The holidays always provided me an opportunity to observe the curious divide between our world's two most popular genders. Every year, at every age, I have sat at tables with both sides of my family for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners--most with expansive and wonderful fare, some a bit baffling (enchiladas for Christmas? Really?).
Every year, the same actions wrinkle my mouth in thought. At the end of the meal, all the women stand up and begin clearing dishes from the table, then congregate in the kitchen to clean plates, load the dishwasher and squirrel away the leftovers. Meanwhile, the men remain seated, chatting and waiting for desserts to arrive, which are brought to the table by the women, of course.
When I was a young boy, this process was so mysterious. It was almost a ritual. No one spoke of what was going on, or even acknowledged it, but everyone intuitively knew the script and followed it strictly.
Back then, I was not the fearless, queer gender warrior I am today, so I stayed at the table with the men. I never considered clearing the table or doing the dishes to be "women's work," but the unspoken specificity of this ritual intimidated me. I did not want to break the code.
As I grew, I began to see the silliness of such gendered actions. Clearing a few dishes is the least one could do to battle restrictive gender roles, but it still matters. Additionally, due to countless dates with clueless, rude men, manners and etiquette started to matter more to me. Helping to clean up is simply the polite thing to do - regardless of gender.
Now that I'm a girl, this custom throws me for a loop. I continue to clear and clean because it's polite, but now the voice in my head needles me with questions. "Are you really choosing to do this, or are you doing it because it's expected of you? Is it expected because you're female? Aren't you bowing to the patriarchy by doing this?"
This situation mirrors some other areas of my life. I love to cook, for example. I live alone, so I cook for myself. I ask myself, if I had a boyfriend or husband, would the cooking then become expected of me? Will I cease to enjoy it once we decide that cooking is my "job?"
I've hated and resisted the boxes we put ourselves in all my life. Now I'm often putting myself in the exact same boxes of domesticity that imprisoned women for so long.
There's no easy resolution for these feelings. I try to remind myself that the crucial part of these internal conflicts is choice. These acts are not oppressive if I choose to do them while of sound mind. It gives me pleasure to do them.
This fact doesn't banish all the issues of gender roles and centuries of patriarchal dominance, but do I really need all this intellectual masturbation and harsh analysis? I'm at a dinner table talking with my family, not theorizing in a classroom. At that moment, those arguments become less important. And like I said before, it's just polite, so I'll keep doing it.
Although, speaking for all women, a little help from the men wouldn't be so bad.
(Photo via Emily Carlin's Flickr photostream)