He for She

I was wicked obsessed with Wonder Woman as a kid. Felt appropriate to make mention of that here.

So, I have some thoughts to share about the He for She campaign. (I’m kinda sick and sort of feverish, so I am not even going to try to write this well. Heads up on that. Just going to bluntly express some ideas.)

When Emma Watson spoke of her childhood, it resonated with me. Much like her, I wasn’t limited by my parents or school or culture. When I was in about the second grade, I told my dad I wanted to be a wide receiver in the NFL. God bless him, my dad didn’t squash that dream. I remember that occasion so vividly, and his, “Well, anything’s possible” sort of reaction. Even though, in that case, it clearly wasn’t. But the feeling that anything was possible was an important one, and infectious, so that when my dreams shifted to something more doable, but still difficult (film school and life as a professional writer) I carried that energy with me. Similarly, my mother embraced by tomboy nature. She never tried to force a more feminine way of being upon me. She accepted me for who I am, as I am. Just as importantly, my grandfather, who could tend toward mean, tough, and chauvinistic, would tell me that I could be the first female President of the United States. That’s a whole heck of a lot of empowerment I was gifted with, and I thankful for all of it.

It saddens and angers me to think of little girls whose natures are squashed because who they are doesn’t fit into their parents preconceived notions. Be they more feminine or more masculine than what is wanted – it’s important to note that sometimes familial pressure goes the other route, too.

It equally saddens and angers me to think of little boys who are similarly squashed – and similarly squashed in both directions. For all the little boys growing up in some redneck household who are told to not be a pansy, there are other little boys growing up in the suburbs being told it’s wrong to be dominant.

And herein lies part of my issue with what feminism has become.

As a kid, I heartily identified with the word feminist. And I still do with its base definition. But as Emma pointed out in her speech, it has become an unpopular word. Here’s the thing – the reason why it’s become unpopular isn’t simply because the world is filled with jerks who don’t understand feminism. It’s a mix of factors – from jerks who are threatened by true equality (and screw those guys and girls) to feminism being a word applied to behavior I find pretty appalling.

Here’s an example of such behavior.

Recently, I’ve had multiple male friends deal with charges of “threatening” a female co-worker. I am familiar with these cases, and in each instance, the woman was simply told her project wasn’t good enough. She was given tough criticism and she couldn’t take it. To be fair, I blame this behavior not just as a perverted form of feminist thought, but also on the belief that everybody is a precious snowflake these days.

I cannot really explain to you how angry this situation makes me. I love my people and I am protective over them. When I’ve watched dear friends spend decades building their careers, through conscientious effort, hard work and dedication, and then to watch some twenty-something twit wander in and – because of hurt feelings and never having been told “no” before – come close to wrecking everything my friend has built…the rage, you guys. All of the rage. These are good men. Men I know well. Men who self-identify correctly as feminists, in that they believe in equality between the sexes. Equal pay should be a reality. As well as an equal ability to handle the job at hand.

The first time this happened, I was surprised. I’m not surprised anymore. Now it’s something I expect. When a certain sort of twenty-something female doesn’t get what she wants at work she goes to HR and says she feels threatened. (Doesn’t matter if her boss is male or female, but if he’s male, that gets added to the complaint. It is a very mercenary sort of selfishness at play.) And here’s the thing – as angry as I am over the potential impact on my male friends, I am equally angry over what this does to women who are legitimately threatened. That is something I’ve lived through, and frankly, it goes down as one of the very worst times in my life – to feel threatened by a male boss and to work for a company who will not help you. No woman should ever have to deal with that. Because I’ve dealt with the real McCoy it adds to my anger to see these women issue complaints over honest critique of their work.

So here’s the other part of my complaint. Emma Watson makes a strong point about how men should be free to be themselves – sensitive and not controlling, unaggressive, etc. Which is 100% true. Men should absolutely feel free to be themselves. But what if who they are is aggressive and tough? Emma makes one mention of men and women both needing to be free to be strong. One mention. (Though to be fair, I was heartened by many aspects of Watson’s speech, including the fact that her father’s role in child raising is not as valued as her mother’s.)

