Seriously. Don’t feign helplessness. If you can open the pickle jar yourself, go for it.
I read a blog post earlier this month that sounded a familiar refrain: Are single women too independent for their own good? Women’s magazines ask that question, men’s magazines ask that question, and the answer is almost always the same: yes.
The thesis rarely varies: women have become so independent that they no longer need men. They may want men, but they’ll get by without them. That self-sufficiency, so the conventional wisdom goes, is chasing men away. Men, as all these articles invariably say, need regular reminders that we’re indispensable. We need women to have problems that they can’t fix for themselves; if we’re not given the opportunity to prove our usefulness, we feel worthless.
Popular wisdom suggests that women feign helplessness: “Even if you know how to do it, pretend you don’t! Let your guy be the hero once in a while.” Nothing like a little manipulation to establish a relationship on firm footing, right?
As a man, these articles irk me to no end. They’re insulting because they reveal such a low opinion of men. The subtext of these pieces is always the same: despite the outer trappings of civilization, most men are a mixture of the beastly and the heroic. To keep a man from being the former, you have to give him as many chances as possible to be the latter. And in order to give him those chances to be heroic, women have to fake incompetence.
The idea seems to be that while women have evolved leaps and bounds within a generation or two, men are still stuck in the Paleolithic era.
(This is the same rationale that encourages women to fake orgasms—instead of talking to your male partner about what he could do differently, or explaining that you’re not in the mood, or doing some other truthful and healthy thing, we teach wives and girlfriends to feign ecstasy in order to protect the supposedly fragile male ego.)
There are more than a few good men out there, men who are much stronger and emotionally competent than we’re taught to believe. We don’t need women to hide the truth from us, especially if that truth involves pretending you don’t know what you know. We’re better, smarter, and more resilient than that. Despite what a few pop psychologists say, our egos aren’t any more fragile than women’s—there’s no need to infantilize us.
So what’s the real impetus behind these magazine articles urging women to “give up control”? Part of it is unabashed hostility to feminism, the ongoing “backlash” against women’s slow but irresistible march into traditionally male spaces. The oldest trick the anti-feminists have is to use the fear of loneliness against women, setting up a cynical false choice between happy dependence or lonely autonomy. From an anti-feminist standpoint, the more women who can be scared into choosing romance over pursuing their dreams, the longer the glass ceiling stays intact.
But there’s more to it than that. Part of the problem is that we raise too many women to be mistrustful of men. I often ask my female students, most of whom are first-generation college attendees, “How many of you were told to get an education so you wouldn’t have to rely on a man?” At least two-thirds raise their hands, often more. I ask the boys the same question with the sexes reversed, and laughter ensues. You can’t miss the point: while we assume that education is “good” for men, we still send a message to girls that education is a kind of “second-best,” a fall-back option because there are so few good, reliable men. The implication is that if women didn’t find men so disappointing, most women would be blissful about forgoing education in order to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.
These are toxically mixed stories we tell to women. We urge them not to rely on men because men will invariably hurt them—and we urge them to put relationships first, because despite the pain, romance is better than any other kind of success. We tell women to be independent, but not so independent that men can’t demonstrate their usefulness. And we tell women they need to move quickly, because (as the magazines like to claim) biology is ruthlessly unforgiving.
We need to recognize that men want relationships, not jobs. Giving guys tasks so they can demonstrate their prowess may make sense in the workplace, but it’s lousy advice for a love affair or a marriage. Believe it or not, men don’t just want to be valued for what they can do; they want to be valued for who they are and for how well they can connect and love. And it sells men tragically short to suggest otherwise.
Here’s a newsflash: men can multitask. We can differentiate between a boss and a spouse. Like women, men take pride in doing something well, whether it’s writing a killer brief or throwing a knuckle ball or fixing a broken faucet. But don’t confuse the pleasure of being needed with the need to love and be loved.
I deal with other people’s needs all the time. As a father, as a mentor, as a PTA president, and as a college professor who specializes in sexuality and gender, I get a lot of validation from “being there” for other people. Lots of people need me. I like that.
I also like that it’s different in my marriage, partnered with a woman who makes more money than I do and who knows more about fixing things than I do and, truth be told, could knock out most men with one punch. (She’s a veteran boxer.) Our marriage isn’t about what we do for each other. We’re friends, we’re soulmates, we’re lovers, but mostly we’re partners of the kind that runs deeper than mutual need. I fell in love with her strength as well as her beauty. I’m grateful she never pretended to be weaker than she was.
Not all men are alike, of course. But I think most of us want more from a relationship than a to-do list and false praise. We’re not caught between beastliness and heroism. Like women, we’re human beings, longing to love, longing to connect, and longing to be challenged.
—photo by Abraxas3d/Flickr