A personal tale of bbqs and gender roles

// 10 August 2008

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My girlfriend’s childhood friend was 30 a few weeks ago. The birthday boy hired a cottage in the middle of the countryside, and we all had a lovely weekend of sunshine and intense gender role reinforcement.

The men decided when the barbeque would be lit, then they argued over how to do it, then they decided when and how the meat would be cooked. The women made salad. The men kept cooking and piling up sausages that would never get eaten. The women cleared the plates. The men ran off to play football. The women did the dishes. The men came back, sweating and flushed, and rolled their eyes as their girlfriends nagged them about putting on jackets as it was starting to get chilly.

My girlfriend and I looked on, intrigued and horrified in equal measures.

Not all heterosexual relationships are like this, I know. Some of my best friends are straight, (no, really) and I know several gorgeously feminist blokes who would hate to live in that kind of dichotomy. But for every straight couple who share the toilet-scrubbing, there will be hundreds more who fall into the tired of pattern of dividing behaviour and work into men’s and women’s.

Along with saving money on birth control and swapping shoes opportunities, one of the great advantages of being in a same-sex relationship is that there are no ingrained gender roles to blindly accept or deliberately avoid. Who opens a door for whom does not become a political statement.

While I love living largely without a gender script, I do appreciate that other people deliberately seek out these restraints, and find them liberating. Some women revel in matching femme to butch, and it would be incredibly patronising to suggest that they only do so out of habit or to emulate traditional heterosexuality.

I have no problem with long-haired, frock-wearing girls who dream of tall handsome boys or bois to whisk them away. But I do have a problem with then assuming that with all the positives must come all the negatives. That a man’s man shouldn’t put away cutlery, or isn’t capable of deciding for himself when to put on a jumper.

Apart from childbirth, I don’t believe that there is any task on Earth that is truly performed better by men or women. And that most definitely includes barbeques: my girlfriend’s concerns that the chicken wasn’t thoroughly cooked were dismissed by the man in charge of the barbeque… and she spent the night puking into a toilet.

Comments From You

catherine // Posted 10 August 2008 at 6:22 pm

There’s a horrible kind of role division that surrounds barbecues. Last year I was helping a friend set up for a party, and began to light the barbecue while the first people arrived and she welcomed them. I’d been doing that for about 5 minutes when two men (who were acquaintances to me, one being my friend’s new boyfriend) turned up and literally without speaking a word to me, picked up the matches and firelighters, etc., and began to talk between themselves about the best way of making a good bbq. My attempt to talk with them and involve them in what I had been doing were met by them ignoring me.

I accepted defeat so as not to cause a scene with the friend’s boyfriend at her party and went inside where the women were discussing pregnancy and the latest new baby in the group. After a few minutes of becoming more and more angry I just made my excuses and left – all the way home thinking what I wished I could have said to those men.

Renee // Posted 10 August 2008 at 6:39 pm

There is something about a BBQ that brings out the neanderthal in even the most enlightened man. My honey calls his the manq or the male cooking center…we are barely allowed to glance in the direction of his bbq but the stove which is cooked on much more has clearly become my domain. hmmm yeah it stinks huge!

jj // Posted 10 August 2008 at 9:15 pm

“Apart from childbirth, I don’t believe that there is any task on Earth that is truly performed better by men or women.”

Well, men are still a bit stronger on average, so everything that requires that extra bit of physical strength is performed better by men. That said, you identified the biggest problem I think men have with the changing economic realities that require less physical strength and thus diminished the relative efficiency advantage of gender based division of labour.

But with that change comes a new problem – women are “naturally” more important because of their scarcer reproductive resources.

So what do we do? Here’s an interesting leftist feminist take on the anthropology thereof. Bottom line – we men need something socially constructed that makes us believe we’re equally important for the group/partnership despite being the expendable sex. And that’s a problem in a world in which the universe is not believed to collapse when a woman touches a didgeridoo.

