Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On lube mishaps and gender roles

When I was 16, I swore I would never learn to cook.

It was a misguided feminist idea about traditional gender roles and cooking as “women’s work,” which meant I needed a husband who would dress in an apron and prepare Coq Au Vin while I sat on the sofa and scratched myself.

That’s not how life unfolded.

As it turns out, I love cooking. I’m damn good at it, and it allows me to eat whatever I want, whenever I want, prepared how I want it.

My 16-year-old self might have bristled at the division of labor in my household now, but my 35-year-old self is happy to forgo changing the oil and mowing the lawn in favor of ogling my husband while he does it (without a shirt, if I’m lucky).

There was a point early in our relationship when Pythagoras indulged my desire to master “men’s work” by teaching me to change the oil in the car. I was eager for the lesson, picturing myself as a badass with a lug wrench in my pocket and a pack of candy cigarettes rolled up in my shirtsleeve.

We purchased the necessary supplies and got down to business.

“See this cap here?” he asked as he crawled under the car. “This is your drain plug.”

I joined him reluctantly, wondering if this was a bizarre new form of foreplay.

“Ick!” I said as he unscrewed the plug and sent the dirty oil trickling into a pan.

As the oil drained, Pythagoras stood up and began explaining oil filters and viscosity. The lesson was mostly lost on me as I giggled over words like “lube” and “nut.”

Finally, he handed me a quart of motor oil. “Here. You do the honors.”

He showed me where to pour the oil, and stood back to watch me do it. I dumped it in, waited a moment, then peered under the car.

“How much do we need to pour through?” I asked.

“What?”

“How much oil do we pour though to clean things out before we put the plug back in?”

My question was met with a colorful string of curse words and an understanding that this was not the way an oil change should work. As Pythagoras scrambled to put the plug back in, I decided my fantasy role as a female grease monkey was not all I’d imagined.

I haven’t changed the oil since. Though I could probably do it if I had to, I’ve ceased caring about “men’s work” and “women’s work” the feminist implications therein.

I’ve been considering this as I write LET IT BREATHE, which features a heroine who is the Vineyard Manager at her family’s winery. Though I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some amazing women in this role over the course of my research, it’s a job traditionally held by men.

I’m curious if my heroine thinks about this as she’s out there with a lug wrench adjusting the sprayer on the vineyard’s tractor. Knowing Reese, I’d say gender roles don’t cross her mind very often. She does the job she needs to do without much thought given to whether a penis is a required tool for the task.

How about you? Are gender roles a factor in your story or your everyday life? Please share in the comments.

I’m going to stare helplessly at the sink drain until Pythagoras shows up to fish out the giant hairball plugging it.

23 comments :

Delia said...

Gender roles are only a factor if the characters (or people I know) make them factors. Though, that may just be me. I grew up with four brothers. I can do minor carpentry, I know what the circuit breaker does and why there is a ground wire, I can change tires and oil and spark plugs and I know why you need to gap the last, I can even shoot and clean a gun or bait your fishing hook for you.

In my house growing up, my father and mother both cooked and cleaned when necessary and it wasn't uncommon to find mom on a ladder with a hammer in her hand or dad changing a diaper (7 kids, lots of diapers). It was probably the examples with which I grew up that influenced me more than politics or idealism.

My characters tend to follow the same path. So, I think whether she ruminates about it at all depends mostly on your backstory.

Delia said...

To clarify: I know why there are ground wires in the outlets. And I know that first sentence is a grammatical mess. Sorry.

Sydnee said...

Okay, it took me way longer than necessary to realize what you did wrong with the oil change. Just goes to show that I'm not much of a sexy greasemonkey woman, either.

I exactly the same when I was younger - I wanted nothing to do with the color pink, dolls, makeup, or dresses because gender roles were stupid, and for some reason doing the opposite made you awesome. I think my head was in the right place... just poor execution. When I hit puberty and the wonder of boobs and periods greeted me, I was SO pissed.

I still don't wear dresses, but I've reached an uneasy truce with pink.

KAK said...

Once upon a time, I was determined to everything by myself. All those boxes next to iconic moments of feminine independence, I checked. When I was done, I realized it wasn't so much fun as I had thought it ought to be. What was more fun was ogling the men while they did their manly things.

Yep. Yep. I kinda like letting them do all the heavy lifting. ~fanning self while sipping sweet tea~

Dawn said...

Great post. I actually had this conversation with my Dad the other day because as we grew up, he taught my sister and I how to change the oil in our cars, change tires, etc. And before I met my now husband, I had no qualms about mowing the lawn or shoveling the snow from my corner lot sidewalk. But since I got married, my husband does all that - and more, and while at first I bristled, I admit I enjoy being taken care of a little. And, truly, he loves doing it.

As for my characters, I strive for independent women who could do all of the above but don't mind handing over the task to a man if that's how things work out.

Danica Avet said...

Hm, at one time, I too was convinced I would do my own dirty work. It started out with working on my bicycle (tightening screws and stuff) til I realized you can get slivers from wrenches. OW! So I stopped doing that, but if I need to, I can take care of the stuff traditionally called "man jobs". Now, I find some male in the family and point my finger.

