traits across the population reveals that there is actually greater variability within each gender than there is between genders.

In the real – not abstract – world, all people are individuals who possess a mixture of traits that are labeled “masculine” and “feminine.” To very briefly sum up the social science research, people who describe themselves as having a mixture of “masculine” and “feminine” traits, as opposed to having mostly one or the other, are more resilient and adaptive.

There are an infinite number of ways in which two people can be complementary that do not involve their specific roles in reproductive biology. Real marriages are each a unique example of complementarity, not merely reproductions from a one-size-fits-all template.

For all the talk of “redefining marriage,” the redefinition that really matters and, I would argue, the one that is really threatening to so-called “social conservatives” – has already taken place. Most people in contemporary western society see marriage as a freely chosen partnership between two equal adults who have agreed to build a life together, a life that may or may not include children. To the extent that some people still see marriage as something that “completes” them, this notion is likely to result in marital problems. Marriages that thrive and last are partnerships between two healthy and whole adults, not between people with the unrealistic expectation that marriage will somehow make them whole if they are not whole already. “You complete me” is a romantic declaration to one’s beloved, not a literal diagnostic statement.

Paradoxically, because of the cultural redefinition of marriage that located it as the ultimate source of human fulfillment, people now have the expectation that marriage is a personal choice that should bring them happiness, and that they should be able to marry the person with whom they are in love.

It’s unlikely that this cultural shift can be undone, nor should we try.

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