And now you want to take BBQs, too. What’s left for us?

http://www.reclusiveleftist.com/?p=251 (the origins of male dominance)

Lew // Posted 10 August 2008 at 11:48 pm

Phew, the timing of this post was brilliant.

I’ve just spent a 180-mile journey in a small car with two ultra-conservative men who took the opportunity to talk about how horrid feminism is, and how women are naturally programmed to love babies and want scores of them.

This is post is a breath of clean air after that.

Hannah // Posted 11 August 2008 at 9:33 am

I can relate to this post because i’ve been able to observe this happening with my neighbours when they have a barbecue. My neighbours are a straight couple who are in their early 20s. They often have friends and family over in the summer and without fail, the woman and her friends/female family members prepare food in the kitchen and clear up while the men sit in the garden with beers, poking at the barbecue. There’s just something about barbecues!

Sabre // Posted 11 August 2008 at 10:07 am

In my house my mum is the Queen of the BBQ. Nobody else would even try to take her place. She’s so hardcore that she can even touch the hot meat/grill with her bare hands. She makes the fire quickly and cooks the food perfectly and with mimimum mess. So far, no man I’ve ever met could compete with that.

However at my boyfriend’s house it’s a different story. He and his brothers grunt around the BBQ and his mum and I lay the table and make salad. It can be a bit annoying because I like to make fire too!

Soirore // Posted 11 August 2008 at 1:02 pm

Regarding washing dishes at group events I have followed Elizabeth Wurtzel’s advice to never help with the dishes unless men have offered as well. This has caused some funny looks at dinner parties etc. but it really needs doing. It’s the same at family events. My sisters always help with the cooking and washing up and I refuse. Although my brother has started getting involved a little bit as long as the women outnumber the men in the kitchen I’m not helping. I’ll help my dad with the “manly” alcohol distribution and my male partner helps with the dishes.

sianmarie // Posted 11 August 2008 at 2:21 pm

i remember a family event when i was 19 where i was actually expected to cook lunch and wash up on arrival! i was so shocked, my dad was excused due to driving 6 hours (fair) my step mother as she had to socialise (not fair) and my brother because, well, he’s a boy (vvv not fair). i was so angry that no one in my liberal family stood up for me and offered to help. it was just an approving nod from everyone that this was my duty as girl. i was furious and it still makes me so angry to remember!

Rhona // Posted 11 August 2008 at 3:38 pm

With Soirore on this one – I don’t do the dishes at home (OH cooks, so the kitchen is HIS domain, although, in my defence, I do hoover and clean the toilet ;)), so I’d rather not do them anywhere else! Not that I’m a bad or impolite guest – I’ll happily dish out drinks, take coats, show people around etc.

In my experience, women are much better at BBQing as they don’t tend to have the ego that goes with this sort of thing from a ‘mannish’ perspective – ie they’re not interested in 6′-high flames, excessive flipping of food etc, more so in well-cooked food prepared with the minimum of fuss and served to guests who prefer not to starve for three hours while Mein Host cracks open another tinnie…

Shev // Posted 11 August 2008 at 3:41 pm

Yeah, this is particularly irritating to me, as I grew up with my Mum taking us all down to the beach to make fires out of driftwood, and my dad teaching me how to lay the open fire, and both of them doing barbequeues… So I have both a love for and a lot of experience with bbqs, and am very protective over my position as fire-maker. I do let my girlfriend do it as well, only because she has a similar love, and, well, it wouldn’t be fair.

Soooo…. Imagine my horror when we invited a few friends round, and by some accident of demographics, only one (straight) guy turned up – and proceeded to *light my bbq*. And then he tried tolight the bonfire. I literally couldn’t believe the rudeness of it. Imagine turning up at someone else’s house and just taking over the most fun bit without so much as a by-your-leave.

