Monday, March 20, 2006

On men (manly men!)

Okay, so it's been a while since we've dropped in on the AJC's weekly "Woman to Woman" column. I'm so glad we did, because this week's topic is whether or not out culture "devalues manliness." And just as you'd expect, Shaunti Feldhahn blames it all on the feminazis. You see, she got followed around by a bunch of buff church security-guard types at a recent speaking engagement, and that reminded her of how important it is for women to play helpless so men can feel all important.

No, I'm serious. That's pretty much her argument.

But don't take it from me:
I’ll bet that resonates with most men reading this – but for years our quasi-feminist culture has made them feel that its illegitimate. In the media and real life, the manly desire to be a risk-taker, a protector, a provider is often mocked or criticized – or said to be non-existent. We don’t need a man to rescue us, we women sniff, we can take care of ourselves. Well, okay, sure we can – but what is so wrong with appreciating his manly desire to take care of and sacrifice for us?

As Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield notes in his recent attention-getting book, “Manliness,” if we criticize and devalue something that is so built into men – and so beneficial to women – we may not like what we get.

Today as I was shadowed for eight hours by the large men in black, I realized that I liked the sense of being protected just as much as those guys probably like being the protector. And it’s telling of how far our culture has gone in the wrong direction, that I’m almost embarrassed to admit that. High time that the healthy ideals of manliness were again encouraged instead of being made politically incorrect.

What bugs me most about this - and even about Diane Glass's somewhat fluffy response - is that no one actually bothers to define "manliness." It's always kind of thrown out there as a self-defining proper noun, Manliness, and everyone knows what you're talking about, so there's no point in outlining precisely which Manly traits are being squelched.

My perspective is that of an independent woman (throw your hands up at me). I've lived on my own, for the most part, since I was 18, and I'm able to make a balanced budget, do my own taxes, do minor automotive and household repair, and even squish bugs (and I really, really hate that). I bake; I'm not good at cooking. I knit; I'm not good at sewing. I do what I can for myself, but I'm not afraid to pass a job off to someone else if it's beyond my abilities; that's why God invented mechanics and gave them hydraulic lifts and impact wrenches.

My view of manliness, then, is somewhat tempered by my circumstances and my history. It's tempered by the guys I've known, particularly the ex-boyfriends. For me, a manly guy is one who's able to take care of himself - he can buy clothes and not look like he was dressed by blind circus clowns, he can feed himself on a diet of more than cold pizza, his apartment lacks any kind of scum that might be considered a health hazard. Part of him being able to take care of himself also means that he can take responsiblity for his own emotional state; psychologists like to say that saying, "You make me angry" is like saying, "You make me 5'7"," and I think a guy saying, "You make me feel less manly" falls along those same lines.

Oh, and he's willing and able to squish bugs, because I really, really hate that.

My definition of manliness is my own; your mileage may vary. But then, my defintion of womanliness may be kind of different than most, again tempered by my status as an independent woman (girl, I didn't know you could get down like that). I think that womanliness means being able to take care of yourself - being able to buy clothes, feed yourself, and keep a reasonably hygienic apartment. And it also means taking responsibility for your own emotional state, realizing that your status as a woman starts with you and isn't influenced by some guy's (or girl's) opinion of you.

When we start throwing around undefined ideas of Manliness and Womanliness, all we do is reinforce useless gender stereotypes without encouraging any constructive character traits. Manliness, otherwise undefined, usually ends up meaning huntin' and fishin' and fartin' and beer drinkin' and wearing lots of plaid and watching lots of football with his feet on the coffee table as the little woman bustles around refilling his cheese puffs. Womanliness, otherwise undefined, ends up as cooking and cleaning and reproducing, wearing shirtwaist dresses and pearls and listening to her soaps on the radio because hubby has monopolized the TV with his football games.

If you're into that, of course, go for it. I happen to think that a properly cut shirtwaist can be immensely flattering and pretty. But those stereotypes leave no room for anyone who voluntarily seeks something more in his or her life. The woman who would rather watch football than soap operas is no longer Womanly and finds herself in some kind of genderless void. The man who not only enjoys cooking, but is really good at it, is similarly not Manly, for the simple sin of not conforming to the un-definition.

And that's what Shaunti and Diana both miss - gender roles aren't just a matter of social conditioning. No one is forcing men to be Manly or not Manly; men are choosing it. Men who stay home and raise kids are usually doing it because they want to stay home and raise kids. Men who talk about their feelings do it because they've got feelings that they want to talk about. Men who use a little bit of hair product (and let's not go overboard, guys) do it because they prefer to look like they didn't just walk out of a wind tunnel (although sometimes that's exactly the look they're going for). And men who really want to "feel like a risk-taker, a protector, a provider" can do that - independent of or in conjunction with other roles.

The most emasculating idea of all is the thought that these men are the way they are because they've been forced into it by some overwhelming man-hating feminist conspiracy. The concept of feminism is women's equality, not women's superiority, and by liberating women from traditional forced gender roles, they've done the same to men. We're now all free to act as full partners in our relationships and full owners in our own lives, doing things because we enjoy them and we're good at them rather than because our genitalia tells us we're supposed to.

In closing, I want y'all to know that I took out a daddy longlegs the size of a Boeing 7E7 on my bathroom ceiling the other day. By myself. With a minimum of squealing and squirming (on my part). I did, however, wait a full 24 hours before picking him up, just to make sure he wasn't going to start any of those twitchy death spasms they do sometimes. I really, really hate that.

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