How Many Feminists Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?
I almost died the other day trying to replace the headlight in my car. Well, I could have almost died had I removed the bulb from its packaging and handled the potentially lethal (according to the owner’s manual) high-voltage portion of it improperly. In the end I did not take this risk, as I was not even able to figure out how to access the part of the car where the bulb goes, much less how to swap out the dangerous old bulb for a dangerous new one.
When it comes to the mechanics of daily life, I’m not completely helpless. I pump my own gas, occasionally check (and refill!) my own oil, and once even inflated my own tires. When the toilet runs, my hand is right there in the tank, jiggling the rod, untangling the chain, and making sure the rubber tube is spraying where it’s supposed to. I enjoy the feeling of mastery over the physical world as much as the next person—but, if we’re being honest here, sometimes I just want a man to do things for me.
I figure since women birth the world’s children, bring cookies to the world’s felons, and teach, wipe, cradle, and forgive the world’s masses, the least men can do is change the headlights of cars.
In college when I was pursing a minor in women’s studies and in elementary school when I kept a tally of how many times the math teacher called on boys versus girls so I would have data to back up my perceptions of sexist treatment, I never imagined I would grow to have such retro-seeming gender politics. But the fact of the matter is, I’m a stay-at-home mom and naptime writer married to an emergency room doctor. By sheer force of earning potential, my life looks more nineteen-fifties in its labor distribution than I’d planned.
In my twenties, I honed a variety of skills—putting together Ikea bookshelves, operating a jigsaw, editing digital video—under the assumption that the key to wooing a man was demonstrating competence in as many arenas as possible. What man wants to pair up with a woman who needs him for stuff? When it began to seem like this might not be the most alluring approach after all—i.e. when I’d gone 23 months without a date—a friend gently suggested I might want to try a different tactic. “What are some things you’d let a guy be better at than you?” she asked.
Not quite sure what she was getting at, I puzzled over the question for a moment to come up with what I thought was a pretty strong list: cars, computers, and sports.
“Yeah,” she replied, “but what things that you care about would you let him be better at?”
Eventually I found a mate who is better than me at computers and sports as well as intubating people, starting central lines, and talking down crazy people. He’s also better at handling raw chicken, booking airplane reservations, and not freaking out when a jumpy, barking dog runs toward him. But when it comes to fixing cars, my husband is as helpless as me. When he tried to replace the headlight in his own car last week, he sliced his hand open and caused hundreds of dollars worth of damage to the car. One could argue that the mechanic’s bill was covered by the money saved by not having to go to the emergency room—or one could argue that he should have taken the car to the mechanic to have the headlight changed in the first place.
When my own headlight burned out a few days later, I didn’t tell my husband. Instead I drove to the nearest auto parts store, purchased a replacement bulb and located the guy with the most grease under his fingernails. “Do you have any light bulb replacement tips?” I asked. What I actually meant was something along the lines of, Will you replace my headlight for me so I don’t get grease or shattered glass or whatever on my cute, flouncy dress or brand-new knee-high suede boots?
“You just twist—or pull—it off,” the auto parts salesman said, shrugging his sturdy shoulders. “It’ll be obvious once you get in there.”
Realizing I was going to have to go it alone—or pay a mechanic—I asked with genuine uncertainty, “So, does the clear plastic cover in front of the bulb just pop off?”
The salesman looked alarmed and clarified that one accesses one’s front headlights under the hood, not via the clear plastic part on the front of the car.
I nodded, like, Of course. I knew that—I was just making sure you did. Unfortunately my nod must have been convincing because instead of offering assistance, the salesman turned and walked away.
I returned to my one-eyed car and popped the hood. I peered in. I looked for something looking more or less like the cylindrical part of any common household lighting fixture but found instead a rather solid-seeming black plastic box with rather solid-seeming bolts holding it firmly shut.
Nothing about the situation was remotely obvious. Nothing appeared to simply pop or twist off, not without tools, certainly, and nothing in the salesman’s comment had suggested the use of tools.
I turned to the glove compartment for help, fishing out the owner’s manual from a pile of outdated maps and learning about the bulb’s deadly potential when handled “improperly.” I also learned I would have to more or less take the car apart to replace the killer bulb. According to the manual, it is “increasingly more and more difficult to replace vehicle light bulbs since in many cases other parts of the car must first be removed” to get to the bulb. This is particularly true of the light bulbs in the front of the car which can only be reached “through the engine compartment.” Not just difficult but increasingly difficult. Increasingly more and more difficult! Through the engine compartment!
In other words, I’m not a total idiot for being unable—or unwilling—to replace my own bulb. I’m not any less smart than, you know, your average car owner driving around for months and months in the dark with only one headlight or any less smart than your average woman living in a liberal town who identifies as a feminist but still wishes an auto parts salesman would condescend to her enough to offer to replace her damn burned-out light bulb.