Mind you, this is the guy who, when I broke my arm recently, insisted that he lean over me to prise the mouse from my (working) hand in order to show me something on my computer. At my workstation. While I was working. Despite protests. Oooh, and he always interrupts when I’m talking about issues of gender, because ‘he did a course on gender at university, so knows all about feminism and transexuality.’ Although clearly not enough.

Tony Moll // Posted 11 August 2008 at 4:12 pm

I work in a small office with mostly women. I find that I am expected to bring the new water down and lift it onto the filter when it finishes. Everyone can do it, but it’s a pain in the butt. Infact they have now made the habit of calling me to help them lift stuff even though they must have managed quite well before I joined. I don’t mind because they are a cheerful bunch who don’t make a fuss when I (quite frequently) don’t do my quota of clearing up after work drinks.

It’s really about not making a big deal about small things. It’s about not extrapolating making salad at a bbq to oppression or lifting water at work to being taken advantage of.

That way we can face the major issues (discrinitaiuon, DV etc) and see how the small issues play out. I suspect that no matter what, I would still be lifting the water and if that is the case I will probably ocassionally have to ‘forget’ to take my wine glass to the kitchen.

Soirore // Posted 11 August 2008 at 4:36 pm

@ Tony Moll

I understand that you think these are small issues but they tell a deeper story. Why should women miss out on conversation at the dinner table because they are dealing with the dishes? Why should women host a barbeque and have their male guests take over their role? Similarly why should you as a man be expected to carry heavy objects when it is no more part of your job than your collegues?

Until we get rid of this kind of insidious sexism it’s even harder to argue that women and men deserve equal rights over their bodies, their health, their children, politically socially and economically.

Jennifer-Ruth // Posted 11 August 2008 at 4:44 pm


“In my experience, women are much better at BBQing as they don’t tend to have the ego that goes with this sort of thing from a ‘mannish’ perspective – ie they’re not interested in 6′-high flames, excessive flipping of food etc, more so in well-cooked food prepared with the minimum of fuss and served to guests who prefer not to starve for three hours while Mein Host cracks open another tinnie…”

Hmmm – that is kind of a sexist thing to say in itself…you’re still gender stereotyping.

I couldn’t give a flying fuck about serving well-prepared food with a minimum of fuss at a BBQ. Give me the 6ft high flames. It’s a BBQ, not a dinner party!

Rose_hasty // Posted 11 August 2008 at 5:51 pm

“Well, men are still a bit stronger on average, so everything that requires that extra bit of physical strength is performed better by men.”

This point doesn’t make any sense. In fact it’s entirely illogical. If there was a task which required the strength of the few strongest people in the world then, yes, perhaps women would be excluded but plenty of women are stronger than plenty of men. ‘Everything that requires that bit of extra physical strength’ is performed better by people who are that strong, male or female. There isn’t actually a huge difference between men and women in physical strength except at either extreme.

JJ – I would like to point you in the direction of Janet Radcliffe Richards’ The Sceptical Feminist for an explanation as to why the statement you’ve made is such nonsense. I’m too exasperated to attempt it any further myself!

Lara The Second // Posted 11 August 2008 at 6:16 pm

What is it with men who NEVER cook normally thinking that they can cook on a barbeque?

Cooking with actual fire and without the timers and switches ovens have is much easier to screw up, yet these people who wouldn’t even know how to cook an egg in a pan (my dad thought until a couple of years ago that you could cook an egg by boiling the water in a kettle, putting that in a pan, putting the egg in, and then leaving it for five minutes, no further heat applied) think that because of their gender they will be able to cook meat safely on a barbeque? It’s just nonsensical!

Neither my dad nor my mum’s dad cook normally, yet at family barbeques they’re the ones cooking.

After several incidents my mum and nan came up with the ingenious plan of almost entirely cooking the food in the kitchen, then passing it out to the men so that they can finish it off. It means the food is no longer burnt or illness-inducing, but it’s a lot of effort to go to just to protect ridiculous male egos!

