On Masculine and Feminine Roles
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I had been hoping to publish a direct follow-up to my first article On The Purpose of Life, but that’s taking more time to flesh out than expected, partly because I’ve been procrastinating on Twitter. One of those procrastinations inspired this post here, which will hopefully fit in with the overall theme at some point.
Much of this was written after two conversations, one that took place between myself and @catvalente, someone I do not know from Twitter, and then one with my girlfriend, Liesa, about the first conversation.
The first conversation is linked and I’m grateful to Catherynne for engaging with me while I asked questions, however, I’m especially grateful to Liesa for the second conversation; for listening to me ramble and giving me her honest feedback, as well as proofreading.
Controversial Conservative Ideas on Twitter
In the last couple weeks there has been a lot written regarding a collection of public thinkers that share a loose connection by way of their shared experience in disturbing the sensibilities of vehement progressives and leftists; they’ve been publicly dubbed the Intellectual Dark Web, though I don’t think this branding has been helpful.
I’ve been following a few of these thinkers for quite awhile, but have largely kept my opinions of them to myself during controversies. In the past, the controversies always seemed overblown and self-defeating for those generating them, but after this NY Times piece about Jordan Peterson, I found myself in this Twitter discussion:
I watched the original controversy with Jordan Peterson unfold online almost two years ago and have listened to a few of his class lectures, as well as some other interviews and podcasts he’s been on. I’m a fan of Joseph Campbell’s ideas about allegory, and am always interested in learning new philosophy, so I found his lectures enjoyable though, having my very own “religion”, I also found the emphasis on Christian myths to be less intriguing.
One thing that jumped out at me was his concept of Masculine and Feminine, which he describes using Jungian archetypes and Christian imagery, but which all sounded very similar to what I’d heard from talking to people of a much more spiritual, “New Age” persuasion.
Less Controversial New Age Ideas in Ceremony
I’ve had the opportunity to sit in shamanic ceremonies and meet lots of people who describe the concept of masculine and feminine in very similar ways, though using more pagan, spiritual New Age imagery.
They would describe a person as possessing different proportions of masculine and feminine “energy”. They stress the importance of allowing both of these energies to be expressed and not allowing them to be repressed by mainstream cultural models of masculine and feminine. Some people may embody high levels of feminine energy, but still feel the need to express their masculine from time to time. Nobody is a pure embodiment of only one type of energy.
They also believe that ideal relationships know how to balance the energies between each partner. This is sometimes described as a dance within, and between, the masculine and feminine of each individual, and it’s important for each partner to be given space and opportunity to express their energy in healthy ways.
This made some sense to me, though I preferred to think of these as analogies and say “aspects” instead of “energies”. When I hear Peterson, it seems like he’s talking about the same thing, just using different analogies. However, his use of Christian imagery and traditional language in his analogies is what seems to cause a lot of the controversy.
Back to the Twitter Controversy
To be clear, I’m not here to endorse or defend Peterson, I couldn’t even pretend to know what he’s getting at with that image on the right, I assume I’d need to read his Maps of Meanings book or watch a full semester of lectures to have a chance.
I got into this Twitter discussion by remarking on his “enforced monogamy” comment, which is a stupid phrase to utter without clarifying what you mean by it. However, I also think that a journalist who doesn’t try to clarify a comment like that is abdicating their responsibility to the reader, who you should assume has a serious desire to truly understand the person being profiled.
After someone linked to another tweet of Peterson’s, which also seemed to endorse some kind of tyrannical enforcement of marital responsibility, we moved on from the comment. I still don’t know what he could possibly mean by that, and actual policy proposals have not been forthcoming from him, but nothing comes to mind that sounds sensible.
The conversation then turned toward other topics, such as status, and then gender roles - the core of the more general controversy.
Peterson speaks largely to frustrated men and his talking points seems to revolve around how they can express and carry themselves in the world. He talks about personal responsibility and other notions that embody masculinity. He also endorses traditional gender roles and seems to indicate that the world orders itself in this way because that is how the biology plays out - women and men are biologically different and would be happiest in relationships where they’re aligned with these traditional roles.
This is where he gets into trouble with liberals and progressive, who see those traditional roles as unfair and oppressive, which has been true for the vast amount of history. However, what if we incorporated the less controversial pagan, New Age ideas here? Would that change the conversation at all? Can we find a a synthesis that can side-step some of this controversy?
Synthesizing Gender Roles
What I see is as a mistake that Peterson and other conservatives (and many other people) make is to tie the masculine aspect directly to men and the feminine aspect to women, tightly coupling biological sex with the psychological/emotional aspect (or energies, if you dig the woo-woo).
