During the stay-at-home orders, I’ve developed a semi-addiction to solitaire. While I was celebrating a win, lining the cards up ace through king by suit, I stopped short at one of the queens, lying just below the king of opposite color. In a measure of protest, I decided to put the queen on top of the king, and did the same for the following three suits so that the queen became the distinguished card.
It can be hard to describe- especially to those of the opposite gender- how something as simple as the king’s value matters. But it does matter, along with many other common occurrences. In questionnaires, the male category is placed first. In official forms, the father’s name comes before the mother’s name and/or the groom’s name comes before the bride’s name. The Hollywood movie about a power couple is called Mr. & Mrs. Smith, not Mrs. & Mr. Smith. The title of the famous Shakespearean play is Romeo and Juliet, not Juliet and Romeo. Although out of fashion, formal letters are addressed as Dear Sir/Madame, not Dear Madame/Sir.
Many reading this might find these facts of little consequence; as a trivial reality that cannot-should not- be changed. But such a matter is not entirely trivial. Not only does it compound into something much bigger than a card game or a form, it results as a consequence of a patriarchal structure, a society that still puts the female gender behind the male. And being placed second on a form- or seen as the card of lesser value in most games- repeatedly throughout life helps to condition our behavior and beliefs about gender norms, as well as allow one gender to be seen as dominant over the other.
Part of what it means to be female is to feel as if you are second in line compared to your male counterparts. It doesn’t just reside in forms, but it permeates the manner in which we go about our daily lives, the manner in which we are reacted to, the manner in which we react, and the manner in which we think about ourselves on a subconscious level. Society conditions women to think of others before themselves: to take care of family members, partners, children, and the community. Men, on the other hand, are encouraged to think about themselves first: their needs, desires, adventures, and career.
More often than not, a man doesn’t have to question his requisite capacity for dominance and power, his right to being first in line, or his ability to be self-serving. He has countless successful men to look up to in nursery rhymes, literature, film, art, history, business, politics, street signs, statues, etcetera. And in these examples, he is encouraged to pursue his desires, take what he wants, and come out of the scenario with little consequence to his reputation or external well-being.
For women, it’s different. As a six-year-old child, eating my cereal in the morning, I would look down at my plastic placemat full of Caucasian male faces and internalize how much of a stretch it would be for me to achieve such a feat. Moreover, female characters in history, literature, and film that adventured out and explored their passions and needs were not only limited in number, but often met disastrous ends. And as I grew a feminine figure, and my body and mannerisms were further scrutinized, I realized that I would have to fight against society and what it means to be a woman if I wanted access to what men are more easily granted.
Because such forms, games, stories, individuals, and viewpoints (or lack of such forms, games, stories, individuals, and viewpoints) are commonplace, many of us do not question the implications of always coming second. It’s something that starts in school, during standardized tests and card games, that girls and boys alike see it as a normal consequence of being born into a specific gender; as something inconsequential that doesn’t need to be questioned. Which is why repeated awareness of such circumstances and perspectives is crucial, even if it can feel as if the narrative has become repetitive, and that repetition hasn’t led to a solution. For awareness of the issue- for those experiencing it and perpetuating it (which can go hand in hand)- is a necessary step to solving the issue.
But how do we solve a problem that is embedded into society, in the way we think, operate, and relate to ourselves and others? And how do we encourage others to change their habits? Furthermore- as the goal should not be about placing women above men- how do we create forms, rules, and games that are inclusive to all genders? Do we not include gender at all? Do we let men continue to dominate? Do we give women a shot, since men have had it for centuries now? Do we randomize it? Or do we create a society that doesn’t care so much about being first; that treats others with equality and fairness so that such a triviality is actually a triviality; that prides openness and emotional awareness to the point that our subconscious isn’t as ingrained in us and thus being repeatedly put last on a form or card game is not related to being put last in life itself?
I choose equality and emotional awareness, which is why I began lining up the cards with two queens and two kings on top. But I figured that wasn’t enough to allow me to understand how ingrained gender norms were in my own life. So I recently began playing solitaire with the queen acting as the king. Mastering the queen-king-jack placement was so substantial a change that my mind began to question the placement of all cards. Furthermore, I would often revert to placing the king in a blank space, the queen on a king, and the jack on a queen, not the queen in a blank space, the king on a queen, and the jack on a king.
If it’s hard enough to alter one’s instincts in a game of solitaire, you can imagine how hard it is to alter our collective instincts on gender. But we are being called to do that with not only gender, but many of our belief structures, inclinations, reactions, and so forth. It won’t be easy, but the outcome that can be reached could make life easier in the long-term: for ourselves, the environment we live upon, and the plants and animals we consume to keep us alive. And the lessons that we will learn about the correlation between human habit and moral perspective is boundless.
I encourage you to play a queen game of solitaire.
Thank you for reading my essay!
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(As a further note, check out these gender neutral playing cards by Maya Segal)