Recently, a friend whose opinions I highly respect made the following comment during a discussion on gender: “Men can legally express gender in any way they like”. As if that particular battle has been won and now its simply up to men to throw off the chains of our own fears and express gender in more diverse ways. The path is clear.
From a strictly legal standpoint this is probably true. Our society is saturated with enough examples of men going against gender stereotypes that we now, in terms of case law, civil statues and otherwise, fully expect that some small percentage of men will express their gender in clearly different and even outrageous ways. The most obvious examples are the ubiquitous images of gay men in drag, from RuPaul on down. Almost cartoon-like, drag queens are creating the most subversive kind of gender theater, poking fun at glamor, sexuality, power and our culture’s brutally restrictive self image. But they no doubt have paid a high price for their expressions of gender. They likely have been forced to put distance between themselves and members of their family, been cut off from the communities they grew up in and most likely, live in fear of being attacked economically, socially or physically for their choices, especially if they continue to blend their gender performances into their daily lives.
But high camp drag is such an extreme outlying expression of gender theater that it leaves a massive space between itself and the daily expression of gender as performed by most men. As such, although it creates space for more diverse expressions of gender, it is not a threat to the gender conformity that society imposes on the vast majority of men. In fact, the drag show characture may well serve to enforce gender conformity as it so clearly defines the choice between “us” and “them” that men are confronted with when they think about their own secret desires for change, however humble. Because, legalities aside, if you want to remain a member of the “us” group, you had better think long and hard about what that membership requires of you.
Expressing gender differently can quickly block men from a wide range of economic, social and relational spaces. Conversations around the water cooler at work can grow chilly. Promotions and raises can become more distant possibilities. And I’m not talking about glitter eye shadow and seven inch heels. Expressing gender differently can be as simple as the words that come out of your mouth.
When your male boss says a passing female co-worker is hot, it may adversely impact your child’s college fund to say anything other than “hell, yeah.” Sure your boss is an idiot, but everybody knows that right? So go ahead and earn extra points by tossing in a leer…
It’s in economically driven spaces that the most lowbrow expressions of gender conformity are enforced and adopted to the detriment of all. Because people make the most blunt and general conceptual alliances when they perceive their economic interests to be at stake, often overcompensating in ways that damage their internal sense of personal integrity. But economic fear has a way of doing that. And for men and women alike, these fear-based economic spaces far outnumber the social spaces where wider ranges of gender expression are encouraged.
And sadly, the most oppressive gender conformity-enforcing economic spaces do not exist where money is earned. They exist where it is spent. As many men are seeking to express their gender in more diverse ways, the most potent adversary to change can end up being their own wives and families.
The struggle for a more liberated view of gender runs the gamut from the sexual, to the social, to the economic. These struggles to create change take place in the small daily spaces of men’s lives. It’s a process of confusion and discovery, hit and miss. It requires a huge commitment of energy and an openness to uncertainty. The rewards can be deeply fulfilling, but it is not a simple process, and it can not take place unless both partners grant each other permission to explore and learn. How and what men are encouraged to explore by the women in their lives can quickly shift, especially when money and security become a central focus of the equation. Which is often the case when children arrive.
Men in western culture are living with the fallout of generations of female economic disempowerment. Even as women are now culturally accepted as CEOs of major corporations, as attorneys, doctors, professors and more, the narrative of man as breadwinner remains firmly entrenched in our culture, due in part to payment disparities that still linger here. While the pace of economic progress for women in western culture is dramatic, the narratives of female economic disempowerment are slow to shift, taking perhaps a generation or more to ultimately change. This is in part because it remains a legitimate issue and in part because women are loath to give up the leverage this narrative creates in political, social, personal, and, of course, legal contexts.
The result of all this? Liberated views of manhood and gender are all fun and games until a baby shows up. Then roles can suddenly become far more draconian and rigid. It’s as if the twenty year economic and social timeline that a baby represents creates a panic in which cultural complexity, uncertainty and risk-taking are dismissed as dangerous indulgences that must be put aside for the good of the family. Suddenly, people inside and outside the family want to know that the man is doing his man job. In the initial rush to manage the huge and complex impact of an infant’s arrival, the role of being a good dad and a good breadwinner dials down to a simple equation: conformity to what is deemed normative in the workplace, the child’s social community, and the home. In these moments, men sign up for a lifetime of gender conformity, setting in place patterns and agreements that are not easily undone.
Men’s options in terms of how they are allowed to express gender are trained into them early. Recently, a seven year old boy I know, a friend of my son, disclosed his interest in the My Little Pony Show, a program clearly designed for and marketed to girls. When I asked him if his friends at school liked the show, he shook his head gravely. “I would never tell them I like the show. Never,” was his response. At seven, he is quite clear about which parts of himself should remain hidden.
And the lessons for men on how to be normative never stop coming. They inform our littlest daily decisions right through to the biggest decisions of our lives. As a man, I know for a fact that wearing bright colors is considered a bit “out there”. It’s a gutsy move. It might seem…odd. What if I roll up my khakis? Or wear pink socks? God forbid I don a sparkly hair beret before heading into a client meeting. I know for a fact how to walk in a way that will blend in. I know how to talk. How to carry my backpack. How to hold my son’s hand. Its all clearly prescribed. The man’s handbook, unwritten and known by all. And that’s just the little stuff.
