Manhood and myth
A friend of mine, a manager of a reputable international technology company, once told me how, while doing her weekly vegetable run, she was verbally attacked by an old man she had never met before.
This stranger was outraged by her decision to have her vegetables peeled and chopped in the store, citing that "you young women of today are lazy and don't know your role". Being a "young woman of today", she returned the favour, lecturing the old man on the fine art of minding his own business.
I was reminded of this story while watching the most recent episode of People of the South, featuring Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille and her family. After the provocative and intense first segment, which consisted of a one-on-one interview with Zille, the show moved to the Zille-Maree family home, where the viewer was introduced to her husband, Johann Maree, as he chopped vegetables.
This scene would not have been disturbing were it not accompanied by the engendered line of questioning from the show's host, Dali Tambo.
Tambo asked various questions which predictably focused on the swapping of gender roles, rather than the more nuanced defining of roles and responsibilities that make a relationship work for both parties.
Dali hammered on the stereotypical "who is weak?", "who is strong?", "are you happy being the weaker one?", "are you happy being the softer one?", "would you say you are soft or hard?" type of questions that may appear to be challenging gender stereotypes, when they are in fact reinforcing them.
In the end, Professor Emeritus Johann Maree, a sociologist and senior research scholar at the University of Cape Town, was left looking like a compromised, stay-at-home husband. This image of him was supported by the strategic selection of pictures of him with the family camera and their sons watching Zille while she was gyrating on stage.
But surely Zille has found time to raise her children and take a few family snaps herself in her 60-odd years on earth, between dance sessions? The more likely scenario of their married life is that roles and responsibilities were shared differently and changed throughout their marriage as the professional demands on both of them changed over the years. But nuance doesn't make for great television.
Gender role-swapping is not progressive - as someone said to me: "It is reverse oppression; like any oppression, it will boomerang, and will haunt us in any position, reversed or not."
Now I'm not saying Maree is oppressed - in fact, he is more progressive than most - but what made me very uncomfortable while watching the show, was the implication that somehow his gentler, quieter disposition and his choice to cook for the family and play a bigger role than most men in child-rearing were related. As if a "stronger man" would have shooed Zille back into the kitchen sans shoes.
Even as Zille tried to highlight the shared values, Tambo seemed hellbent on making Maree seem "weaker", and not simply unconventional, for his choices.
Tambo was reinforcing the erroneous blurring of the lines between personality and the roles people choose to play in their households and in society.
Sociologists suggest that men who play a bigger role in the management of their homes and raising their children are often chastised, referred to as "Mr Mom" or similar terms. This dissuades men from playing this important role.
A different representation of the Marees could have offered South Africans a more compelling case study on how couples can tackle the same family roles, and how these roles and responsibilities change as their individual needs change during a relationship. Instead, Tambo opted to stick to reinforcing gender roles - not by stereotyping the defined roles, but by stereotyping the swapping of these gender roles.
What a missed opportunity.