By David Eddie
I am a man, and therefore not all that bright. So when my wife, Pam, recently tried to explain to me she was worried our boys — our three-pack of male offspring (currently ages 12, 9 and 7) — might have a hard time in life, might find themselves at a disadvantage because they’re male, I didn’t get it at first.
“Um…what?” I said, after a long, long pause, during which my peanut-sized brain tried, and failed, to grasp this complex, counterintuitive concept. “Why?” She was afraid, she said, for one thing, our boys were too nice, too sensitive; and that, combined with the fact they were obviously going to grow up to be devilishly handsome and attractive to women, was going to pose big problems for them down the line.
“Wait a second,” I said. My cerebellum was starting to seize up like an engine without oil, but even I could tell something was out of whack here. “They’re handsome and sensitive…I thought that was a good thing? I mean, two good things.”
Speaking slowly, avoiding big words, she patiently explained that yes, it was; but her fear was our boys would wind up being taken in hand by strong-willed, domineering women, and browbeaten and overwhelmed by them. She saw it all around her, she said: at work, in our neighbourhood, among friends and extended family. She ticked off a list of names. And even I had to admit that in each of the cases she cited the women wore the britches; and the men were these sort of shadowy figures who only broke their silences to say “Y-y-y-yes, dear,” and hop to it.
“I’m afraid our boys are going to wind up in an unequal relationship like that,” she said. “And my ancillary worry is…” “An-silly-what-y?” “Never mind, Dave,” she said, tousling my hair. Her other worry, she explained, was our boys were growing up in a world exorbitantly hostile to notions of men and maleness; that they would internalize the culture’s anti-male messages, and it would erode their self-esteem; and they would have to fight a pitched battle on every front not to become second-class citizens.
“Ah, come on, Pam, that’s not going to happen,” I said, trying to reassure her. “First of all, our boys are strong boys. They won’t knuckle under to domi… domi… to strong-willed women. And anyway, it’s still a man’s world after all…” But my voice faltered even as I said it. Pam cocked a skeptical eyebrow at me. (In her view, once the women started earning the money, that was it: now they hold all the cards.) “…Isn’t it?”
Is it? And even if it is, will it continue to be, 20 years down the line, when our boys come of age?
In 1964 James Brown could sing “it’s a man’s man’s man’s world” without irony. In fact, the song was allegedly written by a woman, Betty Jean Newsome (who in a vivid illustration of the song’s thesis, got screwed on the royalties, and never really got credit for penning the song). She wrote the song in reaction to the world she saw around her — the world so vividly captured on the TV show Mad Men, basically: a world, for women, of pinched bottoms, sexist cracks, glass ceilings and endless vistas of dishes to be washed and rugs to be vacuumed; and for men, corner offices, extramarital affairs and three-martini lunches.
The world into which Betty Friedan lobbed The Feminine Mystique, a book that described “the problem with no name”: the generalized malaise she believed women, especially Valium-popping suburban stay-at-home moms, were feeling at the time. The book exploded onto the cultural landscape like — well, like a bouncing betty: popped up from nowhere, and detonated in the face of the bottom-pinching patriarchy. It is credited with single-handedly fomenting what became known as feminism’s “Second Wave” — basically, what we think of when we think of modern feminism (the first wave was the suffragettes).
And nothing has ever been the same. Now, in 2009, could anyone sing “it’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world” without a sly smile or smug smirk of irony?
“Well, the good news for men is they still hold the top jobs,” says Marsha Barber, an associate professor of journalism at Toronto’s Ryerson University. “But the media view of what it is to be a man has changed.”
Especially when it comes to fathers: “The role of the father figure in the media has done a complete 180-degree turn,” she says. Once upon a time, the Father Knows Best-type paterfamilias con gravitas ruled the airwaves, and his word was law; no more. “The father is no longer seen as an authoritative person. Now, when you see any portrayal of fathers in the media, they’re often quite hopeless.”
It’s true. Tune into any sitcom. The men are not only the butt of every joke, they are the joke. The male characters are shallow, venal, lazy, cowardly, mendacious, poor husbands and worse fathers, big babies, Falstaffian fools — and those are the good ones. On Still Standing, the husband embarrasses his wife so badly in front of her reading group she’s dropped from the group. On Everybody Loves Raymond, the titular Raymond has to choose between bathing his twins or helping his daughter with her homework. He helps his daughter — but of course, he’s no help at all.
