Should we downplay the distinctiveness of masculinity and femininity? How is our culture dealing with what it is to be a woman or a man?
A presumption of equality
The major value that has shaped relations between men and women in recent decades has been the presumption of equality. Men and women are equal in dignity and should be treated as such. Wherever there has been a legacy that compromised that, there has been fairly general social approval to change it. Part of this process has involved the broader participation of women in paid employment and social roles of all kinds. It is now simply taken for granted that women should have the opportunities to pursue this wider variety of vocational and life options.
However, the question of equality involves some ambiguities. Does equality mean sameness? Does equality mean having the same opportunities, or the same outcomes? How do we balance sameness and difference? How do we balance individuality and community?
We need to clarify further what we mean by the differences between men and women, and how these can coexist without compromising equality.
The notion of complementarity
If there are important differences between men and women then it raises the question of what kind of unity is meant to exist between them. It has been customary to characterise this kind of unity as complementarity. The essential meaning of complementarity is this: the important differences between men and women are intended to be that way so that together the whole can be more than the sum of the parts. Each has strengths and characteristics that can complement the other so that together they can be more than they would otherwise be.
These differences are not merely coincidental, or minor, but have deep significance. However, the notion of complementarity has been contested in recent decades because some have thought it was a ploy to deny women social equality. Others have opposed it because their vision of the human person is essentially an individualistic one. This leaves a crucial question unresolved: what kind of unity then can there be between men and women? The only option left would seem to be the unity of sameness.
On the contrary, I believe that complementarity is the form of unity meant to exist between men and women. However, in order to show how that can work we need to make an important distinction. We need to identify two different dimensions of complementarity, social complementarity and attractive complementarity.
What is 'social complementarity'?
Social complementarity is about the practical realm of life. It is about the different social roles that people take on to enable society to function well. Most of the push for women's equality was in regard to social roles, and the topic of gender was taken to be essentially about that. The notion of 'gender' has more recently come to signify something quite different, but that is outside our scope here.
Greater equality in the practical-social realm has resulted in a greater intermingling of the everyday lives of men and women. In the past men and women tended to live in largely separate spheres, so that in the course of the average day there wasn't a lot of social interaction between them. But now they are interacting frequently, in the workplace, in education, in civic life and at leisure.
This greater intermingling has meant that the customs of manner and expression that smooth and dignify the social relations between the sexes have changed, and this process of change has involved some tension, confusion and disappointment.
What is 'attractive complementarity'?
Attractive complementarity is about the personal-cultural realm of life. It is about the aesthetic-affective dimension of life, about the sexual and emotional attraction between the sexes. It is about those things that shape and define 'attractive femininity' and 'attractive masculinity'. What are the things that attract men towards women? What are the things that attract women towards men?
Greater social equality has also opened up more space for this dimension of complementarity. There is a greater tolerance for the public expression of beauty and some degree of 'sexiness'. For example, standards in women's dress have changed very notably. There are kinds of dress that are accepted as quite modest nowadays that would have been considered scandalous only 100 years ago.
This cannot be viewed only as if this was a process of decline. The very fact of greater social interaction between men and women on a daily basis provides a kind of 'laboratory for cultural change' that increases the rate at which new possibilities can be tested in the court of public opinion, and accepted, rejected or modified. This doesn't always produce the best results, but the process involves a high degree of participation, so that the 'levers' for change are within people's reach, if they choose to exercise independent judgement.
Two different dynamics
We began with the question: should we downplay gender? The dynamics involved in social complementarity point towards a need to downplay some aspects of gender. If your focus is practical, the criterion is: can someone do the job? If a woman and a man can do the same job, then why distinguish between them? Wouldn't that imply unjust discrimination? This has led to a high degree of downplaying the differences between men and women in social roles. However, even in the practical-social realm men and women are complementary in important ways, and there is a significant weighting of attraction towards some of the different vocations based on gender preferences.
The dynamics involved in attractive complementarity point towards a need to accentuate some aspects of gender. Masculine-feminine attraction does not work by downplaying differences but by accentuating them. We don't want to find that the other is 'just like me' but that the other is different, mysterious, even exotic. It is more appealing to think of the 'other' sex as the 'opposite' sex, not a contradictory opposite but a complementary opposite. So when there is a special, formal public celebration of some kind the women and men will dress very differently. The women will accentuate the kind of attractiveness men are drawn to. Men will seek to complement this by supporting rather than competing with women's opportunity to stand out as distinctively feminine.
Two different measures
So we have two different measures for two different dimensions of complementarity. But it seems that we still have a fair way to go in finding a good balance. Downplaying gender differences in the realm of social complementarity seems to have had a crossover effect, leading to a diminution also of difference in the realm of attractive complementarity. For example, a great deal of women's dress, even in leisure settings, is markedly less feminine. At the same time men's dress has tended towards casual and even unkempt, often with a marked reluctance even to 'dress up' for special occasions.
It is not only a question of dress but also of manners. Many women have adopted more coarse speech, moving towards a more masculine style. Many men have moved even further towards crudity. Neither takes as much responsibility for encouraging refinement.
All these factors tend to reduce the distinctive attraction between the sexes. The customs that could be used to accentuate and refine the dress and manners of both have diminished or disappeared.
The case for accentuating masculine-feminine difference
So, should we downplay gender? A case has been put above that it is reasonable to downplay certain aspects of gender in relation to social roles. At the same time there is a case to accentuate gender differences in the personal-cultural realm. There is great potential in the attraction between the sexes. It has been common in the past to dwell more on the dangers, and some cautions are always in order. However, I think that at the present time we need to accentuate attractive complementarity to counteract the imbalance that has occurred, and to discover new forms of customs and manners suited to our times.
The attraction between the sexes is a great resource for building unity. Men and women want to find that the other is attractive. We don't want drabness and the loss of the special qualities that can be exemplified in the other. We don't want to find that the other is 'just like me'. It is more deeply satisfying to discover unity in and through our complementary differences.
So, should we downplay gender? My overall answer is 'No'.