I’ve been reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, a book that is credited with launching the Second Wave of the feminist movement, and I must confess I’m having difficulty really identifying with many of her claims. It might not be surprising, given we are of different generations, but on the other hand, a lot of the starting points and issues she draws attention to are still relevant today. She just takes them in a completely different direction than I would go. But I think that will be the subject of another post.
However, there is one point Friedan touched on and I wish she had developed it more: and that is the role of the men. The edition I have is an updated one with a couple of added introductions. The chapter I found most intriguing was one of these introductions, where she reflects back, two generations later and assesses the change. What I love about this chapter is that she doesn’t just focus on what changes have occurred for women, but also the impact on society as a whole. And as Friedan observes, the truth is, changing a woman’s world means changing the world of men too and a lot of the feminist movement does not really address that. Meanwhile, books that take on the masculine mystique and focus on the “men’s movement” have largely been copies in reverse of women’s lib and are thus inauthentic. Or they are an outmoded brand of machismo that reflects only an obsolete form of masculinity.
I believe the problem is that such a paradigm shift does alter the identity of men, but somehow they’ve never really had a larger cultural conversation about where to go and how to change in positive ways along with women. What the women’s movement has focused on is the reactionary man who bemoans the loss of job and income and retaliates through sexual harassment and violence. What it neglects to consider is the larger proportion of men who do have a desire to be positive contributors to society, but who have along the way lost a clear role model and are left to fend for themselves in navigating personal ethics.
My husband and I have been watching a lot of Mad Men lately and it occurs to me that Don Draper is a portrait of the all-American male: the man every other man wished he was. He has a lot of charm, smooth power, wealth, looks. He’s got a beautiful wife and family, home and car. When it comes to office politics, he exercises a lot of power and control, but he does it with finesse. He keeps underlings in their place, but he also does not resort to cheap jokes at the expense of others. He remains quiet – or occasionally puts others in check – when they smear another man’s honor.
But for the modern man, the old paradigm doesn’t quite work anymore for today’s society. Man’s relationship to women has to change as he shares earning power and household politics with her, as he shares more household duties and the gender lines become blurred. Blurring these lines necessarily call masculinity into question, asking society to redefine what being male truly means. Fathers have also become problematic role models because through problems caused by divorce or changing societal values in a whole slew of issues, men often face disillusionment with their fathers. Many have difficult relationships with their fathers in which they either become so disillusioned they draw away from them or they have to suffer through a period in which they try to renegotiate a new relationship with their fathers. A relationship in which they reconcile themselves to the notion that their father may not be the hero they once thought their father should be, but at least they can accept him for who he is.
Among friends, role models become even harder to find. Susan Walsh has an excellent blog on today’s hookup culture, and what I draw from it is that there is often an identity schism for male friends as well. In the past, men would have looked up to and admired the alpha males, the Don Drapers of society. But today’s alpha male often comes across as…well, kind of a dick. The beta males might wish they had some of the things alpha males have…but they don’t really want to actually be who the alpha male is. They have to compete with them, but they don’t admire them anymore. Likewise, women might fall head over heels for the Don Draper type in the past. But today many women feel they have to choose. They choose the alpha male to have sex with, but when it comes to marriage, they want the beta males – because the alphas are all just misogynist a-holes. (Actually, increasingly women seem to be more attracted to men with more feminine features!) Women sometimes do fall in love with the alpha males, but they often want to change them, redeem them, tame them – thus turning them into more of a beta male. In which case, they don’t love the alpha male at all. Rather they love just an idea of him. And the guys who are really great guys often end up feeling like they finish last.
Without clear role models, the result is many men are left suffering an identity crisis – one that seems to last longer and longer. And we have movies like Up In The Air and Greenberg about men well into their 40′s, still struggling to figure out what they want from life and who they want to be.
The thing is, many men do want to be good fathers, good husbands, and positive contributors to their work place and community. They do want wives they can talk to and respect. Ethics are important to them, but they have discovered they must figure out for themselves what those ethics are. Measures of success are personal – not compared to the Jones’s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, as long as it authentic and they can respect themselves as individuals, it is a good thing. But it is problematic when 62% of men say they miss the day when a person’s word and a handshake meant something. It is a problem when men report feeling lost, confused, left behind. It is a problem when men begin to fall behind women in school, dropping out at higher rates and performing poorly in classes.
Women’s liberation does not work if it comes at the expense of their husbands, friends, and sons. We haven’t changed societal mores if we repress or scoff at honest fears and concerns, when men feel they are muzzled by political correctness. We shouldn’t accept misogyny, but that doesn’t give us license to repress men either: that merely reverses the roles, but keeps us locked in obsolete rituals of power. What I love from Friedan’s chapter is that, even though she did not delve into the intricacies of the role of man today, she did end with a beautiful summation of what we should be trying to achieve: “Grown-up men and women….become more and more authentically themselves. And they do not pretend that men are from Mars or women are from Venus. They even share each other’s interests, talk a common shorthand of work, love, play, kids, politics. We may now begin to glimpse the new human possibilities when women and men are finally free to be themselves, know each other for who they really are, and define the terms and measures of success, failure, joy, triumph, power, and the common good, together.”
In short: equal, but in a way that simultaneously celebrates individuality, personality, and working together for the common good. What she doesn’t say, but what I think underlines her words is the necessity for mutual respect and open curiosity to engage each other.