In my previous blog about John Piper’s so-called complementarianism, the key issue at stake was assumptions about sex and gender roles. Complementarians assume that human relationships are (or should be) shaped by a binary structure. According to Piper and Gruden (in their truly horrible Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), “masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.” Conversely, “femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.”
It seems to me obvious that human relationships resist binaries such as that proposed by Piper and fellow complementarians; people are just too diverse to be classified in simplistic ways. More to the point, a person’s sex has very little to do with whether he or she is gifted to lead, provide for, and protect – or affirm, receive, and nurture – and ideally every person should develop a character capable of each of these traits. Any assertion that one’s sex predetermines leadership or its complementary “disposition to affirm” (by which is meant submission) is inherently sexist. It’s just as bad as saying that a white person is gifted to “lead and protect,” and a black person to “affirm and receive.” It’s not good enough to pretend that men and women are equal in being but subordinate in function, when what we assume that a person can (or should) do is central to their being.
I’ve always resisted binary definitions of masculinity and femininity. Secular versions such as John Gray’s Men Are from Mars and Women from Venus are just as dumb as the Christian equivalent in books such as John Eldridge’s Wild at Heart, with their warrior/hunter/rescuing men and princess/passive/longing to be rescued women.
But my abstract reflections on gender have been made personal by the accident that left me a quadriplegic. This was brought home to me recently by an insightful question by my friend Lauren. We have shared the reading of a book by Tom Shakespeare, Sexual Politics of Disability: Untold Desires, which, among other things, reflects on the implications of disability for masculinity. In response, Lauren said:
That’s one thing I wondered about after reading Shakespeare. He goes through a process of recreating masculinity in the light of disability. Is this something you’ve considered too? You were always a rather different man anyway. What sort of man are you now? Do you have alternative gender practices? I find this statement quite hopeful:
“Men with disabilities who rejected or renounced masculinity did so as a process of deviance disavowal. They realised it was societal conceptions of masculinity, rather than themselves, that were problematic. In doing so, they were able to create alternative gender practices.”
It’s interesting to consider alternative masculinities. Have you done any thinking about this? There seems to be a dearth of thoughtful literature here, but I suppose your memoir touches on these themes.
My memoir does touch on these themes (there you are – another instance of blatant self-promotion), and indeed I’ve spent many hours mulling over the issue. I’d probably have to admit that for all my feminist rhetoric, prior to my accident I was a stereotypical male – self-confident, sports obsessed, a leader.
Disability, however, asked questions about my manhood. It’s not only the impact of the injury on sexual capacities, although, let’s be honest, masculinity is inevitably tied up with sexual potency. More substantially, it’s the extent to which disability displaced my strength with weakness, confidence with uncertainty, independence with dependency. Far from being a rescuer, I found myself (and still find myself) needing to be rescued, carried, supported, strengthened – all the things John Piper would think of as feminine; and of course it’s been mostly women who’ve done the rescuing, carrying, supporting, and strengthening.
Perhaps Piper would claim that the exception proves the point – that the cost of disability is masculinity. But I think that disability teaches us what is true of our universal humanity; that to be a human is to be vulnerable, fragile, dependent, and in need of rescue. To quote Shakespeare, it’s only when I renounce masculinity (at least as Piper, Eldridge, and Gray understand it) that I can face up to my humanity, and maybe then become the man that I was always meant to be; utterly unique and free from binary straitjackets.
And when I let go of the pretenses of masculinity, I can also dispense with shallow views of femininity, and see my wife and female friends for what they really are; at one and the same time vulnerable and fragile, and incomprehensibly powerful.