“Prissy”. “Fussy”. “Trivial”. These are terms I hear all the time in men’s comments about women. They like women, they’ll often say, but they just have different priorities. All this good manners, and having tea, and arranging throw cushions, and wiping your feet when you come into the house, that’s what women are into and it’s a bit…trivial. You can’t take it seriously, they’re not bothered about important things. They’re obsessed with minutiae.
There are a several obvious counter-remarks to this, which might include “that’s a very restricted view of women”, “maybe if they had been allowed to train as architects, they’d be fewer throw cushions about the place”, and – as Glosswitch is fond of retorting, “have you noticed I’m not your mother?” Or it might be pointed out that stereotypically male pursuits like sports fandom involve obsessing over tiny differences in season averages, which is not all that cosmically significant. But I’d like to address this issue of “fussiness” and “triviality” by wondering whether we might be missing something important if we look at it from an entirely male perspective.
Firstly, things that appear trivial to those on the outside may be remarkably meaningful to those on the inside, particularly if they are being done by a group already seen as less powerful or important. An famous example of this appears in the work of the sociolinguist Penelope Eckhart, who wrote in the late 1980s about two youth subcultures around Detroit, the “jocks” and the “burnouts”. Coming from different social backgrounds, and having different attitudes to education, work and life, these groups also exhibited distinct linguistic differences which helped to mark out who was a member of the group and who wasn’t. The element of the research which struck me when I first heard it described about ten years ago was that the women in the groups used these linguistic markers more strongly than the men. They “over-performed”, we might say, their group identities.
Eckhart speculated that this was because the young women did not have opportunities for engaging in the cultural activities in which the young men could prove their identities as proper jocks or real burnouts. They couldn’t quarterback for the football team, or ride motorcycles, for example. Thus they used the symbolic systems they had access to in order to signal their membership of the group and build a strong and distinct identity. This seems inextricably bound up with the power issues in the society of that time and place: male power and male prowess could be used in socially-agreed ways to produce meaning for a young man’s life. Women had to negotiate membership of their groups by signally hard that they really belonged and (we might speculate) deserved respect instead of the sanctions which male power might impose.
So this isn’t simply a matter of women being more interested in little things, or even that women are inherently better at small and complex interactions (as is also suggested sometimes.) It looks more like it’s directly related to who has power and who needs to work within structures where they have less power. And crucially, don’t have enough power to reject that structure: none of the young women in that study, or indeed elsewhere, could really say “I opt out of this society, and will start my own economy, political system and city over here, please don’t interfered with me”.
I know a few men of my generation who went through a gradual process of realization in their teens or twenties, when they worked out why their parents (and particularly their mothers) had always insisted that they speak “properly” and “articulately”. We realized that we had always felt secure in the knowledge that speaking slangily or casually wouldn’t stop people taking us seriously. Our parents (again, particularly mothers) had come from backgrounds where if you didn’t play by the linguistic rules, people wouldn’t feel they had to listen to you or respect you.
Secondly, in a related point, I wonder how much women’s apparent interest in intricacy and keeping things neat and polite has to do with a need for early-warning systems. One of the things which keeps coming up when I talk to female friends about this issue is the onus on women to make big judgements on very few data points. The expectation on women to be accommodating, emotionally available and just generally “nice” to men, puts them in a dangerous double-bind at times. If they don’t want to be left behind at the party alone with that guy, they may be accused of being a bitch, or even of accusing him of something. If they’re getting a weird vibe off a guy all through the evening, and don’t want to share a taxi with him, though they’re going in the same direction, they have to make a snap decision.
If they say they don’t feel OK being with this man, they’re called a man-hater who thinks all men are monsters. If they’re right, and he does something awful to them, they may well be blamed for going along with him. In previous generations, this kind of judgement may well have been the basis for marriages as well as taxi-rides. In middle-class society, where men and women generally met in company and “dating” was relatively limited, a woman had to decide on very little evidence whether she would be safe in signing away her legal rights to a man she barely knew.
Perhaps it’s no wonder women have often looked to men as if they’re overly obsessed with little issues of behaviour, like politeness or wiping their feet when they enter the house. To blend modern relationship jargon with that image of the muddy boots and the carpet: how respectful is he of your boundaries? Too easy for us, as men, to write off women’s concern with “triviality” as evidence that they’re frivolous, when they may be amassing proxy evidence to protect them from very dangerous situations.