The Wail of Achilles and Gender Roles

Words by: Min Naung

“Thus spake he, and a black cloud of grief enwrapped Achilles, and with both hands he took dark dust and poured it over his head and defiled his comely face, and on his fragrant doublet black ashes fell. And himself in the dust lay mighty and mightily fallen, and with his own hands tore and marred his hair.”

(Illiad Book 18, Coradella Collegiate Bookshelf Edition)

Most people will probably have heard of Achilles – the hero of the Trojan War and an unmatched warrior of great pride and bravery. But despite his obvious macho characteristics, Homer portrays him with a kind of emotional vulnerability. He cried when Agamemnon insulted him at the assembly to discuss the plague sent by Apollo. He cried when his BFF Patroclus died, and at the end of the Iliad, he cried again when meeting his enemy’s father Priam reminded him of his own father. Here we have the epitome of a great hero, one of the most famous Greek heroes ever, tearing his hair apart and mixing with the dirt because his best friend died. It may seem strange but the ancient Greeks considered that crying is an act only heroes can perform, and that it actually makes them more admirable. The Greek notion of a hero really contrasts with our notions of how a man – a brave man, a hero – should be.

Every boy has probably been told by his parents, especially their fathers, things like “Don’t cry” and “Go do it by yourself.” We are not supposed to be clumsy or delicate like girls. When we are hurt, we should bear our pains. When we face troubles, we should be strong and take our responsibilities. And what’s more, we are supposed to know how to fix and build things. We are supposed to be interested in cars and football. If a man is interested in feminine things, people will wonder if he is gay (not that there is anything inherently wrong with it). A friend of mine told me about her relative – a man who likes cooking, who is jokingly called a faggot by his friends.

Women often face similar demands about the way they should behave and how they should act in accordance with others. A girl should not mingle with boys. A girl should not be out alone at night. A girl should not talk about or be interested in obscene stuff, like sex. A girl should not drink, a girl should not smoke and there goes the long list of ‘should nots’. And then there are other subtler assumptions – like a girl should never confess to a boy and the best she can do is give signals. When a girl grows to a woman, she gets more freedom, but there are still restrictions applied on her life.

These gender roles are fixed on us by our culture and our religion. If we violate them, we face disapproval. They range from an indirect ‘no’ such as a frown or being the centre of gossip (or jokes, as in the case of my friend’s relative), to outright sanctioning such as being excluded from social life. And the underlying assumption behind all these gender roles is that men are supposed to be active, masculine and assertive, while women are supposed to be passive, feminine and delicate.

In this century, feminists no longer accept these notions about women. They want women to get the same rights as men and achieve gender equality. Of course, many feminists, and I believe most feminists in our country, are not proposing for the right to confess to boys. Rather they are advocating for tackling serious issues like domestic violence, inequality in wages between women and men, sex trafficking and all kinds of social ills that manifest in our society. They are protesting against discriminations and unfair restrictions placed on them by the traditional society. A modern feminist, for example, thinks that it is unfair that women are not allowed to go up a pagoda. But then, at the core of what they are doing is, as I’ve said above – challenging gender roles.

Let’s consider a story. There’s this girl called Ingyin. Her parents didn’t let her go to school because they believed that a girl wouldn’t need to learn to read or write. Ingyin secretly studied and against her parents’ wishes, answered the matriculation exam and went to college. While she was in school, she was forced to marry a rich and old man. Her husband was a drunkard and abused her every day. She finally ran away from her home and after a lot of troubles, worked as a seamstress. She was hardworking and she finally ended up saving money and started a textile industry, eventually becoming one of the most successful entrepreneurs ever. She met a man who appreciated her and finally married him.

Then, there’s a boy called Naing. Ever since he was young, he was interested in embroidery. He spent his childhood and adult life creating beautiful patterns of design. His ultimate goal in life is to have a family – marry a strong, independent woman and raise beautiful children. Of course, his family was against the way he was. They wanted him to succeed their legacy and manage their flourishing steel industrial plant. But Naing wasn’t interested in business. He was too shy to talk to people or clumsy to manage things. He spent his days in misery, arguing with his parents without success, until eventually he met and fell in love with an aspiring businesswoman. He eloped with the woman and they had children. While his wife spent her days working outside and managing the family business, Naing stayed at home cooking and taking care of their children. In his free time, Naing worked on his embroidery. He was very happy.

Many people will read Ingyin’s story and celebrate her for facing life’s problems and eventually achieving success. We, as proponents of feminism, believe that Ingyin has a right to her own success and happiness. Her life should not be restricted by expectations based on her gender. But what about Naing? Many people won’t read Naing’s story without a frown. They would view Naing negatively, seeing him as weak and whiny. But isn’t Naing defying gender roles as much as Ingyin? Isn’t he trying to achieve his own life of happiness and success, even though the struggle may not be as apparent as Ingyin’s? It’s kind of a paradox. We like strong and independent women but we don’t usually accept a weak and dependent man with open arms. Female managers, female entrepreneurs and female scientists are cherished. But men who stay at home, take care of the children and do housework are considered unusual.

All this is not to say, of course, that feminism is wrong. There are big challenges to be addressed when it comes to gender gaps between men and women. But when we talk about gender equality, we are talking about changing traditional gender roles and we need to ask certain questions. Whose gender roles? Which gender roles? And especially in a Burmese culture where the purity of the woman and the masculinity of a man is valued, the question of which gender roles we are willing to change becomes important. Do we accept, for example the image of the woman who is liberal in her relationships with men? Similarly, if gender equality involves changing existing notions about how women should behave, what about the notions of how men should behave?

My friend’s relative, as he grows older, eventually overcomes the prejudices against him. He has, other than an interest in cooking, all the masculine qualities desired in men. But the thousands of other men who may be lacking in certain or all of masculine qualities or interests still face prejudices. So I think it’s time for the wisdom of the Greeks to be applied. A true hero (or man, since it is our goal to aspire to heroes) isn’t admirable if he does not reveal his emotional side.

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