My characters generally do everything themselves, but they're not above sitting back and letting "men be men" while they sit back and ogle.

KD Easley said...

Hi Tawna,
You've broached a subject that's close to my heart, because I have never had what would be considered a "woman's" job. I know how to change oil and tires, or rebuild an engine, I've worked on racecars and street cars. I can fix the plumbing or build a bookcase, or weld stuff together, but gender roles never crossed my mind when I was learning how to do those things. I just knew what I liked to do and that's what I learned.

I work as a carpenter now and the biggest part of my work is building scaffolding in nuclear power plants. I've been on jobs where the number of women could be counted on one hand. The gender issue comes up there sometimes. I still have to prove myself every time I start a new job, but once the guys know I know my stuff, they're happy to work with me.

I guess it's a good thing I've learned how to do all those things and am pretty good at taking care of myself 'cause I've been divorced for close to 20 years and didn't have any choice. If something was going to get done, I did it. My female lead characters pretty much follow my example. They love to cook and can do whatever they need to do, but to be honest...They and I wouldn't mind sipping some lemonade and watching some hunky guy push the lawnmower around for a while.

Elizabeth Ryann said...

I have to say, I can put together ikea furniture with the best of them, and have no problem whipping up Thanksgiving dinner, but...I'd be perfectly happy if someone else managed all of the chores. This includes both "women's work" and "men's work." They are lame. I'd rather read a book and eat bon bons.

Sharon Axline said...

As you know I love cooking. I never thought of it as woman's work but then again I'm from a southern family and my great Aunt Mae was the most fantastical cook in all the world. When we lived in California and would do the yearly Texas visit we couldn't WAIT to get to her place. I wish I liked cooking then because I would have loved to have worked with her in the kitchen.

As to other things - When I was a teenager my dad traveled a lot and it was just me and my mom so I got a tad handy with the hammer and such. Actually I wanted to do technical theater for a living - which included hauling up 40 pound lighting instruments up to a catwalk, building flats, etc.

When I started in programming it was thought of more as a man's job then a woman's. 20+ years later, I'm still at it.

Sharon Axline said...

As you know I love cooking. I never thought of it as woman's work but then again I'm from a southern family and my great Aunt Mae was the most fantastical cook in all the world. When we lived in California and would do the yearly Texas visit we couldn't WAIT to get to her place. I wish I liked cooking then because I would have loved to have worked with her in the kitchen.

As to other things - When I was a teenager my dad traveled a lot and it was just me and my mom so I got a tad handy with the hammer and such. Actually I wanted to do technical theater for a living - which included hauling up 40 pound lighting instruments up to a catwalk, building flats, etc.

When I started in programming it was thought of more as a man's job then a woman's. 20+ years later, I'm still at it.

Bookewyrme said...

I generally don't think much about gender roles unless something (an article, book, etc) brings them up. I'm not personally very mechanically inclined, but then neither is my husband. Both of us are perfectly capable of wielding a hammer or a wrench as necessary, but we're more likely to call in someone more knowledgeable. As for cooking, I like to do it, but I've also been helping my husband learn to cook so he can bring me delicious food when I'm writing sometimes. Which he cheerfully does (unless we're both having a lazy-off of course, in which case we argue over who has to get up and do it).

As far as my characters go, I honestly don't think it's ever occurred to me to consider whether I'm giving them gender-roles of one sort or another. They may sneak in unconsciously a bit, but I've never thought "No, this character can't do that, she's a girl." Nor have I thought "I must break this stereotype by having her/him do this!" Usually it's more like "Well, she wouldn't do that, she's too lazy, but this character would."

~Lia

Rhonda said...

I grew up in a household with five kids (4 girls, 1 boy) and a single mom. If something need to be changed, fixed or built, as the oldest, I was often the one who did it.

I pride myself on being able to do anything that I set my mind to from changing the oil to putting new plumbing in the shower (I've done both thankyouverymuch).

The hubs and I had a difficult time at first because I was so independent that it was hard for me to step back and allow him to do some of the "manly" work around the house. The very fact that he would try to take over a chore like that raked on my nerves because I took it as an insult - a statement that he didn't think I was capable of taking care of myself.

Now, ten years on, I've learned to step back and let him do the manly jobs. Not because I can't but because I've discovered that it is nice to have someone take care of things for me from time to time.

Karla Nellenbach said...

ahahah! I have to admit that I used to think the same way you did. I could do anything that I guy could...probably better, dammit. Cut to XX amount of years later, and although I know how to change oil, tires, perform a radiator flush, I am happy to just stand back and let the "man" do it. :)

PS...because you're so awesome, I gave you an award on my blog. **wipes brown off nose**

Linda G. said...

Hmm. I don't like to cook OR change the oil. And I generally don't have to. Maybe we better come up with a third gender for me: lazy. ;)

Seriously? I CAN do pretty much anything I set my mind to, from throwing a decent meal on the table (though I joke a lot about not being able to) to mowing the lawn (though I'd really rather not).

TG and I came to an understanding early on in our marriage: we each do what we enjoy doing, and divvy up the stuff neither of us enjoys. Works for us. *shrug*

Re my characters: well, they are who they are, whether they fit into anybody's idea of gender rolls or not.

