If you had to buy clothes for a little boy under the age of seven a century ago, a pretty pink dress would have been a socially acceptable option. According to an article in the June, 1918 issue of Earnshaw’s Infant’s Department, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” By the end of World War I, the trend of putting dresses on young children of both sexes had waned, but it was not until the 1940s that blue became associated with boys and pink with girls.
There is quite a lot about the way we understand what it means to be a man or a woman that is generated by cultural trends, even when it comes to things we feel very strongly. The result of this has been, at times, the unfair punishment of one sex or the other for non-conformity, experienced most strongly by women.
As our culture has awakened to this reality, it has in some ways over-corrected. Since the 1960s, some feminists have argued that there are no real and essential differences between men and women, other than a bit of plumbing. It is not hard to draw the line between that reasoning and today’s acceptance of the idea of gender as a social construct, the breakdown of the family, the absence of fathers, etc. But none of that eclipses the fact that there are aspects of our lived experience as men and women, some of which are very dear to us and feel completely inherent, that are nevertheless social constructs. Blue may feel more masculine to us and pink may feel more feminine, but a century ago we would have felt exactly the opposite was true.
This all ran through my head as I read Alastair J. Roberts’ recent piece for The Gospel Coalition, “How Should We Think About Watching Women Fight?” (originally titled “Why Christians Should Refuse to Celebrate Women Fighting”). Roberts argues strongly that Christians ought to be opposed to women fighting in mixed martial arts because it “cuts against the grain of the ends for which they were created.” Along the way, Roberts makes good points about the sexualization of women fighters and the way in which such sexualized violence feeds into the pornographic mindset of the mostly male viewership of the UFC. Yet his ultimate point seems to be that women should not fight because that just is not something that women do. He relies for this assessment on the generally greater upper body strength of men and a vaguely described notion of men having a “greater propensity toward, aptitude for, and interest in both violence and agonism [=struggle].”
In addition to women who fight in the UFC, Roberts is also critical of the trope of the “strong female character” – the waifish woman in television and films who kicks the butts of men twice her size (think River from Firefly or Black Widow in the recent Avengers films). “Such women exemplify the virtues of much contemporary feminism and gender theory,” he says, “which commonly seek to deny the reality of sexual difference, overturn all gender norms, and disproportionately celebrate women who achieve in traditionally male activities or contexts.”
Roberts is right that there is a problem in contemporary western culture that has emerged from the loss of an essentialist view of sexual difference. He is also right that women are largely on the losing end of that stick. For all of the claims that women fighting in the UFC or scantily clad women fighting in popular fiction empowers women, the sad truth is that such things give cover to the idea that the only way women can have value in our society is if they do what men do, or make themselves sexually available to men, or both. As Roberts puts it, this is an “idealization of women who most conform to male norms of behavior, interests, and aptitudes, an idealization that can make unlikely allies of contemporary feminists and male fantasists.”
Unfortunately, Roberts seems content to name “male behavior” and “female behavior” as the correctives for this problem, as if such things are easily and universally identifiable. It may be true that men tend to be more aggressive than women – I have no immediate data to back that up, but it sounds anecdotally true – but if it is true, what does that mean? Are men supposed to be aggressive? Are women not? Why? Who says? If we find a woman who is able to kick a man’s butt, does that disprove the theory?
These questions are compounded in Roberts’ article by his lack of reference to Christian sources of authority. Roberts only quotes Scripture once, making a passing allusion in his final paragraph to Genesis 2 which he does not flesh out. He quotes from no fathers, no theologians, and no councils. In short, he is attempting to make a Christian argument that does not actually have any Christianity in it.
Compare and contrast this approach with the document Inter Insignores, a 1976 declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which was endorsed by Pope Paul VI and heavily cited by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinato Sacerdotalis. Inter Insignores deals with the question of whether or not women can be ordained priests, not whether or not they should be knocking each other’s brains out in the UFC, but the fundamental question behind the question is the same: What can the Church say definitively about the essential differences between men and women?
Both Inter Signores and Ordinato Sacerdotalis are careful to be economic in their pronouncements. They say that the primary reason why the Church cannot ordain women is because Christ simply did not leave His Church authority to do so. Nonetheless, Inter Signores expounds deeply upon the theology of the priest as someone who stands in the place of Christ. This is a sacramental reality that requires a physical sign in the priest’s own body:
The incarnation of the Word took place according to the male sex: this is indeed a question of fact, and this fact, while not implying any alleged natural superiority of man over woman, cannot be disassociated from the economy of salvation: it is indeed in harmony with the entirety of God’s plan as God himself has revealed it, and of which the mystery of the Covenant is the nucleus.
The CDF goes on to cite a vast array of Scripture passages—Galatians 4, Ephesians 5, Revelation 19, and especially Matthew 22:1-14, among others—to make the case that salvation is wrapped up in the “nuptial mystery” of the joining of Christ (male) with His Church (female). “It is through this Sciptural language, all interwoven with symbols, and which expresses and affects man and woman in their profound identity, that there is revealed to us the mystery of God and Christ, a mystery which of itself is unfathomable.” The document does not try to pull apart the mystery and examine each individual component, but instead accepts it as a whole, a tapestry of interconnected realities of maleness and femaleness, including essential differences that go beyond mere plumbing but that are nevertheless hard to pin down in a scientific way.
Whether one accepts the central argument of Inter Signores or not, it is clear that there are ways for traditional Christians to talk about gender essentialism that do not require us to hitch our wagons to unprovable, anecdotal evidence. When we start with Scripture and the historic teaching of the Church—instead of with novel American cultural norms and intuition—we come to a much clearer and less cluttered critique of our culture’s approach to sexual difference.
Women and men are different on many different levels, none of which invalidates our equal dignity before God. Given how our culture has historically curtailed the freedoms and diminished the contributions of women, we do well as Christians to examine carefully our basic understandings of gender and to distinguish as best as possible between that which is truly inherent and that which is merely culturally received. Yet even as we do so, we must remember the finely woven tapestry. It is not easy to pull one thread out without seeing the others fly loose. That is the tragedy we now live in, wherein a real and true and good critique of sexism has resulted in a total breakdown in our society’s ability to value the objective differences between women and men.