Love and Afrofeminism: The Curious Case of Gender Roles

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.

glasses and a check on a restaurant table
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?

Previously: Introducing a New Series on Love and Afrofeminism!

Image: sdeborja

by Spectra Speaks
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10 Comments Have Been Posted

Who pays the check is variable

I'm in the San Francisco Bay Area and I've found that generally the expectation is that, at least initially, the person who iniated the date is the one who pays, but the person who was invited offers. There tend to be some other nuances here too, like whether someone crossed a bridge to see you.

I'm butch-presenting and tend to date butches. The check tends to go to the person who looks more butch or acts more assertive. If the waitstaff isn't sure, they'll put it in the middle.

Once upon a paternalistic

Once upon a paternalistic time, the man did the asking and the paying. The tendency of those men to believe that paying for a date basically meant paying for sex, and their near ubiquitous tendency to rape their dates or at least attempt to, drove women to insist on the Dutch-treat date as "feminist". They hoped it would fend off the rapists. This was a falsely optimistic idea. Rape continues to be as popular as it ever was, no matter who is paying.

"Gender roles" need to go the fuck away, because they're keeping us all down.

My take on relationships is borrowed from the communist manifesto: to each according to her need, from each according to her ability.

One woman's perspective

I also think that whoever does the inviting should expect to pay. However, the invited party should always offer to split. I think that is perfectly reasonable, at least for the first couple of dates, before a couple is officially a couple. For business lunches, I always ask and treat my clients, but if I am asked by a vendor, it's assumed they will pay. So I've applied the same logic to my personal life.

I am a proud feminist; yet I will admit I have never asked a man on a date (I am heterosexual) or have paid for a first date. Hence why the waiter/waitress probably made that false assumption.

My main issue with being expected to pay is this: As a business woman and numbers geek, I've done cost-benefit analysis on what I'll spend, on average, to primp for first dates with a new partner. New lip gloss..the mani/pedi...waxing appointments...a blow-out, and new outfits, as women's clothing is far more diverse than just business vs casual wear...

I truly lose money, regardless of whether the date pays for even 3 or 4 outings. Perhaps many say that it is shallow or unnecessary to spend money on these types of things, or that I'm throwing in the feminist towel by upholding myself to such beauty standards; but I live in Manhattan among sharp dressers and well-groomed people (and let's face it, it's an expensive city!). I truly feel better about myself when I'm kept up and feeling fresh and feeling good about my appearance. And, when my date reaches for the check, I feel that he's evening the playing fields - he's in the presence of a woman who has spent that little extra to look acceptable.

Am I way out of bounds on that?

No, I don't think you are at

No, I don't think you are at all; I think of it as you do. Bottom line, I've inevitably invested a lot more in getting ready for the date (both financially and in terms of time), so I absolutely see it as leveling the playing field. Furthermore, my income is pretty low (grad student stipend) and I typically date men who have real jobs and make substantially more than I do, so it just seems *fair.* I do always offer to pay my share, but I won't put up a fight if my date says he'll handle it.

That said: just because *I* have thought it through in these terms, I know I can't assume my date has. I may be thinking that his paying is a way of leveling the playing field, but it's doubtful he is. It's just as likely - perhaps more so - that he sees thinks that picking up the tab means I owe him.

I'm not sure what the solution is. I'd be curious what other people think.

good point


Stopped on one line in your reply -

"he sees thinks that picking up the tab means I owe him"

This brings up another good point. I think it depends on the date-whether the person is a terrible, entitled jerk or a genuinely nice, generous person who realizes the worth of the sortve stuff we go through!

Did you remember to do a

Did you remember to do a cost/benefit analysis of how much money it takes for an average guy to buy a car, register, pay taxes for the car, pay the MOT, insurance, repair and maintenance of the car, fuel, car wash, and then give you a lift? Plus his clothes.
You seem to me more of a gold digger rather than a feminist.
Nevertheless, I appreciate your thinking and economic logic.

a feminist and a masculinist

I'm confused. I live in a

I'm confused. I live in a city where no one has cars, so maybe I'm not understanding where you are coming from or the argument you are making.

I was raised in a suburb, though, and everyone had a car. I mean, how else would people (whether you have a penis or a vagina) get around? Who is giving who a lift? We all need to get to school and/or there a place where men drive women around all day? Or where men are the only ones purchasing cars?

I prefer not to discuss my income in general let alone with first dates, but I'm very lucky and have worked very hard to achieve a rare level of financial success - basically, I have no need to be a gold digger let alone will I take offense to you implying that I am one. It's more of the principal of the matter concerning the things women typically purchase and the fact that no one ever acknowledges the cost of our upkeep , especially in a cosmopolitan city.

Data from 1994 in the U.S.

Data from 1994 in the U.S. reported that 94% of workplace fatalities occur to men. Masculist Warren Farrell has argued that men are often clustered in dirty, physically demanding and hazardous jobs in an unjustifiably disproportionate manner.

My MO, whether dating women

My MO, whether dating women or men (or just going out with a friend!), is that if I'm asking, I'm planning to pay, for the same reasons others have mentioned.

It's interesting (and disturbing) to me that others see the check given to the more butch-presenting party when out with another woman. I've never had that happen - the check is always placed in the middle - but I suppose that's likely a factor of two things: While I often dress in masculine clothing, my looks are pretty femme regardless of what I do, and I've never been out with a butch-presenting woman; and I've lived in the South all my life where the assumption is pretty much always that a pair of people (women in particular) out together are heterosexual friends, unless you're either in a predominantly gay hangout in Atlanta, or read as the expected (very exaggerated) stereotype of a gay or lesbian couple.

paying for it

As a straight single professional in her 30s with many friends who are single with kids or divorced with kids, I seem to be the one with the extra income, even though I am also in graduate school. As such, if I ask my friends to go out to dinner or coffee, it is because I intend to cover the tab. they 'pay me back' by a nice home cooked meal at their house... I grew up with the understanding that if you invite someone, you cover it... so if I get asked out by a man, I will expect him to pay. If I ask him out (and yes, I have asked men out) I pay.

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