I can see myself, criss-cross-apple-sauce on my parent’s bed, my chin tilted to watch a VHS unwind on the screen in front of me. It’s a Disney movie (it was always a Disney movie). The format was always the same: a prince, and of course, a princess, and me, watching. I watched the prince be the protector, the hero, the active. I watched the princess be the nurturer, the damsel, the passive.
What seemed to be an innocent story of a lost slipper or a pale girl with way too much vibrato was actually an instruction manual that told us all how to behave.
Maybe it seems nice — convenient, if nothing else — to have set roles to guide your relationship. To that, I say, “okay, boomer.”
Gender roles are many things — socially constructed, archaic, and limiting, to name a few. Gender roles in dating (i.e. men do literally everything and women just react) can present difficulties, especially in queer relationships.
It would make sense for queer relationships to easily transcend gender roles, and many do. When asked which party in the relationship is “the man” and which is “the woman,” queer couples are quick to quip back “both” or “neither.” But just like heterosexual couples, queer people have an uphill battle in fighting these gender roles.
Taylor Halverson, a bisexual student at the UW, has some insight into the reason behind this struggle.
“In a lot of relationships [conforming to heteronormative gender roles], one person is a supporter and one is primarily not,” Halverson said. “When you see homosexual relationships on TV, they still fill those same roles.”
Now, we might not have any Disney movies featuring queer princes and princesses yet, but the representation we do have is not always the best guide for expectations in queer relationships either.
A lot of media gives us queer relationships that still adhere to straight dating norms — if they are not two feminine lesbians being fetishized for the male gaze, that is. But even then, think of Brittany and Santana from Glee.
Glee really tried to give its audience queer role models, but unfortunately, it made very clear gender roles in its queer relationships. Santana was more dominant: the aggressor who progressed the relationship and even wore pants to their wedding in the final season. Brittany was much more passive, which aligns more with a female-typical gender role in dating.
Heteronormativity is so ingrained into our society that we can’t even see a relationship involving two women or two men without assigning heteronormative gender roles, which are restrictive in relationships of any gender configuration.
Representation of queer folks is so lacking in Halverson’s experience that she was genuinely shocked to discover couples who didn’t conform to these roles.
“I saw two femme women together online,” Halverson said, referencing a YouTube couple she stumbled across. “I was like, ‘You can do that?’”
As Halverson became more aware of the restrictions of these made-up rules, she started to be more careful of how she acted in relationships to make sure she was not just blindly conforming, but being authentic.
UW student Rosemary Jones, who also identifies as bisexual, is similarly mindful of her assimilation to gender roles.
“[In a relationship] I want to take care of [my partner], but I don’t want [my partner] to misconstrue it as me taking a dominant role.”
These kinds of obstacles presented a bit of a learning curve for Jones in the beginning stages of her relationships. With the restriction of gender roles, it can feel less like a relationship and more like a play: two actors just playing their parts, regardless of the genders involved in the pairing.
So, how do we combat gender roles and circumvent these difficulties? Well, it's really not a simple answer. We have been conditioned to fill a role, to walk a certain path, and that truly limits us and our dynamics in romance.
We have a lot of unlearning to do. Unlearning such strongly held social norms is an ongoing and active process.
Take a long look at yourself. There is a lot influencing you. Try and strip it back.
“The biggest thing is to pay attention and watch for what is compulsory and what actually makes you feel good,” Jones said. “The first step to getting rid of it is noticing.”
But also keep looking out. Find that representation that breaks the same, tired narrative.
“Try to explore what other people are doing,” Halverson said. “Once I saw people breaking out of the roles I expected, I internalized that it was a possibility for me.”
Reach columnist Hannah Krieg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Hannah_krieg
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