Elizabeth Flora Ross said...

I grew up a feminist, too. With all kinds of ideas about how my life would turn out. Now I'm a stay at home mom. Whoa! How'd that happen?! LOL

Never had any aspirations of changing my own oil, however. I'm perfectly happy to let someone else handle that task.

Harley May said...

This was a great post. I suppose I'm strange and never thought ill of becoming the typical woman. My father worked while my mother stayed home. She would teach piano lessons from time to time, but was a stay at home mom. BUT (I love this but) my dad did all kinds of house work with my mom. They collectively labored together in everything.

My husband, I learned after we married, is most ardently against me doing any kind of manual labor. Not because he doesn't think I can do it, but he was raised that women just shouldn't do these things. If I took the trash out, tried to mow the lawn, wanted to paint a freaking wall, he objected. We've eventually figured out a compromise - I now paint walls and stay away from the lawn mower - but his chivalry isn't something to complain about. Right?

Kari Lynn Dell said...

You ARE spoiled. When the hairball in my shower drain has grown to the point that there's no more draining going on, my husband points to his head, then my head, then hands me a screwdriver and says, "Your hair, your problem."

Tawna Fenske said...

Delia, you can come do electrical work at my house anytime!

Sydnee, I was the same way about pink things and dresses! A total tomboy until I sprouted boobs.

KAK, we had a yard project last summer that required a lot of digging. I was working from home at the time, and I always had a lovely, clear view of my husband out there shoveling shirtless. Distracting, but enjoyable nonetheless!

Dawn, don't tell my husband I said this (hi, honey, if you're reading!) but I do think it's good for their male egos to do all that manly man stuff for us from time to time. Or all the time, whatever.

Danica, ouch! Slivers are the worst! But then if you get some hot guy to remove it for you...

KD, wow, you sound like a way cool person! Want to get together for a beer? When I was writing for Harlequin/Silhouette's Bombshell line, it was all about these kickass women in non-traditional roles. The first book I sold starred a heroine who was a hardcore ski patrol director/avalanche rescue expert, and I adored doing the research for that. The two books I'd written up as follow ups (which never made it to contract before the line was canceled) starred heroines who were a wildland firefighter and an Iditarod competitor. I miss them!

Elizabeth, someday when we are bestselling authors, we'll be able to sit back and eat bon bons all day long!

Sharon, want to come cook for me sometime?! Your dinners always sound delicious!

Bookwyrme, it's funny, I didn't think about the fact that I was giving my heroine in this book a job that tends to be male-dominated, but the more I get to know her, I realize it's not the sort of thing she'd think about, either.

Rhonda, great point! It's nice to have the ability to do all those things for yourself, but even nicer not to have to :)

Karla, award? Aww, how nice! I'll have to go check it out ASAP. Thanks!

Linda G, love this: "we each do what we enjoy doing, and divvy up the stuff neither of us enjoys." Pretty much how it works around here, too.

Elizabeth, funny how your expectations and desires change as you get older, isn't it?!

Harley May, my parents have always had the ultimate teamwork approach when it comes to everything around the house. They cook dinner together, stain the deck together, grope each other inappropriately when they think no one's looking (hi, mom!)

Kari Lynn, yeah, unfortunately, I wasn't kidding about the hairball. And since I know it's likely my hair that's clogging it, I suspect I'll be pulling some gunk out of the drain later tonight. Ah, the glamorous life of a romance author!

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Jan Markley said...

I have twin portags in my middle grade debut novel. They are girl detectives, who don't like science (because they have scientist parent) but use science to solve the mystery.

Jeffe Kennedy said...

I actually have a whole essay about this in my book, called Home Ec, about how ashamed I was to win the Home Ec award in school. Later I discovered those things that make me a good scientist also make me a good cook.

And division of labor? So long as it's divided, I don't care who gets which job now!

Sierra Godfrey said...

Wait, can we go back to what's important here...you said lube, heh heh!!!

Claire Dawn said...

I rebel against all traditional roles. (I live in Japan, can't you tell? )

As a kid, I was also that girl who REFUSED to be THAT girl. I wasn't cooking or wearing pink or skirts.

Now, I don't mind cooking (although wasjing up sux), and my computer, my cellphone, my camera, my pencil case are all pink. Still not a fan of skirts though.

I realised eventually by refusing to be defined by societal roles, you ARE being defined by them. If you only cuss because you're not supposed to, then society made you do it. If, on the other hand, you cuss because you have the soul of a drunken pirate, then that's just you :)

Tawna Fenske said...

Jan, that sounds like a really cool idea!

Jeffe, I'd love to read that essay! I wrote an editorial in college about one of those "how to be a good wife" excerpts that was floating around (something from a 50s textbook that everyone was snickering over at the time). I was pointing out that if it were gender neutral and we just said "how to be a good partner," we'd probably all applaud the sentiments.

Sierra, I can always count on you to point that out!

Claire Dawn, this is a most excellent point: "I realised eventually by refusing to be defined by societal roles, you ARE being defined by them." Amen!

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna