"The Week the Women Went" Explores Gender Roles: Can You Live Without Them?
The men of Yemassee, S.C. find out for the rest of us
Lifetime Television has managed to establish itself as a leader in creating programming that caters to women, but with its new five part series, "The Week the Women Went," the channel aims to move beyond the preferences of its female viewers and explore the mindset--and domestic survival skills--of men when faced with the challenge of reversed gender roles.
For one week last year, every woman over the age of 18 from the tiny town of Yemassee, S.C. (population: 1,027 as of 2010) was sent on—as we soon learn—a much needed retreat to a Florida resort, leaving their husbands, boyfriends and young children to fend for themselves, with the men taking on the day-to-day tasks newly abandoned by the ladies. For the men it meant anything from running a business to planning a beauty pageant. Naturally, the responsibilities also included those of the average stay-at-home mom, and within a few hours, the unsupervised, ill-trained men were feeding teens lollipops and toddlers coffee for breakfast. And, yes, corn dogs make a brief cameo.
With comedian Jeff Foxworthy serving as the reality show's narrator, it's clear that Lifetime is banking on the comedic possibilities of age old "gender equality shtick." But perhaps the very fact that the social experiment exists at all proves that a seed of doubt - or at least a good laugh - is still buried under mounds of theory about men and women being able to competently compete in every arena.
Dr. Robert Heasley, professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and president of the American Men's Studies Association said, "I think we've institutionalized feminism in a way that we don't question if women can or can't do something anymore. However, we're still questioning whether men can or can't. Of course, with men, the fear of being perceived as female-like is now more scary than it is for women to take on masculine roles. That exchange just isn't evened out yet."
That fear is no more evident than when the wickedly gleeful women and wide-eyed worrisome men express their thoughts directly to the camera. In their respective opinions, the experiment is "dangerous," the men are "terrified" and more than one feels "doomed." Still, Heasley believes that trepidation - from either gender (including one participant whose husband works "with a sledgehammer and all this man stuff") - can be the result of self-sabotage.
"There's a resistance from men," he said. "This stupid response of, 'I'm helpless here, hot dogs are all I know,' reinforces this type of masculinity that if they lose it, they don't know what they have left. Why wouldn't they say, 'Well, what would Sarah do in this situation? Where are her cookbooks?' It's sort of like a woman who says, 'Oh my goodness, my husband just left and I don't know how to balance a checking account.' You sort of feel some empathy, but then it's like, get over it already and grow up because neither is that difficult."
On the upside, a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics discovered that men who have daughters are more likely to let go of traditional gender roles. Participants were followed from 1979 and interviewed annually until 1994, but they were asked specifically about their views on gender roles in the years of 1979, 1982, 1987 and 2004.
It was revealed that over time, after the birth of a daughter, fathers began to release their grip on defining statements including, "A woman's place is in the home, not in the office or shop" and "A wife who carries out her full family responsibilities doesn't have time for outside employment."
Still, both Heasley and Shira Tarrant, associate professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at California State University, note that differences in class and race can play a factor in how gender roles are implemented in a household.
Tarrant said, "Research shows that in the highest income families, men are the least likely to participate in domestic work. Among working class and poor families, male partners are more likely to pull their weight when it comes to cooking, cleaning, and caregiving."
Additionally, Heasley said, "African American women tend to have a stronger sense of 'I can do it all' efficacy, so the tension there for a black male is, 'What am I good for?' If black women can make as much or more money and can have a higher education than them, it becomes, 'Where's my masculinity?'"
While the value of a parent should no doubt be measured by the likes of gender neutral qualities such as being emotionally available and supportive of one's family, if a price tag had to be put on parenting, Tarrant has a pretty good estimate of the monetary value of a woman's work.
"Think about what we would have to pay—in dollars—for the daily work that women do for free," she said. "We can’t put a price tag on love. But if we had to hire a nanny, a masseuse, a chef, chauffeur, psychologist and a sex surrogate, it would cost plenty. Even though men are stepping up their game, women are still responsible for the majority of this work. If moms got paid, their salaries would fall between $70-$113K, depending on whether they are also working for wages outside the home."
In the meantime, the rest of us will have to tune in to see if the men of Yemassee, S.C. manage to transform themselves into passable domestic divas before the moms come home and corn dogs become a dinner time staple.