Monday, July 25, 2011

Expressing masculinity and femininity.

Foucault conceives power not as being imposed from the top, but as being reproduced through the words we say and the things we do. One of the ways that certain norms, such as how to be a proper man or woman, are reproduced in a society is through proverbs and expressions in the language. I'll give two examples of how norms of Dutch masculinity and Singaporean Malay femininity are reproduced.

Een echte vent strijkt zijn eigen overhemd
A real man irons his own clothes

This Dutch expression promotes household work such as ironing as valued work and is part of masculinity. A real man is not one that knows how to beat up people, but one that can take care of himself and not depend on someone else to do handle the intimate details of his life, such as the clothes he wears.

This may not necessarily result in all men ironing their own clothes, the fact that such an expression exists means that men who may already be sympathetic to doing so can find recourse in an already existing concept. By wanting to be independent and do their own household chores, they are not considered strange or emasculated, because there is already an existing idea in their society.

Belajar tinggi-tinggi pun, mesti tahu jaga rumah
No matter how much a woman studies, she must know how to manage a household

This may not be a definitive Malay expression, but it's definitely familiar to many Malay girls and women in Singapore. When a girl wants to further her education, her mother may say this to her to remind her of what a proper woman is - the ability to manage a household is what ultimately counts. Domestic work is valued more than education.

This phrase is most definitely never said to boys and young men, because they are expected to study as much as they can in order to earn as much money as they eventually can, being the expected main breadwinner of their future family.

What's interesting is that this expression is turned right on its head with the next one, usually said by the younger generation:

Belajar tinggi-tinggi duduk rumah buat apa?
Why study so hard if you're going to be a housewife?

In contrast to the other Malay expression, this one values education over domestic work. This is also unfair to women who are highly educated but choose to stay at home and take care of the home and their children. These women have their reasons, whether they believe that their own education makes them better parents, or that they view the rearing of children as being a valuable job that requires their full attention.

Interestingly, both expressions focus on women and their choices. In our postfeminist world, it is not that women are striving to be like men, to value work outside the home more than domestic work, but that women should have the choice to do what they like because both kinds of work should be equally valued.

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