Monday, June 4, 2012

American Gender, Part III

As salaam alaikum,

When I first dreamed up the story for my friend, I didn't really intend their to be symbolism. I just knew that she liked the genre fantasy and I thought it would be easier to write a fantasy short story in a post-apocalyptic world tending toward chaos than an imaginary world with imaginary creatures. And since this was a post-apocalyptic world, of course the characters would have to be our distant relations and not us, but I tried to write us. I wanted a character to reflect my friend's warrior personality and encourage her to continue pushing forward in life. Young, petite A, who was turned away from her own nation's militia, was directed to an up-and-coming militia by her childhood friend C and was excepted. She made up for her lack of height and weight because of her ingenuity, flexibility and strategy when it came to battle, and C's suitor recognized this skill in her and felt she would be one of the secret weapons that would catapult his nation to prominence.

C looked on, faulting herself for encouraging her friend into the brutality of battle, no less in the militia of the man she was interested in, but at the same time recognized that this was the way her friend saw fit in carrying out the meaning of her life, and she had just a right to do it as C carried out her own.

While, for most of my life, the gender roles of my parents were pretty traditional and straightforward, I was exposed to different models in my own family, as well as in the media. The most prominent example of an alternative setup were my grandparents. I got to know my grandparents in their late 50s and early 60s, around the age my parents are now. Before that, when they married at 17 and 21, I imagine that their household setup was very traditional. The majority of the stories I hear from my mother reinforce this. My grandmother stayed home with her ever-expanding family (she would eventually have 10 children) while my grandfather worked in the automotive plant, providing for the 12 of them. My grandmother and the kids kept up the house. My grandmother cooked and the girls helped her with cooking and cleaning. The boys took out the garbage. Everyone made their own bed the way that Grandfather had learned to do in his stent in the army...and they had to be done just so, too.

If the kids acted up, all it took was a "wait until you're father gets home" to get the kids back in line. Grandfather would still be ready with the belt upon Grandmother's report.

They were poor, but they survived. Their setup was traditional but obviously necessary. Working the assembly line was lucrative and demanded of my grandfather the use of his physical strength. Grandmother had 10 children, so of course she was at home.

The setup of the household was different by the time I grew up. I perceived my grandparents' home as a matriarchy. I used to refer to it as Grandmother's house, and not just for the sake of abbreviation. Grandmother talked the most, the fastest, and the loudest. She single-handedly kept their modest house clean, cooked food for them both and whoever was over, directed the children who came into the house, instructed the adults. Grandfather was a classic grandfather...we'd sit in his lap and he'd make horsey sounds as we galloped on his knee, he gave us suckers from his never-ending supply of suckers like the doctor's office, except these weren't the nasty, sugar-free kind. He let us sip his coffee when it was really hot, making us feel adult. He read and highlighted his dictionary, read his "Final Call" newspaper, watched his news and besides complaining about that, was otherwise relegated to the background of the house. It always seemed like Grandmother ran this.

I knew both of my grandparents were Muslim, but Grandmother was always more visibly so by virtue of the fact that she wore hijab. And I saw her pray more than I saw my grandfather pray by virtue of going to the Islamic School where she was the pre-K teacher. My grandmother was also up the earliest when I stayed with her, making everyone's breakfast, fixing lunch...

Even though she was still doing more traditional things around the house, she always seemed to me that she was the one running the household. Since, by that time, my grandfather was long retired because of disability from the plant and spent most of his days doing old-man things, like having coffee with the other old men at McDonald's for breakfast, really a shadow of the young man he was. As a young man, he had been working hard in the plant, sobering up, and, with his wife, bringing their 10 children into the Nation, seeking leadership within, encouraging his daughters to pursue higher education even when he met harsh disapproval for that...and bringing his family into Islam after Elijah Muhammad died, changing his name, learning Arabic, changing his life... And now, he was retired, relaxing, very happy to be in the company of his numerous grandchildren, his children and his loving wife.

But my grandmother never retired from her role as caregiver. Most of my childhood, my grandparents were raising 3-5 of my cousins at once. She essentially never was an empty nester, raising children from 1947 to 1998, when my last cousin living in the house graduated from high school. She was someone's mother for over 50 years, and in her 60s, when I knew her best, she was still going strong.

