The coronavirus health crisis is triggering a whole new discussion on traditional gender roles within domestic walls: it's time to redraw their limits, reorganise tasks and cohabitation - argues an Italian feminist and philosopher for our podcast #CryLikeABoy
Every living environment features different power hierarchies.
It may be something unpleasant to remember, but very rarely in human societies do places function without hierarchies. Even our home is a place of power, and traditionally it is managed by a female figure. Women are entrusted with the task of care, and men instead are tasked with maintaining and protecting that place.
The pandemic emergency has put a great deal of stress upon this norm, and the situation has become indeed extremely complicated.
When we cannot go out anymore to carry out our daily activities elsewhere, it is necessary to achieve a careful redistribution of time, space and power.
Dramatic changes in the household
Home was necessarily being transformed by the pandemic into a workplace, but also in a place of relaxation and disengagement (when possible). Those domestic spaces - usually shared only for a few moments a day - are becoming the places where we live together for the whole day.
The role of the breadwinner is strongly undermined by the obligation to work at home, because when at home it is much more complicated to demonstrate one's role to colleagues and co-workers. There is no office, no common space divided by areas and sectors, no uniform, no codified symbology to remind us of a hierarchy.
This hierarchy has dematerialized into a digital world that is much more complex to manage, based in part on the memory of previous experiences but now placed in more abstract languages, and in more complex and structured types of communication.
For those accustomed to a more gestural, direct, vocal, and physical kind of communication, this new normality could be a real source of frustration.
In the context of family relationships, dominant positions are getting more complicated too.
The worker used to perform grand gestures such as "leaving the house", but now has to remain within the domestic walls, in front of a screen - something that resembles a playful activity, a pastime, but surely not a job.
This symbolism strikes everyone else living in the same house, too.
They get a different perspective on an activity that used to be carried outside, wrapped in that mysterious but reassuring phrase: "How was work today?".
The role of the breadwinner gets somehow diminished. That conversation (“How was work today?”) that triggers human contact, becomes now difficult to have - especially when you get to see the partner “working” in front of you for the whole day.
And what if the breadwinner loses the job?
The inertia of gender roles creates conflict
Despite these dramatic changes imposed on our lives by the pandemic, the inertia of traditional gender roles tends to keep the management of them in the hands of the same person, especially for less pleasant tasks like cleaning or feeding.
As last year taught us, on average men are less prepared for this change, while women - unfortunately for them - are far more trained in the mental load required to move between different tasks and responsibilities.
Neither of the two is used to managing the power conflict that inevitably arises.
Disturbing statistics tell us that, almost certainly, it has been the woman who has lost her job - if she had one -, or has seen it greatly reduced. On top of this, she now has to take on the management of a more inhabited house - therefore dirtier, more used, hungrier -, while everyone else in the house would accumulate their difficulties in the same domestic place.
The general stress rate quickly rises to very high levels because of a closed school (sometimes considered a nice "parking lot" for children), or caretaking tasks suddenly increasing exponentially, while our freedom and emotional relationships are being compromised.
The mere idea of looking for an alternative escape valve - you can't go out, there are no sports and gyms available to you - sounds like a further, unbearable commitment.
In this overpopulated, domestic microcosm that is noisier, tighter and dirtier, traditional roles gave to each inhabitant of the house a precise hierarchical position - elastic and criticizable, certainly, but yet defined. Now they have no meaning anymore, they have been blown apart.
Boundaries can no longer contain, lines of respect have been crossed, and previously contained and controlled energies are now free to circulate.
When we try avoiding conflict by sticking to the rigidity of our gender roles, we run the risk of making it explode instead.
Managing conflict means first of all recognizing it as inevitable. Then, it means being ready and willing to re-discuss those roles typically associated with gender, redraw their limits, reorganize tasks and cohabitation.
If our space becomes more of a common space, we would need to live that space through a more shared language (both verbal and non-verbal).
By changing those habits we believe are part of our identities, we do not stop being a man or a woman.
Everyone has to acknowledge all conditioning factors and pressures, and be ready to reevaluate them, thus avoiding them to be a burden for the other person.
We need not to harm the lives of those we share a restricted time and place with. That doesn't make us less of a man or less of a woman.
Different cultures will have different solutions available, due to the different effects that the pandemic has had in each society.
However, one cannot recklessly hold on to maintaining traditional gender roles.
They were already widely criticized “before" the pandemic, and that time will not return.
Traditional gender roles are getting more senseless in our uncertain and destabilizing "present", and they will be even more useless in the aftermath, when we will need to reimagine and reconstruct our future in a different fashion.
The resources for this reconfiguration and rediscussion of gender identities have been there for a long time.
Borrowing a well-known political slogan, there is no better time than now to put them at work, and make them the common heritage of our communities.
Lorenzo Gasparrini has devoted himself to topics regarding gender studies, especially aimed at a male audience. He conducts seminars, workshops and laboratories in universities, companies and schools, and publishes both online and in print.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.
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