Who Wears the Pants?

Recently, in fairly rapid succession, I experienced or read about three gender-role situations that share a similar theme.

Situation One: The first happened when I got a really bad cold 2 weeks ago. I woke up on a Friday morning feeling terrible, and I e-mailed this to my staff: “Hey guys, I got hit with a cold pretty hard yesterday, and it continues to tell me who wears the pants in this relationship. So I’m out today.”

A coworker replied almost immediately (half jokingly, but mostly serious) that he was disappointed that I had chosen to address our mixed-gender staff as “guys” and that I used the phrase “wears the pants” since it perpetuates the idea that in a male/female household, the person who traditionally wears pants (the man) is the one in charge.

My first reaction was, “Really?” I was trying to be funny–they’re just words, right? But then I realized that they’re not just words. Words have a huge amount of power. And I could definitely choose mine more carefully.

Situation Two: The second is word-related as well. I was playing a game with a few friends just a few days ago, and after a poor play by one of the men, one of the other men at the table said, “You play like a girl!”

“You play like a girl.” Again, just words, right? I don’t think so. I’m sure his intention wasn’t to say that girls are inherently worse at games than guys, but that’s what the words say. Just like the similar “you throw like a girl,” “cry like a little girl,” and the aforementioned “who wears the pants,” I wonder if it’s time to retired this phrase.

Situation Three: A friend sent me this article about how the ACLU is disavowing father-daughter dances. The author of the article is outraged. Although my reaction wasn’t as visceral, as I started reading the article, I was rolling my eyes a bit at what the ACLU was doing. Again, they’re just words, right?

Here was the turning point in the article for me:

“In the 21st century, public schools have no business fostering the notion that girls prefer to go to formal dances while boys prefer baseball games,” the ACLU said in a statement released this week. “This type of gender stereotyping only perpetuates outdated notions of ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ activities and is contrary to federal law.”

I actually think they have a pretty good point. Sure, the intent of the father-daughter dance isn’t to persist gender stereotype, but in it’s essence, that’s exactly what it’s doing.

Plus, it seems like such a simple solution to change father-daughter dances to parent-child dances. Is that really such a terrible thing, to say that one or both parents could go with their child to a dance, independent of gender?

What do you think? Are there other gender-related phrases that inherently put down women? Isn’t it time to remove such phrases from our lexicon?

6 thoughts on “Who Wears the Pants?”

  1. Yes there are. However, I am of the feeling that repeating this is just as bad but your topic is uncanny.

    This isn’t a lexicon so much as an incident; as I feel strongly that it’s a matter also of intent and we can’t let every situation make us feel guilty in advance. That’s like vaccinating for everything and then getting hit by a bus.

    We just have to be cognizant of those things.

    A female coworker of mine said something very obnoxious and shocking. She tried to give a backhanded compliment to someone who under my supervision is a great canvasser.

    The first coworker said that the second one’s outfit was very pretty; but she meant it in the context that it helped her on the job.

    Definitely not innocuous as I myself felt offended. Your outfit doesn’t determine ability. And to have a female say this to a female with a drip of envy to boot, well, let’s say I didn’t hold back my opinion.

    And I agree with Ansley, although I had to admit, that I wasn’t familiar with Roll Tide. I don’t follow college sports unless it’s PAC 12. So, I will use a similar quote, “…fight the fights that need fighting.” Martin Sheen in the American President

  2. Another phrase that comes to mind is “don’t get your panties in a bunch,” which is something I actually hear pretty frequently, but have never stopped to examine that statement can be translated as “don’t act like a woman (because the word panties is primarily just used to reference women’s underwear ) and be upset about the situation.”

    I agree with you to a certain extent about modifying the “father-daughter” dance to a more universal “parent-child,” but can it be taken too far in making things gender neutral? I’m supportive of the idea of making certain things more gender neutral and removing negative statements/ideas that put down either gender from our lexicon, but at the same time think girls should still be taught to behave like a lady, and boys like gentlemen– even if the definitions of such terms are a little vague and open to interpretation.

  3. As a woman dedicated to women’s rights in all areas, I found that article to be completely absurd. Rather than focusing on the supposed symbolic representation of a “Father/Daughter Dance,” perhaps the ACLU should focus on changing the nomenclature to ensure that children feel welcome with any guardian in their lives. It appears the issue arose when a single mother complained that her daughter had no one to attend the dance with. This hardly sounds like a human rights issue, but instead, a child who felt left out because of individual circumstances. In that situation, I feel it is the parent’s duty to solve that dilemma–attend the dance with her daughter, or invite an uncle, grandfather, older brother or cousin so the child could participate. I highly doubt the school would frown upon the mother or another male family member attending in this situation. The article clearly suggests that the ACLU’s involvement in this situation was brought on not because of gender stereotypes but because of family structure in today’s society. I find it insulting that this would turn into a gender issue when clearly, it didn’t begin that way.

    Additionally, I feel that as a woman, it is more socially acceptable to leave traditional gender roles at the door–focus on a career or make the decision to not have children–than it is for men to shrug off theirs. While I’ve heard people (usually sixth grade elementary school students) say “Don’t play like a girl,” I’ve heard “Men don’t cry,” “Be a man,” and “Toughen up” much more often. Little boys are just as often, if not moreso, victims of gender bias, as dads at Little League games insist that men don’t cry when they get hit with a baseball in the hand.

    If we’re going to agree that traditional gender roles should be left at the door, I hardly think a childhood dance is the place to start. Maybe we should begin with equal pay for women (which still doesn’t exist in the corporate world), reproductive rights for women, and embracing stay-at-home dads, who are still considered an anomaly. Taking away a father/daughter dance seems like a waste of time and resources the ACLU could put into much more vital issues, if you ask me.

  4. Maybe this is weird, but I’m not offended by those phrases. Is that weird? I mean, “who wears the pants” is a phrase that comes from the time when men–and ONLY men–wore pants. Right? And men were/are traditionally the “head” of a household, if they are present. So to me, it’s just a historical thing, like “charging an arm and a leg” or “pulling the wool over my eyes.”

    Then again, it’s really, really hard to make me upset with this kind of thing. So maybe I’m just not getting my panties in a wad as much as I should. 🙂

  5. Thank you all for your thoughts on this. Amanda, I think you have some particularly good points that there are better things for the ACLU to focus on, but I don’t think that necessarily negates the value of the father-daughter dance decision. An analogy would be that if I were given the opportunity to help an elderly person carry something heavy up to his/her apartment, I shouldn’t turn down that opportunity simply because I’m not doing something much bigger to help the world.

    I also appreciate that you thought of some phrases that stereotype boys as well. I tried to think of some while I was writing this article, but I couldn’t think of any. “Be a man” is a perfect example.

    Anne, do you feel like your husband is the head of your household? Or are you two equals in your house?


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