Suburban Breadwinner

22 02 2011

A couple interesting articles online lately about breadwinning wives and slacker men. I’ll point mainly to Hanna Rosin’s article in Slate, but this isn’t really about that. I think Rosin is making a good career move writing crap that approaches something that is essentially misandry. I’m comfortable with the word because I think she probably knows and digs the niche of man-hate she’s been working on and, well, it sells magazines and gets clicks.

Mostly, though, I had started this post several weeks ago, because I was struck by the following quote:

“If the suburban breadwinner father didn’t exactly know who he was, he could at least figure out who he wasn’t. In the 1950’s American men strained against two negative poles – the overconformist, a faceless, self-less nonentity, and the unpredictable, unreliable nonconformist. American middle-class men faced what I think of as the ‘Goldilocks dilemma,’ from that fairy-tale heroine’s search for commodities (chairs, beds, porridge) that were not too something yet not too much the other side. Men had to achieve identities that weren’t too conforming to the march of the empty gray flannel suits lest they lose their souls; but they couldn’t be too nonconforming lest they leave family and workplace responsibilities behind in a frantic restless search for some elusive moment of ecstasy.” (Kimmel, Manhood in America, p. 236)

Take note: We all, men and women, walk a pretty narrow path and it’s not easy. The room for error is really, really small and the very idea of gender muddies the water. Traditional roles are very messy things. The upside is, as the quote shows, it’s been that way a lot longer than any of us remember (and it’s been going on longer than that, too). It’s not fun for anyone. Can’t we get away from that? Can’t we define ourselves with just a slightly bigger brush? Because this kind of thing was and is a straitjacket and it sucks.

My pro-feminist take is that these conversations such as those presented by Rosin are coming about because of a good thing, even if certain voices are misguided or just annoying. We say that as we achieve equality in a society – and we’re still a ways off – that this is going to ultimately mean emancipation for everyone. For men, that women can move into the breadwinner role is supposed to be liberating, since it means that we no longer have to. We still can, they still can, and hello!, welcome to freedom to choose. And, in case you didn’t get the memo, basing the success of one’s gender performance on something as fickle as the economy is a very, very bad idea.

On the other article, I really have very little to say. Again, it’s an unambiguous assault on single men, so it doesn’t apply to me. If they’re not the marrying sort, there’s a lot of dialogue to be had about there between single men and women, I guess. I’ll say only that if money and being a provider and breadwinning and careers and materialism and traditions are the only (or even main) points of discussion between prospective mates, I’d suggest that they’re doing it wrong. Given the success rate of marriages in this country, I think I’m probably right when I say most of them are doing it wrong.

Tony Porter’s Call to Men

9 02 2011

I’m linking to this TED presentation by Tony Porter titled, “A Call to Men” because it really resonated with me on a couple levels.

It resonates with me because I have a daughter who is the light of my life, just like Porter’s daughter is for him. If and when she ends up in a relationship with a dude (hopefully a very, very long time from now), I want him to be a dude that sees her for the great person that she is and will be and treats her with respect and equality.

It resonates with me because I realize all the time the pitfalls there are in raising an enlightened son and making him into a good man. I’ve screwed it up so many times already, I know this, but I think on the grand scale I do okay.

The thing missing from Porter’s speech is how we, as men, do this in our homes and with our children. There are lots of things, of course, and I don’t mean to oversimplify, but I believe we do this by being the example. We show them in how we act with their mother. That’s the dominant example and they’ll learn most of what they need to know from that.

I highly recommend viewing the video on the TED website and reading down in the comments. There are a lot of men who are threatened and react pretty strongly against any pro-feminist masculinity. I think, however, it’s important not to demonize the misguided. If you watch the video, you see some of the vulnerability for men and the whole point is about some of the damage caused by the gross socialization of men in our society. It’s kind of hard to blame them and it’s ultimately better not to be an attacker, but an educator. Misogyny is curable.

Origins of the “Man-Cave”?

24 01 2011

My wife, dog and I in my office in November 2002 (4 months before my daughter was born)

At the beginning of the 20th century, the spheres of work were very separate along male and female lines. Men spent most of their waking hours away from the home, without contact to their wives, children and the home itself, which became increasingly a feminine domain. Not that it was great for women, either, as it more or less left them domestic prisoners, but men felt the impact of the societal shift as well. That’s where it started, anyway, in contrast to the 19th century where the pre-industrial man’s role did not alienate him from the domestic sphere (in which he ruled the roost as well).

