Setting the bar low

23 09 2010

I was thinking this morning about Michael Chabon’s book, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, which I mentioned that I listened to recently in audiobook format. What prompted the thought were the compelling articles in response to the Newsweek “Man Up!” piece about how we need to “reimagine masculinity.”

In Chabon’s book, one of initial chapters involves a trip he took with his kids to the grocery store. Standing there in the checkout lane, a woman in rainbow-colored leggings comes up and comments on what a good father he is. Of course, he didn’t really do anything to merit it, as he was simply standing there not beating nor overtly neglecting his children. None of them were on fire or anything, so apparently that meant he was attentive enough to ensure that their chances of survival at the grocery store and their very well-being were well within acceptable parameters. Otherwise, not a big deal.

Chabon goes on to point out how it’s painfully clear that women don’t do that to each other in the store. They don’t go about congratulating each other on what a good mom they are simply for pushing a cart around. Good parenting is more about waking up in the middle of the night and worrying about your kids, about their development, their learning, their happiness, and all of the things they need to become fully-functioning, well-adjusted little grownups. His wife may have scheduled 3 doctor’s appointments, changed 12 diapers, nursed a flu sick kid back to health, and helped carve from scratch out of a block of wood a scale replica of the Statue of Liberty for a kid’s social science project all while performing an emergency tracheotomy with a drinking straw and a pen knife and nobody would say a word. That’s what’s expected of mothers. Dads, however, just have to not kill their offspring and they’re already well ahead of the curve.

I’ve experienced this a lot myself with my own kids. All their lives, aside from the last couple months while we’ve both been between jobs, I’ve been the one doing most of the day-to-day caretaking. I’ve gotten tons of compliments on fathering, both from family and strangers, most of the time for doing nothing in particular to deserve it (though, here and there, I think I’ve pulled off something pretty good and if you look in the aggregate, I’ve done better than just not kill them).

Chabon concludes by saying a simple “fuck you” to the lady with the rainbow-colored leggings and I, for one, think she had it coming. It was one of the highlights of the book for me. Men deserve recognition for being good fathers by virtue of having earned such a distinction, just as a mother would.

What prompted my thinking about that particular chapter in the book was this comment in a response piece by Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory:

Their argument is essentially that we need to encourage men to take active caretaking roles at home and at work. This means putting more emphasis on the importance of fatherhood and recasting so-called nurturing professions so that they no longer seem the sole domain of women. Another way of saying all that? Men need feminism. They are talking, after all, about equal opportunity and expectations, and greater freedom from restrictive gender roles — that’s the fundamental aim of feminism, as I understand it.

In this comment, she points out correctly the move that needs to happen. The authors of the original article think men should more often embrace the role of caretaker and Clark-Flory seems to recognize that the way to this is not just to toss more men into the role all willy-nilly, but to address the role and the social stigma that these professions are somehow less than masculine. How we get there is a different matter entirely, but I believe it involves focusing on full-fledged participation in and underscoring men’s obligation to having a healthy, happy and successful family as reflecting back on their masculinity. Men may not always be the breadwinner, which if we’re being honest is a pretty important but ultimately easy part of the family-raising  job, but they can still be responsible for the family as a whole unit. It goes beyond the mere financial, in other words.

Where I differ is the suggestion that men need feminism. “Greater freedom restrictive gender roles” is one one of the fundamental aims of feminism and is the most appropriate and laudable one for this, but it’s not the only aim of feminism, either. If you can ever express a complex philosophy/discipline like feminism in so few words, it’s sure to be not totally on the mark. For instance, I do think that a continued focus on equality is important for all genders (masculine, feminine, gay, straight, you name it), but I also think that a men’s discipline should focus on men as inherently different from women. It may never be exactly equal, but there is a difference between how I work in the family and how my wife does. There are inherently masculine approaches to problems (just as there are inherently feminine ones). Men don’t need to watch the View. They don’t need to decorate with fluffy pillows or watch design shows (inside joke). They can teach a kid to suck it up instead of crying and can be rougher. They can teach a sense of competitiveness, assertiveness and even healthy aggression that flies in the face of the whole “it only matters if everyone has fun,” “everyone’s a winner,” touchy-feely crap they get everywhere else. I’m not saying women can’t fill that dynamic either, but I think there are differences and we should be okay with that. See where I’m going? We need to take credit and even, dare I say it, pride in some of those masculine approaches, even when they appear to be (or perhaps because they are) not in the mainstream, more traditional, outmoded and sometimes even reactionary.

