Pop Culture
Oct 13, 2009, 06:28AM

Calling All Male Feminists

Erasing gender stereotypes benefits all of us, men and women.

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A common misconception about feminism is that it's all about women. Of course, feminism has always been about liberating women from traditional ideas and stereotypes about femininity, freeing us from the Feminine Mystique, the Beauty Myth and now, from the Curse of the Good Girl. But feminism is also about liberating men.

Proponents of gender equality have always acknowledged that men, like women, are trapped by traditional ideas and stereotypes about gender. Where women are trapped in the world of "girls can't do math" and "don't be such a slut," men are trapped in a world of "boys don't cry" and "don't be such a wimp." Yet feminism, so often seen as being all about women, can liberate men, too.

Traditional ideas about masculinity, just like stereotypes about femininity, constrain men, pressuring them to abide by strict cultural rules of behavior. For men, everything from how they dress and walk to how they earn their living and how they treat their loved ones is policed by our ideas about what makes a "real" man. Our ideas about what makes a "real" woman keep women from living the kinds of lives they want and deserve. Our ideas about what makes a "real" man do just the same.

The mainstream media plays a major role in reinforcing and policing gender roles. Who could forget last year's Snickers commercial, in which Mr. T, riding a tank, calls a man a "disgrace to the man race" and pelts him with rocket-propelled Snickers bars as punishment for speed walking? "You're gonna run like a real man!" he yells at the shorts-and-singlet clad man, who, of course, runs for his life. The slogan for the campaign? "Snickers: Get Some Nuts."

And of course, behind the comical threat of being pelted with candy bars lies the more serious danger of real violence. From gay-bashing to rape, the act of reinforcing "real" manhood in our society is often a violent one. As for interactions with women, the idea that a "real" man is able to, and perhaps entitled to, land any woman he wants is reinforced by alpha-males from James Bond to Don Draper. When our society tells men that a woman never says "no" to a "real" man, is it any wonder that our rates of sexual violence are so high? Is it possible that faced with such a narrow definition of masculinity, some men rape to prove their manhood?

Narrow ideas about gender are constrictive and potentially dangerous, but they're also just plain insulting. Feminist comedienne Sarah Haskins of Current TV's Infomania made a good point when she observed that many commercials aimed at women depict men, and particularly husbands, as bumbling, incompetent fools. They're bad parents, they're useless around the house-in general, having a husband is almost like having an extra child to look after. While these commercials no doubt speak to some women's frustrations, they're also rather insulting to men. When we reinforce the archetype of the incompetent or otherwise uninvolved father, we give men too little credit, and create the expectation that a "real" man knows nothing about how to change a diaper or braid his daughter's hair. The result is that fathers are less involved in their children's lives than they'd like to be and that the burden of raising children and holding the household together is borne, for the most part, by mothers.

While men enjoy many privileges women don't (take the United States' 25 percent wage gap, for example), in many senses, men and women suffer under the same system of narrow gender roles. Ideas about what makes a "real" man affect them just as much as ideas about what makes a "real" woman hinder us. Luckily, the two problems can be solved with the same solution: feminism.

It's easy to buy the mainstream view of feminists as man-hating, sexless harpies, but the truth is that feminism is about liberating women from rigid gender roles that keep us from living full and authentic lives. And as we liberate women, we're busting the men out, too, and redefining what it means to be a "real" man. Anthropologist Margaret Mead said it best when she theorized that, "every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man."

You don't have to be a woman to be a feminist. There are plenty of men out there who identify as feminists, because they believe that a woman should be paid the same as her male counterparts, and that a man should be able to cry without being called a wimp. If you believe those things, or if you believe that men should be able to power walk and that fathers deserve better than to be reduced to insulting stereotypes, then I've got news for you: I think you might be a feminist, man.

  • Nice piece of writing, Chloe. Right On!

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  • Sure, nice piece of writing for the 1970s. Get off your pedestal, Chloe. I wouldn't want my boyfriend to be a feminist.

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  • http://jezebel.com/349877/marge-simpsons-brief-brush-with-radical-feminism-in-the-90s "No, Marge, everything penis-shaped is bad."

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  • I think there's some truth to this. At the same time...people don't oppress each other for no reason. They oppress each other because they get some advantage from it. Guys overall benefit from sexism in various ways — they get to pretend to be bumbling incompetents around the house, for example, and therefore don't have to change the diapers or clean the house, or whatever. I think you could argue that overall everyone's better off if everyone's equal — I even believe that's true. But I think it's important to realize that sexism isn't just a big mistake on men's part; there are definite reasons why men benefit from keeping sexism in place.

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  • I THINK I get what you're trying to say, but it's a little confusing. And speak for yourself: I change at least 50% of the diapers in the house.

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  • Gender politics are kind of confusing. And I changed a lot more than half the diapers, as my wife would be the first to admit. But that doesn't mean that sexism has been eliminated. And it doesn't change the fact that sexism in certain ways has benefitted me.

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  • Point taken about sexism benefitting men, as is evident in the workplace, just for starters. However, if you're a guy who's open-minded, treats others with the same respect you hope to receive, is there much of a point about beating yourself up about "gender politics?" Obviously, it depends on the individual, and if you're a lousy person that won't change, but I still think this article was too strident and, in 2009 there are a whole array of more pressing problems.

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  • Beating yourself up isn't especially useful. On the other hand, you might consider that your perspective on which issues are most pressing may depend on who you are and whether sexism in general benefits you or not. It's easy to say that a problem doesn't matter when it's not your problem.

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  • Perhaps the real problem here is that people tie their self-worth to what others think. As long as my kids diapers are changed in a timely manner, it just doesn't matter if my wife did it or I did. Furthermore, I don't give a crap what others think as long as my children are well cared for. THe best thing I can teach my kids is that these steroetypes are crap and that they should develop their own self esteem through their own triumphs and failures. Bottom line, if my kids are listening to Mr.T and not judging themselves on their own merits with guidance from me and my wife; then I have failed as a parent regardless of my sex.

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