The distinction between the roles of men and women in America is a modern societal dichotomy. What were once the black and white duties of the 1950’s had paled into various shades of grey by the 21st century. The Ozzie and Harriet roles of the 1950’s and early 1960’s were challenged, redefined and sometimes ignored through the decades that followed. Women were demanding and being granted the opportunity to advance professional careers, explore alternative lifestyles, or forego the classic marriage family and be a single parent.
In other cases the parenting roles were completely reversed as pointed out by Glenn Sacks in his essay Stay-at-Home Dads (277). During the 1950’s, traditional American society expected women to marry young, have children and support their husband’s career. There was a sort of stigma associated with the 30 year old spinster addressed with the title Miss. This position was reinforced with the social media of the time. Books like Dr. Spock’s, Babies and Child Care argued that women working outside the home actually risked their children’s mental and emotional health!
The primary social media of the time, television and movies, also promoted the division of roles with actresses like Doris Day, Harriet Nelson and Barbara Billingsley playing the supportive wife and caring mother; while the likes of Ozzie Nelson, Hugh Beaumont and Cary Grant were the successful dominating male with the last word in all subjects.
Men were expected to be a successful all knowing and authoritative figure, working the classic nine to five job.
Those who did not fit this mold were considered by society as unmanly, lazy, failures, or just plain no-good. The only acceptable exception to this model of the male persona was the dashing consummate bachelor portrayed by actors such as John Wayne, William Shatner, and Sean Connery. Women had no such exception. The unmarried female of the time was usually portrayed as Gidget (Sandra Dee), Jeannie (Barbara Eden), Sister Bertrille (Sally Fields) or That Girl’s Anne Marie (Marlo Thomas).
Over the course of the next few decades women made dramatic strides towards social equality. Bras were burned, the pill brought on sexual freedom and the no-fault clause in divorce helped free women from the repressive shackles placed on them by the male dominated societal norm. Slowly and somewhat grudgingly, society responded to the female pressures by accepting more and more crossover roles by both women and men. The social differences between he roles of men and women began to blur as less value was placed on the traditional and both sexes began to appear in the workplace in what had previously been opposite gender roles. Areas like engineering, construction and manufacturing saw a permanent influx of women; jobs held temporarily by females during the war years of 1941 to 1945. Concurrently, men began to gravitate towards roles as nurses, teachers, and homemakers.
In spite of all the work towards equality and sameism (a word I coined to describe the merging of the gender roles) men are still primarily locked into the role of provider and modern women are painted into a corner; expected to do all the female things and most of the male things while still being athletic, sexy, willing, attractive and smart. According to author Steven Hinshaw, “Our teenage girls are baffled, distressed, and overwhelmed (by) a set of impossible, contradictory expectations” (301), a situation he terms as a triple bind.
Conversely young men are now expected to be seen as strong, brave, successful, sensitive, insightful, supportive and totally accepting of the woman’s new role while still knowing when to open doors and pay for the movie tickets. As we now enter the second decade of the 21st Century, there is no shortage of women doing men’s jobs or vice-versa. The blending of traditional male-female roles has become the norm and the old-style well defined roles of breadwinner and housewife are all but extinct.
There is however, a growing trend of the liberated woman moving back into the traditional role of homemaker as they age and decide that they have missed something and now wish to express their maternal feelings. Thus, although modern society fosters the acceptance of more gender neutral roles through education, training and non-discrimination laws it also emphasizes the traditional roles as the desired outcome. So we find ourselves faced with the blurry gray dichotomy of how to meet the politically correct demands of society and still meet the individual needs of the members of that society.