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Family: Isn’t it about…gender roles?

The wife and I gave talks in Sacrament Meeting today, the wife on the Book of Mormon and mine on the The Family: Proclamation to the World. I’ll admit, talking about family in a public gospel setting is something I don’t really enjoy, mostly because there are a million ways to legitimately offend someone. However, lots are lots, and I drew this one, so I decided the best way to talk about the family is to be upfront about what kind of family we will most likely turn out to be.

If we were to put our family on a resume, it would actually look really Mormon. When we got married, one of us was almost finished with a degree in accounting, so the other spouse decided to delay school for the accountant to finish and start a career to support the family. One of us is, on the Meyer-Briggs personality test, an INFP, a rare, classic nurturer. The other is an INTJ, a rare, classic career person. When our baby is born this July, we’ve arranged it where one of us will stay at home with the child, and the other will continue to work. We try hard to live frugally, and we’re happy that we’ve found a great arrangement to complete the things we need.

There is no resentment in our current arrangement. The soon-to-be child-rearing spouse finds children adorable and loves to teach things. This spouse finds the monotonous schedule of housework Zen-like and fulfilling. The other spouse loves working and advancing in a career. This spouse finds the fast-paced office life exciting, and enjoys shouldering the responsibility of providing.

Of course, by now, you’ve probably figured out that my wife is the provider, while I’m the nurturer. It’s just how God created us. One time, we tried to live the traditional gender roles, and it was an unmitigated disaster. The wife stewed at home, bored out of her skull, while the husband toiled in a thankless office job, wondering how he found himself in such an existentially demeaning anomie. We soon switched again and never looked back since.

As a completely unintentional gender role smasher, life can be hard in the Church. You’re constantly having to justify your very existence and membership and faith. For the first few years of our marriage, we would evade questions with vague answers and try to keep up the facade. Finally, we decided with this ward, we’d stop trying. Go figure that this Sunday I would have to talk about our Church’s teachings on the family.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t love the Church’s teachings on the family, because I do. Joseph Smith had a sweeping vision of what family life’s potential could be. He lived in an age where industrialization and unmitigated capitalism was ripping the extended family system apart, in favor of the more isolating nuclear family structure. He saw a visionary end goal for humanity — to be saved as a family of God, working together in perfect harmony on Earth as well as in Heaven. For Joseph, Zion was more than just an economic utopia or a political theocracy, but a radical re-thinking of what and who family is. This obsession with family permeates every level of everything we do, and as an INFP, I love it.

The ideal Mormon family, circa 1860s.

Which pains me when I see the Church emphasize that all families must look cookie-cutter, because that’s not what Joseph had in mind. Ironically, the Church, which so repudiated the nuclear family in the early days, now wholly embraces it, sometimes at the expense of everything else. Families come in all shapes and sizes, made up of all kinds of people. Does it really matter whether it’s the wife or the husband who does the job, if both are working their hardest to provide the best home possible for their children? If husbands and wives are really supposed to work equally, side by side, as Elder Cook recently said in General Conference, then does it really matter if the husband passes off the provider duties to the wife and the wife tosses the baby into the father’s arms?

In the end, family is greater than what husbands are supposed to do and what wives are supposed to do, or specifically, what boys are supposed to do and what girls are supposed to do. Families are about love, charity, experimentation, adaptability, of teaching and discipline, of working together and learning to be a team player. It’s about never turning your back on family, even when times are tough, and yes, in our crazy Mormon family, about how everyone is a potential brother or sister that you just haven’t met yet.

So let’s not get hung up on the little things and focus on the big things — of the eternities, of creating heaven on Earth, of the immortal soul and the heritage of the Lord that we’re all a part of. In a trillion, billion, million eons, when we’re all hanging out in heaven still, sitting around with our eternal family, rubbing shoulders with the trillions of people who’ve lived and died and passed on, basking in the presence of Ultimate Goodness, will it really matter that I did the dishes and my wife worked in the office a trillion, billion, million eons ago?

Ideal Mormon family, circa today (not pictured: The six other children).

Or will it matter more that when the clock was ticking and the odds were stacked against us, my wife and I pulled together as a team and pulled out our brilliant Hail Mary play for an upset victory against Team Satan? That when times were tough, we knew each others’ strengths and weaknesses enough to consult Coach Jesus, and trust him enough to do what he told us what to do, even if it seemed to fly against common convention?

I expressed these thoughts (expressed is a generous word; in reality, I fumbled awkwardly through them) and sat down.

