Gender as Power or a Fact of Life?

Seen in connection with the bland or negative emotional relationship with the same-sex parent, it may not be surprising that men and women in this generation have much to say about what kind of man/woman they do not want to be, whereas their positive alternatives are more vague or seem to develop only through the practices of their adult life. However, the energy to search for new ways of doing and defining gender can also be seen as fuelled by the energy of disidentification and cross-identification from their childhood and youth. The challenge they face is to redefine the meaning of their own gender through an identification with the other. The gender differentiation in their youth period may be seen as a temporary remedy, but they do not stay there and in their further life trajectories, women and men seem to handle the challenge of gender in different ways. Since the meaning of gender changed quite radically during their lives, especially among those who received more education than their parents, their reflections on gender in the interviews are tied more to a reflection on their adult lives. This, however, does not prevent a link also to feelings of gender stemming from their childhood and youth.

The women talk about gender differences solely with reference to differential treatment, inequality and power relations. Two formative experiences are relevant to many of them: the unequal treatment they experienced compared with their brothers and the lack of equality in their marriages, the latter of which led to the many divorces. Nearly all of the women who had brothers remember with resentment that their brothers had to do less housework, were the mother’s favourite and, in a few cases, were given better educational possibilities. Yet the differences they report are quite minor compared to what the previous generations experienced with much less resentment. In contrast to their mothers’ sibling rivalry, which was most often directed at their own ‘league’ of sisters, the women’s jealousy in this generation is directed towards their brothers. Boys and men have become someone they compare themselves to and any potential relevance of gender differences is banished. It is remarkable that so few of the men talk about sibling rivalry and, if they do, it is connected to competition between brothers. This may reflect their position in the gender hierarchy and their more self-evident right of being.

Many women in this generation describe themselves in gender-neutral or traditionally masculine terms: ‘quite strong, quite social, quite creative, to some extent ambitious", says Nina, a rural working-class girl born in 1944, who received higher education. These qualities are not seen as masculine, but rather as expressions of modern femininity, compared with their mother’s old-fashioned domestic femininity. This degendering of modern femininity also reflects the fact that ‘masculine’ skills were at this time increasingly valued in the course of education and work for those women who became middle class. In spite of the strong crossgender identification with their fathers, the women construct their identities almost exclusively along the lines of female generational difference, rather than as gender difference. For the women in this generation, the negative relationships with their mothers and positive identification with their fathers seem to block the view to the fathers’ part in the creation of the mothers as fussy housewives. Their mothers’ personal qualities are described as the negative opposite to what they see as positive in themselves: whereas their mothers were occupied with minor details, lived for others, were dependent and submissive, occupied with facade, perfectionist, manipulative, personally insecure, ignorant and old-fashioned, they see themselves as engaged in society at large, doing things on their own, independent and demanding equality, relaxed, open and honest, standing up for themselves, enlightened and modern. This is clearly a construction of the 1950s housewife from the perspective of the Women’s Movement and the modern gender equality norms that came with the 1970s. It is based on an exaggeration of their mothers’ identities and practices as housewives, and also seems to feed on their feelings of gender from their childhood.

The negative evaluation of traditional femininity is also seen, especially among the middle-class women, when they talk about girlishness or sexu- alised femininity. Some of them say that they have never felt comfortable with too much intimate talk or preoccupation with appearances; others remember girls from their childhood who excluded other girls who did not conform to a stereotypical girls’ culture. They renounce their own youthful selves as submissive, ignorant and traditional. It was only later and under the influence of education, divorce or the general atmosphere of the Women’s Movement that they ‘woke up, they say. In this way, the contrast between the old-fashioned and the modern femininity is also a narrative about personal development and increasing enlightenment: the emphasis is on how they fought their way out of a restricted gender role by themselves and became the self-determined persons they are today. Nina describes it in this way:

I don’t think I became free until I reached thirty. And then I divorced, and yes, felt like I really made a choice for the first time, that I chose something myself, for real... So in my thirties I felt completely superior in a way ... economically independent despite having two small children. And I did my job well, I thought I was a good teacher ... a very good period and I was very strong ... I felt very much like I was running my own existence. (Nina, b. 1943)

The men’s developmental narratives are almost the opposite. Whereas the women see themselves as having gone from a problematic femininity as young girls to a mature individuality, the men in the same period describe a route from a self-evident masculinity in their youth to an adult masculinity that is more often experienced as ‘in crisis’. The issue of gender raises more difficult questions for the men than for the women, as the men tend to define gender more in terms of difference than in terms of generation. Most of them, regardless of class, want to become a different kind of man than their distant and ‘bad psychologist’ fathers, but instead of neutralising traditional gender traits as the women do, they ponder to what degree this wanted generational difference might make them ‘feminine’. Kjell says:

I probably have ... yes, I have always had an affinity for softer values, well, a little. I guess Im what I consider a feminine man without being feminine. But I guess I have some, and then I mean positive traits that entail daring to show feelings and daring to cuddle with animals and children. Men often feel insecure about things like that. I guess I am more secure there. And today I must say that the ideal man, that’s got to be me. (Kjell, b. 1946)

A way to secure the gender border is to underline sexual difference and attraction, which most of the men do regardless of their stance on gender issues. They may be critical of the macho behaviour of their youth, but not of their belief in gender differences. As a result of this dilemma between gender and individuality, we find an often quite paradoxical mix of claims of gender equality and claims of gender difference in the stories of almost every male interviewee of this generation, a combination that is much less present among the women.