Then there’s the big stuff.
Imagine a woman saying the following: “I want to stay home and care for my child while my husband works.” This is universally accepted as a valid expression of gender for women. Although it is challenging to maintain a single income household given the economic pressures of modern life, the idea of a stay at home mom is encouraged, even heartwarming.
Now picture a man saying: “I want to stay home and care for my child while my wife works.” And let’s be clear. For the purposes of this example, the man is not saying this because of some external factor. He is not unemployed or laid off. He is not on a lower paying career path than his wife. He is simply saying that he wants to be a full time parent to his children, and he wants his wife to pay the bills so that he can stay in the home and raise them. This is what he wants.
This image generates a significant degree of cognitive dissonance, even for a fully engaged parent like myself. Men’s cultural conditioning is such that much of our self-worth comes from being able to earn and spend money and provide that money to those who depend on us. It starts with buying dinner on the first date and ends with putting money down on a mortgage for the family home. The more money we generate, the more access we get to status and social standing both inside and outside the home. And the implications of this for gender conformity are huge. Why? Because little else in the pantheon of human expression is encouraged or valued publicly for men above creating financial security. Not expressing emotion. Not being a full time parent. Not expressing a wide range of gender diversity. And certainly not having what has unreasonably come to be considered “feminine traits”. It is a narrow constrictive box for men. And this box creates an opposite and equally constrictive box for women.
There are a lot of ways in which couples explore the full range of gender in private that bend the typical man/woman narratives in our culture. But the high degree to which these explorations remain hidden, reinforces the illusion that conformity is the norm. Man mows the lawn. Woman cleans the kitchen. Son plays with GI Joe. Daughter plays with Barbie. Man does the bills. Woman cares for the baby. Man on top, woman on bottom, missionary position, thank you very much. We know from the work of a wide range of researchers that conformity in and out of the bedroom is absolutely not the rule. Far from it. But when a man tries to take some of his more private expressions of gender public, his own spouse can become the cop who bars the door. Why? Because the economic and social implications of not being viewed as normative, especially gender normative, can be terribly frightening. When men seek to make the private more public, the fears of being rejected socially or professionally causes a lot of unspoken agreements about priorities to kick in.
It is in this space between the private and the public where our courage to make change around gender often fails us. This is where irreversible damage gets done to men and women equally, as economic and social fears force gender conformity in soul-killing ways. And although men may be legally allowed to express gender in any way they see fit, the circumstances in which they find themselves can often lead to a rush to frame themselves as normative, seeking the security of being marked as normal when legal or financial goals hang in the balance.
At which point, the tragedy of modern post industrial life so predictably unfolds. As men and women buy into the necessity of suppressing their non-normative sides, the very parts of them that make them vibrant and distinctive individuals, they willingly immerse themselves in a vacuous culture of interpersonal isolation; a twilight world of disconnection. In an effort to create security, they commit to living in self-imposed communities of homogeneous alienation and create isolating family structures that ultimately fail and collapse.
For men, the linkages between economic pressures and the fearful decision to conform to normative gender roles leads to the suppression of their most diverse emotional aspects. The resulting suppression of these vibrant internal dialogues contributes to the epidemic levels of depression, drug abuse, violence and suicide among men. The result is men living lives of quiet isolated desperation, mirrored by wives who in turn are trapped in equally narrow and self defeating feminine roles. It is a devil’s bargain struck from fear and economic uncertainty. The by-product of a culture that teaches us to value materialism and security as paramount human priorities.
Make no mistake. Worldwide, women are suffering under economic systems that make them nothing less than indentured slaves to their husbands and families; subject to rape, violence and murder on a scale that few men in our comparatively pampered western culture are even willing to acknowledge. Just today, NPR aired a harrowing report on the more than 100 sexual assaults against women that took place in Tahrir Square during the recent pro-democracy protests in Egypt. Take a moment a listen to it. It will leave you shocked and outraged. It is much worse than my simple summary here suggests. Moreover, billions of men and women worldwide are subject to lives so difficult that the relative challenges of emotional isolation and martini materialism in Western culture are nothing less than laughable by comparison.
But if we are to move forward in creating a world devoid of oppression and systemic abuse, we can not dismiss the leading edges of change as being nothing more than bourgeois anxiety, unworthy of being addressed against the greater backdrop of global sexism and racism. We must acknowledge and nurture the evolution of western cultural thinking if we are to create systems that do not simply sustain oppression of the weakest by the strongest. Part of this change will come by tearing down the false, narrow and ultimately tedious standards of a normative masculinity. A task that only the luckiest and wealthiest of us on the leading edge of global prosperity are at liberty to even consider addressing.
It is a task that will require significant long term emotional courage from both men and women; a willingness to live with change and uncertainty as we relearn who we are in relationships to each other. It will require that women encourage their men and themselves to live more fully expressive lives, even if that opens the door to changes neither can predict. But whatever the costs we confront in challenging our deep seated fears of being deemed non-normative, the results will be a more fully realized and satisfying lives for ourselves, our families and our communities.
Here are a few questions worth pondering:
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