Soraya Chemaly wants us instead to find an equitable way for everyone to be considered genuinely human
Every post I write about misogyny and sexism in mainstream culture elicits emails from men accusing me of being a man-hater, blaming every man alive for the world’s dismal plight and women’s oppression. So, it was with great interest that I became involved with The Good Men Project, in which there’s a regular conversation about what makes men…good. Recently, this conversation centered on the question “Is this the end of men?” a question that Tom Matlack, one of the founders of the project, regularly asks. This week, that question overlaps with the issue of the presumption of male guilt.
I dislike the question for the following reasons: like many people the question suggests that women’s gains are men’s losses and makes no distinction between three ideas:
1) the end of systemic misogyny (i.e. patriarchy)
2) “the end of men” and
3) the end of a specific definition of masculinity.
The “end of men” question echoes Hanna Rosin’s 2010 provocative “End of Men” Atlantic Monthly article which did much to bolster backlash proponents of the “woe-to-boys-and-men” camp and contributed to a destructive misrepresentation of gender as oppositional and binary.
These distinctions are at the heart of the debate about culture and gender and are vitally important to a making society equitable. By failing to make these distinctions we continue to use outmoded frameworks for talking about change and gender-based dynamics. First, this question implies that “man” and “masculine” are interchangeable and they are not. Second, trying to answer a question framed this way often results in the conflation of male identity with misogyny. Third, and most destructively, the question almost always devolves into a “women’s gains are men’s losses” point of view.
We need to stop confusing sex and gender. We need to stop thinking and talking about gender in the language of extremes and competition. We should focus on the social effects of mutually beneficial cooperation. Instead of talking about rigid definitions of masculinity and femininity. We should celebrate the similarities between genders. We should be talking about gender confluence, instead of highlighting the differences.
I know men and women are different. But they are far more alike than they are different from one another. There is no denying that we persist, though stereotypes in media, textbooks, religious instruction and other powerful cultural forces, in emphasizing and exaggerating gender differences in ways that cause more harm then good. Gender assignment is the first thing that happens to a baby when it’s born. From the moment the “he’s a boy/she’s a girl” announcement is made, the coding begins. God help the parents who don’t tell anyone their child’s gender – it becomes an end- of-the world cause celebre. And, with gender comes correlating privileges and the idea of genders in opposition. On any given day, open a newspaper, listen to a radio station or watch TV and you are subjected to a back and forth about which gender is doing worse. Boys or girls? Men or women? Who works harder? Who sleeps less? Who gets sicker? Who has more stress? Not only is it a monumental waste of time, but is also a classic zero-sum game canard that distracts us from one key idea: it’s not about gender binaries or “war” but the opposite – it’s about gender confluences and how to leverage them to improve lives and culture.
I, for one, am dedicated as a feminist to fighting against patriarchal and paternalistic cultures because they are bad for both men and women. Most feminists, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, don’t hate men just for being men and aren’t working to “end” them. We generally have better things to do. It’s one of the great tragedies of 20th century American history that generations of revolutionaries, the women who fought for equal rights, were blackballed, marginalized and largely forgotten. Not only do most people take these rights (everything from the right to vote to the right to work to the right for reproductive freedom and equal pay) for granted, but they disparage the very people whose efforts immeasurably improved lives. There are no major national statues recognizing them or monuments dedicated to their struggles. We have no public holiday marking their achievements. Not one woman patriot, which is what feminists would be called if they were men, is featured on our regularly used currency. If I had my way Sojourner Truth would be on every frigging dollar bill.
Second, “end of men” questions and answers often take place in the context of boys and men under assault, unfairly castigated for the world’s woes. Christina Sommers’ 2000 “War on Boys” mythologized this tiresome, conservative Backlash trope. It framed concerns in oppositional terms and perpetuated the idea that the successes of boys and girls are inversely proportional. It was typical in blaming feminists for taking over the world and demonizing boys and men. Rapid changes in culture are hard to adapt to. And, for men in particular in the past 50 years, it has been a daily challenge to adapt to seriously conflicting messages about how to ‘be’ in the world. Hence the Good Men Project. I get it. Boys may be in trouble, but that’s not because girls are being more successful, it’s because institutions and traditional cultures have failed to adapt quickly enough. In addition, despite positive change for girls and women, there is little doubt that male privilege is alive and well. It’s just that many men are the proverbial fish contemplating water. Culture is sluggish and we all pay for it.
And, as far as men being demonized, consider it the proportional effect of being disproportionately in charge. Congress is 87% male (that’s an increase this year, by the way), corporate boards in the US are 96.5% male, media industry executives are overwhelmingly male, the world’s financial power centers and traditional religious hierarchies remain close to 100% male. If power were more equally distributed, responsibility more equitably spread, then “blame” and feelings of unjust accusation will follow accordingly. It is not that women aren’t represented in proportional numbers because they don’t want to be or are biologically unfit. If men are demonized for the world’s woes, it’s because it’s a statistical reality that there are more of them responsible for the world’s affairs.
To put it in the simplest practical terms, girls don’t need to be allowed to do what boys do anymore, but boys need to be allowed to do what girls do, without thinking that they will be “damaged” by the effort. The persistence of this disparaging idea limits boys and men tremendously. Parents, teachers, schools all need to consider how to let this happen. Anyone concerned with the barren emotional lives of boys or the misleading entitlement that comes with portrayals of the “right” to power, for example, should be blaming hyper-masculine stereotypes, not feminists. But these ideas are anathema to many people who ultimately believe that the female smacks of the inferior. But we will be unable to consider men being fully human until we understand the feminine as equally valuable. Misogyny, sexism, and related intersecting oppressions deny this truth.
So, as far as the end of men goes, I say no. Let’s stop asking the question that way. Not the end of men, but an end to classic, crippling, strong, silent, head of household protector/provider masculinity. It’s out of step with contemporary life and gender equality. And, to be clear, this isn’t an argument in favor of turning men into women, boys into girls. It’s an argument for finding an equitable way for everyone to be considered genuinely human. Why not ask instead, what does it mean to be human?
Oh, and John Wayne’s real name, by the way, was Marion.