Later, a bunch of people came up to us, saying they enjoyed their talks, as usual, introducing themselves. But near the end of the line, one good sister came up and said, “In my family, we had a disabled child, and I had to work as a teacher because it was the only way to get insurance. I worked as a teacher for 35 years. And I have never regretted my decision, because I gave my children the best gift I could — a father. We do what we need to do to get the job done.”

I loved how she put it — we do what we need to do to get the job done. I want to make this our family motto, write it in fancy calligraphy on our family crest. Of course, the wife and I prefer the way we’ve assigned “gender roles” to each other, but it’s more than that. They’re family roles, at this point, regardless of gender. It doesn’t matter if the husband or the wife does them, as long as they get done. We’ve divided the tasks and now shoulder them the best we can, because we do what we need to do to get the job done. We don’t do this to make some kind of political or social statement; we don’t do this to break gender barriers; we don’t do this just to gratify our own selfish desires. We do this because we’ve found a perfect medium that maximizes our individual gifts while minimizing our individual quirks and shortfalls. We do this because we’d rather be realistic and work for the best outcome rather than have false hopes that God will somehow miraculously change us to match some 1950’s American cultural ideal. We do this because we love each other and we love our child and we love our family, and we are determined to make this work, come hell or high water, even if it means I’ll be scrubbing toilets and changing diapers, and the wife will be working overtime occasionally.

I honestly don’t think God asks for more than that.

Our Mormon family, circa 2008.

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Wearing the pants

My wife wears the pants in our marriage. I’ll gladly admit it. I’m too much of a monkish personality to care about things like money and careers. I like sitting in my home, slowly transforming it into a monastery, living out a steady life filled with the litany of domestic chores and sitting at my desk writing out illuminated manuscripts. My wife, as an accountant, actually enjoys doing things like balancing the checkbook or making out budgets, so why not let her do things she actually wants to do? In the end, it works out pretty well for us, and though people are really wary sometimes about our supposed swap of gender roles, it makes our marriage run very smoothly. We’re very happy with the arrangement.

The problem is, while my wife can wear the metaphorical pants in our family, she cannot really wear pants in church.

Well, okay, she actually can — well, sort of. Mormon.org tells newcomer visitors that they should wear a skirt to Sunday meetings, if appropriate. Apparently, women who work as Church employees need to wear dresses or skirts to work. And while I’m not sure if they’ll turn you away from the temple if you wear pants, it’s highly discouraged to do so (if you’re female). What I thought was a cultural tradition actually kinda isn’t — it’s about as officially enforced as you can get without having the For Strength of Youth pamphlet specifically endorse it (I’m actually surprised it doesn’t, but that’s for another day).

So the question I have for you readers is, of course, “Why?”

Jana Reiss, who writes on the blog “Flunking Sainthood,” gives several reasons why she chooses to wear pants to Church (despite cultural and unofficial official opposition), including “Well, in all those dreams I’ve had where I showed up to church having forgotten my pants, nothing ever ends well.” She has some really good points. It’s easier to be modest in pants. When she works in the nursery, she has greater mobility in pants. When it’s cold out, it’s much easier to stay warmer in pants. So why skirts and dresses?

Ask Gramps, a wonderfully charming question and answer blog about Mormon subjects, tackles this one as well. He proposes that “Recommending ‘Sunday attire’ is a wonderful way to instill in our young people a sense and attitude of reverence to the Lord. Wearing dresses to church rather than casual slacks should be taught as an opportunity and a privilege, rather than as a restriction.”

But slacks being “casual” for women sounds a lot like more of that bizarre dichotomy that we erect for gender roles in the Church. Domestic work and primary care giving is the most noble and hardest work of all — unless you’re a man; then he is lazy and shirking responsibility. Slacks are casual if you are a woman — unless you’re a man; then it’s appropriate Sunday attire.

This subject is divisive. While looking for what others thought about this unofficially official “no slacks for girls” rule, I found several forum threads swiftly locked because the discussion took a turn for the worse by the third comment. The issue most likely smarts for many Mormons because it’s just another attack on the traditional gender roles we rigorously attempt to enforce. And in an age of gay marriage, abortions, stay-at-home dads, career moms, and easy-to-obtain contraceptives, anything that even resembles bucking the traditional gender roles (even women wearing pants to church or the temple) is paramount to high treason. Interesting indeed that from a sociological perspective, such a trivial thing (for our modern day) like women wearing pants could become such a powerful symbol for dissent, rebellion, or even apostasy.

