[Original publication date: Jan. 2, 2014]
Q: My boyfriend and I just moved in together, and although we agreed on splitting the chores, I’m doing most of the cleaning. My boyfriend says it’s because men just don’t see dirt and messes like women do.
A: Oh, sweetie, your boyfriend’s full of shit.
Let me tell you a fun fact about me: without glasses or contacts, my vision is estimated to be about 20/900 (it’s a very rough estimate because eye charts don’t measure that high). So I know something about not being able to see stuff. And even with my old glasses from two prescriptions ago, in dim light, and when I’m dead tired, I can still see a mess. Your boyfriend can see the mess. He just doesn’t think it’s his job to do anything about it.
Let’s examine that a bit. “Men don’t see dirt the way women do.” That’s a pretty common assertion. And it’s bullshit. Vision problems aside, we’re all seeing the same dirty house; we’re just interpreting it differently. You and your boyfriend both walk in, see the pile of crap on the kitchen counter, and have different reactions to it. You likely think, “Man, that pile of crap is really bugging me. I should really clean it up a little.” He likely sees it and thinks, “Huh. Pile of crap. It’ll get taken care of.”
Why does he think that? Well, because we’re dealing with endless generations of social gender constructs that tell us that taking care of the home is “women’s work.” Whether you or your boyfriend or your parents or your peer group believe these constructs is largely irrelevant, though, because it’s so deeply ingrained in our society that it permeates every level of culture; you see it in TV shows, movies, commercials, in the workplace, in literature, and in almost every facet of life. There’s no escaping it.
So when someone says, “Men don’t see dirt the way women do,” what they’re actually saying is, “Men have been conditioned over generations to process the dirt that they see in a way that requires no further action on their part.” It’s not genetic. It’s learned. And it can be unlearned.
For example, it cracks me up when someone says that men aren’t as good at doing laundry as women are. If you’re relying on traditional gender norms here to explain that away, you’re failing. Because I bet that your gender norms are telling you that men are more mechanically-minded, men have better spatial relation skills, and that men understand science better. Now, we all know that those things are total bullshit, they’ve been proven to be total bullshit, but if you’re a person who believes in those things, think about it for a minute. Laundry involves machines with buttons and dials, it involves figuring out the sweet spot of what and how much to put in those machines, and it involves the science of water temperature, soap, additives, and heat. You can’t have it both ways. Either you believe in those gender norms and you realize that all those things said norms are telling you men are good at should make them really fucking excellent at doing laundry, or you acknowledge that gender norms are a social construct and that anyone can learn how to do laundry properly.
Part of the issue with the norms surrounding men and cleaning seems to be this whole category of stereotypes about women being better at housework, men screwing things up so that it’s just easier for the women to do it, and men leaving messes until women get fed up and just do it themselves. These are all learned behaviors. And by buying into them, you’re saying that men can’t learn, or that it’s women’s responsibility to teach them. You know how I learned how to snake a drain? Google. The Internet opens up this wide, wonderful world of instructions and tutorials, and really, “I don’t know how” ceased being an excuse for not doing housework right around when the old World Wide Web was in its infancy.
So, long story short? Your boyfriend sees the mess. He just doesn’t think it’s his problem. How do you fix that? You sit down and talk about it. You explain that you’re not buying into this whole “I don’t see the mess” thing. You make schedules if you have to. You stop being the only one to clean up things that you’ve agreed are either his or a shared responsibility. And you both work on not buying into the gender norms that are trying to tell you that household roles are genetically programmed.
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