Tony Moll // Posted 11 August 2008 at 6:19 pm


“Similarly why should you as a man be expected to carry heavy objects when it is no more part of your job than your collegues?”

Partly because, although they can all do it too, it is easier for me to do. As I said, I don’t mind cos they cut me slack elsewhere and I don’t get the feeling that they are taking me for granted.

We do the same work, get the same pay (I have checked) and work well together. That’s what really matters. Why would I kick a fuss out of carrying water in the name of equality and removing gender roles?

Anne Onne // Posted 11 August 2008 at 7:04 pm

The thing is, Tony, that the little things add up to the big things. As a society, the big decisions we make, and the bit problems, don’t occur in a vacuum, but in a context where many small differences add up, and normalise mroe extreme behaviour or stereotypes.

For example, the lifting you described in your office is a good example of how women are taught by society to rely on others for things they can easily manage themselves in a way men are not. In part it’s because women as the ‘weaker class’ have the option of appealing to someone else without fear of hurting their pride in a way men don’t, but it’s also because as a society we teach women to distrust their own abilities, to assume their inherent weakness and incompetence.

Whilst it doesn’t mean that women seriously think lifting water or parking cars is impossible, the expectation that they should find it difficult, and option that they can get a man to do it for them leaves little incentive to go ahead and do it yourself. On the surface this just looks a bit lazy but harmless (after all, we’d all like to get out of something or other), but when it extends to women getting colleagues to park cars, set up TVs and other basic tech, and other simple tasks, it shows that some women have problems with learning how to be basically independent. They are capable running the rest of their lives, particularly the ‘women’s work’ aspect that they are expected to do, but basic and important things considered masculine are seen as something women aren’t expected to do. And I think the lower expectations are part of the reason some women get out of learning them. It almost seems a badge of honour. I can’t believe it when I hear women boasting about how they have someone else do it all because they’re ‘not one of those feminists’.

Without practice in these little things, the desire to tinker a little and try and learn new skills yourself, the desire to quietly get it done rather than go out of your way to find a man to do it because it’s easier, we become dependent on others for things we could learn to do ourselves. This is not useful, since life won’t (and shouldn’t) guarantee you a willing guy to do whatever little thing needs doing, and learning how to take care of basic things yourself is part of growing up and becoming an independent adult.

The barbecue is different, because rather than a menial task, it’s seen as a break, an enjoyment. A chance to mess around and show off. Must be the flames or something. Unlike relegating lifting DIY or basic mechanics or tech to men, women aren’t necessarily choosing to stay away from the barbecue. We have plenty of women here saying they feel pushed away. That they want to take part in the interesting part of the barbecue, but feel relegated, often rudely, to the sidelines by men who think they know better (despite normally never cooking!), or that they have some automatic right to hog the barbecue because they’re male.

And in the end, women are expected to give way, because they’re women. They’re supposed to keep the peace, sooth tensions and avoid conflict, and this results in the situations detailed above, where women feel left out, insulted and angry. They don’t make a scene, because that’s ‘just not what women do’, and because more likely than not, they would be the ones told to give in, but that doesn’t make their wishes any less valid than those of the men they’re referring to.

In fact, this is a case where men actively use privilege against women. It’s obvious that if the men choose to take over, that the women, no matter how offended they are, aren’t going to kick them out or demand they have a place where they’re clearly not wanted, so the men in the examples don’t bother to think whether women would want to do it.

It’s irrelevant, because even if the women DID want to, they’d probably never take over in the same way the men would. It’s a privilege most men might not see, but the privilege of social pressure, whereby you know that the other person has more to lose by acting ‘impolite’, and stricter rules of etiquette to adhere allows one to act how one wishes, knowing that the other won’t remonstrate. You don’t need to realise the subtleties to take advantage to this, since it’s just a fancy way of saying that some people get everything they want.