The problem with all of this, as we see, is that men were completely excluded from the home by this point and thereby also excluded from the nurturing and regenerative aspects of family life and from the love and comfort that their homes were supposed to provide. Men left the home to work, earn a living, be a “good father.” They were the “breadwinner,” which encompassed the roles of worker, earner and father into one. But that happened outside. That was where they proved themselves and their masculinity. When they came back home, they came back to a predominantly feminine space that was not really theirs and they couldn’t really participate in without feeling like a “wimp.”

The solution for many, then “was to colonize the home, to find a small corner that could be unmistakably ‘his,’ like the den or the study in the nineteenth century or the basement, the workshop, the garage, or even the backyard barbecue pit today.” (Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History, 158)

When we first moved to Pennsylvania, back when I began graduate school, I had a room in our apartment that was, for all intents and purposes, just mine. It had my computer in it, my books, a futon, a radio, no TV and there was where I did all of my work. I don’t really think of it much as a man-cave, though, as it was legitimately the place where I spent my time mostly working and studying. It was there because I needed a place to do all of those things and the living room would have made that either very inconvenient for my wife or for me.

So, it struck me then some months ago when I was reading Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, when he mentioned that it seemed to him that in any home where there’s a spare space, that invariably the man gets it. In his home, it’s his office, and he remarked that his wife had to make due with the rest of the house and all of the life within it. I suppose if there are two extra rooms or spaces, then everyone gets one, but that really does seem to be the way it is.

We’re, of course, a long way from the start of the 20th century, though. So it makes me wonder why we still do feel, as men, that urge to colonize parts of the home.

By the way, I lost my “colony,” my “cave,” when my daughter was born. The walls between zones broke down and I couldn’t retreat and then when we moved to a larger place when my son was born, I lost the space entirely, taking up just one corner of the downstairs where everyone was. Even now, I’m off in an under-used part of the house, but it’s not closed off like a spare bedroom or basement or attic would be. It does make a real difference and I sincerely miss my old cave back that I had 10 years ago. I can still smell it in my memory, this mix of cedar and lingering cigarette smoke (because I was a heavy smoker at the time, but I would only smoke in my office, nowhere else in the house).

The same office in February 2003. All that remains of the former office are the books and the futon.

I sometimes also dream now of having another cave, a study upstairs or somewhere else in the home that serves as a retreat and a place to work and think. A way to be part of the home but also have a part of the home be mine as well. It’s such a strange urge when you step back and consider it, but are our homes somehow alien to the men within them?

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.

Thank you, Old Spice for Televising the End of Men

13 09 2010

In a world where little Dan Abrams gets to sign a six figure deal throwing men yet again under the bus to the tune of Hanna Rosen’s End of Men piece, we can at least appreciate this incredibly awesome new Old Spice commercial with Ray Lewis (Linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens):

If the doomsaying is true, at least we get a little Benjamin in there to witness men’s (not mankind’s) own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order, eh? Personally, I’m wondering how dead a dead horse can be.

Hellish Week

10 09 2010

On top of it being a shorter week than normal due to the holiday traveling madness, I’ve been working on the day job issues with interviews and physical ability tests. It’s kind of like there are two me’s running about. The other me has had the floor a lot in the last few days. He ran up an 85 foot aerial ladder on a fire truck on Wednesday morning and had a second job interview yesterday afternoon and that’s occupied most of his thought. Day job me is one busy, busy boy.

This is not to say I haven’t been reading and haven’t acquired a number of things I’d like to react to, but it’s unlikely I’ll get to them in great detail, so here are the thoughts in short form:

Batman: an iconic superhero whose powers are r...

Image via Wikipedia

Superheroes as bad role models for boys? (see here, here and here)

This has been reported everywhere, but here it goes again. At a recent conference of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Sharon Lamb, EdD presented the findings of her study into superhero role models for boys. She surveyed 674 boys, found out what they liked, read/viewed the findings of that survey herself, and determined that comic book heroes offer only two stereotypes for boys to become: either be a narcissistic, aggressive bully or become sarcastic, disconnected slackers. I find this more than a little harsh and, though I have to admit I’ve not read the details of the study or seen the methodology, it’s my contention that in a lot of educational research (or social studies or literary), it’s difficult to attempt to gather real empirical data and, as a consequence, I think studies in those fields can be prone to observer bias.

