So I had a root canal and it hurt like hell. Which got me thinking about what it must feel like to be punched in the jaw. Which got me thinking about what it must be like to be a guy – to be expected to “take it on the chin” and otherwise be prepared for rough if not violent physical engagement.
If you think about the dual roles men are expected to play in society, you’ll find they are every bit as unrealistic and incompatible as the roles foisted on women. While women teeter crazily between playing household drudge and sex goddess, the male balancing act involves having to be rough and tumble on the one hand and suave and savvy on the other. At the end of a typical day in our imaginary Camelot of gender perfection, the wife discards her housecoat and do-rag and slips into a tight little something that is decidedly less comfortable. Her husband, having already spent the day in his unnaturally groomed, socially acceptable persona, returns home to exchange his business suit for shorts and t-shirt, indulge his beard stubble for a few precious hours, and tend to manly shlepping/fixing projects. Or he might just plop down on the couch to release his pent-up macho watching sports or action fliks. In either case, presumably, the woman’s extra-feminine elaboration combined with her man’s stripped-down masculinity combine into the happy super-completeness of heterosexual mating.
Have I described a by-gone age, a set of stereotypes that only lingers in old movies and sitcoms? If so, that is only because the middle class is on its way out. That traditional male/female division of labor virtually defined the middle class that we boomers were born into – everyone had a job to do and did it, and that’s how the family “got ahead.” I do not celebrate that today’s couples are breaking the mold, because the cause is too often the malfunction of our economic system, and the resulting household dynamics are equally untenable. Instead of a healthy middle class we have a higher upper class and a larger lower class. In wealthy homes, the spouses are more free to coordinate their gender affect – they can grunge out and tackle chores together, then dress up for companionable recreation. But more families are falling behind financially than stepping up to that kind of freedom. In these, everyone is grubbing for existence together, and no one ever feels fully empowered or confident that the path they are on will result in a better future. Meanwhile, old stereotypes die hard, and I think it is safe to say that when there is a man in the household, he is the one feeling the greatest burden and shame of economic failure. No, I would not want to be a guy. Especially not these days when the cards are stacked against workers.
Not succeeding as a breadwinner? How about trying out for a superhero role? Not me. Fictional portrayals of manly heroism are over the top in the levels of violence both endured and dished out. Meanwhile, real threats of natural disaster, crime, war and terrorism are hyped so vividly and insistently, one might expect and even desire our men to be fierce and ready for action, yet daily social life is ever more restricted. We see institutions clamping down on boys and young men in a determined effort to tame and meeken them – as if frustrating a young person’s natural self-expression could possibly be an effective curb to bullying behavior.
Before we can make room for normal, authentic exploration of our facets of personality, including sexuality and gender identification, we will have to create a setting in which that can even occur, and we’re not there yet. Boys and girls are poisoned by ages-old stereotypes and expectations that are embedded in our institutions and continually reinforced by mass media. These stereotypes have been altered and manipulated over time to present an illusion of change even while the status quo is more firmly cemented. For example, women’s liberation became the sexual revolution, with the result that instead of being objectified as fragile goddesses on a pedestal, we may now be objectified as sturdy, self-volunteered sex toys. And men can be objectified too, and subjected to the same appearance-driven grading of success. No longer may guys assume that acceptance will come with a big paycheck or big muscles – now they also get to fuss with their hair, worry about flab, and wear trendy clothes. Oh joy, what progress.
In “the battle of the sexes” women look at men and see all of the opportunities to do things that we have been denied – in education, work and general social mobility. But men look at women and see all of the opportunities not to do things that they have been denied – all the heavy, dirty, violent, dangerous, and soul-numbing labors of traditional protector and breadwinner. It’s nutty, not just because these generalizations are grossly inaccurate, but because each side sees the other as more privileged. We won’t ever get it together until we get over that. Being stuck in a compartment is being stuck, deprived of room to grow. Does someone else’s cell look more comfortable? They’re still stuck. Let’s all help each other get out of this lose-lose gender war.
I wouldn’t want to be a guy because I’m not a guy, I’m me. Curious as I may be about how much of “me” is nature and how much is nurture, I don’t get a do-over in which to grow up in a world where gender identity is less defined and has less impact. I just have to work with what I got. All I want for myself and for all of you is that we will be free to discover our own authentic selves, reach our full potential, and connect with each other with honesty and mutual admiration.
The Equal Rights Amendment simply states: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.