Be a Man

At least three of you just started singing this to yourself:

Probably more. Disney, right? Who didn’t grow up taking some of their most inspirational memories from those singing cartoons? I might smack talk them about gender roles from time to time, but credit where it’s due, they’re not as far behind the times as some, and when they fall short of creating strong female leads, I don’t think it’s for lack of trying. It’s for lack of knowing how to define a strong female because we’re still in the process of defining this paradigm.

The video above, from Disney’s Mulan, is an interesting example of the challenge of gender equality. “Be a man,” the CO tells his troops. “Be strong, be fast, be self-reliant, be deadly.” The lyrics might be a touch more subtle than that, but the training montage isn’t. Mulan is praiseworthy (and also reviled) in the context of the story because she masters this masculine skill set and finds a way to pass.

Feminism has moved, or is in the process of moving, beyond the notion that in order to be given equal power as efficacious human beings, women must become manly in the sense presented in the Mulan clip. I recently came across this preview for a new documentary from the Representation Project:

What a simple notion, that “be a man” is one of the most damaging things boys hear. I don’t know how strongly the research substantiates this claim (sorry, I’m a lazy ranter, but feel free to share relevant research links in the comments), but it strikes me as intuitively valid.

I’m reminded of the story that Plato tell in the Symposium, of how humans were once eight-limbed, powerful creatures, and how Zeus split them in half to make them less powerful. (Search for “four” with ctrl+f in the linked document, it will get you in the right ballpark if you don’t have time to read the entire thing.) They spent their lives clinging to their opposite half, trying to become what they once were. The division of gender roles strikes me as having the same impact–when we limit ourselves and one another by the structure of our chromosomes, we are not complete people. We’re missing out on half of our potential.

This narrative isn’t new for women–we’ve been fighting to be allowed to reintegrate the qualities that have been reserved for men for a while. But I think an important part of the struggle is to acknowledge that women aren’t the only ones who are damaged by a gender dichotomy. We are hurt when the world says, “female things are not good enough to be manly,” but so are men.

I was listening to NPR the other day and some pundit or other was talking about the identity of victimized shame that is part of China’s perception of its relationship to the world. Without even touching on those politics, the pundit said something to the effect that China is hobbling itself with that narrative of being a victim–as long as it refuses to recognize that it has a powerful role, the anger at being shamed by the rest of the world is only hobbling their own progress. A victim is a victim, shame is shame, no matter the circumstances, and I suspect the same thing is true for women–anger at those who still see women as less and as objects feels like shit (something I struggle with constantly), it doesn’t do a hell of a lot to hurt the folks who hold that perspective, and it gets in the way of being compassionate towards the members of the more powerful group who are being harmed by the same narrative they’re using to harm us.

It also makes sense that changing tactics (for me, at least, I realize I’m not at the leading edge of this shift) will make the idea of gender equality more palatable to more men because we’re not just trying to take ground for women and we’re not just offering to share ground with homosexuals. What if men were hearing words like this: “You know what? You have the right to express hurt and pissyness, and you have the prerogative to change your mind too. You are allowed to be struggling to be nice because your hormones are out of whack. You may express that your job is stressing you out, or that you don’t feel supported by your spouse. You can cry. You can crave chocolate. You have a voice in how your kids should be raised. You are just as desirable and strong in jeans or skirts, in plaid or floral prints. ”

The damage runs so deep that it might make little difference. The more deeply a man has been convinced that it’s not okay to be a woman, the less this offer of shared ground will mean, perhaps. But perhaps it will mean enough to enough men that by the time our children are raising children, their boys won’t be made fun of for liking neon pink crocs and their girls won’t be underpaid for their hard work.

So. That’s all just food for thought. I will continue to rant against the idiots who still act as if women are second class citizens (Spoiler alert: Planet Fitness has a polite and thoughtful nastygram headed their way soon). I will, however, be on the lookout for the ways such attitudes are hurting boys and men as well. Maybe trying to take a broader perspective on who deserves compassion and protection from such viciously stupid narratives will make me a little less angry. And maybe taking a perspective of compassion for the dopes who don’t realize what they’re doing to themselves will make them a little less threatened by the notion that feminine characteristics are essential to being complete people.

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