At the apex of this pyramid sits, spud-like, on his couch, with a can of Duff beer in his hand, Homer Simpson — but don’t even get me started on him, I could write a whole book about him, typing with fingers of fire. Suffice to say for now if Homer Simpson were real, he’d be in jail.
In the ads between sitcom scenes, men fare no better. Invariably, they are IQ-challenged “himbos,” the butt of jokes they are too dumb to get. In an ad for a board game, a dorky, dumb-looking guy and a brainy-looking bombshell are playing Trivial Pursuit. Him: “How much does the average man’s brain weigh?” Her: “Not much.” In another for a casino, a fat, foolish-looking man with a partially shaved chest tattoos a lucky 7 onto his chest, using a mirror. When he turns around to show it to his wife, she looks at it and says: “You know…it’s backwards.” “No, it’s not!” he retorts. She shakes her head in disbelief and leaves. He turns back to the mirror (where, duh, the image is reversed) and is reassured, his moronic mug returning to its former expression: clueless self-approval.
It’s not just in North America. In a recent survey conducted in Great Britain, two-thirds of the respondents found that women in advertisements were portrayed as “intelligent, assertive, and caring,” while the men were “pathetic and silly.” Only 14 percent thought men were portrayed as “intelligent” in ads. Meanwhile, on the Internet and elsewhere, “man jokes” are the coin of the realm. Some, I confess, I find pretty funny: Q. How do you get a man to do sit-ups? A. Put the remote between his toes. Q. What do you call that insensitive, fleshy bit at the base of the penis? A.
A man. And let’s not forget the T-shirt campaigns aimed at kids: “Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them.” It’s pervaded literature as well. Canadian author Susan Swan provoked smiles and no doubt improved sales with the title of her 1996 book Stupid Boys are Good to Relax With.
Is it any wonder Pam’s nervous raising three boys in a cultural environment like this? Imagine substituting the word “woman” or “black” or “homosexual” for the word “man” or “boy” in any of the above examples. Imagine the outrage, the strongly worded letters, the protests and boycotts; and you get a sense of how far down this particular slippery slope we’ve slid.
Why are men such easy targets these days? Why is male-bashing so popular in popular culture? Because men are unlikely to stand up for themselves. Dr. Paul Nathanson, a McGill University researcher and co-author, along with his colleague Professor Katherine K. Young, of Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture and Legalizing Misandry: From Public Shame to Systemic Discrimination Against Men (both McGill-Queen’s University Press) says, “Boys learn very quickly that they, unlike girls, are supposed to be invulnerable — or at least pretend that they are. Those who either don’t or can’t live up to that standard, therefore, are shamefully un-masculine — that is, they’re like girls. So, when boys or men find themselves relentlessly ridiculed and attacked as such in popular culture — even for trying to appear invulnerable — they know that protesting could do still more damage. It’s the old story: “Take it like a man.’ Even so, more and more men are indeed protesting.”
But it’s not just in popular culture, he says. “Anti-male bias — this is misandry, the functional equivalent of misogyny — has enshrined itself in the legal system, too, when it comes not only to legislation itself but also to the courts and enforcement agencies. Unfairness to men is rampant in cases of alleged domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape. And then there’s the problem of custody. Across the board, these laws have been re-legislated to favour women, in ways that are both undemocratic and anti-male.” Between the legal system and the male-bashing in popular culture, Dr. Nathanson says, “these days it is a distinct disadvantage to be born male. Men are much more likely than women to drop out of school or commit suicide.”
“If the current trends continue, boys are at risk of becoming tomorrow’s “second sex.’ There will be a large underclass of barely literate young men who are going to find it difficult to find a place for themselves in an information economy,” says Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys (Simon & Schuster). She says “Schools are increasingly intolerant of boys and boyishness. Too many educators fail to see a difference between aggression, on the one hand, and rough and tumble play, on the other. The former is anti-social and makes children miserable. The latter, which involves a lot of mock fighting and chasing, is the typical happy, high-spirited play of boys everywhere. It is critical to their healthy development.”
Meanwhile, “Boys are lagging in reading, but in many classrooms they are forced to read stories that don’t interest them. It is the fashion in education to reverse stereotypes in children’s books: girls are heroic and boys learn to cry. There are social studies books that make it seem as if the American West was settled by teenage girls travelling with parents.”
Now, even a man can understand that a lot of what is going on in our society is the natural backlash — or let’s say a correction — after millennia of male misrule.
Are Men Necessary? In 2006, The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd published a book with that title. In the book she argued that, in an age of sperm banks, female breadwinners and households presided over by single women, the answer to the titular question is, basically: no.
