IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
So spake ‘Joanne’ in a recent interview with Christina Stamenitis for Neos Kosmos English Edition. Ostensibly, the stated aim of the interview was to “speak to some Australian Greek women about their expectations of relationships and marriage.” What emerged however, was a diatribe against Greek males to put even the most vehement histrionics of this diatribist to shame, with ‘Joanne’ and two of her friends, all in their early to late thirties, expounding the disastrous manner in which these males fall short of their expectations.
Such public disapprobation of Greek males by Greek females is nothing new and has its roots deep in antiquity, where the dialectic between a patriarchal society and one dominated by women absorbed the early mythologists and writers. It is therefore no accident that Agave, queen of Thebes, also happened to be the bacchic god Dionysius’ aunt and that she led the bacchantes away from the rule of their menfolk into the woods, tearing to pieces any men that would chance upon their dionysiac frenzy. Euripides’ Media on the other hand is a supreme example of a woman obtaining her comeuppance against a cruel and heartless patriarchal society that condones adultery, through her killing her children. A more humorous and less shocking example of Greek female public disapprobation of Greek males comes from Aristophanes’ Lysistrati, where the women of Athens refused to sleep with their men until such time as they ended the Peloponnesian War. Talk about affirmative action.
Much of the context of this modern day triad of Lysistrates’ complaints against Greek men are also not new. According to the interviewees Greek men are irresponsible, lazy, attached to their mothers, incapable of doing any productive work or looking after themselves, chauvinistic, disrespectful, misogynistic, unable to relate to women and thoroughly imperfect. They expect their women to be sex objects and housemaids and certainly do not look upon their partners as equals. They are definitely not marriage material. The interviewees point to several factors that contribute to the parlous state of Greek masculinity, a mollycoddled and privileged upbringing being one of the major ones, and another being a Greek society that of its own accord relegates a lower, submissive role to women and has refused to move with the times.
The interviewees make some valid points. Anyone who has been to a traditional Greek party or barbeque (yes, these are now traditional) will have observed the older men standing outside and the older women invariably inside and anyone who has been to a traditional Greek kafeneio will note to their disgust the hideous things that the older generation as well as a few misfits in their thirties to forties have to say about women. There are definitely Greek men whose approach to women is predatory and others who are dismissive of them. Yet what is not made clear from the interviewees’ long list of complaints is the extent that ‘Greek culture,’ is at any way responsible for these attitudes or whether this can be attributed to a generation gap, individual character or other factors.
For the fact remains that while most of the interviewees’ observations struck a chord with me, especially the NUGAS throwing eggs at the lesbians incident and the instances of incapable Greek males being mollycoddled at home, much of what informed their opinion seemed old and well…. outdated. Most of the observations made could certainly be attributed to certain sections of the first generation. Back in the sixties and seventies, social life could certainly be tough for a Greek girl and it was her family and social surrounds that made it that way. Much of what the interviewees had to say reminded me of my aunts’ complaints about the difficulties they experienced in growing up in Australia. Yet today, thirty or so years on, surely the antifeminist and patriarchal outlook on life has been tempered in males of the first generation. I can name countless examples of couples living together in perfect harmony, the husband sharing in the cooking and the shopping, absolutely adoring his partner, permitting his daughters free reign to live their lives as they see fit and similarly countless examples where in fact the wife is the dominant partner in the relationship. Hang around Coburg Market for a while and watch henpecked Greek pensioners apprehensively choose fruit beneath the glaring eyes of their wives and you will see what I mean. This then is today’s reality and we would do well to consider this before we offer a stereotyped, time-warped picture of our society as this does not lead to a helpful debate on gender relations.
