This post is part of my guest blog series, Love and Afrofeminism, for BITCH Magazine.

glasses and a check on a restaurant tableThe 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.

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. So, 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

13 Responses to Love and Afrofeminism: Gender Roles and First Dates, Who Pays?

  1. Tisha Tuong says:

    I like the approach you mention. Growing up with a Vietnamese family, it’s definitely always been about paying it forward, being equal and fair if in indirect and long term ways, and showing that people and hospitality are more important than money (although some people keep some mental note of which relationships have been one-sided and to withdraw from). Alas, it’s often gendered, but I learn more from how my family treats other families and guests, and in this economy, my parents are comfortable enough in their marriage that any anxiety over money is fretting over security not unfulfilled gender roles. I tend to also try to recenter myself by thinking of compassionate alternatives, thinking positively, on top of deconstructing and finding the negative. My feminism ultimately means love and choice, and I actually haven’t met many feminists who worry if they’re subverting gender roles “enough” because not feeling subversive enough is too close to “not woman enough” rhetoric and thus problematic.

  2. I think a lot of the time it is a matter of gender roles, but never that alone. For instance, if I go out with one of my parents, the bill is always given to one of them even if I’ve asked for the bill and will be paying for my check. This happens when I’m out with older friends as well. So the age dynamic where older people are presumed to have more resources and are more likely to be taking me a younger person out.
    It’d be nice if all wait staff just put the bill in the middle of the table and let the diners work it out.
    That aside, I think this article points to something that’s difficult for all couples and particularly feminists. We need open and frank discussions around finances. We need to be honest about our limits, how we are able to spend what we do, what sacrifices we make, what we splurge on and how it factors in to your partners. This I know is a hard one for many of us simply b/c we’re not even honest with ourselves when it comes to money. But yeah, that communication allows for us to build empathy, and be more mindful across our partnerships, friendships… all relationships really.

  3. Imani Sims says:

    Quite a question…personally I think care and consideration would do well to replace the current framework around financial "dominance and submission". Thoughts?

  4. Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe says:

    Interesting approach to something I've always struggled with, especially since I was raised in a very gendered culture.

    • Lisa Farina says:

      There are so many views about this. My personal point of view: The one who invites out (whether date or a friendly meal) offers to pay, regardless of gender. If the offer to pay is countered with an offer to split the bill, all well and good. If there's a counter offer for the invitee to pick up the bill, also well and good.

  5. Doris Lawgurl Walkins says:

    This is very interesting. I think a person's perspective on this topic is completely dependent on their relationship with money, or more specifically how they attach money to power or perceived power relating to sense of self worth and that inherent projection onto others of their worth based on their wealth. Depending on how you were raised, money and your ability to pay for things can be a direct link to your self esteem. If you add a gender construct to that idea the variant levels of how money and gender stereotyping come into play along with our underlying perception of money as it relates to self concept add complicating layers to the issue. If we're raised to believe a "man" is to be the financial provider, and we do not choose to change our mindset in adulthood, we're going to continue to believe the "man" pays–if you buy into a heterosexist genderizing of lesbian relationships, then the idea will carry over to your relationships with women in that the more "masculine" partner is expected to be the financial provider. Internalized issues can start coming up, especially if you yourself believe you are the "masculine" partner and you are unable to take on the role of financial provider. I think in a real life relationship, outside of theories, etc, being open and honest with your partner about finances so that you're both on the same page is the key. While I think the issue of who gets the check can have so many gender stereotypes attached to it, I think being honest and open about our money situations can eliminate stereotyping bc both people are on notice as to who can afford what and who is going to pay. The does bring up the issue of americans not wanting to discuss money but dammit, I'm going to stick to this topic and hope it works! Great question!

  6. Ida Raine says:

    I grew up thinking anyone could pay the bill. In practice however I've found very different. Gf's of mine who let me pay the bill usually turned out to be sponges, stealing off me when I refused to pay for them any more! The ones who always paid for me usually ended up being controlling. Perhaps I attract people at the extreme but it's put me off the whole debate. I finally married someone who was happy to split the bill and turned out to be generous and kind in life.

  7. Crys Harris says:

    This article asks some interesting questions about perceptions of dominance and gender. Thinking about the answers through my own lens, I do believe gender has a role in social perception of dominance, but it isn't the only factor. When my wife and I go out, 80%+ of the time, I get the bill. Neither of us looks masculine, but I'm clearly more 'dominant'. I'm more likely to order first, to engage the server in dialogue, ask clarifying questions of the server and my wife, or even give her order if she's told me what she wants. There are lots of non-verbal cues that we pick up about people aside from gender identity.

    Care/compromise and dominance/submission are not mutually exclusive constructs. We have some particularly negative connotations about dominance and submission. Obviously, the masculinity vs femininity dynamic is more relevant in certain relationships. What about when two feminine women are together? Or two masculine men?

    • Spectra Speaks says:

      Hmmmm. I'm with the first paragraph, but I'm not sure I follow the second. I may actually disagree — I think framing the conversation about who pays the bill using care/compromising is absolutely different from submission/dominance discourse (which tends to be loaded / come with more negative perceptions). Care/compromise, at least in the way they're described/framed in this post I feel can be a useful tool for navigating through the 'mess' of both our lived experiences and the gender/masculinity/femininity rhetoric that clutters conversations (in my humble opinion). Given your final question re: two feminine women or masculine men, I wonder if you see the benefit of reframing the conversation around care/compromise since it renders gender as moot when it comes to paying the bill. For me, again, I want connection with my partner; I want fairness, openness, and honesty. Gender, for me, has nothing to do with it. So the world can continue 'reacting' to us in a certain way (based on their perceptions about who is 'dominant'), but I guess in my piece I was making a case for one of my afrofeminist principles: choosing "Love" over "arguments", "Care" over "Critique." Not sure if this gets at any of what you were saying. I found your questions intriguing — there's obviously a lot to talk about.

    • Eric Chase says:

      I read the word "dominance" in the first sentence. Stopped reading after the fourth sentence b/c I did not read the word "whip."

    • Crys Harris says:

      @Spectra, you said this, '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.'

      I'm saying, I agree that the question of who should pay (or is perceived to pay) on dates isn't about gender. I disagree that it isn't about power, or who is perceived to be more powerful. Of course relationships shouldn't *just* be about any one component, however, power in relationships, and the negotiation of it is very important, both socially and personally. People perceive masculine people as more powerful, regardless of gender. That's a cultural bias. In the absence of gender, people key into other cues.

      Just because one person holds more power in a relationship doesn't mean care, connection, etc aren't present. It's clear, in fact, that your partner has more economic power at the moment…

      Anyway, interesting article.

      @Eric, *eye roll*

    • Stasi Chase says:

      Crys, thank you for giving that comment the look it deserved.

    • Spectra Speaks says:

      Mmmm. Okay. Not sure any part of the paragraph you quoted negates the absence of power dynamic that comes with masculinity/femininity, but — as with much feminist discourse — talking about our relationships mainly around gender (esp. in queer community) becomes a heady exercise and doesn't actually help anyone navigate the murky waters of their relationships. "People perceive masculine people are more powerful" — to that I say duh, but again, where to go from there? Part of why I'm writing this series is because I believe Love moves us forward, rather than just provide us with a way for us to rearticulate problems… Thanks for your comment. And yeah, @Eric…

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