The Abusive Relationship We’re All In That Most of Us Never Think About

"I've heard that people stand in bad situations because a relationship like that gets turned up by degrees. It is said that a frog will jump out of a pot of boiling water. Place him in a pot and turn it up a little at a time, and he will stay until he is boiled to death. Us frogs understand this." - Deb Caletti

4 min. read

I saw this wonderful commercial earlier today and shared it on Facebook immediately. Watch it, then let’s talk about it.

Obviously, these aren’t new ideas to me. I talk a lot about the proverbial boxes we are all smushed into. But the way that it’s portrayed in this video highlights an aspect of the relationship between who we are and who society says we should be that I rarely talk about: how abusive it is.

The abusive relationship most of us don’t realize we’re in.

Ever heard of the term microaggression? On Wikipedia, microaggressions are defined as “specific interactions between those of different races, cultures, or genders [that] can be interpreted as small acts of mostly non-physical aggression.” When people (like me) say things like “society tells us we are supposed to be like ___” one of the ways “society tells us” is through microagressions. Microaggressions are to gender roles what heat is to general rolls.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “What do you mean you don’t like watching sports. You’re a man, aren’t you?” Are you asking if I have a penis? If so, this is a really weird way to hit on me. If I show it to you will you leave me alone? This quiche isn’t going to bake itself.

I’m not going to list all the microaggressions and microassaults I experience because of my gender. You have a gender. You know how it works. And I don’t generally blame the people who say those things. They’re behaving how they’ve been taught to behave and saying things they’ve been taught to say. They’re doing what — in a [depressingly] huge percentage of people’s eyes — is healthy and good, reinforcing what they believe is necessary for a stable society. “IT WASN’T ADAM AND FLANNEL-WEARING EVE!” No, no, no. I don’t blame them. I blame society.

The abusive relationship we’re all in is with society. We’re abused on a daily, constant basis. We’re told we’re not good enough, not right, not how we’re supposed to be; we’re corrected and forced and threatened to be something we’re not; and it’s a relationship we can’t safely remove ourselves from without facing dangerous consequences.

Getting out of the box

A parent recently wrote me because their child came out as trans* and requested that everyone start using gender neutral pronouns to describe them. The parent was, for the most part, incredibly understanding and wanted to be supportive, but wanted to draw the line at the gender neutral pronouns, saying something to the effect of “She’s a she. She’s not a they. They is plural. Can’t we just expand the gender roles we have and make more room for people to fit within them? Do we really need to start creating all these new labels?”

We totally could make the boxes bigger and less restrictive and more people would fit in them. We could add some windows, too. And maybe an air conditioner? Absolutely. Oh, and a mini fridge!

You know those huge spaces they have for some of the big animals at fancier zoos? They have trees and little ponds and they resemble the natural habitat the animal would be living in if it weren’t trapped in a cage — oops, not a cage, they call them “habitats.” This is what I think of when people say things like “can’t we just expand the gender roles we have.” It’ll be better, for sure, and incredibly preferred over the little jar with the stick and leaf we have now, but a habitat is a cage is a box is a fox. Whoops, went a little Dr. Seuss there.

We don’t have to get rid of the boxes. We can still have them, I guess, if people really want to have them. Some people like boxes. Fine. But the way out of this abusive relationship is allowing people to live outside of their boxes. By not forcing people into boxes to begin with, and not forcing people to be anything but themselves. By empowering individuals to choose who they want to be, and what box (if any) they might fit into.

You can’t choose if you’re not aware of any other options. That’s not consent; it’s coercion. The way we do gender, from birth to death, is abusive. It’s bullying. It’s harmful. And I’d venture that, given the choice, a person will choose the wild over a habitat, no matter how large it might be. It’s time we start giving people that choice.

_Huge thanks to the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault for that video. Take a moment and pledge your support to their Break the Box Campaign._