I Don’t Think This Is Quite What Our Grandmothers Had In Mind
Let me begin by saying I’m a dude who grew up in something as close as possible to a parallel universe: a house full of strong women with a female breadwinner (an executive at a large utility company); divorced parents who got along brilliantly; a father who really saw women as equals, who valued friendships with women (including his ex-wife, my Mom) immensely. In short, a reality where equality between the sexes was a reality.
I sort-of got that sexism was a thing, and at the same time, I didn’t really see it in action. I kind of labored under the delusion that sexism was over, or that it only happened in far-away places — other countries, maybe. Or maybe Texas?
I’m sure now (because hindsight is 20/20) that my Mom and my Grammy and my sister experienced it: in fact, we all do. The extent of my exposure, as a kid, came in this sort of vague knowledge that my sister got picked on for being bigger than other kids in a way that boys her size didn’t — and even that, I only figured out in retrospect.
Well, and then there were the weird messages conveyed by TV shows. Oh, and road signage*.
Anyway, we were busy, free-ranging, book-crazed kids, outdoors at least as often as we were indoors — but we did watch some TV.
I remember being annoyed by ads that divided up toys along strict gender lines (who says girls didn’t play with Hot Wheels, or boys with My Little Pony?) and I remember being really, really annoyed by the theme song to James Bond, Jr., which included the line “… As he rescues the girl!”
The part of me that was semi-aware of such things was like, “Hello, this is the 90s, probably ‘the girl’ can take care of herself!” I’m not sure if that was actually a kind of an in-joke and The Girl in question did more rescuing than Mr. Bond Jr., because the show didn’t have any talking animals on it, so I wasn’t interested.
Anyway. So I was aware of gender issues, but in this very limited kind of way founded on the idea (common to lids in general) that the foundations of my world were just like everyone else’s, and that everyone was equipped with the same set of tools that let my sister and me roll our eyes and call bull when we spotted something obviously sexist.
So basically, grown-up life has been a long series of little shocks in which I’ve realized that, yes, sexism is still a huge thing (and not just in other far-off countries like Texas), and that it’s a big thing, and that it’s a subtler thing than I ever could have guessed. Oh, and that not everyone is equipped to see it or fight it.
For many women, I suspect this is definitely an eye roll moment: “Like, duh, hello? Of course it’s a thing!”
I’m right there with you: I feel like there’s a lot I should have seen sooner; a lot I still don’t see, probably**.
**Weirdly, ballet is one heck of an effective mirror for male privilege, because dudes are kind of like unicorns in the ballet world, and even a marginally-talented unicorn gets a ton of attention and encouragement (everyone likes to have unicorns around!).
It amazes me that insecure straight dudes aren’t flocking to ballet class in droves. Nothing, and I mean nothing, has made me more aware of my own privilege as a male (let alone as an able, conventionally-attractive male) like ballet has.
Like most kids from privileged-yet-socially-liberal backgrounds, I’ve also been raised with the assumption that, as a society, we’re making progress — we’re moving forward; that the general trajectory of the course of history (occasional backpedaling notwithstanding), in relation to human rights, is forward.
In a sense, we are: take, for example, the huge cultural conversation about sexual assault on college campuses***.
Not that long ago — a heartbeat ago, on the scale of history — that conversation couldn’t have happened. The straight male voices that dominated cultural discourse would’ve said, “Ha! This is nothign but a bit of hysteria. You little ladies should get back to your Early Childhood Education studies and leave the big problems to us men.”
Now we can talk about it, an we are talking about it.
And that conversation has been revelatory: particularly, it has revealed how utterly blind a lot of dudes are to their role in the problem. And while a lot of them have predictably been public asshats about it, some have woken up and said, “Holy crap, I am part of this problem.”
Most importantly, though, women have stood up to speak, and are still standing even after some pretty intense efforts at shouting them down, and that’s a fine thing****.
****Never mind that some campuses have responded with bass-ackwards “Don’t go out at night if you don’t want to get assaulted” policies.
Like, seriously, people? THIS IS 2015. We should all know by now that that isn’t how it works.
So we’re making progress there, by fits and starts.
Yet, at the same time, in other ways, it feels like we’re going backwards.
A case study:
A while back, after the bazillionth ad for hair dye or straightener or something during some TV show I want watching, I said something to Denis about how it seemed like everyone always wanted whatever kind of hair they didn’thave, and that I felt lucky that I was happy with mine.
And then I realized, wait — this is sexism in action. It’s capitalism feeding on sexism; on the kind of sexism that makes women feel like they’re never good enough the way they are, no matter what.