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An Open Letter to Sisters of the Church

Dear Sisters,

I still remember the day I went up to my mom and told her that I wanted to be a mom just like her. She immediately became uncomfortable, patted my head, and told me to play outside, but even as a child I could understand that something was wrong. As I grew older and learned more about my role as a man in the Church, I became bitter at the idea that the Church teaches that men cannot hold the sacred office of motherhood, no matter how righteous we are or no matter how much we want it, and, I will admit, I became quite bitter against the Church.

But I was soon blessed with a wonderful marriage to an amazing wife who has taught me that though I may see the fact that men can never hold motherhood unfair, this is all part of God’s divine plan. You see, my wife explained to me that men are still special and wonderful and valued in the Church. She told me how women need to have motherhood because men are already more pure and virtuous than women, and that without motherhood, women wouldn’t have a reason to improve themselves. Just look at all of the women neglecting their children’s needs, she said. Need I look for more proof? I knew in my heart what she taught me was true; after all, the women in Relief Societies often met together for “Enrichment” to improve themselves, away from their families, while the men in the Priesthood quorums rarely ever had any outside activities – we were too busy making a living, building careers and providing for our families to indulge in such things! Women are just generally selfish and self-centered, and they need motherhood to train and domesticate them to be more nurturing and loving. It all suddenly made sense. Men already do so much in the Church, my wife explained with a wink, and imagine if men were priesthood holders and mothers as well? Why, should we expect that men should be bishops and prophets and apostles and mothers and Relief Society Presidents and Primary Presidents? What would be left for the women to do? My mind boggled. I had never thought of it that way before!

I guess what I want to do is apologize for my near-sighted stubbornness. I now understand that motherhood is a great equalizer, and more of a burden — not a blessing — and despite all of your pre-disposed faults, your husbands and fathers love you despite them, and perhaps even because of them. All I ask is just to please remember us little guys, and to respect fatherhood and to treat your husbands with respect. And we’ll hold up our part of the bargain and support you and your important work from afar. The Church teaches us that motherhood is the most important calling of all, and though I wish I could help, and though I wish I could bring my naturally gifted nurturing and caring talents to such an important work, I understand that my place is outside of the home, and I will be blessed for my obedience, no matter how distasteful I may at first find it to be.

Godspeed,

Ted

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Gender roles and video games: Or, why do guys play as girls all the time online?

Edit: My friend Jill wrote a passionate, well-thought out and well-written counterpoint to my blog post.

Leigh Alexander is probably one of the more controversial video game journalists because she refuses to shelf her gender while writing about video games. It’s what I find most interesting and admirable about her, since she speaks very frankly about her experiences as a female immersed in the male-dominated, sometimes misogynistic gamer culture. Some people hate it, but I find it refreshing when a video game journalist speaks his or her mind, whether it’s about gender or specs.

Persona 3, now with 100% more female playable character!

Persona 3, now with 100% more female playable character!

Recently, she wrote an article titled “What I Discovered From Gaming Like A Girl”. The Persona series is a video game franchise that revolves around Jungian psychology; game mechanics emphasize building relationships and learning to shuffle from one persona to the next depending on the social situation. It’s all very mind bending and deep (and coincidently one of the few video games out there that have strong female protagonists). Usually, the tabula rasa main character is a male, but recently Persona 3 was remade for the Playstation Portable with the option of playing the game as a girl. Leigh Alexander details how her game play subtly changed because she was playing a girl. She struggled between making decisions that would increase her power levels in the game over decisions that would reflect more “lady-like” behavior. Gender, it turns out, matters when you play video games.

Lara Croft, circa 1997

Lara Croft, circa 1997

Females in games have always been controversial and rocky. I remember when Tomb Raider first came out and my friends gawked at the screen, rotating the camera, enjoying her polygonal, large breasted body. At the same time, there’s the common archetype of G.I.R.L., or “guy in real life”; behind most female avatars in a game like World of Warcraft (or any other mmo) is a male at the computer. I stand guilty as charged, since the character I’m playing right now is a female gnome. My choice to play female characters in World of Warcraft revolves around the fact that male characters to me feel grotesque. Female characters’ proportions (from bust to hip) are exaggerated as well, but the male characters seem too hyper-masculine – and perhaps, even though I’m a male, I’m intimidated by their monstrous physique. There’s various reasons why when you question other people – my friend James plays a catgirl in Final Fantasy XI and his justification is that if he’s going to have to stare at a character’s backside all day it might as well be attractive. My friend Troy also agrees. But I know that for my friends and I, we don’t really play females in WoW to swivel the cameras and drool – we invest a large amount of time into playing a character with a real, developed personality.

