Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Titanic Equality

You're on the Titanic II. It has just hit an iceberg and is sinking. And, as last time, there are not enough lifeboats. The captain shouts, "Women and children first!" 

But this time, another voice is heard: "Why women?"

Because she let you draw her naked.
Why, indeed? Part of the charm of the cosmically successful movie Titanic is the period costume, period extravagance, period class prejudice. An audience can enjoy these at a distance. Oddly, however, of all the period mores in the film, the old maritime tradition of "women and children first" enjoys total acceptance by modern audiences. Listen to the booing and hissing at the onscreen heavies who try to sneak on with--or ahead of--the ladies.

But is not grouping women with children a raging anachronism? Should not any self-respecting modern person, let alone feminist, object to it as patronizing and demeaning to women? Yet its usuage is as common today as it was in 1912. Consider these examples taken almost at random from recent newspapers:
Dateline Mexico: "Members of a paramilitary group gunned down the Indians, most of them women and children... "
Dateline Burundi: "As many as 200 civilians, most of them women and children, were killed... "

Dateline Croatia: "Kupreskic was named in an open indictment... for the massacre in Ahmici in which 103 Muslims, including 33 women and children, were killed... "
At a time when women fly combat aircraft, how can one not wince when adult women are routinely classed with children? In Ahmici, it seems, 70 adult men were killed. Adult women? Not clear. When things get serious, when blood starts to flow or ships start to sink, you'll find them with the children.

Yup, even this kid gets to go before you.
Now, children are entitled to special consideration for two reasons: helplessness and innocence. They have not yet acquired either the faculty of reason or the wisdom of experience. Consequently, they are defenseless (incapable of fending for themselves) and blameless (incapable of real sin).

That is why we grant them special protection. In an emergency, it is our duty to save them first because they, helpless, have put their lives in our hands. And in wartime, they are supposed to enjoy special immunity because they, blameless, can have threatened or offended no one.

"Women and children" attributes to women the same pitiable dependence and moral simplicity we find in five-year-olds. Such an attitude made sense perhaps in an era of male suffrage and "Help Wanted: Female" classifieds. Given the disabilities attached to womanhood in 1912, it was only fair and right that a new standard of gender equality not suddenly be proclaimed just as lifeboat seats were being handed out. That deference--a somewhat more urgent variant of giving up your seat on the bus to a woman--complemented and perhaps compensated for the legal and social constraints placed on women at the time.

But in this day of the most extensive societal restructuring to grant women equality in education, in employment, in government, in athletics, in citizenship writ large, what entitles women to the privileges--and reduces them to the status--of children?

The evolutionary psychologists might say that ladies- to-the-lifeboats is an instinct that developed to perpetuate the species: women are indispensable child bearers. You can repopulate a village if the women survive and only a few of the men, but you cannot repopulate a village if the men survive and only a few of the women. Women being more precious, biologically speaking, than men, evolution has conditioned us to give them the kind of life-protecting deference we give to that other seed of the future, kids.

The problem with this kind of logic, however, is its depressing reductionism. It recapitulates in all seriousness the geneticist's old witticism that a chicken is just an egg's way of making another egg.

But humans are more than just egg layers. And chivalrous traditions are more than just disguised survival strategies. So why do we say "women and children"? Perhaps it's really "women for children." The most basic parental bond is maternal. Equal parenting is great--it has forced men to get off their duffs--but women, from breast to cradle to cuddle, can nurture in ways that men cannot. And thus, because we value children--who would deny them first crack at the lifeboats?--women should go second. The children need them.

But kiddie-centrism gets you only so far.

What if there are no children on board?

You are on the Titanic III, a singles cruise. No kids, no moms, no dads. Now: Iceberg! Lifeboats! Action!

Here's my scenario. The men, out of sheer irrational gallantry, should let the women go first. And the women, out of sheer feminist self-respect, should refuse.

Result? Stalemate. How does this movie end? How should it end? Hurry, the ship's going down.

"Rock Paper Scissors for it?"


Rachel said...

The women should go first because, lets face it, are the men really going to take care of all the kids?

But you do have a good point about women and children always being grouped together, I have no answer to that.

HKR said...

Assuming men wouldn't take care of their kids is just as ignorant and naive as constantly putting women and kids together.

I know just as many bad moms and I do dads. Gender has nothing to do with someone's willingness to be a good parent.