Focus on transcending stereotypes

My husband and I met as classmates at Hwa Chong Junior College, the former incarnation of today's Hwa Chong Institution (HCI).

He was from an all-boys school and firmly believed that girls, being somehow wondrously descended from rainbows and sunshine, should occupy themselves in such delicate pursuits as silk embroidery and flan-making.

I, on the other hand, had studied at an all-girls school where we were taught that the only thing men could do that women couldn't was to pee standing up (and now even that can be achieved with an eye-opening, if rather tricky, implement).

Throughout junior college, and in the 13 years since, my husband and I have never stopped debating - though people who tend not to yell during debates might call it arguing - over the differences between men and women.

For example, whether women should refrain from cursing when they hit their knees on a particularly sharp table corner (him: "Girls are like flowers. Flowers don't say bad words") and whether men should have an opinion on curtain patterns (me: "If it clashes with the wallpaper, both our eyes will hurt").

So when I came across an open letter last week by a HCI student denouncing the gender stereotypes being taught in a "relationship workshop" in our alma mater, I immediately sent it to my husband.

"It's a disgrace what they're teaching kids in school these days!" I added indignantly, lest he be unsure of my stand on the matter.

As a quick recap for those who have avoided reading about this incident because it's not "real news": A plucky 17-year-old named Agatha Tan wrote a lengthy epistle to her principal, complaining about a "bigoted" four-hour school workshop conducted by a group called Focus on the Family Singapore.

She also uploaded damning photos of a booklet disseminated at the workshop. Among other things, the booklet claims that "gals" say one thing when they mean another and "can't compartmentalise multiple emotions and thoughts going on in their head", while guys "don't want a girlfriend that questions their opinions" and need to look at the scantily clad girls walking by for their pulses to stay healthy.

Even ignoring the worrying grammar, the litany of sins in the booklet is too long to list. Constantly referring to young women as "gals" - was the booklet written by Stetson-wearing, drawling Americans in the 1950s? - is not the least of its infractions.

I expected my husband to agree with my disgust. But he replied: "What's the big deal? I wish I had been taught this when I was in school."

That annoyed me. According to the booklet, I should have then told my husband: "I'm not upset", which he should have telepathically understood to mean, "Of course I'm upset!"

But instead, I tried to see my husband's point of view.

While I do my best to minimise gender- related double standards - I pay my share and kill my own cockroaches - I have to admit there are times I exploit these stereotypes for my own ends.

Have I ever spent a day lugging around shopping bags that weigh as much as a small elephant and then pretended to be too weak to take out the trash? Well, yes.

Have I ever asked my husband if I looked fat in jeans, knowing that his comforting response would let me put off exercising for one more day? Sadly for my thighs, yes.

Has knowing the differences between how men and women communicate helped us understand each other better? Actually, it has. But all that doesn't mean nothing is wrong with the Focus on the Family workshop. As I see it - and as my husband agreed when I calmly explained my opinion - it has two big problems.

The first is that it teaches gender stereotypes in a school setting, which is very different from presenting it in a fuzzily researched pop-culture book you might read and then bring up for lively dinner talk with your friends.

Having an establishment-approved adult instruct teenagers in a classroom that girls sometimes say no when they mean yes lends a veneer of legitimacy to the material being discussed, making it difficult to countenance the existence of alternative viewpoints.

The second issue is that while there are indeed differences between boys and girls - and, for that matter, among boys and among girls - what makes a good girlfriend or boyfriend is actually remarkably similar.

Most people want a significant other who is loving, faithful, honest, considerate and respectful. That encompasses a whole bunch of things, including avoiding double-speak for girls and avoiding whiplash every time a pretty girl walks by for guys.

Instead of harping on gender disparities, isn't it better to explain that what really makes a healthy relationship is transcending these gaps?

The diversity of human beings is what makes them interesting. Let's not pigeonhole them even before they become adults.

This article was first published on Oct 19, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.