But lately even some feminist icons have started to question the anti-male undercurrent in feminism in particular and society in general. Doris Lessing, who wrote the classic feminist novel The Golden Notebook, has said she is “increasingly shocked at the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed.”
And since men, for whatever reason, seem reluctant to speak up, a number of women have leapt into the breach — like Kathleen Parker, syndicated columnist and author of last year’s bestselling broadside, Save the Males: Why Men Matter, Why Women Should Care (Random House). Parker takes the approach that if society’s “rubbishing” of men continues, the big loser in the long run will be…women.
“As long as men feel marginalized by the women whose favour and approval they seek, as long as they are alienated from their children and treated as criminals by family courts,” she writes, “as long as they are disrespected by a culture that no longer values masculinity tied to honour, as long as boys are bereft of strong fathers and our young men and women wage sexual war, then we risk cultural suicide.”
She points out that the single most consistent determining factor in whether a child, male or female, is “at risk” (for drugs, dropping out, winding up in jail, or other forms of downward mobility) is lack of a father. So, yes, men — particularly fathers — are necessary, she argues. And a lot of women seem to be coming around to this point of view: if you have a disenfranchised group in society, no matter which sex, a group that is experiencing a generalized malaise, a “problem with no name,” then society as a whole suffers.
But not everyone sees it as a big problem — or even a problem at all — and do not see arguments in favour of widespread cultural misandry or male disenfranchisement as persuasive. Dr. James Robert Brown (no relation to the Godfather of Soul), a University of Toronto philosophy professor who has also spoken extensively on gender and cultural issues, says that despite appearances, women are in fact “not making serious headway” in our society, and need continued help in the form of affirmative action, just to achieve a fair result. He believes the “old boys’ network” still has a pretty firm grasp on most businesses and organizations.
“Men are still the overwhelming number of politicians, CEOs. The only thing I could imagine in my wildest dreams is by the time your boys grow up, men might no longer have an advantage…we would finally have the proverbial level playing field” of absolute equality. “But I see that as still a long way off,” he says. “If anything, your boys will still have the advantage when they grow up.”
But you know, that’s not really what I want. I like the sound of Dr. Brown’s “proverbial level playing field.” So if we accept the premise that the present and future are perhaps a little less Y-chromosome-friendly than the world of, say, 1964, how can we prevent our male children from becoming wishy-washy, yes-dear types?
According to Dr. Nathanson, the most important things that parents can do for their sons are to educate them about the mass-media messages they’re bombarded with, and bombard them with counter-messages that society needs them, that they’re useful, so that “they do not get the mistaken idea that they are innately inferior or innately worthless. More specifically, if they get the idea that men cannot have a healthy identity — one that relies on making at least one contribution to society that is distinctive, necessary, and publicly valued — then some will give up. Others, however, will act out; if society can’t provide them with a healthy identity as men, they’ll take an unhealthy (antisocial) one.”
Also, he says, “In another volume of our trilogy on misandry, we will propose a decalogue of dialogue, 10 “commandments,’ or principles, that could produce genuine dialogue between men and women (or any other groups in conflict). Dialogue would begin with participants on each side willing to study, and therefore, learn something new about those on the other, not assuming that they already know — from stereotypes, anecdotes, and even “experts’ on talk shows — what their dialogue partners are all about.”
My wife, Pam, agrees; men who actually listen, as opposed to just talk at you, raconteur-style, are sexy and will always be loved by women; and she adds it doesn’t hurt if a man can stand up for himself. As part of the research for this article, I had to ask my wife a very difficult question: “Why do you respect me, Pam? I mean, it doesn’t look good on paper.” She is an extremely strong-willed, fiercely independent woman who needs me, basically, not at all. In my best years I earn about half what she does. Yet we have a very equal relationship.
“So why don’t you treat me like one of these namby-pamby, brow-beaten husbands?” She paused a long time, then finally allowed that: 1) she likes that I’m so focused on my work and serious about it; 2) she likes that I stand up to her when I feel unfairly used. “If you were one of these guys who just agreed with me all the time, to try to please me,” she says, “I think I’d wind up losing all respect for you, in the end.”
Gentlemen, especially fathers of male offspring: he who has ears, let him hear.
David Eddie, the author of Chump Change and Housebroken, also writes an advice column for The Globe and Mail called “Damage Control.” He lives in Toronto with his wife Pam — a TV news reporter — and three sons, Nick, 12, JJ, 9, and Adam, 7.
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