Ancestral Lines: The Anthropological Matter of Gender Roles

Out of all of the subjects presented to us in introductory anthropology, none has sparked such a discussion as week eights topic of gender and power. The interest of the class interested me, and I chose to focus on this anthropological theme for that reason. Anything that triggers such an intense reaction, from both female AND male participants might I add, certainly warrants some more attention and research.

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Regarding any background information, I have consulted my class notes as well as the PowerPoint provided online. During lecture of week eight we discussed ideas such as harassment, historical influences on misogyny, the differences in patriarchies and matriarchies around the world, several analogous relationships between women and men, the voice of women, and other nuances of the domain of females.

Some of my favorite parts of those thoughts included the article by Amanda Hess outlining her experience with harassment, which incorporated her profession, experiences of other individuals, and the role of the internet in the problem. That part of lecture really brought to light the disparities between men and women by highlighting the amount of harmful or harassing messages each gender gets in their lifetime. Additionally, of the many analogous relationships defined, my favorite by far was that of Sherry Ortner, who equated females to nature where as men were more like culture. This one struck me because of the unspoken meaning of this comparison, with nature being of course where we all start, but eventually we evolve and advance enough to accumulate a culture, making us a civilized people. Thus, women are primitive, and men are advanced. Further, you can look at it on a much more surface level and realize that women dealt with the natural things such as childbirth, breastfeeding, and gardening while men were put in charge of things that made up the culture like politics, religion, and the economy.

The other most intriguing part of the lesson was Mary Beard’s opinions and observations about the voice of women in history and literature. She teaches that women’s voices were only heard in one of three ways: if they were portrayed as the victim, had a claim in a sectional interest, or as they take on an androgynous identity. We can see the victim as we analyze the damsel in distress as she is allowed to speak about situations where she feels helpless. We can see the sectional interest (more so in history) as women were allowed to make the decisions where women were regarded. We can see the androgynous identity in our female politicians who wear power suits and lower/change their voices to gain authority and respect. This one is also clear in classical history with the goddess Athena, who was stripped of femininity when she was named the champion of Athens. These three main points; the differences in harassment between the genders, the analogy of culture versus nature, and the voices of women concept, were the arguments in lecture that piqued my interest. In Friday lab for week eight, we discussed the role of gender in marketing. The experience in lab this week also led me to choosing this theme. Our group is very good at discussing the given issues extremely openly, but most of the time it takes us a few minutes to warm up to the topic. However, when the floor was opened for us to give our opinions on the pieces, nearly every hand went up immediately. This subject continued to be a source of intrigue and passion for all students. We discussed Hollywood’s twisted views of both men and women and the harmful stereotypes it pushes at impressionable viewers.

Additionally, we inspected the act of discriminating in the work place based on traits such as gender, good looks, and other uncontrollable characteristics. The best part of this discussion was definitely getting into the male perspective. In lecture we had focused majorly on the pitfalls of being a women and how men usually had a role in that. However, especially as we talked about marketing and stereotypes, the boys in the lab classroom spoke up about Hollywood’s portrayal of tough and handsome men in movies and ads. They spoke about the unrealistic expectations that society and women in particular have in regard to men’s bodies, looks, and overall tough-guy/hero appeal. We acknowledged and examined how the highest demographic of suicides in the country was the middle-aged male and how we can see that being ignored and further perpetuated in harmful marketing and media. Having all of this information made me realize the following particular things while reading Ancestral Lines and learning more about the Maisin people of Papua New Guinea. First is the difference in division of labor. Girls are the first to be put to work caring for the younger children with their mothers, cooking, creating things for the household, and cleaning. Boys enjoy their autonomy for slightly longer, but by their mid-teens are expected to help their fathers on hunting and fishing expeditions.