In different ways the men work to redefine or extend or adjust their masculinity without losing it. For some of them, like Kjell, this project involves a strong critique of traditional masculinity and a concomitant embracement of behaviour that connotes femininity, like emotional openness and adopting ‘soft values’. Kjell’s account of traditional masculinity bears traces of feminist critiques from the 1970s and 1980s:

What do you think they [men] talk about when they’re out? Work and money. Status and money. Women can talk about children, they can talk about a lot of things. They can talk about economics and status too. And they talk about environmental issues. While men care about money and status. How much do you make in your current job? What are you working on right now? They can talk about football. And cars. If you start talking about children, what do men do? They glance at their watches and say that they probably have to go soon. They become insecure right away. (Kjell, b. 1946)

The psychological discourse also finds its way into these men’s selfdescriptions. They talk about situations where they have felt secure or insecure, or about feelings of ‘alienation , ‘inner rage’ or ‘the importance of being yourself. They describe themselves as a different kind of man than their fathers, with a more developed inner life, softer values and emotional capacities. But having already gendered these capacities (or the absence of them) so strongly, they face the problem of indirectly feminising themselves. This is a brand-new generational pattern—even if it does not apply to the majority of the men in this generation. Some have more classical critical remarks against what they see as the unsympathetic aspects of women’s behaviour, especially gossiping, talking behind people’s backs and exposing private details about their husbands to others, and they tend to believe that this constitutes expressions of innate or natural gender differences. Geir, for instance, the working-class man who talked about his stay-at-home mother with humour and loving respect, simply cannot stand ‘ladies’ talk’ and feels completely suffocated by it:

I don’t think they talk about anything. No matter what they talk about, it doesn’t interest me. If they talked about football, I wouldn’t bother to listen to them. I can’t explain it. Like up in the cafeteria here, maybe the ones I work with in particular. If there’s a table of women and I sat down, I wouldn’t have been able to get my food down. No, I cant explain it. But for me it’s completely out there ... My cousin’s husband, he’s a woman, because he likes to sit in the kitchen and babble with women. So he isn’t quite right in the head in my opinion. There’s something wrong with him, in my opinion. The two of us have nothing to talk about. (Geir, b. 1948)

But even among the men with more traditional views of gender, we find expressions of the necessity for men to learn to be more open and talk about their feelings or ‘handle strong emotions’. Formative experiences later in their lives have made this clear. One is the experience of divorce, which made quite a few of them more aware of their own emotional vulnerability. Another is being aware that communicative skills, emotional openness and being ‘a bit of a psychologist’ have also become important as work qualifications (see Illouz 2007; Aarseth 2009b). Ragnar, an upper middle-class man born in 1936, and thus one of the older men in this generation, took a course in Personal Development in connection with work and has decided to send his two teenage sons to this course too, in order to help developing their self-esteem and positive attitudes.

A different way of extending masculinity is found among some of the other older men in this generation, who had children at a late age and whose focus is less on psychological self-development than on the wish to become a different kind of father and combine this with a responsible masculinity. Trygve, middle class and born in 1919, is a case in point. As a young man he lived a very adventurous life as a sailor, hunter, mountaineer and participant in the resistance movement during the war. Even though he connects his choice of being a present father to how old he was when he had children, it doesn’t even occur to him that the tough ‘masculine’ values of his youthful activities should be incompatible with being a warm and caring father. But even in the stories of Trygve and the other men who chose to become more present fathers than was usual in their generation, gender differences frequently appear, not so much with reference to body and appearances, but in different orientations and psychological capabilities. Helge, who shared both housework and childcare in his marriage, says that there are, after all, also innate gender differences. He refers to his own children’s toy preferences and says that there are differences ‘even if the mother and the myths say otherwise'.

In different forms, new versions of masculinity and old gender dichotomies live side by side in the men of this generation, whether they want to reform their own role radically or not. But their adherence to gender difference does to a very limited degree lead them to support their fathers’ gender complimentary model. Gender difference is no longer seen as a moral order, but rather as a fact of life, most often connected to body and sexuality, but sometimes also to psychology and behaviour. This is not well adjusted to the women’s ideas of gender as mainly a dimension of social convention, power and inequality, and their striving to become more like their fathers. Thus, this generation also enters their marriages with latent gender tensions on board, but it is a different sort of tension than in the previous generation.

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