On my third date with my now-girlfriend, I insisted on splitting the check. I wasn’t trying to make a point; it was, as far as I’d been concerned, our MO thus far. On our first date, we arrived separately, and so bought our own drinks from the bar; and on our second, I’d paid for our tickets to the baseball game while she bought all the food and beer we consumed.
But our third date was our first real dinner date, and, for some reason, for Lydia, that was different. When the server brought the bill, Lydia swept it away before I could look. I gave her my card anyway—we’d had a pizza and two glasses of wine apiece, making our check both expensive and easy to split. She tried to wave me off, but I was just drunk enough to be stubborn about paying my share, and Lydia was just drunk enough to tease me about it.
“So you’re, like, a major feminist, huh?”
This question would not have startled me coming from a man whom I’d refused to let pay for my dinner, but coming from a woman, it did. On previous dates with men, I’d always made an effort to split the bill, too, but I usually gave up pretty easily. It was one of those concessions to gender norms that was easier to make than to protest, at least on a first or second date with a relative stranger. My policy, adopted from various friends and blog articles, was to let the guy pay if he wanted. Paying for drinks or dinner makes him feel capable and manly or whatever, and anyway, I told myself, he probably makes more than you do, because of sexism.
When I decided to start dating women, it didn’t occur to me to wonder what would happen to this dynamic. (There was too much else I was worried about.) I guess I assumed that dating another woman would free our relationship from the many normative gender roles implicit in heterosexual relationships. And, to some extent, it does—our division of household labor is determined not by gender, or the task’s perceived “masculinity” or “femininity,” but by interest and ability. She cooks, I do laundry. It’s her job to fix the toilet and grease our squeaky door knobs, and it’s my job to kill bugs. But money is different—and more complicated.
I was surprised (and a little wary) when Lydia called me a feminist for wanting to pay for my food, but we kept dating, and it soon became clear that her earlier pseudo-macho posturing around money was just that—a facade. Before me, she’d mostly dated girls who wanted to be provided for. Lydia is also on the more masculine side of the spectrum, and the women she dated were more feminine. This sort of butch-femme dynamic is not uncommon in lesbian relationships, and while sometimes it’s mostly an aesthetic thing (a personal preference, or pattern of attraction), it can also play into heteronormative gender roles.
There is a famous scene in The L Word in which the character Max (then presenting as a butch lesbian) entails Shane (also on the androgynous side ) to help her unpack bags, rather than let their more femme girlfriends do it. “You girls just relax, and let us butches unload the truck,” she says. Shane and Carmen laugh off Max’s dichotomy as outdated, but there are principles of this dynamic that can still be hard to shake. Many butch women feel that they ought to perform traditional chivalry, and many femme women who date them expect it. Even if the presumed caretaker in question is also a woman, there is a specific way our society conceives of what it means to take care of a woman, and money is a big part of that.
My girlfriend has long believed that she should be the breadwinner in her relationships, and it’s been an adjustment for her to accept that in ours, at least for now, she’s not. Even in a relationship that ostensibly exists outside the heteronormative framework, it’s often impossible to divest our expectations around money from the culture we live in, and one of the primary ways our culture organizes itself is by gender. Still, the money dynamic in any romantic relationship is partly in the hands of the people in it. Lydia values taking me out to dinner when she can, so, more often than not, if she wants to pick up the check, I let her, and I buy our dessert. And now, if I suggest we split it, she doesn’t protest. We’ve been together long enough to create our own version of normal, and it’s based on who we are, not who we’re expected to be.