“Maman tu pleures?” (Mom are you crying?) said my sister this morning over breakfast. My mom was playing Michel Sardou’s Je vole while eating her muesli and it did appear as though the sorrowful message, of a son who has decided to leave the family he loves deeply, brought tears to my mother’s eyes in what was a rather unusual start to the day. This is the third time since I have been home for the confinement that I have heard my teenage sister accusing my mom of crying. For me, my mother’s teary eyes brought me back to 2014 when the three of us visited Venice, and the sheer beauty of the city spurred a similar reaction.
It’s events like these that affirm to me my mom’s naturally sensitive and emotionally expressive nature. I’d like to believe that I have based this perception of her solely on her behaviour and that is not due to preconceived ideas that women, or specifically mothers, are inclined to be more emotional. I like to imagine that how I see my mom, confirming stereotypical gender assumptions, is accurate to who she is as an individual and not due to a bias that I have come to believe. It does seem, however, that this period of confinement within my home has exposed certain gender differences that have long underlined the family organisation.
On one of my first nights back home my mom and I watched the movie “The Wife” together. This movie tells the fictional story of an aging couple who has been together for many years and the sublimation of the lead character, Joan Castleman, to her real and perceived understanding of patriarchy most notably in her marriage to Noble Prize for Literature laureate Joseph Castleman. Glenn Close won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama in 2019 for her portrayal of the lead character. While I do not intend to draw any direct comparisons between this fictional couple and my parents, this movie, outside of the phenomenal central performance, provides an incredibly nuanced analysis of the role and effects of patriarchy within a family and a couple.
My parents both work. By the measure of magnitude of income my dad’s business can be considered more important. This idea has also carried on into the current sanitary crisis in which my dad’s work has continued while my mom’s retail activity has been severely reduced. My parents share an office space at home and my dad has been completing most of his work on online video-conference platforms. This means that it is not possible for my mom to keep working in the same office, leaving her little choice in finding a space with a reliable internet connection and favourable working conditions. This situation is arguably understandable as my dad’s economic activity is normally, and even more so currently, the main economic provider of our household. This situation does however seem to correspond to traditional models of a man and woman’s role in the household.
An underlying continuation of traditional gender roles is not only visible in the business realm but equally in the family roles and organisation. The heating up and preparation of dinner has always been my mom’s activity and the other night her work call extended past our usual dinner time. She then heated the dinner in a relatively hurried manner which meant that parts of it were lukewarm or undercooked. While this seemed to affect the rest of the family in a very limited way my mother seemed quite disappointed in herself and cited her perceived inability to do various things at once. This is an example of the ways in which traditionally gendered roles continue to play a role in our household. What is more interesting however is how it appears that these roles have been appropriated.
This is where “The Wife’s” portrayal is to me very nuanced. One of the most thought-provoking lines of the movie is when Close’s character tells her husband’s potential biographer “Please don’t paint me as a victim”. Here, the character seems to acknowledge the profound inequality in her position and yet affirm her personal involvement in the creation of her current situation. There is a visible internalisation of her role arguably rendering her an autonomous decision maker. The story presents two arguments in favour of this. The first would come from the character’s internalisation of the domination inherent in the society as this ‘reality’ is presented by one of the character’s female mentors and icons. The second more painful analysis, and linked to the first, is that the female character’s love for her husband reinforced her willingness to be subjugated to him. The line seems like a call for recognition of her own agency in a world that has seemingly never allowed her to experience a fully-fledged sense of autonomy.
Modern feminist theory includes a faction called choice feminism (1). According to this theory an individual woman’s actions and choices are inherently feminist because they result from an autonomous choice. One of the criticisms of this theory is the idea that the part of decision-making that is linked to social norms and standards is ignored in this reasoning. If breaking free from a social norm results in social backlash, the decision should not be considered fully free. Following this, an affirmation that my mother is emotional needs to consider the impact of socialisation not only on her behaviour but most importantly in my own analysis. The coincidence that my mother believes her role to be one of the sensitive partner and my own prejudice regarding this possibility are not impossible. The same thinking should also be applied to our domestic roles within different social groups, such as family or friends, considering how socialisation may affect the division of tasks.
In her 2019 acceptance speech (2), at a Golden Globes overshadowed by Hollywood’s sexual harassment scandals, Glenn Close called for women to follow their dreams but more importantly to affirm “I can do that, and I should be allowed to do that”. Her message here is that these pervasive aspects of gendered socialisation can be tackled by basic affirmations of women’s abilities and rights and who am I to contradict her.