Gender roles, emphasized in pixels

Gender roles, emphasized in pixels

But why as a girl? Why do males play as females all the time? Is it purely sex? Do we fantasize about them as we push our buttons and wait for cooldowns to expire? As someone who plays a female, that hasn’t been my experience. But I couldn’t really explain it. I just prefer to play as a female, and it puzzled me for a long time. What is it about playing a female that seemed so attractive? After reading Leigh Alexander’s article, I think I might have a reason why.

I had the opportunity once to run several Dungeons and Dragons campaigns for a group of young adolescents. The results defied my expectations. In Dungeons and Dragons (and most paper and pen role playing games), you create a character that you represent. It’s similar to World of Warcraft, except D&D provides much more power and flexibility in defining who your character is. One of the kids, the youngest of the group, had just entered puberty. It’s a frightening and confusing time as your body and world view shifts radically without much input from you. The first character he played was hyper-masculine — a bloody, violent half-dragon who shot first and asked questions later. He was dumb as rocks and reckless, and he played this character with a gleeful, wild abandon. The second character, however, surprised me. He played a shapeshifter who often took the appearance of a female. She was shifty; she was crafty; she was subtle. She wasn’t out in the front lines like his half-dragon; she played carefully, and whenever it was advantageous, he would flaunt her sex appeal in order to get what he wanted.

Dungeons and Dragons - where one day you're playing as this guy...

Dungeons and Dragons - where one day you're playing as this guy...

Here, I believe, lies the appeal (and the helpfulness) of role playing games, whether done with dice or on the computer. Gender is an incredibly confusing subject; nerds, geeks, and gamers especially struggle with this. Most who fall into this subcategory of society are not what we would consider traditional masculine – they are generally not very assertive, they struggle to fit in with mainstream society, they are often marginalized, they are often not physically dominating, and they do not usually succeed in romantic relationships. Some people may cry foul and say I’m stereotyping, others may say I’m describing problems that everyone experiences. I would argue, however, that the minute you decide you like video games as a hobby, you move into this subset that doesn’t belong in mainstream society, and that this subtle marginalization exacerbates social problems. We don’t fit the social criteria and expectations for masculinity, but we can’t simply just change our gender. We’re stuck in some sort of gender limbo, and I would suspect that it’s more than just male gamers who float in this desolate landscape.

...and the next day you're playing this. And nobody cares.

...and the next day you're playing this. And nobody cares.

Role playing as females allows a gamer to expand his persona. in literature, women are complex — they can be the virginal maiden or the powerful femme fatale. They can create and heal, but they also can destroy. Females in fantasy genres generally fall into the magical and religious roles, but they can also play as assassins and helpless royalty, as powerful paladins or demure druids. They can do anything. But the male persona in fantasy is generally hyper-masculine, the Campbell hero archetype inflated by a hundred-fold and infused with the dreams and desires of the alpha male in a fraternity. They are generally warriors; they are generally muscular and powerful; they are usually rash and have a destiny to fulfill. There isn’t much depth to the standard fantasy male, however, and this can be stifling.

The young child in my D&D group struggling to understand what it means to be a man and his relationship with women began to act out both parts. He experienced the heady power of sexuality as a woman, but also carefully and safely explored the incredible destructive power the male stereotype in society. He acted these roles out, exaggerating the stereotypes, taking things new and possibly (probably) frightening and making them into the familiar. He ended up enjoying his shapeshifting character because it provided him the most flexibility – at any time he could shapeshift into the more masculine role when fighting broke out, but when it required the work of what he felt was a woman, he could also fill in that role. In short, he was beginning to understand that different social situations required different personas and he used role playing games to explore them. The video game industry is replete with instances of video games where you can play that hyper-competitive, hyper-violent male protagonist who blows crap up and shoots people without an inkling of remorse. But if you look for a good video game with a strong female protagonist, especially a tabula rasa-type that you can then project yourself onto, you might be able to come up with enough for each finger on one hand. If you’re lucky. So the gamer who’s already played his fill of these games naturally gravitate to the option of playing a woman, a character more complex than one who is either the paragon of paladin virtue or a cold-hearted, robotic killer.