All I can think is she must be reacting to Tony Stark. But come on, Batman in the Dark Knight offers himself as a villain-figure to save the image of Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, as Lt. Gordon says: “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves. But not the one it needs right now. And so we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent gaurdian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.” The message drilled into every single 5 minutes of the Spiderman movies is “with great power, comes great responsibility” and we witness Peter Parker repeatedly sacrificing his personal happiness for the good of others.

I’m not contesting that there’s no validity to the characteristics she presents. I think some heroes are narcissistic. They’re all certainly fallible, because we’ve moved past an age of “perfection” and are now in a phase where we wish to see “human” figures overcome their weaknesses. But they’re ultimately still principled beings. That’s what’s most important. I don’t think their being human and with some fault is a strike against them. On the contrary, I think in our world, when issues of good and evil are understandably far more complex and a lot less cut-and-dry than they were 50 years ago, we need rolemodels who show how to become better through sacrifice, through overcoming and abandoning our faults and through sticking to a code of honor.

That’s why I feel that it’s just a shame that in a social sciences observation, it’s often possible to skip observation and instead proceed to whatever axe one has to grind and then seek evidence to support that. Honestly, no where in comics does she see the archetype of protector? My son Max does. He’s 2. He says that Spiderman saves people. I’m glad he sees that. I do think that there are values there that go beyond the two stereotypes she presents.

Fordson Football Documentary

When the conversation of the week has been about Ground Zero, the wacko Qur’an burning guy in Florida and even here, in Middle Tennessee, the arson at the proposed site for a mosque in Murfreesboro, I’m hopeful that this documentary gets more traction, because racism and religious hatred is stupid. End of discussion:

From the Department of Things I Don’t Understand

Amish romance. Apparently it’s a trend. Somehow I missed that, but having studied and worked in the German Department at Penn State, I know a lot of people who could probably write some pretty convincing Amish love-stories/porn. Imagine me shrugging and shaking my head ever-so-slightly. That’s where I am right now.

Unfortunately, I was hoping that the YA vampire romance would give way to YA ghost or even robot love. Alas, Amish it is.

Man up

Ben Zimmer’s On Language column about the phrase “man up” has me grinning. I think we need more manning up. I might need to man up more myself (although, hey, like I said, I went up an 85 foot aerial at 7am on Wednesday. That should get me some man cred, right?). Regardless, the Zombieland quote: “Nut up or Shut up!” and the Rabbi Polish’s appropriation of “mensch up” has me cracking up. Win.

Masculinity as a curse? Baloney

30 08 2010

I have a really busy day ahead and, as a result probably won’t have much time to blog on much. But, I’m finding the time to quickly address this article that showed up in my reader this morning:

Real Life: The Curse of Masculinity in The Independent (Ireland)

It’s really a pity that articles like this get published still. I thought we were past the whole men think only with their pricks and that’s why there are so many problems in the world. The article is one archaic stereotype after another:

“That’s why men engage in risk-taking behaviour. We think with our willies and our willies are not very intelligent!

“The reason masculinity is not fit for purpose is because men will always put short-term gain ahead of long-term interest.

“Men are the ones who gamble, who commit most of the crime, rape and murder, and who indulge in risky sex.”

The conclusion is that men engage in these behaviors because they’re so vulnerable and have such a need to overcompensate for the fact. This is just such a crusty old, stale, unremarkable conclusion that it hardly deserves comment at all. I’ll admit I’m not familiar with the state of masculinity in Ireland, but I do have a hard time believing that it’s still 1983 there. Mostly, I think it’s always a pity that articles like this focus only on deviant expressions of masculinity. It’s a lopsided and clumsy take on the subject, one that is matched with an equally stale “solution”:

Education is the key, he believes.

“You have to start by educating fathers to raise their children to be non-masculine, and to value vulnerability and tenderness in little boys.”

Fathers should also learn to be more intimate with their little boys, he believes.

“Many men are afraid of this because of anxieties around homosexuality, so they are far less tender and affectionate with their little boys than with their little girls.”

Might I suggest, instead, that we avoid doing a lot of damage-damage, after all, is what the author is concerned about-by not equating a masculine identity with being diseased and in need of a cure?

Heavy sigh.