The other day, my girlfriend and I went out to dinner. In case you didn’t know, I’m currently traveling through Southern Africa for six months volunteering my social media training to African women and LGBT organizations. The anticipation of such a long separation had thrown us into a date night binge; we picked a new bar, restaurant, and cheesy romantic comedy nearly every single night ‘till I finally left last weekend. On this particular evening, we’d opted for dinner and drinks at one of our favorite restaurants, and had about three margaritas each.
I’m going to pause here—you need a little bit of background.
I’ve been a do-gooder for as long as I can remember, but started doing it full time just a few years ago after the recession (yes, I’m one of the lucky folk who gladly used the recession as an excuse to my parents whenever they asked me how I’d planned to use my MIT degree; save the world instead). Embracing my passion for carving out a career for myself in philanthropy meant some serious lifestyle changes; I had to cut back on impromptu (read: expensive) date nights “just because,” I couldn’t decide to walk into a store and buy my girlfriend some earrings, and at one point, she actually started giving me “lunch money” so I wouldn’t dip into my savings. Even better, at one point, I had no savings and was completely depending on my partner in crisis.
Here’s the thing—I felt humbled and grateful for every minute of that experience, even when it got hard; one time I locked myself in my room and sobbed for hours after learning that she’d skipped out on getting her hair cut—the ONE way she treats herself each month—because she’d been trying to save money. On top of that, at the back of my mind was this nagging truth that my parents had sent me all the way to the US, given me everything they had so we could “make it,” and here I was bootstrapping as an entrepreneur, trying to make it in the lucrative field of philanthropy.
You may wonder, at this point, why I’m telling you all of this.
So many people dream about having the kind of partner I have; the kind of person that will support you through thick and thin because they actually believe in you; the kind of woman who will deny herself the right to look and feel “pretty”—skip out on getting her hair cut, even when the ends are sleeping, and you’re too much of a jackass to notice her non-answers when you tease her about it—just so she can support you. In the (many) moments when I doubted if I was choosing the right path/career for myself, and would talk about getting a “real” job, her assurance and unconditional support gave me so much gratitude; she was my rock, the pillar of our household, and our relationship. So, every single time some “boi” makes a sexist joke about bringing in the bacon for “my woman” or a straight dude presumes to know who “wears the pants” in the relationship, or a waiter assumes I’m the one that’s paying the bill (even after she asks for it), I flip the f**k out.
Who’s paying for this?
So back to that night…
It’s not like I’d never noticed any of these things before. Maybe it was the margaritas, but for whatever reason, on this particular date I got really pissed off after the waiter handed me the bill by default. I thought of the numerous occasions the same thing had happened, but when I’d been able to pay the bill (or at least split it); I hadn’t gotten upset. What did that say about me? Had I, too, been casually supporting a sexist default—the ridiculous notion that masculinity should always pay the bills unless otherwise stated? Why was this default bothering me so much now? Because I wasn’t in a financial position to cover the cost of a really expensive rib-eye, a greedy ordering of sides, and three margaritas each?
I walked away from the our date night wondering this: Is the issue of “who pays the bill” a question of gender or a question of class (or expectations around money)? And, are there cultural nuances that influence how we each respond to that question?
For instance, I grew up (in Nigeria) with the understanding that if someone asked you out—for a friendly lunch, a dinner date, a concert, etc.—they were going to pay for it. Thus, when I dated men (and I got asked out), I did expect them to pay for it. And, when I started dating women (and got over my awkwardness to actually do some asking), I imagined I would pay for it. However, I’ve often been that my expectations around dating (and who gets the bill) are antifeminist. Apparently, a good feminist never upholds patriarchy by expecting her meal will be paid for. But, would a good feminist not also concede that it’s not only respectful, but considerate of the fact that a friendly ask is still an unplanned line item in someone else’s budget?
What if the issue of paying the bills isn’t an issue of gender at all? Certainly, societal expectations and messages around who’s supposed to be doing the courting, providing, and spending are hinged on gender (with masculinity as the provider, and femininity existing mainly to validate that role), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our approach to discussing or dismantling this notion must take on a similar shade. Ultimately, for me, the question about who “pays the bills” shouldn’t be answered from any framework that’s intended to uphold or subvert patriarchy, but from one that upholds empathy and consideration above all else. I would hope that my (femme) partner would pay the bills not just to subvert gender roles, but because she cares about me.
For me, the issue of dating, of who pays the bills or gets the check, shouldn’t continually be discussed as an issue of masculinity vs. femininity, but about who is able to provide and who isn’t; our relationships shouldn’t (just) be about negotiating dominance and submission, but about care and compromise.
But that’s just me. I was curious about what other feminists thought about this—transposing the conversation about dating from the framework of gender oppression to one of love. I posed the question to my Twitter followers via an impromptu #afrofemlove discussion, and got quite a variety of responses.
Well, what do you think? Is the matter of who “pays the bill” or “gets the check” an issue of gender roles or of care and consideration? How can we be more loving—more conscious of the patriarchal systems in which we live—while also not abandoning our empathy for the sake of their subversion?