How much this chauvinistic perception of Greek males has become enshrined in stereotype can be evidenced by the fact that when I asked female friends aged between 18-30 whether the interviewees’ perceptions of Greek males were accurate, they all invariably laughed and replied in the affirmative. When closely questioned however, and requested to provide examples of how their husbands, boyfriends, fathers or brothers fit into the mould of the incompetent, chauvinistic Greek male, they found to their surprise that their initial impression was incorrect. The few examples that some of them were able to come up with were more relevant to the individual males’ character, rather than his ethnicity and they were different faults each time. Yet the endoracist conception of Greek males persists, at least on a superficial level.
Interestingly enough, most of the Greek females I spoke to found they had nothing in common with the interviewees. All were brought up by indulgent parents who certainly did not try to restrict them or demean them in any way because of their gender and all were outspoken, independent women enjoying a lifestyle of their own choosing. Even the girls who had enjoyed “bad relationships” with Greek males had the perspicacity to be able to distinguish between their individual experiences and the fallacy of drawing broad based assumptions, especially given that as opposed to thirty years ago, the Greek community is much more diverse and multi-faceted than it is today and therefore, the facility to make such assumptions, is significantly diminished.
It would be the height of folly then to have as a point of reference with regard to gender relationships within the community, a standard only partially set, thirty to forty years ago. While one of the interviewees, Evi states that her conception of marriage is one where “I can ring up and say ‘not coming home tonight – going out for a drink or a movie with friends” implying that this could never be the case with a Greek husband, it seems that what her statement is actually a reaction to, is a patriarchal society that has long passed us by. Today, in the aftermath of gender equality and the feminist movement in the western world, the vast majority of females and especially that of Greek females, either in Greece or Australia enjoys an unprecedented equality. Greek females in this country can with the full support of their family, friends and partners, pick their own careers, make their own life decisions and stand up and make themselves heard. Many of these have Greek partners who are extraordinarily capable of looking after themselves in the domestic household and enjoy sharing these tasks. Many have partners particularly attuned to their needs and sensitivities and they expressed wonderment as to why domesticity was such an issue with the ‘emancipated’ interviewees. This is especially true of the younger generations who enjoy largely the same lifestyle as all other Australian girls and whose mothers do not expect them to bear the burden of domestic chores in the household and it is a shame that the three interviewees, while they espouse feminism, are so ensconced in the shadows of a partially illusory past, that they cannot understand the reality of their younger sisters. That there will always be chauvinistic attitudes within the community cannot be disputed. However, to claim that today’s 18-30 year old shares his grandfather’s opinions on women, is to stretch the truth a tad.
Before one wonders why this diatribe is not entitled “In defence of Greek masculinity,” it should be noted that many young Greek males share equally stereotyped and illusory impressions of Greek women. While married Greek males or those with partners tend to consider generalisations impossible, disaffected Greek males, being those who are single and unable to get a girl or those who have had a bad experience generally have this to say: Greek women are spoilt by their mothers and constantly rely on the parents for money. They indulge in power play against their mother in law in order to break her hold on their husbands. They control their husbands totally. They are outspoken and have bad tempers. They think housework is demeaning and will not do it. They are suspicious and closed-minded. They are selfish and obsessed with their own self-image and weddings. They are materialistic and have to have the best clothes and furniture, leaching the pockets of Greek males…” Need I go on? Maybe the old adage that words spoken in bitterness should never be spoken at all is true. Especially given that bitterness tends to warp ones’ sense of reality.
At the end of the day, what seems to be behind the mutual stereotyped antipathy between young Greek females and males is the bitterness felt by many in not being able to conform to another stereotype, that of the necessity of a homogenous ‘pure’ Greek, marriage. It is this bitterness which precludes certain disaffected persons from viewing their community objectively and that is a great pity. In this respect, emphasis upon one finding a partner suited to one’s own individual needs rather than the need to fit a stereotype could remedy this situation, for it is a strange and unnatural thing to loathe one’s own people or to denigrate them. And in the end, if your partner, your stereotype or your bitterness still doesn’t suit you, do as Lysistrati did and amorously starve it into submission.