Scenario: a fly is buzzing through your kitchen, landing on your sandwich whenever you put it down. You and your toddler wave it off in annoyance for a while, but eventually you're sick of it. "Run and get the flyswatter," you tell your child, "and I'll kill him."
Scenario: you are reading Are You My Mother? to your toddler. The baby bird comes upon a dog. You put on a special deep voice for the dog as you drawl, "How can I be your mother? I am a dog."
So what do these scenarios have in common?
They are the illustration of a principle called the 'default male'. This term describes a phenomenon where we automatically assume that any creature not directly identified as female by specific "feminine" markings (long eyelashes, pink bows, long hair) is a male. This means that chances are good that you unconsciously refer to every frog, worm, anthropomorphised vehicle (say, an airplane you're watching fly by, or a toy car), bunny in the yard, stick figure, or unspecified professional (doctor, mechanic) as "he". This is true unless the animal in question has its offspring with it, in which case it is instantly a mummy (although the young are probably still "he".)
Try it out! Grab the nearest children's book with animals in it-- Are You My Mother? will do. In this book there are four gender-specified characters: the mother bird and the baby bird (male), the cow (which is clearly not a bull), and the hen. Do you read the kitten and dog as male or female? Consider the dog's reason for not being the bird's mother: "I am a dog." Chances are that if the dog was male, he'd say "I am a male," wouldn't he? But-- with no eyelashes, no frilly collar, odds are good that you read the dog as male and not female. It holds true in other books. Brown Bear, Brown Bear-- the sheep has no horns and the cat is a "girly" colour so perhaps you read them as female, but do you look at the rest of the animals and think "girl bear", "girl dog", or do you automatically assume they're all male?
Have you ever told your child before killing an earwig that you're going to "squash her?" Have you ever stopped to consider the actual natural functional relationships of creatures such as ants and bees (most worker bees and ants are sterile females) before calling them a him? Alternatively, do you ever call an animal pictured with it's offspring the "daddy"? (I had a funny moment today where my son was doing a puzzle, which featured a green-headed duck with four ducklings. Given it's plumage, it was obviously male, but up until recently I would never have called it the daddy, and I would not be even slightly surprised if the original puzzle-maker intended it to be a mummy.) *
So, like with canting, after having described what the term means, I want to talk about why it's a problem.
I've mentioned in earlier posts the ratio of male leads to female leads in children's media. I've also talked about why it troubles me that toys relating to family life are strongly marketed to girls as if family life is somehow not "manly".
These are, I think, two of the main problems with the default male phenomenon.** In general, it's fair to say that male-female populations are about 50-50 in the world, human as well as the animal kingdom. So what message do we communicate about one gender if we consistently leave it out? I would argue the message is like, "Males do more, experience more, and take up more space in the world than females," which, essentially, is tantamount to saying "Males matter more than females." I don't think it is a stretch to interpret it as such. If every creature you encounter is assumed to be male, unless there are very specific indications to the contrary (and sometimes even if there are!), you set up a world where male perspective will be more valued than female, because you've been subtly trained to believe that males are just more there. I believe this feeds into the imbalances of gender leads in our culture's storytelling, and probably strongly contributes to the idea that male's stories are universally representative, while female's stories are just for female audiences. I believe this feeds into the ways our language and cultural predilections make things coded "female" shameful for boys to associate themselves with.
Now, I don't think that the complementarian church as a whole actually holds the stated belief that "Males matter more than females." Indeed, thankfully, I don't know anybody who would say that. But here's the thing: there's a degree to which our actions are going to shout down our words. If we are adamantly insisting that complementarianism is about "equal but different" and supporting the idea that God created us for two different roles in churches and marriages, but that both genders are both image-bearers and equals before God and His law, we need to be careful. We need to be careful that we're not knee-jerking against feminism and thus ignoring ways in which we are not treating women as equal. And if we're defaulting to assuming male presence is more prevalent and male perspective more weighty, then I'm afraid we are not living up to our "equal but different" belief, and are thus undermining the credibility of our complementarianism.
The other side of problem with the default male phenomenon is how it limits girls. Consider how it must affect little girls to be taught by implication from the time that they are infants that if they're not either practicing some form of domestic, maternal instinct or displaying a specific set of beauty ideals (long hair and eyelashes, pink accessories, skirts), they're not a proper, recogniseable girl. Is it any wonder that our daughters are growing up beauty-obsessed, wearing make-up younger and younger, buying into a toxic beauty culture of disordered eating, insecurity, and self-alteration? Is it any wonder that there are still areas of interest that are predominantly seen as not really "for" girls (like STEM studies, politics, athletics)? The church ought to be a safe haven from a culture that teaches girls their beauty and marriageability trumps their brains, their hearts, their ministry giftings, and their talents in importance, and I believe we can be that while still holding marriage in esteem for both genders and proudly holding firm to a belief in different roles in the church and in marriages. And maybe it starts with sprinkling in a few 'she's' with all the 'he's' in your daily pronoun use...
*This post gives some examples from media of creatures interpreted by filmmakers as male despite nature pointing to them being female.
**Although, more seriously, in things like crash test dummies (based on average male figures) and heart attack symptoms (which actually present differently in women), the default male can lead to unnecessary female deaths.