It’s no secret now that, while women are still fighting for equal pay and the face of power remains decidedly male, the gender gap in schools didn’t close, it flipped directions. Girls and women at all levels of education, from elementary to collegiate, are outstripping boys – so much so that some colleges are even giving a little extra boost for the guys (yes, you heard that right, affirmative action for white males). Nicholas Kristof provides a nice summary of the problem here and Businessweek has another good one here, but even a cursory poke around Google will bring you a slew of articles from across the Western nations documenting this counter-intuitive trend.
Meanwhile, when we look around at male role models in popular culture, what do we see? Primarily, a glorification of one of two things: underperformance (a la Peter Griffin, Homer Simpson, etc.), or androgyny (types like Michael Cera, “metrosexuality,” dare I even mention Ryan Gosling?). We have to look to Mad Men to find masculinity of the type we used to revere – except they’re all philanderers and misogynists, so that ideal is certainly tarnished.
Toss in rising divorce rates plus a “gotcha!” culture of news media (if I may borrow that phrase) focused on catching politicians and celebrities with their pants down, so to speak (for good or ill), and we have a recipe for stripping society of role models to look towards. I’m being a little blase and overgeneralizing an incredibly complex issue here, but the truth is men these days are often confused about what role they should play and are taught to be ashamed of manliness rather than to uphold its virtues.
We’ve focused so much attention on girl power and what it means to raise a confident, empowered woman, that we’ve forgotten the need to guide our boys too. But we’re doing our girls no favors, when they grow up to be strong, smart, independent women only to find there are no men they can respect to stand strong beside them. Building women up does not require tearing down our boys.
A fellow blogger touched on a growing double-standard in her post, “I never thought he would feel that being a boy was a limitation.” Her children are young, so her concern focuses on erasing gender lines with the toys her kids play with and the cartoons they watch.
But it’s about so much more than that.
It’s about so much more than whether girls can play with monster trucks or whether boys can enjoy watching My Little Pony. As my friend, Brook put it, “we want ALL children to be confident, compassionate and courageous.” Courage is not just for the men, just as compassion is just not for the women.
BUT I don’t think androgyny is the answer either. We do both our children and our society a disservice when we tell them it’s wrong for men to be manly and wrong for women to be feminine. (By the way, we haven’t just hurt our boys either – teaching girls to act like men when it comes to sex has created a host of problems, including, but not limited to: undermining their own sense of value, repressed needs, and increased difficulty in finding and maintaining relationships.) Moreover, we’re simply lying to ourselves when we pretend that there aren’t at least some biological differences between the genders.
That doesn’t mean everyone has to follow a gendered ideal, though – we all suffer when we try to force anyone into a box, no matter what that box is. I’m not harping on anyone who naturally falls towards the middle of the gender spectrum. Gender and sexuality are both complex and we should honor that complexity. What I AM saying, though, is this: We don’t celebrate humanity by wishing (or socializing) away all our differences. We celebrate humanity by encouraging authenticity, harnessing the power of each individual’s strengths, and treating ourselves and each other with respect.
There are two blogs I follow despite the fact that I am neither male nor am I mother to a son. I follow them because I find the articles provide a fascinating discussion of what masculinity means in a post-feminist world: how men can still strive to be the best they can be, present themselves with distinction, be assertive, demonstrate honor and valor – and that masculinity does not have to imply male chauvinism. The first is The Art of Manliness, which grew so quickly and displayed such gratitude from its readers that it showed just how lost men feel in this age, how desperate they are for some guidance on how to be men. The other is 1001 Rules for My Unborn Son. Both hark back to the past for examples of great men, tempered with the greater understanding and self-awareness we have gained in the past decades. It’s a shame how far we have to look back to find great examples.
So whether your boy melts his G.I. Joes in violent combat or plays quietly with a Carebear, teach him to read because great communicators make for great leaders. Whether he prefers World of Warcraft or Sims, teach him to help with chores around the house, because a sense of responsibility breeds great husbands and fathers. Whether his interests lie in the sciences or the arts, teach him to show others respect and appreciation because courage means putting others before ourselves and strength should always be on the side of justice. Whether his hobby is fly-fishing or baking, encourage it because any added skill makes for a more well-rounded human being. Teach him how to change his oil, sew a button, safely discharge a firearm, and iron his shirts…because one day he might need to know all those things.
And roughhouse with him too, because we don’t learn everything there is to learn from “playing nicely” alone.