Everything that is said about traditional roles can still make sense, and be much less controversial, if there is acknowledgment that nobody purely embodies masculine or feminine aspects. Yes, on average, there is a larger correlation between the biological sex and the associated aspect, but there still seems to be enough variation to make decoupling them from each other more useful and meaningful.
Imagine a number of psychological/emotional traits that align with the roles that are traditionally identified as belonging to one gender or the other. The masculine aspect is defined as expressing more of certain traits and less of others, and vice versa for the feminine.
A happy, healthy relationship will have a combined set of traits, contributed by each partner, which should serve to carry out the necessary roles for any relationship. I wouldn’t think of these traits as binary, more as a spectrum. So if one trait was identified as “Providing” and another as “Nurturing”, then a more masculine individual might tend more toward providing more often than nurturing (and vice versa), however, they may still find themselves filling a nurturing role as a healthy expression of their latent feminine aspect.
This means that you can be a feminine man in a happy and healthy relationship with a masculine women where the gender roles, as defined by sex, are reversed, but actually the aspects in the relationship are in perfect balance. There can even be a balance between two individuals who are 50:50 masculine/feminine and simply mirror the traits of each other.
What I’m talking about here is still binding the masculine/feminine aspects to traditional gender roles, but decoupling them from the biological sexes. In this way, Peterson’s analogies make sense without the implication that people of a particular sex should be relegated to a particular role against their will.
The problem with mainstream culture isn’t only that it attempts to stick women in feminine roles against their will, but that men are under unfair expectations to embody purely masculine roles at the risk of being shamed and denigrated. Neither of these cultural pressures is healthy or useful.
All people should be free to express their masculine and feminine natures freely. When partnering, it would be wise for individuals to seek mates that compliment their nature in a way that allows them to continue to express themselves, while ensuring that all the necessary relationship roles are being addressed. To do this, people need to be free to discover what aspects they embody and not have them repressed by cultural stigma. This is what can lead to unhealthy expressions and unhappy individuals.
I realize this isn’t some new revelation and plenty of people have expressed these ideas for ages; as I said at the beginning, I’m basically just repackaging ideas I’ve gathered from my New Age friends and attempting to synthesize them with the ideas I’ve heard Peterson lecture about.
Some Nerding Out, For Science!
What I’d love to see are some methods for quantifying masculine and feminine aspects, perhaps measures of hormones or linking to particular genetic markers?
Peterson makes much of the big five personality types, which have generated many good studies, and he uses them frequently to show how men and women statistically score very differently on the different types. I think these types would probably be indicative of masculine and feminine aspects (such as a higher agreeable-ness indicating higher presence of related feminine traits), but I imagine there are other useful dimensions out there that could also be used to measured as well.
After establishing measurements for each aspect you could conduct a study, gathering data from various relationships on how they divide up the different roles. Ask each partner how happy they are individually, and within the relationship, and see if there are correlations to be found between the quantified aspects measured, the roles being carried out, and general attitude toward the relationship.
Are happier individuals those that carry out roles proportional to their matching traits? Do happier relationships posses a combined configuration of traits and do they share roles proportional to their contributing traits? Are more effective relationships those which have a particular configuration of feminine and masculine traits?
Building Bridges, Avoiding the Tugs-of-War
If I could be heard by those people that seem to direct the narrative (public intellectuals, journalists, etc), I’d implore them to please ask more questions of each other. Lets try to search for new ideas that might act as bridges over controversial waters that are seemingly impassable. The last part of the Peterson conversation I had with Cathrynne went like this:
Catherynne - “Nothing he says is about a happy healthy relationship. It’s about dominance and traditional gender roles …”
Gooseus - “He definitely believes in traditional gender roles, but my impression was he saw them as equal parts that go together to make a happy/healthy relationship. that’s less controversial, it’s at least debatable …”
Catherynne - “Traditional gender roles bar half the species from contributing to its advancement in any way other than reproduction. That they are detrimental is not up for debate.”
Are traditional gender roles up for debate if they are aligned with internal aspects of an individual’s personality/nature (masculine/feminine personality dimensions) rather than with biological sex? Is there another way we can shift the conversation to avoid an impasse?
Maybe not, maybe I missed the point somewhere, but I refuse to believe that we can’t re-frame conversations taking place around these kinds of topics.
People operating in good faith should be able to share solid ground on which to discuss ideas respectfully, otherwise it’s like we have no choice but to line up across a pit of mud and play tug-of-war till one side is dirty enough to give up.