Right now in the first world, we are in this cultural whirl of female empowerment. Check out this Pantene commercial, which is definitely on the money, this viciously manipulative trap of a commercial by Always, which still succeeded in making me cry (screw you, Always!), and this ever present campaign to raise a horde of superwomen bent on taking over the universe. Each of these things individually are fine. Put them together and it’s all. so. freaking. much. It’s everywhere. It’s stifling. And it has absolutely nothing to say to the men of the world.

Where are The Mighty Boy campaigns? Where are the commercials empowering men to be men? Look at the movies we make today. You don’t see the Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch roles. Where are the Jimmy Stewarts as George Bailey? The true man – strong, authentic, imbued with both integrity and feeling – is an archetype we’ve lost. As a culture, we’ve split men into two camps – emasculated suburbanites and psycho aggressive NFL types. We’ve lost the middle way for our men. And Lord knows we’re going to need them, once all those Mighty Girls grow up and takeover the universe.

Here’s the thing, you guys – a strong woman must have an equally strong man beside her. We are bent on creating a new breed of strong woman. Equal attention must be paid to raising a similarly strong generation of men. Right now, we don’t know what that means as a first world society. We have a clear vision of what the woman of the future should look like. No such image exists for boys. As Emma rightly points out, we won’t have true equality until men are free to be men. My contention is that we need to relearn just what, exactly, a man should be.

Even more to the point – I think we need to figure out what a good person is, period, and strive toward that as a society. Because that is an umbrella that covers us all – all genders, all races, all ages, all financial statuses – I feel that too often our emphasis on division does nothing but deepen our divisions.

3 thoughts on “He for She

  1. RG says:

    My inclination – for once – is to argue with you here. Enter epic novel-length comment . . . .aaaaaaaaaand go!

    1. Anecdotal evidence of friends is relevant, but not the final answer. Statistically, I think far more women suffer discrimination than report it. And only some, but not all, of the ones who do report are the twinkie-got-her-feelins-hurt that you describe. Although it’s true that false “boy who cried wolf” claims undermine the efficacy of true reports, it’s also true that rape victims pretty frequently are accused of crying wolf, no matter how legit their complaint. That’s the defense of a group with absolute power seeing its power undermined when society decides that victims have rights – it casts itself as the victim. This is not a rape situation, I know, but the power and sexual structure is similar – man in power, woman in position of weakness, and the evidence comes down to he-said she-said. I believe your judgment of character is true and what’s happening to your dudes is happening as you say. I also believe YOU LIKE DUDES WITH CHARACTER. There are plenty of dudes out there with no character with whom you would not be friends. And they have lots of asshole buddies just like ’em who cast doubt on any woman who makes a complaint. They just aren’t your friends, so you don’t hear about them squashing legit complaints with their assholery. Also PS – I work with a bunch of millenials and they are the shit. They work harder than I did coming out of college. We have this view of millenials as being entitled helicoptered babies, and in some instances that is true, but since going back to law school I met so many who have grown up in this recession and turned into nose-to-the-grindstone-no-excuses MACHINES because of the competition out there to get jobs. It is a bitch to get a job these days – you’ve gotta be determined, tough, top of your class (or connected . . . which could be the problem here).

    2. My feminist goal, and goal as a mother of 3 little boys, is to let people be who they be, whatever that is. Gender as male/female is as a false binary. There should be no such thing as an effeminate man or butch woman. There should just be people, being who they be, and being respectful of one another. That said – almost every message that my little boys receive in this world rewards them for being strong, assertive, and leaders (admittedly, often with the cast of aggressive/me want woman/pickup truck cavemannishness). The messages you describe that are attempting to subvert that are pushing forward other messaging – that it’s ok for boys to like flowers, pink, to be shy, to cry, to hate trucks and football, etc. And it’s ok for girls to be loud, crude, aggressive, powerful, etc. But these overt messages stand out in your mind because they are unusual in American culture. You know that P and I are an egalitarian couple who are careful in the messages we send our children. Nevertheless, the older boys frequently solemnly inform us that women belong in the home and men belong in jobs. That women should be meek, and men should be saviors. It astounds me the messaging that they have clearly absorbed NOT FROM ME, and how much work it takes for me to unpack it, and lead them to the realization that it isn’t true. Why women can be racecar drivers and why men also have the responsibility to vacuum. Why daddies love their babies just as much as mamas do. They see their father vacuum and change diapers (and go to work), they see their mother work as an attorney and lead groups at church – yet they still somehow think that domestic concerns are my realm and work is dad’s realm, that boys are leaders and girls are followers. How??

