Gender Bender ‘specially where it’s Tender

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Publisher: Harper Collins Canada, 2016

If you have ever hoped to beat heteronormativity or longed for a more gender-equal world, Stephen Marche is here to shatter that dream for you. The Unmade Bed (with commentary – in footnotes and edits – by editor and wife Sarah Fulford, the youngest Editor-in-Chief of a magazine in Canada he proudly shares) exfoliates the notion of there being any real or recognizable gender divide or apocalyptic gender wars in the twenty-first century North American middle-class rigmarole of domesticity, workplace and society.

His subtitle, the messy truth about men and women in the 21st century, hints at the fact that men and women are equalizing in unprecedented ways thanks to innate economics and necessity. There is an increased participation of women in work, greater share of female representation on corporate boards (not enough, but noticeable), a growing population of stay-at-home dads and higher levels of laundry-level engagement from menfolk. The improved earning power of women (their growing status, achievements, educated droves, more women with better middle class jobs now than males and their higher employment to population ratios[1]) is unsettling (setting right) the equation between men and women. Competition, greed and hunger for more money and better middle class jobs is breaking down gender glass-walls, as men look to move upwards, marrying up, sleeping up and hustling higher.

“We want equality, but sex is not equal. We want desire, but desire is not just” (Marche 140).

Marche is right, the relationship most sacrosanct to many heterosexuals is not just hard to level, it’s near impossible. The double standards in the evolution of language make “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” not imply the same relationship, setting a different bar for friendship in relation to the sexes as if the equation wasn’t already tilted against the woman. Achieving equality in a marriage is like striving for a platonic relationship; how could an equal marriage even thrive, he wonders! From Solonit to Steinem, he takes on leading feminists over the ages, explaining his battle with each one’s discourse: their existence in isolation. “The feminism of choice is not inherently progressive; It is indifferent to but also transcends the content of women in culture,” he says. The world doesn’t need male feminists anyway, he adds. Because the feminist guys are fakes, standups, and hypocrites who say one thing and do another, wreaking damaging moral consequences on a naïve expectant world. The world needs decent guys instead, he proposes. It’s a thought with high relevance even outside Hollywood.

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Remember Maureen Dowd’s book “Are Men Necessary?” with that cover picture of a woman in a red dress in a subway train being ogled by many men on all fronts as she lowers her gaze into the kindle/book, 90’s style? She raised important questions for her time. This book comes at the same issues with a new line of questioning: is mess the metaphor for good health and perhaps the best, or is there something else in the near or far distance that couples are losing sight of in their race to the “top”? Stephen Marche’s own near-perfect marriage offers anecdotes and learnings as a stay-at-home dad, academic, participant and observer,  spouse of the professional climber, and largely believer. It is time for achieving gender-complementarity instead, a grouping of efforts and strengths to create a better (more practical, practicable) sustainable match. Doesn’t sound very different from the followership-leadership dynamic/module, except that love is love and nobody wants to compare marriage to work even in their worst nightmares; an investment, yes, a big shiny trophy yes, even socioeconomic pressure to marry, yes, but marriage as self-employment? Nobody likes that analogy.

In a 2014 study by Harvard of more than 40 million children and parents, family structure shared the strongest correlation with economic mobility, beating out other factors like racial segregation, income inequality, school quality, and social capital. Marche revealed: “The fraction of children living in single-parent households is the strongest correlate of upward mobility among all the variables we explored. Family structure correlates with upward mobility not just at the individual level, but also at the community level, perhaps because the stability of the social environment affects the children’s outcomes more broadly.” Family structure and the presence of two parents and at least one father is a predictor of happy kids. While he observes that “a kid needs a father like a fish needs other fish,” lesbian families show no trace or impact of the crisis of fatherlessness. In other words, as long as there is “structure” in your family/romance, your kids will flourish.

The bed in his title — epitomizing arrival, sanctuary, pause, centrifuge of power and excitement — is where one’s journey begins and ends. A chore (bed-making, unmaking) is instrumental in power-relations. And the bed can be a powerful promotion if you’ve been sleeping on a mattress or office couch all your life. The bed begets more bedding, bigger beds and beddings, a higher space, is the harbinger of sleep and dreams, and even all the nightmares look great once you wake up.

The messy truth in Marche’s book is that while gender-equality remains a myth, a lot can be achieved if both stakeholders took an active part in making each other’s lives better and ensuring unequal partners didn’t get weighed down by the existing or default imbalances (as basic as household and family chores or responsibilities like bed-making and babysitting). A tough ask from a capitalistic and Darwinian world, but some good arguments with workplace applications too. North America is divided in maternity and paternity leave/benefits, but an equitable workforce is a step towards greater equity in relationships. In recreation and otherwise, emotional labour[2] is not often equally divided, and Marche’s book is an invitation to ponder that dynamic and alter it.

For those satisfied with spending the rest of their time as singletons, spinsters or monoliths — remember Eric Klinenberg and remember the Swedes, half of who live alone?[3], this book is a voyeuristic page-turner, a memoir of a successful upper middle-class heterosexual marriage and a nod to the sexes looking for redemption and fidelity in a marriage. Life is work, work is life, even when, especially when, love is the foundation. Is a single person household better or worse than one with two genders? And can you compare households to companies? (If you have enough wealth or education, then probably?)

In Canada (as in many parts of the world) as we increasingly experience a record rise in single-person households (edging short of a third at 28.2% of all households) and with over one-third (33%) of the households in Quebec and the Yukon actually being single person households, is this conversation about managing gender relations in marriage growing old?[4] Are single-person households breaking the norm of this otherwise lack of empathy between the sexes? Empathy is the poster-child of need if innovation is its mother. And while there has been a decline in marriages over the past decade (giving way to “shacking up”, and single-person households), a Nanos Research poll claimed only last year that 78% of Canadians viewed marriage as a positive aspect of family life.[5]

In an age where men and women are making quick tradeoffs for short-term mutual gratification, marriage has fallen low on expectation and high on discontent, Marche’s gender-relations-memoir tackles heteronormativity with the prescription of a permission-economy (consultative, collaborative, repetitive) his own successful marriage mirrors. His book serves as a plea to grow more patience for the sexes, perhaps, and to not be burdened, guided or blinded by biases, but by needs. We need each other only because we are relevant to each other. Embark an era of deep connection, inter-relevance, and gender complementarity, dependence-independence notwithstanding. The Unmade Bed is a good conversation stirrer.



[1]  Morissette, R. Feng H, and Schellenberg G. (2015, November 27). Statistics Canada. Full-time Employment, 1976 to 2014: Retrieved October 1, 2017

[2] Post, W. (2017, October 11). The Vancouver Sun. What do women want? A company that lets women hire attractive male servants has some answers. Retrieved October 11, 2017, from

[3] (2017, August 02). Statistics Canada. Families, households and marital status: Key results from the 2016 Census. Retrieved October 11, 2017, from

[4] (2017, August 02). Statistics Canada. Families, households and marital status: Key results from the 2016 Census. Retrieved October 11, 2017, from

[5] Mrozek, A. (2017, August 10). National Post. Andrea Mrozek and Peter Jon Mitchell: Marriage decline is bad for our children, economy. Retrieved October 11, 2017, from

Gender studies Uncategorized

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