Jon Hamm endorsing John Ham

Image via Wikipedia

I’m also not sold on the idea of heralding all of the writing in mainstream media as the “New Macho.” I’m uncomfortable with packaging shit up like that, but I understand that that’s all part of what sells magazines. I suppose that talking about Jon Hamm’s Mad Men fashion is a part of the discussion, too. It just doesn’t really get to the point, isn’t as important and shouldn’t be treated as the main thing. There’s more at stake than just clothes. If there is suddenly a rejection of the “metrosexual” (and I never met anyone who fit that role exactly, but whatever), then let’s not fall into the same level of discourse as we did last go around. There are real things to talk about here that matter more than clothes.

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6 responses

23 09 2010
Ruthie

I actually kind of agree with Clark-Flory’s statement that ‘men need feminism’, but possibly not in the way she means it. I don’t think men need their own feminism, per se, but I think the only way to make the traditionally more ‘feminine’ roles are accessible to men without being necessarily seen as weakening masculinity is to make more ‘masculine’ roles accessible to women without them being seen as less ‘feminine’. I can’t help feeling that only when women have equal access to, and more importantly have established themselves in boardrooms, law partnerships, government positions, etc., to such an extent that the statistics regarding the gender gap become irrelevant, will the other areas of social productivity (horrible term – sorry), such as child-rearing, also have less gender-specific stigmatisation.
Oh, and by the way, nobody should watch The View. Ever.

23 09 2010
robdougherty

Well, that’s really two separate points. The first being whether we’d agree that women haven’t arrived yet, where I’d argue that they have in almost every regard that matters. I don’t think there are many out there who think that women don’t belong in the boardroom or as Secretary of State or even as President any longer and those who do aren’t really taken seriously by anyone. Most statistics I’ve seen is that in the current economic climate it’s been the women executives who have kept their jobs and the men who got sacked. There’s still the the salary gap which is bad, but that’s also only going to improve. Overall, though, feminism has been and will no doubt continue to be very successful.

The second point there is whether it’s a valid strategy to insist on parenting as something that belongs solely in the feminine realm as a holdout until equality has been established higher up in the career ladder. That seems a strange strategy to me. But that’s a point that the authors of the Newsweek article made themselves, that the pay gap isn’t going to go anywhere and there won’t be real equality until men are participating more in the home and there isn’t the ridiculous expectation of women having to pull double duty at the office all day and then primary (solitary) caregiver at night. That’s something I’d agree on and to that extent, then yes, a little more feminism would go a long way.

Overall, however, I stand by my assertion that feminism cannot and should not be the only “voice” defining what masculinity should and should not be. Feminism as a ideology fits that role because it’s been concerned with gender issues for a long time and most masculine counter-movements have really, ultimately, failed to catch on. I’m just not convinced that the feminist ideology is really what will work best for any serious re-imagining of masculinity. That is not to say that society doesn’t need feminism anymore. It very clearly does for all of the reasons that you say. Nor is it correct to say that a men’s movement needs to be, by definition, anti-feminist. It doesn’t and I think it should recognize the good things that feminist ideology has done and it should share in a lot of feminism’s goals (boardroom and nursery room equality included). It should, however, have its own goals, too.

23 09 2010
Ruthie

First off, I agree that feminism should not be the only voice defining masculinity, although when working within the gender binary, isn’t it inevitable, at least at first, in any re-imagining since identity is constituted primarily through othering? I would certainly argue that feminism really only started to be taken seriously as a political force, and took itself seriously, perhaps, through this othering with the whole ‘different but equal’ thing.

I think we may be accessing different statistics regarding women and economics (and for me, it’s always about the money – or power – but at the moment I think money = power, so money it is). Whereas I agree that most people wouldn’t argue that women don’t belong in high-responsibility, high-reward jobs, they are as far as I’m aware, still drastically underrepresented in these roles. As I remember from counting the gender balance among graduate students/adjunct staff to tenured professors, deans, heads, chancellors at every institution I’ve worked at. Lip service is great, but doesn’t actually get women into those roles.

But maybe you’re right – maybe it’s not explicitly the professional status of women that holds parenting predominantly within the feminine sphere, but rather their position as consumers (it’s still about the money). Generally the people that buy things for the family, do the Christmas shopping, prepare menus/meals/lunchboxes, etc., tend to be women, regardless of whether or not they’re earning the money they spend. I think it’d be pretty interesting to look at the marketing of parenthood and see just how much more mothers of young children get marketed to than fathers of same. There was a glib article in the Guardian not so long ago just about metrosexuality, the New Macho, and the Mancession and the marketing involved in creating the niche that it then exploits.