Already the advantage is given to the male in the situation. The next observation, continuing the assumption that males have it much easier in the Maisin society, is the different ceremonies marking the rite of passage into adulthood. For boys, their passage is marked by a celebration and feast that lasts several days at a time. However, girls encounter a painful operation of getting elaborate facial tattoos over the course of four to six weeks. This operation leaves them bloodied, scabbed, and swollen for much of the time, and they are secluded in the tattooist’s home for a period. This passage is supposed to replace the girls plain faces with a beautiful more attractive version to entice future husbands. It is easy to see the inequality occurring in these practices, although they are currently going out of fashion with the younger generation. At village meetings the elder men sit in intimate circles on a raised platform and younger men lounge in the shade nearby, learning from their seniors. The women and children sit far off and strain to hear the male leaders talk, leading to a gap in information and a disconnect from the opinions of the average woman. Then, in a further show of division, the younger girls bring refreshments to the men, crawling on their knees with downcast eyes to show respect. That being said, there is a space for women to share their voice, and that is when they are elders themselves. The Maisin society regards the senior women of the village as great sources of advice, wisdom, and tradition, treating them with the upmost respect. When young women marry they face lots of new obligations and expectations as they try to meet every demand of their new husband and his family as well as submitting timidly to the wishes of their new authority figures, especially the mother in law.

However, women hold some power in marriages because bride wealth is observed in this area of the world. Brides also are granted the ability to return to their own families at any point in the relationship, which revokes the land rights she came with as well as the children she bore (especially if the bride wealth hadn’t fully been paid yet). An important theme presented in the book is that Maisin society tends to favor submissive females and assertive males. However, the author urges the reader to understand that the Maisin are an adapting people, and that when the opposite personality traits occur in the sexes, within limits, they are not considered improper. The rules of the society still apply, but allowances can be made as long as respect is given, and peace is kept. In my opinion, this can be an example of syncretism, as the author lets us know that is it the younger generations who exhibit such nontraditional behaviors and the elders begrudgingly try to accept them. These younger people are growing up in a Maisin society that has been influenced by western ideals and religions that encourage independence and strength, which we can also see as the new generations are turning away from antiquated practices such as the facial tattoos. The myth I have chosen to examine through the lens of gender roles is The Lazy Man’s Story by Frederick Bogara, otherwise known as Kikiki number two.

In this story, it outlines a nuclear family of wife, husband, and sons. The wife had been cooking and feeding her family for a long time now, and finally (when the crops ran out completely) she told her husband that he needed to go out and buy/hunt/trade for some food so that they could survive. He was a very lazy man and day after day went out to the villages and just sat around until sun down. One day, fed up (haha get it) with her husband’s actions, the wife put some stones in the pot and set it on the coals. When her husband got home she encouraged him to take whatever he wanted out of the pot to eat. He stuck a fork in and broke it on the stones, the woman shamed and divorced him, marrying another man. This myth clearly plays on the gender roles and stereotypes of men and women. It illustrates how a woman has the responsibility to tend the home and the children and the man has the duty to make the sure the family is provided for. This folk tale especially emphasizes that when one of those roles is neglected then the opposite party has every right to be unhappy and take action. I chose this myth in particular because a story with similar plot points appears in the Social Design chapter of the book.

In this version of events, the Maisin women and men both have to contribute to the garden to make it work, and although the women have to perform more labor than the males, there is more shared work between the genders here. However, when the food ran out from the garden, the fault and vulnerability were with the WIFE this time around, representing the expectations given to women that simply do not apply to men. This being said, as the author made sure to point out, personality traits differ within individuals and sometimes women react as the wife in the myth, calling out their husband for not completing their duties. At one point in time, a certain woman with the pseudonym Alice waded into the river and caught fish for her family (extremely against the status quo) when her husband had been absent in another town for almost a month. Alice and the villagers chastised the husband’s brothers for not stepping up and providing for his wife, they resumed these duties and the fishing episode never happened again. These incidents also represent how the Maisin people accept these roles and stereotypes, even the women, because they come from the ancestors. The woman in the myth accepts that her husband was supposed to provide, not her. The wife in the second story accepts the shame and blame for running out of food in their joint garden. Alice, in the third story, accepted that she shouldn’t have to fish for herself, and shamed her brothers-in-law for not providing for her. This acceptance and faith in the traditions of their lineages is the most interesting thing about gender roles in the Maisin society. The adaptability of people with different personalities and levels of confidence to this same set of rules and guidelines is an impressive feat in the obedience of the human spirit.

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