And it’s also about many men’s unwillingness to clean up. Sure, they might say they’ll do it eventually, but again there’s the expectation that women will do it, and that if the cleaning is lying around, it will bother women more (they are judged more harshly for it, not to mention grown up to believe it’s their job!), and for a lot of men, it probably doesn’t pass their minds to do this at all. Because, like with the water example above, someone else will do it. Hence men can also get in a position where they lack independence because they let someone else do things they should learn to do themselves. Only, unlike the odd jobs, cooking and cleaning up (and all cleaning!) is a lot more time consuming.

The issue with the barbecues boils doen to this: it’s a problem if one gender has to do all the ‘undesirable’ work (preparing salads, putting plates out, cleaning up, washing plates, cooking and cleaning the rest of the time) whilst the other does what is seen as desirable (lighting the fire, cooking the meat, lazing around).

Virginia // Posted 12 August 2008 at 9:03 am

I suddenly feel so proud of my partner for cleaning the grill after he BBQs!

I’ve never really considered it an imposition when he does a BBQ, probably because we have a pretty fair division of chores (or he does more). I trust him with it because I know he has the patience to cook things long enough, however if another man tries to muscle in (as a friend of ours did last time) my partner will spend the whole evening telling me everything that guy is doing wrong and insist on cooking his own food longer.

I guess really I am agreeing with the above, in that the most qualified person should do the BBQ and that a penis is not a qualification – skill is.

Ellie // Posted 12 August 2008 at 10:03 am

Tell me if this won’t work for some reason, and I understand not wanting to cause a major scene at someone elses’ house, but if its your house, or you have previously been doing the bbq and a guy takes over, how about telling him to fuck off?

Seriously, why have all of you just let that happen? I’d be well pissed off if someone, regardless of gender, did that to me, why did you just walk away?

Fran // Posted 12 August 2008 at 10:10 am

Our barbecue almost turned out the same way. When setting up, my friends split into two groups — men doing the bbq, women in the kitchen making the salad — as if this division of labour didn’t even need thinking about. When I pointed out the sexism, I was told (by a woman) “oh, it’s only a barbecue, why does it matter?”

Luckily, though, the men soon realised that they didn’t actually know what they were doing, and the same woman took over the barbecue and made the men do the dishes afterwards. There’s hope for us yet!

SM // Posted 12 August 2008 at 3:44 pm

I know this is a slight tangent, but it has been annoying me for ages. Last Christmas my family bought my young cousin a toy involving making robots to do different things.It was probably a bit old for him, and more complicated than we had expected, so I got out the instructions and started fiddling with the wires etc. and helping him build it (partly for something to do as the girly presents I had got were boring). Wherupon my grandfather says “She’ll make someone a good wife someday.” I was building a bloody robot!

Cara // Posted 12 August 2008 at 4:14 pm

Shev – that guy sounds like a very rude person.

Taking someone else’s mouse should be punishable by death. I have a colleague who will do that when showing me something (sadly, he is training me to take over his post when he leaves so that is often) and it REALLY bugs me. OF COURSE I will be slower, I don’t KNOW the stuff – that’s why he’s training me – and unless the work is urgent (which is isn’t) does a few seconds really matter? It’s just so rude.

Lara the Second – ha, I boiled an egg for the first time recently and had to look it up on the Internet (since I did at least realise it might kinda explode all over the place if I did it wrong). I didn’t realise it was so complicated! (I’m 27).

At least I did look it up though, which is probably cos I don’t have a male ego :-)

Tony – I completely agree with the others. Especially when Anne Onne said that the little things add up to the big things.

I really do hate the way some women act all helpless and girlie to get the guys in the workplace to do anything remotely physical – or technical (cos IT is GUY stuff! Women cannot possibly sort out computer glitches!).

Even though as has been said, men aren’t necessarily all that much stronger – not all men are hulking 6ft gym addicts, and not all women are frail delicate flowers.

