I just finished watching the trailers of the movies you mentioned in your last letter, and I look forward to watching the actual films. Just the short excerpts were haunting. The image of that little girl on the baseball field, and the ensuing scenes with her distraught mom, speak perhaps more than any explanation of what it means to be socialized into a gender construct.
Debating versus Remembering
As pastors (like the one in my last letter) contribute to this resurgence of gender fundamentalism, it is all too easy for me to start debating these issues. I often find myself trying to find the right angle of argument to convince people of the harm and absurdity of what that man is doing from the pulpit. And yet, when I watch those trailers of the movies you suggested, I realize that all of us (whatever camp we may find ourselves in) would greatly benefit not from debating but rather from remembering.
Remembering ourselves as young people—boys and girls with natural and individual spirits who too soon had to learn how to conform. Those often forgotten memories of our childhoods give us access to where our wounds are—and what redemption might look like, too.
As I think about my own past, I am grateful that in my own family, I did not have to endure such limiting messages on being a girl. (As we talked about in earlier letters, most of the harmful messages I heard came when I had my own personal conversion experience as a teenager and started attending church.) Growing up, I was raised by a mom who broke all the stereotypes. Sure, she would sew my sisters and me matching polka dot Easter dresses and bake us cinnamon rolls on rainy days, but she also was the only mom in the neighborhood who built a backyard deck, laid linoleum, and even knocked down walls in our house, all activities she managed when she wasn’t working her nursing job at the hospital! I grew up with a model of doing anything you put your mind to—a model that has greatly shaped the woman I am today.
And yet, I know that during my teenager years (and this is certainly not just the fault of the church) I grew more hesitant in who I was. The world is not an easy place for young people; there are so many pressures to quickly find an image or a group of friends, because living too much into your own particularity means you will stand out. And by all means you don’t want to stand out. As the mother says bitterly in “Summer’s End,” something is wrong with her daughter because “she does not fit in.”
I remember when I was quite young my mother gave me this still lingering piece of advice: she told me that people who seemed “weird” to me were just not conforming as much as everyone else. It was like she let me in on a secret—most people tacitly agree to play this game of conforming. Those who don’t succeed, or don’t want to, are the ones the rest of us can point out. And yet, the real question is why the rest of us are succeeding at the game.
The Procrustean Bed
I am glad you mentioned this ancient fable of the robber who lays his victims out on a bed and saws off their limbs or stretches them mercilessly if they don’t fit. As I was writing my last letter to you, I just kept thinking about the violence of gender stereotypes, but was afraid such a word would sound like hyperbolic description. But, I don’t think it is too strong. I know too many stories of women and men who have heard those messages and then cut off pieces of their own heart or dreams or passions. Particularly when spiritual demagogues are making decrees about how men and women must conform themselves, regardless of “their own personalities, interests, and preferences” as you said, such messages are violent—a form of spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse controls people by shaming them, and by convincing them that any “rebellion” is going against God’s will. In the sermon I referenced last week, the I Timothy 5:8 verse about men who don’t provide for their families “being worse than unbelievers” was applied to men who stayed at home providing for their kids! As my friend Stacy pointed out immediately to me, that verse has nothing to do with gender roles. It’s about how to best care for widows in the church, and the importance of caring for vulnerable people in your own family. But, the pastor hijacked it to uphold his view of gender, and shamed stay-at-home dads as being “worse than unbelievers!” I was so angry on multiple levels.
Shame is such a powerful tool of spiritual demagogues. It keeps us fearful and un-free. Deep within us we internalize very harmful, very controlling messages. And I don’t think we can “debate” our way out of it as a Christian community. Debate will only take us so far, because what we really need to do is have the courage to grieve.
“When I Was a Boy”
I am glad you mentioned the song by Dar Williams, “When I Was a Boy.” I discovered that song almost a year ago on my 27th birthday. I had asked friends to share songs, poems, or passages of books that had gifted their journey, and one man and his wife brought that song. All the contributions were special, but something about “When I Was a Boy” seemed to invite every person in the room to open up. It was like we all got permission for 4 minutes and 47 seconds to remember being children again, and there was a communal space of grief and acknowledgment at what had been lost.
It’s funny you happened to mention the song when you did, because I had just used it this past weekend for a 1-hour workshop I taught on gender. After I gave my lecture and helped lead some conversation, I realized the tendency for most of us—and in particular, many of the men— to talk about gender in abstraction or theory and from a so-called rational framework. But I had hoped to be talking about it from the level of our lives. When I finally played “When I was a Boy,” something opened up in the room.
We grieved together. Some of us wept. And none of us really knew what to do in the tenderness and discomfort. But, I truly believe it is important for men and women to find safe spaces to be seen in their grief and to long for something more whole together.
OK, I better go, even though there always seems much more to say on this topic. I look forward to hearing from you.