This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
I devoted yesterday’s post to a silly pop-culture book, Undateable, which gives straight men snarky- but- sincere advice on how to make themselves attractive — no, strike that, tolerable — to women. I devoted the column to all the ways this book reinforces a rigid, narrow, absurdly unattainable vision of acceptable manhood, instilling men with anxiety and self-consciousness about their masculinity while at the same time exhorting them to be confident.
Today I want to answer the question: Why do I care?
Why do I care about sexism and gender normativity in ephemeral bits of pop culture fluff?
And why do I care about how sexism hurts men at all? With all the grotesque ways that sexism and gender normativity hurts women, why would I spend my time worrying about how it hurts men?
Let’s take care of the “pop culture fluff’ part first. I care about how pop culture fluff reinforces sexism because… well, that’s one of the primary ways that sexism gets reinforced. Pop culture is the sea we’re all swimming in. Seeing how women and men are depicted on TV, in movies, in pop songs, in advertising, in video games, yada yada yada… this is a huge part of how we get our messages about what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a man, and what’s expected of us as one or the other. Sexism is diffused throughout our culture. It’s not like there’s a Central Office of Gender Propaganda we can picket. If we have problems with how gender norms enforced, we have to respond to it one piece at a time.
But why do I care at all?
Sexism, and the enforcement of gender roles, hurts women way more than it does men: from economic inequity to literal, physical abuse. Why would I devote a whole two-part mini-series to how sexism hurts men?
I care about these people. I feel compassion for them. I don’t want them to suffer. I see how this gender- normative stuff hurts the men in my life: how it makes them crazy, how it undermines their confidence, how it makes them anxious and self-conscious, how it makes their relationships harder. I don’t like it. I want it to stop. Now, please.
What’s more, I have male children in my life — and it kills me to think of them growing up with this bullshit. It kills me to think of Charlie and Tanner and Teague and Wyatt growing up with the barrage of rigid, nitpicky, absurdly narrow, bizarrely irrelevant, schizophrenically mixed messages about Being A Man. It’s a stupid, pointless burden, and I don’t want the male children in my life getting it piled onto their shoulders — or having to do unnecessary work unloading it. Learning to be a good person is hard enough without all that crap.
There’s an ideological reason, too. I see a tremendous amount of gender inequality and injustice in the world; I oppose it passionately, and work hard to overturn it. But I don’t want it “fixed” by making things worse for men. I don’t want to make the world more equal by making things suck as badly for men as they do for women. Yes, we live in a world where women are besieged with a ridiculously narrow, frequently contradictory vision of idealized womanhood. I don’t want to “fix” that by turning the lens on men, and forcing them into a vision of idealized manhood that’s just as unattainable. That’s not the equality and justice I’m fighting for. Fuck that noise.
It helps women.
Partly it helps women because it makes men easier to be involved with. Not just romantically and sexually, but as friends and colleagues, family members and community partners. Men are a lot easier to get along with when they’re not constantly trying to prove how manly they are. Men are a lot easier to get along with when they don’t feel a constant need to be competitive and macho, when they’re not storing up a load of resentful silence about what they need and want, when they don’t feel threatened by powerful and intelligent women, when they don’t always feel like they have to take the lead in sex and love, when they can express their emotions, when they can ask for help. Men are a lot easier to get along with when they stop worrying so much about being men, and spend more time paying attention to just being good people.
Besides… well, as a friend once put on a bumper sticker on her truck, “Feminists Fuck Better.” And that’s true of both feminist women and feminist men. Men who aren’t locked into rigid gender roles are a whole lot more fun in the sack. They’re more inventive, more willing to experiment, less performance-oriented, less goal-oriented, less self-conscious, less threatened by women who are sexually knowledgeable and experienced, more playful, more expressive, more relaxed, more emotionally present, more genuinely confident (as opposed to fake, macho confident), more open to a wider range of sexual possibilities. And I hope I don’t have to explain how all of that is good for women.
And caring how sexism hurts men is good for women… because it advances the cause of feminism.
I passionately believe that feminism will do a whole lot better if we can get more men on board. There is a limit to how far feminism can go if we can’t convince men that there’s something in it for them. People are self-interested; our empathy and altruism and concerns for justice will only take us so far, and for most of us, there’s only so much we’re willing to sacrifice to make the world a better place.
But if we can convince more men that sexism hurts them, too — that patriarchy and rigid gender expectations are making their lives harder, that it’s screwing with their heads, that it’s screwing with their relationships, that it’s placing a burden on their shoulders that’s unfair and unnecessary, that both men and women who aren’t locked into rigid gender roles tend to be happier and more satisfied, that feminists fuck better — feminism is going to get a whole lot further.
And that’s good for all of us.