This whole snowball is about insecurity: all these ads were aimed at women, and they all began with the assumption that if you were blonde, you should want to be brunette so guys would think you were smart and mysterious or something and want you, and if you were brunette, you should be blonde so guys would think you were vivacious and fun or something and want you, and if you were somewhere in the middle, you should maybe go full ginger, because everyone knows gingers are unpredictable force-of-nature sexy vixens and guys love that.
And I realized that I am more or less satisfied with my hair because I’m a guy,and I don’t have an entire culture and all my friends telling me I should try some other color or maybe get a perm*****.
We’ve reached a point now where guys are starting to do this stuff, too: eating disorders in men are on the rise (when I was 13, I was an anomaly as an anorexic dude; not even a blip on the cultural radar; now, the problem is noticeable enough that there have been a few documentaries about it), etc.
In one sense, maybe that’s a good thing: it says that men are at last beginning to be subject to the same market pressures as women, if on a much smaller scale.
Let’s face it, dudes: ladies who are shaped in any way differently than the whatever the culture has deemed correct take way, way more flack than men who are equally divergent. Likewise, while we guys may catch a little more flack when it comes to making career choices that are aimed at giving us more family time (as opposed to more money), women are more than compensated there with an exceptionally heavy load of cultural crap-flinging no matter what they choose.
Here’s the thing: while we’ve upped the market pressures on ourselves, we’ve also upped the pressures on the women. I suspect that “good enough” has never been good enough for women in our culture — but now it kind of looks like maybe even perfect isn’t good enough.
If you’re a fast-track career woman but not Supermom-cum-Wonderwife, it’s not like our culture says, “Ohai, you’re doing great, actually!”
Instead, it’s all, “Yeah, well, Angelina Jolie has a zillion well-adjusted kids and a high-powered career and still finds time to bake all-organic quinoa crisps.” (Helpfully leaving out that Jolie can afford to pay someone else to do the marketing or watch the kids and can afford to take the rest of her life off if she so chooses.)
Meanwhile, dudes still practically win the Nobel Peace Prize whenever they manage to heat up a frozen pot pie without also burning down the house, because LOLz, cooking for the fam is totally still for chicks******.
So, in short, we’re still a long way from equal, around here. And I’m pretty sure that’s not what our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were after.
What I’ve learned by being a dude, but also a gay dude, is that having privilege is (rather aptly) just like being a fish in water: you have no idea that you’re surrounded by it, buoyed up, floating in it, until you encounter some air-breather that’s caught a toe in some seaweed and is struggling and going, “Holy crap, how can you not see why I’m drowning, here? This stuff is everywhere!”
And, then, what you do with that information is up to you. You can either help an air-breather out or you can go, “I don’t see what the problem is; I’m breathing just fine.”
Only, like, that analogy can only go so far, because we also make the water, and (after a period of adjustment) we’d be okay without it. Those of us who already hold a fair bit of privilege have a lot to say about which way the culture turns — that is, whether it’s a place that’s harmful to air-breathers, or a place where both air-breathers and those of us who can choose to breathe water or air can both live.
So now I keep an eye out for my own privilege, because it’s up to me to not be that guy.
Yeah, this gets weird and difficult sometimes: like, when I realize that as a boy from the frenetic Northeast, my entire conversational style makes it really hard for a girl from the South or Midwest to get a word in edgewise. But part of being a grown-up and wearing my big-boy trousers is learning how to handle a little discomfort.
I can back myself down, listen more patiently, and so forth. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that girls from the South can’t also adapt to different conversational styles: they can and do, but it’s still my job to meet them in the middle and to figure out what I’m doing wrong.
That’s part of what being equal is about: I don’t get to feel like my way is the only right way. I don’t always have to agree with the way other people do things, but I do have to give them full consideration.
So basically I feel like we’ve got a long way to go — and I think that every inch of progress we make along that way actually makes the world a better place for women and for men.
As for that golden future the Feminists of earlier generations envisioned: I used to think we were already there.
Now I know we’re not.
I also know that while women probably can move ask the mountains to get us there entirely on their own, they flat-out shouldn’t have to.
It’ll be a lot easier for everyone and better if we guys wake up, smell the privilege, roll up our sleeves, and help out (after all, we built those stupid mountains that are in the way).
So, um, I hope this is all okay. When I stated writing this, I thought I knew what I was saying, but it got away from me (like, you know, every blog entry in the history of ever).
Anyway, here I am, and here’s my shovel, and I hope I can help move these mountains, because I’m realling looking forward to dancing together on the other side.