Monday, July 10, 2006

Gender Relations Mini-Rant

I found this article in the NY Times seriously annoying: What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage (registration required, try "randommentality" for the username and "password" for password). Relevant excerpts:
For a book I was writing about a school for exotic animal trainers, I started commuting from Maine to California, where I spent my days watching students do the seemingly impossible: teaching hyenas to pirouette on command, cougars to offer their paws for a nail clipping, and baboons to skateboard.

I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband.

The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. After all, you don't get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.

Back in Maine, I began thanking Scott if he threw one dirty shirt into the hamper. If he threw in two, I'd kiss him. Meanwhile, I would step over any soiled clothes on the floor without one sharp word, though I did sometimes kick them under the bed. But as he basked in my appreciation, the piles became smaller.

I was using what trainers call "approximations," rewarding the small steps toward learning a whole new behavior. You can't expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can't expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock. With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.

You're equating your husband with a baboon? Wow. May I point out that we use training techniques like successive approximation with animals because we lack the trans-species language skills to simply say "Could you jump through this hoop and sit, please?" In general, I'd say the "American Husband" as a species possesses sufficient verbal skills to understand that phrase, and the phrase "Could you pick up your dirty socks, please?" Instead, he's exercising his right to disagree with your opinion as to whether or not the socks need to be picked up immediately - an entirely different issue. Also implicit in the idea of training an animal is a social hierarchy, with the trainer exhibiting clear dominance over the animal to be trained. Nice concept for a marriage.

I understand that the stereotype of the clueless husband and strong wife is well-established in our current social construct, but I can't help but wonder why either gender puts up with it. Men, obviously, should feel insulted, but don't women have a vested interest in stopping gender-based stereotypes and discrimination as well, regardless of which gender is being disparaged? I mean, we trade "can you believe it" emails referencing hiring manuals of the '40's and '50's talking about how to treat female employees:
"6. Give the female employee a definite day-long schedule of duties so that they'll keep busy without bothering the management for instructions every few minutes. Numerous properties say that women make excellent workers when they have their jobs cut out for them, but that they lack initiative in finding work themselves.
We laugh and thank god that women's liberation has enlightened society to the point we no longer have to put up with that kind of crap. Yet we have no qualms about publishing articles in a similar vein regarding those cute little American Husbands who need to be conditioned into performing acts of basic hygeine because their male brains are incapable of absorbing the concept through a rational conversation? Hello?

How's this for a concept: Let's not tolerate gender stereotypes put forth as serious efforts to understand/control the opposite sex. On either side. Instead, find a way to hold rational, reasonable conversations.

I'm not saying censor the article, I don't believe in abridging free speech at all. I'm saying that when an article like that appears it would be nice if it were on the "most emailed" list because people were debating and taking issue with it, not because it's considered a helpful marital tip. (Side note: I also generally don't believe in banning politically incorrect jokes. But if we dish out the "stupid husband" jokes, we'd better be ready to accept the "stupid wife" jokes.)

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