“All over the world, there are so many magazine articles and books telling women what to do, how to be and not to be, in order to attract or please men. There are far fewer guides for men about pleasing women,” writes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in We Should All Be Feminists.
There’s a grain of truth in her observation. Peruse the covers of women’s magazines and you’ll quickly read headlines that blink “ways to please him.” The stick-thin women featured on the covers, even of women’s fitness magazines, boast a dislike for fitness regimes. The contents cover cosmetics and sex much more than other topics. The pressure on women to fashion themselves as appealing to men in every facet of existence is in part the reason for feminism.
Because women joined together and pressed for access to sports, academia, and careers, they may now utilize their full range of gifts and abilities. Thanks to Title IX, more girls have access to sports. Women are graduating from college at higher rates than men and are slowly moving towards parity in the business, legislative, entertainment, and health professions. The gap in salaries for women and men in the same fields is slowly closing.
Simultaneously, a growing body of evidence suggests that there’s a crisis in masculinity. Richard Reeves’ Of Boys and Men — one of the books recommended for June’s thematic discussion on feminism and masculinity for the LWVMC Well-Read Citizen’s Club — provides extensive evidence that boys and men are falling behind. More boys are failing K-12 math and reading classes, not graduating from high school, nor attending college at the rates of women. Male life expectancy is dropping and deaths of despair are up. Average earnings of Black men have dropped below White women, notes Reeves.
While Reeves attempts an apolitical analysis and set of solutions, counterparts like Josh Hawley and Jordan Peterson have weighed in with what columnist Ross Douthat calls a “tradbro” return to past gender roles: women stay at home, nurture, and let the men dominate the professional world, protect and provide. They lean on the biological argument that men have an innate urge to be strong and to have courage as if that’s exclusive to men.
Pitted as two unresolved crises, the discussions we’re having about masculinity and feminism come out looking like an intractable and widening trench. That’s how panelists Michelle Cottle, Carlos Lezada, Lydia Polgreen, and Ross Douthat framed the problem in the May 25 episode of Matter of Opinion. Part of the problem is that we don’t know how to approach the root causes and solutions of these debates, Douthat argued. Are men and women hard-wired differently or is gender a construct that we can revise and correct?
Ross Douthat noted that when we talk about it, we “can’t quite get away from the gender essentialism question. Because there are two quite different stories you would tell. If male-female differences are deeply rooted in biology, then you have a story here where the socioeconomic landscape has shifted.” He expounds, saying that if men are biologically wired to use their brawn and prove their courage, then the crisis is that they are poorly matched with today’s economy, which needs more workers in the service sector and white-collar jobs. In that case, we have to change our economy, but if masculinity is a construct, “that’s quite different from saying we used to socialize men in order to make them ready to go to war and work in factories. And now, we need to socialize them a different way for the more gender egalitarian society.” In that conversation, we need to change how we mentor boys into manhood. They don’t need to toughen up, they need to cultivate an ability to relate to and please others better.
Insisting boys learn to shoot a gun, hunt, own a muscular car, or spend hours getting ripped at the gym, or any other proof of manhood fails because it’s foisted universally on boys and puts them into what Adichie calls “a hard, small cage.” By extension, this warps how men and women relate to each other. In this binary, women are responsible for the health in relationships, responsible for trust and interdependency, while men should pursue independence and individuality.
Thankfully, most women and men know this lack of mutuality is neither sustainable nor healthy. It’s part of what led people to coin the term “toxic masculinity,” a term so overused that some men are giving up on what’s healthy and embracing the message of guys like Andrew Tate —an influencer presently incarcerated in Romania on charges of sex trafficking.
“But the idea that we are looking at men as a problem is actually not that far off sometimes,” said Michelle Cottle on Matters of Opinion, “I mean, especially in certain more progressive corners we are so eager to make sure that women aren’t left behind, that women aren’t being mistreated, almost as though it is a binary like one has to kind of go along. If one is getting ahead, you have to kind of disadvantage the other.”
When men give up, or when the well-being of one gender as a whole is in competition with the other, we need to seek a third way, maybe even a fourth, fifth or sixth.
To be clear, it’s true that men have dominated the offices of power, the C-suites, the halls of academia, the workplace, the sports arena and the financial markets for millennia. Only in the past century has the pendulum begun to swing in the direction of women. Yet, parity is about finding equilibrium and that takes work. Men and women will thrive when they find flourishing counterparts — intellectually, creatively, spiritually, physically — in their workplaces, relationships and communities.
The challenge is hammering out those solutions. This is the point of a thought-provoking and informed conversation, and why the LWVMC are hosting a themed discussion over three books. Participants are encouraged to read one or more of the books: “Bad Feminist” by Roxanne Gay, “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and “Of Boys and Men” by Richard Reeves. The Well-Read Citizen Book Club will be held at 7 p.m. June 7 at Whitlock Hall, 212 S. Green St. Crawfordsville. Light refreshments are provided.
The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.
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