men, masculinities and gender politics

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Keeping the “hard” in hardware. Thoughts on the every-day sexism of home repair.

It seems to me that few business establishments remain as traditionally gendered as the hardware store. (The auto garage is another testosterone-infused place.) And while I truly love doing home renovation projects, walking into a hardware store often makes me feel like I have stepped back a few decades in time. In most hardware stores, the men are still considered to be the sole source of expertise, and any female staff (to the extent they even exist) are at the cash register – or maybe doing the books. Just walking through those doors returns me to a time for which I am not nostalgic at all.

Where every question is a stupid question. But even though the male staff are considered to be experts, a lot of us male customers will still not ask for directions when we need help. This fact has led some to ask: What would have happened if the “Three Wise Men” in the Christmas story had been women? Three Wise Women would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts! But in all seriousness, a lot of us guys do indeed refuse to ask for guidance even when we are lost.

If I am honest with myself, I must admit that I am not immune to some of the ridiculously restrictive dictates of the male gender role. But I actually have no problem at all with asking for directions. I simply see no reason not to ask someone else how to do something that I do not know how to do. Because if I need information, I simply need information. End of story.

Or perhaps not so fast. Here on planet patriarchy things are rarely that simple. Unfortunately, my not having a problem with asking for directions does not mean that all other men will suddenly be okay with me asking them for help! In fact, sometimes when I ask another man for advice or for directions, what I get back from him is a loud scoff and/or a demeaning eye roll – contemptuous nonverbals intended to send the message that in admitting to my own ignorance I have now surrendered my status as a “real man,” and I should now feel terribly embarrassed by my failure to maintain the myth of masculine omniscience!

I have committed the grave sin of admitting that we men do not know absolutely everything about absolutely everything.

And when one of these brilliant male gurus of hardware finally does deign to bequeath unto me his precious information from up on high, it is often done in a totally patronizing tone that says: “You mean that you don’t know how to do this simple little thing? Really? What a dumbass you are!”

In this man’s eyes I have just emasculated myself by asking for directions. And in my experience this perceived self-castration is punished nowhere more severely than in the hardware store, where every question is a stupid question.

Is corporate better? As much as I think it is generally a better choice to shop in locally-owned, small, independent businesses, I do have to say that when I shop at one of the big home improvement warehouse chains, I never experience anything remotely like this hyper-masculine contempt for my not knowing something. Increasingly these big box stores are focusing on customer service. And they have a lot more female employees. But even the men at those places are far more respectful than what I typically encounter in the smaller, independent hardware stores.

And that’s a real shame.

But if Pete at “Pete’s Hardware” on Main Street is going to treat me with contempt when I ask him how to use a keyless chuck or how to sharpen my chainsaw, then I will gladly take my future business to the big box store out on the edge of town. Because I don’t need Pete humiliating me for simply having asked him a question!

The gender of hardware: It’s all in where you stick it. But regardless of whether I shop at “Pete’s” or at one of the big chains, the experience of the hardware store remains intensely gendered in other ways as well. The world of home repair is stuck using the antiquated patriarchal, heterosexist terms of the trade. Especially when it comes to pipes and plugs. Here is how it works: the end of the pipe that you stick into a slightly larger pipe is called the “male” end, and the receiving orifice is called the “female” part. The same thing is true when you insert a plug into a slot. The end with the prong(s) on it is the “male” end, and one with the hole(s) is “female.” In hardware world, you simply insert something “male” into something “female.”

You are committing industrial intercourse.

The terminology just feels kind of gross. And kind of stupid. And kind of immature. And it is hugely heterosexist. In this way of speaking, two males cannot join together, nor can two females. Pairs of same-gendered components are useless, and cannot be used to create anything. Males need females to be complete, and females need males to be functional.

And that is false on so many levels.

Who is responsible for these inanities? I could see some people accusing me of taking this issue of word usage too seriously. But words are powerful. And the true absurdity of this language was perhaps best captured by my friend Jenn Richard, who shared a picture she took of something called a “Gender Changer Kit.” A “Gender Changer Kit” allows you to change the ends of your computer cords from “male” to “female” or vice versa. No doubt this is a useful product, but its very name suggests the utter absurdity of the language we use to communicate about these things. Changing a plug means changing gender? I don’t think so.

Unfortunately, our society’s use of overly-sexualized, patriarchal, and heterosexist nomenclature for inanimate pieces of hardware may be with us for quite a while. But I also happen to believe that if it had been women who had initially developed the language that we use for these things, they never would have chosen the terms “male” and “female” to describe objects whose only distinguishing feature is that they have a prong or a slot.

After all, most women clearly understand that your being “female” is not determined by whether or not someone is trying to stick something into you.

And, for our part, we men would do well to learn that our masculine identity is so much more than just having a prong!