While hilarious, the recent Old Spice commercials only reinforce the stereotypes of males in our society

While hilarious, the recent Old Spice commercials only reinforce the stereotypes of males in our society

And maybe, just maybe, I play a small, diminutive female gnome because despite the fact that she’s a warrior, she’s also an engineer and a master cook – and if I played one of those hulking males I would be afraid people would immediately begin to discount my intellect (something I value greatly) or my engineering or cooking or first aid skills, or would wonder why a hulking draenei is talking about things like motivations and backstory. A male that looks like the males in World of Warcraft just need to hit things and stop doing things like thinking. In the fantasy genre, females are allowed to be complex, but males are still considered very simple. However, I know this isn’t true when it comes to reality – I’m an incredibly complex person, and I know both James and Troy are, too (though they might be loathe to admit it). Could it be that we all play as a females because it allows us to carefully craft complex personas on the MMO medium, giving us the most flexibility to not only experience those power fantasies of killing massive dragons or slaying a mob of goblins with ease, but also the opportunity to express emotions, to level up in things besides “killing” and “more killing,” even to feel physically attractive, and still be socially accepted?

Leigh Alexander herself mentioned the difference in her game play – when she played as the male character she didn’t think twice to be ruthless and harsh, to challenge others for power and sacrifice peoples’ happiness and well-being for the greater good. But as a female, she found herself hesitating because that’s just not what women do. Maybe male gamers play as females because it allows us to be compassionate and empathic while still trying to achieve goals such as gaining more power or ability; it allows us to tap into a side of ourselves that mainstream society tells us we can’t – it allows us to break free of gender roles and explore the facets of ourselves that simply don’t coincide with the persona and expectations of the traditional, emotionally distant and hyper-competitive American male.

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Not your mother’s feminism

A recent video game came out called Bayonetta, and it’s received a lot of criticism for, once again, sexualizing and exploiting women. She’s a woman of impossible figure – big breasted, long legged, unrealistically skinny. Most of her costume is just her hair, so when she fights, a lot of her body is revealed. She blows kisses to break seals and the targets you use in the game is in the shape of lips. She sashays needlessly and no doubt, her sexuality is the weapon you use to fight baddies in the game. In other words, this isn’t the type of game you’d want to play in front of your parents. And so the angry cries of exploitation of the female body for sexual enjoyment by men rings in the air once more.

However, over at GamePro, a female writer by the name of Leigh Alexander says games like Bayonetta – with its flamboyancy, nudity, and fluid violence – doesn’t set back women’s rights; in fact, it’s progressive. Bayonetta is over-the-top, yes, but that’s because the game designer, Hideki Kamiya of Devil May Cry fame, is always over-the-top. Anyone who’s played his games can attest to it. So what some call exploitive, Leigh calls stylized, and sometimes, a little sexuality isn’t a bad thing for women’s rights.

It’s wonderful that our entertainment medium is developing more characters that bring more to the table than their looks — but at the same time, we can accept that being mousy, tomboyish or turtle-necked is not the only way a woman can be considered admirable. Bayonetta’s elegant nakedness in the fervor of battle is not in and of itself a bad thing.

Now, I’ll admit. Just looking at the pictures of Bayonetta set off my exploitation-radar. I am definitely what you would call an old-school feminist – women should be able to wear pants, they should be able to vote, they should have their voices heard, they should be able to work, they don’t have to look like impossible supermodels, or, so help me, I’ll get all Susan B. Anthony up in your grill.

But I can’t argue with Leigh’s logic – in Bayonetta, women are the power figures and players of the world; the men simply follow the rules and hope to survive. The unique fact that Bayonetta uses her feminine sexuality specifically as a weapon means she’s doing something male game characters can’t do, and as Leigh played through the game, she had never felt more empowered by a game in her life.

Leigh’s particular point that impressed me:

I already know that women can do all the same things men can. This time, I get to see a woman do plenty of things men can’t. And I love it.

This isn’t a game I’d let my ten year old daughter play to help her feel empowered, that’s for sure. But at the same time, isn’t this something we want in games? Girl characters in games who not only can do everything guys can do, but something only girls can do? Empowering, strong female characters that aren’t regulated to just sidekicks or mere NPC eye candy? Female characters that are more than “the same thing as a man, just with breasts and a ponytail”? And while I certainly can’t say I want my daughter to grow up into some kind of vigilante that fights naked and overtly uses her sexuality as a weapon, I don’t want her to cover it up, think mousey-ness is good (culturally insert “chaste”) and all forms of female sexuality is bad (culturally insert “slutty” or “exploitive”). I want her to be comfortable with her sexuality, to know that she’s special and different than boys rather than just playing “catch-up”, that she really has power and autonomy in a world seemingly ruled by old, white dudes. Perhaps this is the new direction of feminism, and while at face value it might seem disconcerting at first, it’s really something I can’t complain about for the time being.

To read more of Leigh Alexander’s thoughts on video games and girls, along with a follow up post on her GamePro article, visit her blog Sexy Videogameland.

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