I suppose my best way to start talking about the Red Chamber Dream, and any of the social issues it brings up, is to start talking about Gulliver's Travels, a novel that Eric Blair described as one of the five most important English works of all time. Gulliver's Travels, especially in the fourth book, has an almost uncontainable fury, pointed towards one thing: the great chasm between what society said and what society does. It wasn't until the later parts of the 20th Century that society took a full scale look at itself, at its claims to represent democracy and justice, and realized that those words do not seem to mean what some people seem to think they mean. The ability to radically deconstruct society came about close to three hundred years after Swift wrote this book.
I am looking forward to the day when the critique of social roles that was first evidenced in The Dream of the Red Chamber will finally come to the fore, in China or in The West. This is a book that directly looks at people, and tries to be a "True account of real events". This is what people really act like, as in the tale of the man who casually beats a waiter to death for bringing him his wine too slowly, but trembles at the thought of having to admit his latest exploit to his mother. This is the story of a rich, corrupt man who bends all the power and influence of his office to rob another man of...fans. This is a story of a rich family, with wealthy sons involved in all sorts of business, both legitimate and not, but that is still run by the matriarch of the family, playing drinking games with her friends. This, then, is how Chinese (and possibly other) societies really work, regardless of who has the nominal power.
When I was in Tainan, there was a copy of the Red Chamber Dream in the Confucius Temple. Despite the historical male domination in China, this book, with its three thousand page long look into women's lives, has become a classic on the street, and in the academy. This book not only claims upfront that women are better and more interesting then men, it goes into hundreds of pages of detail about their personal habits, their inner struggles, and their daily lives. The book is considered a landmark in Chinese literature and society for its realistic, respectfull treatment of women.
With all of that, its treatment of men is perhaps not as well understood. The male protagonist of the book is, after all, fond of putting on makeup, and not at all respectful of the male establishment. The book is in many ways a record of societies (unsuccesful) attempts to make him conform to a social notion of how men should behave. What is interesting is that this pressure comes as much from the women as the men: his fiance Xue Bao-chai pressures him to put down his childish ways, and to commit himself to learning The Classics so he can one day have a meaningful job. Of the novel's characters, the men don't seem to be anymore happy or emotionally healthy then the women, with both groups trying to manipualte each other over petty pleasures constantly. The book shows men and women conforming on the surface, but underneath seething with rage and frustaration at a world that does not fulfill them.
The novel shows many intances of obvious male domination: women being sold and treated like chattels for the sexual pleasure of men. What the book shows in even more detail is the sophisticated strategies of emotional and social pressure that the women use to try to control the men.
A full course of examples, as well as what the gender roles mean in relation to the books entire social critique and comment on the cosmological nature of life, would require a much longer essay. It would be best to read the book yourself, since it presents the one thing that is needed to truly understand the idea of gender roles, or any other social roles: a true accounting of real events.