April 17, 2009

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The Need for a New Way Forward: Thoughts on a New York Times Article

An AoM reader tipped me off today to an interesting blog post from the New York Times. Entitled, “Dude, You’ve Got Problems,” Judith Warner spends the first part of the article bemoaning the still rampant homophobia amongst today’s young men. This kind of bullying is indefensible, and is an unfortunate aspect of growing up. But it was the second part of her article I found most interesting, particularly this section:

“Boys were showing each other they were tough. They were afraid to do anything that might be called girlie,” she told me this week. “It was just like what I would have found if I had done this research 50 years ago. They were frozen in time.”

Pascoe spent 18 months embedded in a Northern California working-class high school, in a community where factory jobs had gone south after the signing of Nafta, and where men who’d once enjoyed solid union salaries were now cobbling together lesser-paid employment at big-box stores. “These kids experience a loss of masculine privilege on a day-to-day level,” she said. “While they didn’t necessarily ever experience the concrete privilege their fathers and grandfathers experienced, they have the sense that to be a man means something and is incredibly important. These boys don’t know how to be that something. Their pathway to masculinity is unclear. To not be a man is to not be fully human and that’s terrifying.”

That makes sense. But the strange thing is, this isn’t just about insecure boys. There’s a degree to which girls, despite all their advances, appear to be stuck – voluntarily – in a time warp, too, or at least to be walking a very fine line between progress and utter regression. Spending unprecedented amounts of time and money on their hair, their skin and their bodies, at earlier and earlier ages. Essentially accepting the highly sexualized identity imposed on them, long before middle school, by advertisers and pop culture. In high school, they have second-class sexual status, Pascoe found, and by jumping through hoops to be sexually available enough to be cool (and “empowered”) yet not so free as to be labeled a slut, they appear to be complicit in maintaining it.

Why – given the full array of choices our culture ostensibly now allows them – are boys and girls clinging to such lowest-common-denominator ways of being?”

Ms. Warner clearly believes that the persistence of gender roles and characteristics is a lamentable thing, the root of much of the problems that plague our youth. While I disagree with her conclusions, she brings up some really interesting points.

I think for the last few decades we’ve tried the genderless society thing, and it hasn’t worked. And I think today’s generation understands that. They’ve been told their whole life that there aren’t any differences between men and women besides our genitalia, but everything in their own experience, in their day to day interactions with the opposite sex tells them this isn’t true.

Everywhere I go, when I talk to men and women my age (20-something), they want to take me aside and talk about how much they appreciate the Art of Manliness. They feel like it’s touched on something they’ve been thinking about, but haven’t yet been able to articulate. What’s interesting is that many of the people who thank me for the blog are women. Even more interesting is that no matter their background (whether conservative housewife or liberal career woman), they all pretty much express the same thing. They appreciate the advances women have made in the past fifty years, but they lament the loss of men and women embracing their complimentary gender differences.  They want women to be women and men to be men. But they’re afraid that if they admit this, they’re being a traitor to women and the advances they’ve made.

And the men I meet want to embrace masculinity and man up, but like women, they’re afraid to. They’re afraid if they do, they’ll be labeled a patriarchal chauvinist.

I sense a growing movement out there of men and women who want to embrace positive gender differences. It’s under the radar and it hasn’t been discovered by the media yet. But it’s growing.

And now to return to Ms. Warner’s article. What we have going on is that young people today have the same sense of things that I just described, but they don’t have any idea what to do about it. There’s nothing out there that helps them understand their feelings and gives them direction on how to channel those feelings in productive, satisfying ways. They don’t have role models to emulate and people to teach them what manhood and womanhood is really about. The problem is not, as Ms. Warner believes, the persistence of gender roles themselves. The problem is that young people want to embrace gender roles but don’t know how to go about it. So you have boys trying to be cartoonishly tough and macho and girls becoming over-sexualized. All they have to go on is caricatures of manhood and womanhood.

For thousands of years the world was set with rigid gender roles, which had some positive aspects, but was also far too often fraught with sexism. Then with the feminism movement the pendulum swung too far in the other direction, attempting to dispense with gender all together.  I think this generation wants a new way forward.

Can’t we keep much of the progress we have made, while taking back some of the positive aspects of gender enjoyed by our forbearers? Can’t girls have every opportunity in athletics, academics, and career, while also enjoying the feeling of taking care of her man? And can men not be allowed to enjoy baking and theater without being called gay, to be more hands on and nurturing with his kids and feel okay about crying sometimes, while also wanting to feel like a protector and leader?
Well, enough of my ranting, I thought some of the comments following the NYT article were equally good points. Here’s a few:

“The author’s point about the use of homophobic epithets is well taken, although hardly a revelation to any male under the age of 30. After that, though, the article begins to go off the rails. The underlying point appears to be an aggressive (and, at least by most women I know, disfavored) feminist point of view that gender differences and masculine/feminine identity are inherently evil. The quip about being “stuck in time” was particularly revealing. The notion that equality for the sexes neccesarily brings with it a complete abandonment of gender roles that have been in place for the proverbial “thousands of years” is an outmoded, 1980’s style feminist point of view that I would like to think has been mostly abandoned. Being masculine is about a lot more than “masculine privilege”. Masculintity carries with it a great many positive traits, such as strength of character, responsibility, and courage, and it would be a sad day indeed if we as a nation ever reached the point where the notion of striving to be masculine at all was viewed as negative. Homophobic epithets and social ostacization is clearly not the correct approach, but there is nothing wrong with boys striving to become men.”

- Colin

“Why is it so hard for mainstream kids to feel secure in their sexual identities? We say men and women are equal, but we all know they are not identical. We leave it up to kids to figure out how to affirm their sexual identities, and they do so in very crude and extreme ways, which should not be surprising.

How do we honor men and women in their differences, so that kids can feel confident about their sexual identities and have the room, then, to tolerate lots of individual variation? I look at the movie stars of the 30’s and 40’s and they seem so effortlessly confident in this area. The women and men seem so much stronger then, even without cartoonishly extreme bodies. It’s hard to imagine Humphrey Bogart needing chiseled abs to feel manly.

We’ve lost something along the way, and the absence is causing damage.”

- Mike Oliker

“It is precisely the triumph of feminism which has made emasculation such a potent prospect for teenage boys. While I’m not advocating a return to “Father Knows Best” days by any means, we ought to consider just a few consequences that flow from the radical restructuring of gender in the 20th century. To wit:

1) Single mothers are increasingly heads of household. In some, though certainly not all, cases, poverty, crime, drug abuse, etc. are also present. More importantly, the male role model is now the absent father who flees responsibility.

2) On the same note, monogamy and abstinence, once cultural norms (even if never strictly practiced), have been replaced by the chaotic world of “hooking up.” This tends to favor the aggressive alpha male who can humiliate sexual competitors. Ostracized boys are thus excluded not only from male camaraderie, but also female companionship and love.

3) We have come to the opposite extreme-girls are seen as smarter and better behaved. But boys do not want to be girls, no matter how much feminists might wish to equalize the sexes. Masculinity inevitably opposes the feminine, but now it is destructive, anti-intellectual, coarse and brutal.”

- Mitch

I’d love to read everyone’s thoughts on this. It’s a touchy subject, but I think we can and should have a classy and civil discussion on it.


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