If women are physically capable of lifting the water, they should take their turn, and if not, your company should get equipment so they can (and men should use it as well, since lifting heavy loads is very bad for you).

Relatedly, I recently went to the pub with work colleagues, being a Friday evening it was packed, and there weren’t enough seats. I was encouraged – by women as well – to get the last one, over a man. Happens he is 40 something with arthritis and I am 27 and healthy. I was pretty appalled and refused to sit, prompting every guy, every 5 seconds, to keep insisting I sit in their seat, so I wandered round the pub until I found a sray stool to nick. Jeez. The hassle. I didn’t mind standing for a bit, really I didn’t, and everyone could have taken turns!

Sabre // Posted 12 August 2008 at 5:06 pm

Ah yes, the politics of sitting! I’ve been in similar situations many times. Heaven forbid that a woman stands while a man sits. If a man sits down on a tube train while there’s a perfectly healthy (and non-pregnant) woman still standing he sometimes gets dirty looks for not offering the seat to her first. My boyfriend and I went out with friends not long ago and there weren’t enough seats. I made him sit down as his shoes were hurting and mine were comfy. Cue funny looks from his mates about what a gentleman he WASN’T and them offering me their seats mockingly. He got up eventually. Honestly I’m not one for chivalry, particularly as it often has no logical reasonable basis.

Conversely in the muslim extended family I grew up in I noticed that at special occasions where there weren’t enough seats the men ALWAYS got to sit in chairs, usually with tables to eat off, while the women took whatever else was available; sofas, the floor or even standing around in the kitchen. No chivalry there, just plain old ‘men are better than women’ attitudes. Of course we had to stand by for clearing up and washing the dishes after they’d eaten the food we had cooked (I say ‘we’ but actually I only helped a little as I was a wee kiddie then and haven’t been to such gatherings for a long time, thankfully)

Actually chivalry again can be part of a ‘men are better than women’ attitude if the reason for chivalry is based on the assumption that the woman is somehow weaker and less able to stand/open doors etc. But women are pretty complicit in this too.

Perhaps we should all rebel more against gender roles? I will always admire my little bro for refusing to sit with the men at a family gathering, he sat with the women instead and bore the snide comments. He was only 10 years old.

Rhona // Posted 12 August 2008 at 10:27 pm

“I couldn’t give a flying fuck about serving well-prepared food with a minimum of fuss at a BBQ. Give me the 6ft high flames. It’s a BBQ, not a dinner party!”

Personally, if I go round to somebody’s house for dinner, whether it’s cooked indoors or out, I prefer to come home with my guts in roughly the same macrobiological order that I set out with.

Call me a tool of the patriarchy if you will, but as I said, IN MY EXPERIENCE, women tend to give more of a flying fuck about whether or not food’s cooked properly.

Maybe I need to go to more BBQs. :)

Sarah // Posted 13 August 2008 at 9:03 am

The chivalry thing is incredibly annoying – I get that people are often just trying to be polite, so I try not to be too ungracious about it, but sometimes it does just make things inconvenient for everyone – like the situation with the chairs Cara described, or negotiating a doorway turns into a huge complicated dance as men try to find some way of holding the door and making me go through ahead of them, when it would have been easier for everyone, including me, if they’d just gone through the door normally.

I have no problem with politeness – it’s good manners to hold the door for someone just behind you, especially if they have their hands full. It’s polite and considerate to offer your seat to someone who looks like they might be less able to stand for whatever reason (pregnant, elderly, has relevant disability or injury etc – though if they say ‘no thanks, I’m fine’ you should leave it at that. If someone’s obviously struggling to lift of move something, it’s nice if you offer to give them a hand.

The annoying thing is this hugely complex set of unwritten rules about who should do what, and when, and in what order, depending on the genders of the people involved. Being rather ignorant about social niceties I tend to find this all a bit puzzling anyway, and wouldn’t it be easier if we didn’t bother with that, and just tried to treat each other with respect and consideration as fellow human beings?

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