Why would we want gender roles? What good can they serve or further? The answer I want to consider is diversity understood in a specific way. For this I’ll rely on Peter Hershock’s gloss in his book Valuing Diversity. Drawing on a particularly intriguing reading of the Buddhist idea of Interdependent Arising, Hershock distinguishes diversity from variation:
Variation is a means-to and has the meaning-of generating novel incidents of nonidentity—a process of increasing the quantity of individual things present. Diversity is a function of relational dynamics that are conducive to the production and sustained presence of a particular quality of interaction: a distinctive complexion of interdependence. Diversification is a means-to and has the meaning-of generating creatively enriching patterns of mutual contribution to sustainably shared welfare. It marks the advent of a distinctive qualitative shift in how things are present. (48-49)
As an illustration Hershock considers a key difference between zoos and ecologies. While both may play host to many different kinds of plants and animals, only in they ecosystem do these different elements interact in such a way as to contribute to a mutual, self-sustaining flourishing. This kind of mutually enhancing interplay of differing elements is what Hershock refers to as diversity. The idea is that diversity, as opposed to mere variety, makes use of the distinctive characteristics and abilities of the participants in interaction with one another to encourage the emergence of valued features. “Cultural diversity”, he writes, “when fully realized, is a means-to and has the meaning-of both valuing and adding value to a shared situation through enhancing the significance of cultural difference.” (52)
My idea, then, is to use this as a way of exploring the possible value of gender roles. In some contexts distinguishing men and women and male and female behaviors can create diversity in the service of some kinds of goods. Some simple, and at least relatively uncontroversial examples come to mind in aesthetic realms like dance, music, paired ice skating, and so on. A pas-de-deux in a ballet performed by male and female dancers can present aesthetic qualities that turn on the distinctive traits of male and female dancers and their ways of dancing and how these interact. These differences may include typical differences in physiology as well as differences in costuming and, in those kind of narrative dances, characters and their places in the story. Similar remarks would hold I think for the interplay of male and female voices in choral works, or the roles played by men and women in paired ice skating. The point in all these cases would be that it is precisely because of the differences in the male and female participants that certain aesthetic feature become possible. To try to substitute a man for the woman or vice versa would be to lose something essential to the performance. Lastly, in each of these cases, the diversity is tied to a comparatively natural, or at least not arbitrary sets of differences. Though vastly built on and extended by way of cultural practices, male and female ballet dancer do differ physiologically, and it is hardly arbitrary that it’s typically the male who lifts the woman. In singing, it’s not arbitrary that, for example, women typically sing the higher parts, and so on.
So, here’s a provisional and very modest conclusion. It is arguable that these kinds of performances, as aesthetically rewarding as some might find them, risk perpetuating harmful stereotypes or constraining expectations. Fair enough—let’s grant that, and that it would still need to be argued that the aesthetic possibilities they create can be worth the risk. Still, I think I want to argue that they act as a kind of possibility proof in the sense that they illustrate that a) gender roles can contribute to at least one kind of good—in these cases an aesthetic good–and b) they can do this by playing, or maybe building on, non-arbitrary differences between men and women.