Men are doctors, women are nurses.
Men are managers, women are secretaries.
Men are police officers and fire fighters, women are school teachers and homemakers.
If that seems wrong to you, congratulations, you are recognizing sexism. Sexism is the biased treatment of people based on their biological sex or gender presentation. Sexism is demonstrated at all levels of social organization, from individuals and families to governments and cultures. It takes the form of assumptions, speech, behavior, policies, and even laws. It hurts both women and men, though women experience more of the economic harm and have been more vocal in opposing sexism. If it seems obvious to you today that women can be doctors just as well as men, you can thank the women’s rights movement of the 1960’s. Now let’s try another one:
Men are leads, women are follows.
If that doesn’t seem wrong to you, that’s okay, but it means you need to think more about it. Hopefully this article will help.
The problem with having men lead and women follow is…well, actually there are lots of problems with it. It means that people don’t get to find out which role they like better, women don’t get to dance with each other, people don’t learn the whole dance, gays are excluded, and on and on and on. But let’s focus here on something bigger than dancing: it hurts the movement for equality.
Out there in the world, in our movies and books, in advertisements and YouTube comments, in our secret thoughts and assumptions, there are all sorts of beliefs about how men and women are different, and women are less than men. Men are stronger, smarter, more aggressive, more analytical. Women are emotional, irrational, sexy, vulnerable, and in need of protection. These are bad beliefs about the fundamental worth of human beings, and they make bad things happen, things like rape and domestic violence. We are all being exposed to these messages every day, and they push us to have less acceptance of our selves and less respect for each other.
When we gender our dance, we are on the side of the sexist messaging. We are creating a dance community where we act as if men and women are different, and women are less than men.
It’s not that following is somehow less than leading. Leading and following are both awesome things to do. Each one is a challenging, rewarding role rich with responsibility, communication, and complexity, and there is a lot of overlap between the two in terms of the skills you need and the experiences you get to have. But they are different, and there is a hierarchy between them. Leading involves more responsibility for the other person than following, more responsibility for initiating and guiding. So if we have men lead by default, then we are promoting the hierarchy of men over women.
This is bad for us. It’s bad for the men who are receiving the messages that they should always know what to do and be in control. It’s bad for the women receiving the messages that we are not equipped for leadership, that we are meant to be in supporting roles. It’s bad for us in our dance communities, where it invites men to talk down to women about our dancing, sexualize us and our dancing, and see following as “easy” and “women’s work.” It’s bad for us when we go back out into our real lives, our relationships and our jobs where men and women are supposed to be treated as equals but of course we really aren’t. It makes us that much less likely to see the discrimination we experience or believe that we can stand up for ourselves when we do see it.
And some of us don’t want to admit it. Maybe we don’t even want to admit that we experience sexism in the rest of our lives, but we especially don’t want to admit that our dance is sexist. Our dance, which is so full of joy and freedom. Our communities, where we feel so safe and supported, where we have so many friends, where we can go and be silly and be ourselves. We do not want to criticize this beautiful, unique space or the experience of dancing with each other.
So don’t criticize it. Don’t get down on swing dancing. Instead, learn to separate the dancing from the sexist messages that have been mixed in with it. Learn to ask people whether they would like to lead or follow instead of making assumptions based on their gender. Take a class in the gender-reversed role, and ask the teacher to use gender-neutral language. Help reverse the messaging for yourself and the people around you, so that you leave dances not only with the music still playing in your head, but also hearing the quiet messages, “men and women are just people,” “leadership is not gendered.”
Leadership should never be gendered.