    3. I am not so sure we have a clear idea of what we want women to look like. I think we are getting a clearer vision that we want women to have choices – more choices than they have traditionally been given. Remember my lovely love, your upbringing was (I would argue) unusual. Many, arguably most, young girls in America are brought up in a less egalitarian household – these ad campaigns you describe may be the first time they see something that opens up options. Also, they are ad campaigns – designed by people who want to sell stuff, and not necessarily reflective of any feminist ideal beyond “We’ve finally figured out that ladies spend money too.” And Geena Davis has a really cool study going on that is examining messaging in children’s movies and books that actually shows just how many times boys are told that they can be mighty and awesome – something like 80% of protagonists in children and family movies are male. She examined one year of family film making and determined that zero adult women were shown as having professional jobs, whereas adult men were shown doing all sorts of things – even domestic things, though they are invariably shown as bumpkins in that arena. I guess my point is that while I won’t argue we shouldn’t point boys toward Atticus Finch et al as examples of exemplary manhood, I think that boys just soak in a culture full of messages that opens the world up for them, whereas girls see a world where 80% of their cartoon or movie heroes are male, and that tells them a message about where they fit.

    4. John Green just said something cool in an interview about how we talk about “cancer” as if it’s one disease, but it’s actually thousands of different diseases. You can’t treat cancer as a monolith – the only way to deal with the hard stuff of talking about folks dealing with cancer and how to help them is to understand that cancer is a bajillion different diseases, and each person’s experience of cancer is tailored to that specific expression of the disease. I’d say the same thing about feminism. Feminism isn’t one thing – there is no Platonic Form of feminism. I would be cautious of getting fed up with “feminism” rather than characterizing your experience as a rejection of certain folks’ expression of it. I’m a part of a feminist-mothering group, and we often discuss in that group all of the ways in which the patriarchy is harmful to men, and how feminism is also good for men. My strain of feminism has as its whole point the abolition of discrimination based on sex and gender – in all its forms. And my facebook feeds and email discussions and all this are full of feminism that puts forth those messages. I’ve selected a “boy-positive” feminism as one that fits with my own life, and that’s the messaging I get. I think the messaging is out there – probably you haven’t seen it.

    5. I know you said yours was stream of consciousness and mine is too, plus this comment box is way tiny so it’s hard to read back what I wrote. I’ll simply end by saying this – your final line is the point I’d want to make. We need to figure out what a good person is – not good man or good woman, but good person. Both women and men in our society have had boxes drawn around them for so long, and we are going through a time of deconstructing those boxes to allow more freedom of choice for all. But I can’t forget that the boxes drawn around women have traditionally been tighter – the emphasis on virginity/purity, being confined to the domestic, being told that if you aren’t a mother or hoping to be, you aren’t normal, being told that if you’re fat or old, you aren’t worthy, not being permitted to travel or own property without a man’s permission, not being allowed to vote, and being kept (still) out of positions of power by a number of forces, some overt and some just inertia. Disrupting these norms causes a lot of lurching stops and starts, and a lot of pain. But it’s important to everyone, to give freedom to all – to be mighty or meek, each according to his or her own natures. KUMBAYA. THE END.

  2. CCL says:

    I appreciate how you’ve framed this conversation. I agree that we don’t have an idea of the ideal man. I actually was glad to have two daughters because I have some thoughts on how to raise them to be strong women, but I have no idea how to raise a boy to be a “good man.” Then again, as you said, just raising a kid to be a good person is a pretty good start.

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