I wanted to be like my grandmother when I grew up. And what little girl wouldn't aspire to be like such a strong woman? But I also liked how she ran her house. It was Grandmother's house...she made the rules and enforced them. She demanded obedience and near-perfection in all of us. And while it was hard to live up to her standards sometimes, I really admired the way she made her home, and God, I wish the man I am to marry, whoever he is, insha'Allah, could have come to know my grandparents in their heyday, and understand how they influenced who I am.

On the other side of things, there was the media. Sitcoms influenced my conception of gender, for sure. In the late 80s and early 90s, Bill Cosby and the Cosby Show made popular this image of man, father as strict but gentle, but imperfect, sometimes bumbling, sometimes like one of the children himself, kept in line by the wife who regulated him sometimes with the same tone she used for the children, but disappointingly so. Enter Cliff and Clair Huxtable, my television parents.

People may ask, but my becoming a physician and wanting to deliver babies had nothing to do with Cliff Huxtable having been an obstetrician. I was probably more influenced by the show Rescue 911, but that's besides the point. Cliff and Clair really turned the tables in many ways, being the first educated, upper middle-class black family on prime-time television, but in interesting ways, they challenged gender roles as previously portrayed in many sitcoms. Cliff was a physician, but Clair was no June Cleaver, either. She was a quintessential mother, to be sure, but she was also an attorney, and a great one. And she was a mother of five children who managed to retain her figure and still have the hots for her husband of several years, keeping him satisfied in between the children's hijinks.

Come to think of it, I remember seeing Cliff cooking more than Clair...but maybe that's just because Cliff was more of a character about it. The children had their chores, so I don't remember her doing more of any sort of housework than Cliff did. Cliff definitely was a sensitive man and did a lot of things around the house, including cooking. It wasn't that the house was devoid of gender roles and, not at all. That was apparent in the ways they raised their children and the different expectations of when Theo dated and when the girls dated, for example.

But Cliff and Clair as a terms of career and their roles in the house, the only thing that differentiated them was that Clair carried and delivered the five children...though somehow, Cliff being an obstetrician seemed to even out this difference a little bit. And, Cliff was a man and Clair was a woman, as they identified. Their sensibilities reflected presumed gender roles that would be perpetuated in sitcoms for years to come...Cliff wanting to watch sports, Clair preferring nature shows. Cliff wanting to eat salty, fat-filled foods that were bad for him (he should know this, as a physician) and Clair steering him away and policing him.

But the both worked and they both had equal responsibilities in raising their children. You never get the feeling that Clair is doing all the work while Cliff comes home from a long day at the job and makes a cameo appearance.

The problem most critics point out in the Huxtables in terms of issues of race is that this is an unreal family, and how they live, independent of racism, is also unreal. The same can be said of the gender relations in the show. If Cliff and Clair were to have been high school sweethearts, and he's a few years older than her, and they got married soon after and had children while going to school, how did Clair really have time to pursue her JD and then practice law while having children every few years, and five at that, while her husband is a physician, doing residency and then away? You have to imagine that their family must have, at one time, looked very different as the couple was up and coming.

Hahaha, but it's not real! But whether it was real or not, I think the Huxtable's example,my parents' example, my grandparents' example taught me one thing...

There is not one way for one to make their household as a couple, and there is not one way for me, as a woman, to realize my gender. Although, because of my models, my primary aspiration became wifehood and motherhood, my first aspiration was to be a professional, like my mother was, like Clair Huxtable was. Clair showed me that I could be the strong mother I wanted to be while working, too, and my mother showed me how to adjust my role in the house as circumstances change.

By the time that I was brainstorming my friend's short story that would never come to be, I was driving my own car, content to do that with or without the presence of a man in my life. Marriage and family life was distant enough to not fully think about it, and my primary aspiration was to become a physician. At that time, I was between obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics, which, though I didn't know it at the time, were female-dominated specialties. My friend had gone hardcore and entered the still male-dominated field of engineering.

And so we would be...

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