There are human characteristics – appearances, mental traits, rights, and duties – which all humans have in common, and that there are also characteristics a particular human will have which depend on his or her sex. The existence of this distinction in characteristics – human versus male or female – is not debatable. All human beings have a head. Not all human beings have a penis. The extent of each category I recognize as debatable, and I would say that the current question popularly posed in this area is whether the characteristics which differ by sex extend beyond the merely physical, although we also consider how we deal with the physical differences.
However, many modern feminists, egalitarians, and anti-sexists have become carried away with academic, social, and legal success and are beginning to make ludicrous claims which make no sense if examined closely. Although I admit I have myself used them derogatively, none of those terms or movements are inherently problematic. Feminist and anti-sexist agendas claim to remedy problems imposed by overly patriarchal or traditional societies, and few people deny that some problems, at least, exist. Egalitarians – at base – look for an admission of equal human dignity, which – although actual egalitarians’ arguments and ideals often diminish human dignity by refusing to admit human responsibility in many areas – is clearly a worthy goal.
But the simple fact is that the extremists in these movements have taken a dislike to the reality that the human race is composed of two sexes, neither more nor less (though you can get to three if you count the clergy or the French, depending on your preferred joke), and that these two sexes have some inherent differences. This ideological distaste for the reality of sex-determined characteristics has become so pronounced among these extremists that any activity which assigns different roles to the different sexes is looked on with suspicion. But I want to talk about those mistakes as mistakes and not confound the mistakes with the good work. The general mistake I have therefore labeled “misoheterism” – fake Greek indicating a dislike, hate, or distrust of differences.
Now for the big reveal! This post has nothing to do with marriage. I think the egalitarian efforts on that subject are absurd, bizarre, badly-reasoned, and in fact an example of this misoheterism, but under my two categories of human characteristics I can at least comprehend the argument that human sexuality is a identical feeling across the sexes, thus trumping biological differences. More to the point, human sexuality – and therefore marriage – is a matter important to humanity as a species (especially to the survival of the species). I therefore cannot object to the mere fact that someone questions a traditional understanding, if he believes that understanding wrong.
On the other hand, given the existence of sex-determined characteristics, when a trivial pursuit is attacked for assigning roles based on sex, I cannot even respect the questioner. And that is what is happening now in the swing dancing scene. Lest you think I am making this up, here are a couple samples: Shhh, Don’t Tell: Swing Dancing is Sexist; and Solving Sexism in the Lindy Hop Community. Read through at least one of them: the first is concerned, ideologically, with the fact that men are “leads”; the second I have a bit more respect for as the author is concerned with improving that elusive thing known as “connection” – unfortunately, her “solution” is also ideology-driven.
The first article, from “Ambidancetrous”, I am simply going to reject out of hand. There is nothing wrong with “sexism”, if by “sexism” all you mean is “assigning different roles to people of different sexes for an activity”. Finding problems with it is as absurd as alleging “weightism” as a reason a football coach puts the three hundred pound guy on the line instead of split out wide. People are different. Deal with it. But even assuming the origins were truly sexist (by this I mean something assigned unwillingly and against a real human unity shared by the sexes), the activity itself does not stand condemned if people still enjoy it. (Although it is beside the point, I do not think that swing – and other traditional dances’ – lead-follow model is sexist, but rather reflects actual difference. I do see where someone could differ – but I do not see why the origin matters now.)
“Rebecca Brightly”, on the other hand, demands a more nuanced answer. For one thing, she is not entirely wrong. There are types of Lindy dancing where “lead” and “follow” language is not particularly helpful, individual styling is much more important, and her idea of “conversation” is very useful. As a beginner in the grand scheme of swing, I would say a lot Charleston and Charleston-inspired stuff falls into this more individualistic category – even when dancing with a partner. It is even more true for a lot of the line and circle dances. I am also pretty bad at all of those things, and the idea of me pontificating on Lindy styling is fairly ludicrous.
On the other hand, there are Lindy types in which her attempt to reduce both roles to “conversationalists” is a mistake. At the very least, it would create something which would in fact be an entirely new style of Lindy – which, of course, is neither a new thing (yes, I just said that the creation of new styles of swing is not new, which, duh) nor a bad thing (and many people might enjoy it more). But it would be a different style.
Let me demonstrate with a simple example. Consider inside and outside turns. These are perhaps the most basic “traditional” moves, and more or less shared by many other dance forms. The lead – which is of course traditionally the man – signals a turn and the follow follows in the indicated direction. Of course, these turns can be dressed up – extra turns for the follow, additional moves for the lead in the meanwhile, flourishes from the follow which the lead must of course accommodate, and so forth
Yet to change the lead-follow form of the move is to change the move. What changes does the “conversation” motif suggest? That the follow sometimes take the initiative; two possible results suggest themselves:
First, that the follow sometimes “requests” the turn. This of course happens often enough – usually verbally – that it is hardly a new element – and the move itself retains the same form, and since the follow still depends on the lead, the supposed “sexism” remains just as much in force.
Second, that the follow leads the lead through the move reversed. This is where it seems to me the “conversation” idea, applied to more strictly lead-follow dance forms, turns instead into a new style, without affecting any real change in the old style: it requires a lead willing to not lead at times – in fact for the sake of argument willing to split the lead equally – making the lead and follow terms rather silly and mere residues of the older style this new concept derives from, if in fact they continue in use at all. Not a bad thing, this new style, but it does not “fix” the old style in which the lead is a lead – unless it replaced it completely, which, humanity being human, is somewhere between “exceedingly doubtful” and “resembling the chances of Frosty being comfortable for long in a Very Hot Place”. And even then, the SCA or whoever would dig it up ten years later.
What the author suggests as a solution really is not one, or at least is not a general solution. The method with more promise is her intermediate step, what she calls a “Giant Step Forward”: asking dancers to learn, and practice, and dance, both lead and follow roles without prejudice. This at least has the virtue of realism – it preserves the form of the dance while muting the “sexist” overtones she finds objectionable. But now we find ourselves back where “Ambidancetrous” started: demanding conformity to some ideological concept, refusing to admit the differences – or at least any use to the differences – between the human sexes.
So far I have been talking about Lindy as a particular thing, without considering the general context. Considered without context, the “sexism” concerns about Lindy – or any other dance – are fairly silly. But I grant that in context, the emotional concern – if not the logical one – gains more validity. If patriarchal abuses are a real and continuing problem, and society can be improved by widening the scope of activity or authority we assign by mere humanity rather than by sex, then perhaps we want to re-evaluate how we amuse ourselves: the jokes we tell, the friends we make, and yes, the way we dance.
On the other hand, let us reason the other way for a minute. Since there are two sexes, there was no reason not to, for the purpose of a dance, designate one as a “lead”. Similarly there is no particular reason that, for the ordering of society, one sex not be socially designated as a “lead”. The fact that the vast majority of human societies throughout history have done this, and have so designated the male of the species (and yes, I am one), is at least two things: first, it is a fascinating anthropological phenomenon, or even a psychosis if we assume the sexes are most essentially coequal; second (and alternatively), it is perhaps evidence that “patriarchy” – if by this we mean nothing more than a habit of male rule, and assume decent behavior from all concerned – is not inherently evil, unless we wish to condemn most of humanity’s moral judgment. But to come back to the point, it also appears to make the condemnation of current Lindy fashions as “sexist” more a commentary on modern taste than an absolute judgment.
Oh, and above all: this is a recreational activity. Calm down about The Fate of Society and just dance.