Friday, January 8, 2010

The Value of Sexual Dimorphism Illustrated by Cesar Milan and Laura Kinsale

(is that a totally geeked-out sciencey title or what? huzzah!)

Have you ever had a vague idea of something in your head and then the luck to come by someone with the same idea but with a far superior ability to express said idea? Then, in your continued lucky stumbling through life, you come by another someone who has written a book perfectly illustrating said idea? If not, let me assure you that it is a very satisfying experience.

When I was a kid I had the idea that to be a strong, modern woman a girl must adopt traditionally masculine qualities and scoff at traditionally feminine qualities. It's easy to think that such an idea is the kind of simplistic interpretation that a kid would use for a sophisticated topic -and oh how I wish that was true - but if you take a moment to look around it becomes clear that the crazy idea I once had was probably not my own, has certainly not died, currently permeates media and, sadly, can even be observed in many of my adult peers.

Additionally, I was adamant that there were no differences between men and women; and that whatever a woman could do so could a man and vice versa. And while, in the broadest sense, I do still believe that to an extent, the attitude does disservice to the importance of the feminine and the masculine working in concert to achieve a goal.

So as the years went by my mind was preoccupied with the idea that gender equality, while an essential aspect of any society, didn't actually go far enough. What we needed was to truly value what both the feminine and the masculine brought to the table. And if I may be so bold as to speak for Cesar Milan I think he's had the same idea. (sidenote: I'm a huge fan of Cesar Milan's life philosophy and outlook - even if you're not that interested in dog behavior it is worth your time to watch or read Milan's work, his message is a real eye opener.) But he's clearly more articulate than me because he discarded the limiting terms feminine and masculine and detailed his idea of a balanced individual in the beginning of Be the Pack Leader. Yes, it's a book about working with your dogs but, as always, he starts with human behavior as that is often what needs to be changed.

Milan describes four areas of our lives that need to be in balance - and I must say again, even if you're not interested in dog behavior the book is worth reading for his interesting description of a balanced individual. I was particularly struck with his comments on p. 3 regarding the emotional area of our lives. A brief quote: "I believe that countries like Mexico [Milan's birth country] can never be healthy societies until they learn the importance of emotions--and to value women and children, which is where most of the world's emotional power currently lies." This is an astute observation that I think highlights the imbalance of the values of traditionally patriarchal societies (i.e. all societies! I'd love to be wrong on this so please start sending me a bunch of examples of matriarchal societies - or better yet, a society that balances the two). There's not room here to go into the whys and exceptions to this rule but it's generally true that characteristics traditionally assigned to the masculine are valued more than those traditionally assigned to the feminine.

Milan proposes that individuals ought to find the balance of these aspects within themselves - and I think that a worthy pursuit - but we individuals often have particular strengths and particular weaknesses. Whether these be gender-based, rearing-based (new word combo?), education-based, etc they often exist and if we fall short on the balance within ourselves why not take the fantastic opportunity to work within a balanced community? I'm not suggesting that we exploit those around us to better gain our goals but that we truly value those characteristics that, as a society, we have often belittled. I suggest that we move beyond both the historical focus of masculine pursuits being more worthy than feminine pursuits and the modern focus that there's no difference making us all the same. I suggest we embrace the idea that each is worthy and valuable and one without the other results in poor leadership and a fractured community.

And what luck but that I should find an example of this philosophy in Laura Kinsale's Shadowheart. I mentioned this book before and said I would come back to it again just for this reason. WARNING: Spoilers for this book to follow!!

A brief description of characters/plot as is relevant to this post: Three families have struggled for supremacy in the city-state of Monteverde for generations. Violence, intrigue and betrayal have been the strategies of choice leaving the region in the grip of instability and fear. The city-state is currently under the rule of the Riata family. Allegreto, of the Navona family, is an intelligent, ruthless assassin. He is the last of the Navona line, currently exiled, and on the cusp of initiating a takeover. Elena di Monteverde (raised in England) is the rightful heir to the last ruling monarch and - after a brief, tumultuous affair with Allegreto - thwarts the plans of the Riata and Navona families by refusing them both and assuming the reins of power on her own. And boy howdy it's a clusterfuck she's decided to take over. Intrigue within intrigue surrounds the Monteverde ruler leaving her with very few people to trust. Also, she must deny the passionate love she feels for Allegreto to maintain the impartiality her subjects desperately need. Elena must reconcile the warring factions of Monteverde even as she is beset with betrayals that those around her intimate come from those she trusts most. So what does all this have to do with anything? Elena is a determined and smart lady. She knows she can't accomplish her goals alone and so wisely utilizes the expertise of her closest advisers. And so now we have the perfect set-up for Kinsale to illustrate the power of the feminine and masculine working together. (sidenote 2: Kinsale is a master of characterization and Shadowheart is a crowning achievement. Allegreto and Elena will blow your mind. Alone or together they are so who they are and watching them develop through this book is a treat not to be missed.)

It's convenient for clarity that our traditionally masculine characteristics are embodied by Allegreto and the feminine by Elena. However, I'd like to make clear that I don't think that always is or need be the case. I'm simply using feminine and masculine as crutches to embody a grouping of characteristics typically assigned to a particular gender. And - to review - the whole point of this post is to illustrate that they are equally valuable and essential no matter which gender actually exhibits these qualities.

Ok, back to it. These families have been warring for supremacy by all means possible except diplomacy. Assassins, hostages, armed combat, you name it and they've done it. And in this generation (and I would venture to guess over many generations) Allegreto is one of the best at these strategies. Shaped as the perfect weapon by his father it hasn't occurred to him that there might be another way. Likewise, his rival from the Riata family would happily kill him on sight rather than entertain the notion of alternate strategies. When the two men meet they mean to fight to the death. Enter Elena, and she put it so well that I will use her own words: "You will not. Enough." She almost lost Allegreto, whose life she will save even if they cannot be together, and she's seen the grip of fear the people of Monteverde live under. Furious, she says, "I will not let them destroy it like this."

And so begins our most excellent example of the feminine and masculine working together for the health of the community. As I mentioned above, one of Elena's strengths is knowing what she can and can't accomplish alone. When she needs help or advice she is not afraid to ask for it. She had a traitor in her mint, she's got an army of mercenaries that betray her and someone is making it look like the Riata and Navona families are still fighting. In the midst of this, Elena is still willing to ask for help, to trust. She's intelligent, observant, willing to listen, and she has the uncanny ability to see what motivates those around her and adapt to it. But she doesn't understand ambition, aggression, and zealous protection of territory. Allegreto understands these characteristics perfectly well (and Philip, too, but this post is tome-like enough as it is so the awesomeness that is Philip gets only this brief mention) and so can recognize them when they threaten Elena and Monteverde.

The key here is that without both of them peace would not have come to Monteverde. The values of the community were skewed so far in one direction that instead of attaining the power and stability that were possible the community had doomed themselves to a debilitating catch-22. Even Allegreto, an extremely accomplished individual with an intimate connection to Monteverde (vs. Elena who was raised outside the region), was not able to see the true needs of the region because his imbalance mirrored that of the community.

So let me suggest that the next time you find yourself in a "battle of the sexes" that you rethink the need for supremacy on the field and instead value all the players.

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