So is it possible to re-imagine masculinity on a large scale without the economic incentive to do so? Political feminism now has been marketed into t-shirts and slogans, so maybe that’s all that there is left. God, that’s depressing.

23 09 2010
tomboyinhighheels

This is a great post.

Feminism has been successful, but there are definitely things economically, socially and politically that need to be achieved.

I think men need an equivalent or complimentary type of social movement. It’s like women have been moving at warp speed and men are dragging their feet. I’m not sure if it’s because they don’t know how to adjust to the change that has taken place over the past few decades or if they are reluctant to give up whatever remaining economic/social/political power they have for the greater good. Could be a bit of both.

This new men’s movement, like feminism, would DESPERATELY need to address how issues such as race, sexuality, and class greatly impacts one’s gendered experience. I think about my younger brother as I type this, remembering how much he struggled growing up, dealing with what it meant to be a black man. Peer pressure, media, my older brother, and yes women, feeding him ideas of what was expected of him.

These categories need to be redefined. Feminism has been fairly successful in proving that the categories are not fixed. They are very much variable.

Men need to be talking about this and taking action – and you would think with the growth of the internet and social networking that it would be happening by now. My (unfortunate) feeling is that men, since they don’t suffer from the sort of injustices that women do, just don’t want it as badly – or else it would have happened already, right? If men were making less money, if they had to struggle between choosing fatherhood or a career, if they were afraid to walk alone at night, or if they knew what it was like to try to reconcile the fact that their girlfriend just raped them… they’d be on this by now.

No wait – but men do get raped. And some are afraid to walk alone at night under the treat of being attacked, shot, or killed. Some do struggle with fatherhood. And there are men who do struggle to advance in careers or make a decent living. Their struggles may be slightly different (e.g. male-on-male violence), but are very much related to the struggles women have. So why aren’t men standing up? Are they afraid that women won’t support them?

Anyway, I hope to see it in my lifetime.

23 09 2010
robdougherty

Thanks very much for your comment. Yes, I think you’re right, I think there are definitely points at which men do struggle. These men’s movements do come up from time to time, though. You might remember the silly men’s movement of the eighties that would have men sitting in the forest with other men, Robert Bly style, banging drums and trying to find their primal yell. Or something like that. It was silly and it’s still parodied today on shows like Family Guy and Saturday Night Live. Another was the Promise-Keepers around 1996 or 1997. I can’t recall exactly and would need to look it up.

At any rate, men’s movements spring up from time to time and die just about as quickly. Mostly they seem to come up in response to insecurity or as a critical response to feminism. My contention is that they don’t need to be anti-feminism, but they do need to deal more exclusively with men’s issues.

23 09 2010
robdougherty

@Ruthie (it won’t let me reply underneath your comment for some reason) –

I don’t mean to suggest at all that the work of feminism is over and done. Far from it and not just from the salary-gap issue but, more importantly, I still think the idea that women play double-duty, working all day and still spending more time with the kids (even when the husband is unemployed one article I read mentioned). This, I find, particularly disturbing. The way we look for an answer to it is going to differ depending on the approach, but at the end of the day, I’d like to see men take responsibility for their family’s success and contribute fully to it. I’d like that to be seen as a more masculine trait with men not solely as a provider of money, but willing to spend their time to provide other kinds of support as well. That can’t be bad for feminism, either. If the excuse for paying women less for the same amount of work is that they’re doubly responsible for their home life and cannot commit as fully to their work life, then having men be more accountable at home (and not having that stigmatized, which is key) effectively invalidates the argument that values women in the workplace less. I think that’s one cooperative point that both feminist and men’s voices could work together on. How men take on the role should be pretty different from how women fill the role, though, and men should be the main voices defining that.

Also, that’s an excellent point about the glib Guardian article and one that I was sort of beginning to consider myself when I mentioned the Jon Hamm fashion thing. It’s very clear (to me, anyway) that fashion leaped on the so-called masculinity crisis faster than anyone, complete with a new fall line so you look like you walked right off the set of Mad Men with all of your lost male power fully restored. The magazine, newspaper and media market aren’t too far behind, either. It’d be a shame for a moment of redefinition to be completely taken over by commerce, but it wouldn’t be the first time. They’ve been doing it to women, like you were saying, for a very long time.

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