Elaine Dalton’s recent comments about the meaning of pink in a recent edition of the Church News (currently being discussed on BCC), express a concern that girls will want to be like boys. “We want them to understand that they are soft, they are unique, they are feminine and that they don’t have to be like the boys,” says President Dalton. This is hardly a sentiment unique to her; one can find a number of General Conference talks which warn against the temptation for women to set aside their femininity and be like men. Femininity, it seems, is under siege.
But I would like to pose this question: generally speaking, which sex exhibits more of a need to “prove” and defend their gender identification? Which sex expresses more anxiety about engaging in behavior which is culturally coded as being of the opposite sex? We live in a culture in which androgyny is much more acceptable for girls than for boys; girls can engage in traditionally “masculine” activities with less social censure than boys who engage in “feminine” ones. And as women move more and more into spheres which have traditionally been considered male, or act in ways traditionally seen as masculine, I would argue that it is not femininity, but rather masculinity, which is threatened. Men are left with fewer ways of asserting their uniquely male identity. If the girls start to act like boys, in other words, what will be left for the boys? I suspect that at least to some extent, this fuels the continuation of a male-only priesthood–evidenced by the commonly expressed concern that if women were ordained, there would be nothing left for the men to do.
It is also striking that when the importance of maintaining gender boundaries is asserted, it is almost always aimed at women. It is evidently a female responsibility to maintain appropriate gender roles; rarely do we hear conference talks warning men to resist the temptation to act like women and thereby lose their masculinity. This is not to say that men are not frequently exhorted to embrace a particular version of masculinity, one involving commitment and responsibility. However, it is notable that this is not discussed within the framework of the need to maintain gender differences. Men are warned not against the temptation of aspiring to be like women, but rather of living out a worldly version of what it means to be a man, rather than a gospel-oriented one. Women are given parallel advice, in terms of the contrast between the church and the world, but one of the dangers of the latter is that it entices women to be like men.
As a result of this framework, girls are asked to circumscribe their activities and personality traits in order to maintain clear gender boundaries–boundaries which, I would argue, are more important for maintaining masculinity than femininity. But do we have other options? Is it possible to promote a vision of masculinity which does not need to impose limits on women in order to maintain itself? To be fair, I think the church actually describes an ideal of masculinity which embraces a number of traditionally female virtues. But when I hear the concern that femininity is being somehow undermined by behavior which is not, so to speak, pink, I think it would be worthwhile to consider whether it is in fact femininity that is being threatened by expanded roles for women.