On Mutuality, Relationships, and Writing

Rachel Held Evans is hosting a weeklong discussion about mutuality, also known as equality in relationships (specifically marriage).  I’m not writing a relationships blog (or a religious one), but I felt like it would be worth my time to talk about some of the same issues, and how they relate to us as writers (or at least to me as a writer).

Clearly, issues of privilege and patriarchy still affect American and European society in profound ways, even in the 21st century (my focus is on American society, not out of regionalism, but simply because I don’t know European society well enough to go around commenting about its gender relations).  As a writer, I am both affected by and have some small power to affect my cultural surroundings.  These issues affect my writing in profound ways, largely by determining the presuppositional foundation from which I perceive the world.  However, if I take control of my writing, it can impact others, and in some small way push back against the ugly parts of modern society, and help (again, in its small way) influence the culture of those who read it.

Sexism is by no means the exclusive province of the religious, as anyone who has taken even a casual glance at the vast wasteland of misogyny and mediocrity available on the Internet knows.  But few Memebase “go make me a sandwich” trolls construct self-coherent philosophical frameworks defending their sexist views and calling out those who disagree.  It seems the urge to create systematic theological constructs is easily turned toward the justification of male dominance.  Within Christianity, that framework generally goes by the (misleading) name “complementarianism,” a name that, as complementarian author Owen Strachan notes, really means “patriarchy” (pg 25).

Complementarianism is a theological construct that effectively reduces women’s value to their ability to nurture, to take care of their husbands’ needs, their childrens’ needs, etc.  It discourages women from having careers or personal goals that do not revolve around family, and it practically forbids them from taking leadership positions in the church.  This is hardly a universal feature of the church, and has largely arisen as a reaction against post-modernity, as part of a surprisingly widespread desire to return to an idealized version of the 1950’s, before all the -isms of the 1960’s “ruined everything.”

Of course, most of the people proclaiming this were not even born in the 1950’s.  I wasn’t either, so I can’t speak to how things really were, but I can’t help but think of Emmett Till, the Korean War, Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunts, and a host of other things that never touched June and Ward Cleaver’s monochromatic subdivision.  The 1950’s were a great place if you were a conventional straight white male with a job, I suppose, but the minute you shrugged off your gray flannel suit, you courted disaster.

Others have provided reasoned, Biblical defenses of egalitarianism, and that’s good.  My reaction is a combination of exasperation, amused surprise, and disgust:  people still believe this?  We’re really having to have this conversation in 2012?  People think women are only gifted with in-the-home talents?  That’s an awfully small box to put God into, to say nothing of the box women are being put into.

Defending sexism based on a few verses in the pastoral epistles is like using the book of Philemon to defend slavery.  The ancient church-leaders lived in a sexist, slave-owning, violent, oppressive empire and they wrote these letters to specific churches at that time, so they could best live out their faith, and best express Christ’s love, within that sexist, slave-owning, violent, oppressive empire.

A wife’s submission to her husband may have been necessary in an utterly sexist, violent, slave-owning society in which women were not allowed to work and marriages were property contracts between the wife’s father and the husband to be, just as the slave’s submission to his master may be necessary in such a flawed and brutal society, but do we really think that’s some kind of ideal that should persist?

Honestly, this whole barrage of faux-‘50’s nostalgia feels like an alien invasion to me.  But I can see how it shapes my own viewpoint, even as I rage against it.  The man as head of the household goes hand-in-hand with the objectification of women.  Sure, the web-trolls objectify women as sex objects, and this “kinder, gentler” patriarchy objectifies them as nurturers, but neither allows full humanity.

So, having read this far, how does this relate to writing?

The short answer is, the culture I’m swimming in can’t help but affect my portrayal of women, which then further reinforces that cultural status quo.  I have to consciously, intentionally, question my own presuppositions and carefully create female characters who are not objectified: not as nurturing ur-mothers (though they can be nurturing mothers), not as objects of sexual desire (though they can be sexual, and can be desired), not as wicked, manipulative succubi (though they can be villainous), not as hard-edged “tougher than the men” viragos (though they can be as tough, or tougher, than the men).  There are so many shallow archetypes, so many ways lingering patriarchy and privilege try to worm their way into every story.  Thankfully, my keyboard has a backspace key.

The long answer is “Stay tuned: I’ll be talking about this in the days to come.”

Over the next few days, I’ll be looking at:

  • Writing relationships as opposed to romances
  • Examples of egalitarian relationships in fiction (please leave me some examples in the comments: I’m finding they’re not easy to find!)
  • Getting a little personal, I’ll talk a bit about how my wife and I work things out in our relationship (almost 9 years!)
  • And I”ll talk about writing people different from myself, outside the white male heterosexual privilege that I’ve grown up in, the difficulties that arise, and my attempts to overcome them.

Hopefully, I’ll have something to say worth hearing.