Sebastián Molano used a surprising incident on a Washington D.C. street corner to examine how to examine, transform and embrace gender roles.
It is about 11.25 pm, the middle of a long weekend in the District of Columbia. It is a Saturday summer night, perfect for shorts, flip flops and sweating mercilessly, thanks to the inclement humidity. U Street looks more crowded tonight, and it seems as if the heat causes people to rely heavy on beer for re-hydration. Things look quite different when most of the people around you are tipsy or drunk and you are strangely sober. You feel somewhat uncomfortable as the absence of easiness brought by intoxication makes you wary and alert of your surroundings. I was kind of wishing I was a little tipsy. In spite of this, the night seems to be another weekend night in DC.
I walked towards 16th street hoping to find a S bus or perhaps a cab to take home. I watch people transitioning from bars to clubs, as if the morning commute were happening at midnight. There is a group of three girls and a guy talking loudly on the street. I am focusing on my phone, trying to figure out if I could catch the next bus. While I am walking by, one of the girls says “what a nice piece of ass!” I pay little attention as I am trying to cross before the light changes. Then, all of a sudden, I felt a powerful slap on my butt. It was so unexpected yet so intrusive that I merely managed to turn around and look for the eyes of this person.
I froze. I felt angry and powerless. There I was standing in front of this woman, unable to articulate or make any sense of what just had happened. A 30 years old male Latino was standing next to her in silence. Those seconds seemed like hours. I kept looking for her eyes unable to focus my sight. I felt a chemical rush in my body, and then finally, I started to feel kind of tipsy.
I come from a culture where being a man goes beyond being born as one. A culture where becoming a man involves being able to protect and provide. A man is expected to show no vulnerability or softness. Under this view, the deliberate act displayed by this young woman was a compliment and could have been interpreted as an invitation. I should have felt flattered and proud of being the kind of man that women on the street—literally—hit on. But I was not, I was disturbed and offended. What if it would have happened the other way around? I would have been scolded, perhaps arrested? Imagine the scene of a Latino male, long hair and beard slapping a white girl’s butt? I am pretty sure the men around, would have displayed a sample of their own masculinity and would have come on her rescue.
As a gender specialist, this situation became an opportunity to explore the ideas about how men shape their masculinity. How we are taught that manhood is something you prove and display, especially the objectification of women. I thought about multiple conversations with female friends about how they feel when men say things to them on the street, how they feel pressure to dress in certain ways, and their constant struggle to pursue real gender equality as a way of life. It also, made me think about why, many of these smart, talented, empowered women have a hard time finding a partner who does not get intimidated by them.
Many men feel that pushing for gender equality means giving away part of the power conceded to them by society as a natural right for the mere fact of being men. The shifting of gender roles is perceived as a direct threat to the core of what it means to be a man: protector, provider and its reproductive role. The vision of a sum zero warfare prevails as a given in the ongoing struggle for access to equal opportunities, rights and decision-making roles.
This is partially true, but more importantly; this current reconfiguration of gender roles offers a golden opportunity for men. This is the chance to redefine who we are and who we want to be. Today, more than ever in modern history, men have the chance to release the self-imposed weight of always taking the driver seat as a given. Today, men can actually call shotgun. Women’s liberation and the full exercise of their rights have a powerful effect on men, as it also liberates us from the historic roles that we are expected to assume and perform. This is not a sum zero game, this is a win-win situation.
This encounter helped me understand that I had the right to feel offended and vulnerable. To express that it was not okay as it is not okay when it goes the other way around. I felt the kind of intrusiveness that 2 out of 3 women in the world feel in their life time as stated by the World Health Organization (WHO). It also allowed me to put in context the idea of liberation and humanization that Paulo Freire proposes (in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed) that has everything to do with gender relations and gender power: the only way in which we can all regain our humanity is to liberate each other in the process and not to impose one another, shifting the roles of oppressed and oppressor, which means, objectivizing each other.
Currently, there is so much more to manhood and masculinity that life can offer. Men are more able of expressing their feelings and fears, but we need to learn how to do it and accept it as part of what it means to be a real man. Today, men have the chance to work side by side with the partner we choose in life to build a future where each other’s dreams are equally valued and respected. Today, there is a type of masculinity in which violence is no longer an option and respect is weighted by the power of arguments and not by physical or economic power. Today, there is a real opportunity to change the world by transforming and embracing new gender roles. This is happening in front of our eyes, but sometimes one needs a slap in the face or in the butt to realize it.
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