a new kind of hero for a new time

Flying Aces, as imagined by comic genius Kate Beaton (click to make it legible)

For as much as I think about gender, I don’t think all that much about men and masculinity. And for as many books and articles and blog posts out there about gender theory, it’s remarkably easy to avoid thinking about masculinity. I probably did this because I’m mainly self-interested and want to understand why I am the way I am because of the stereotypes of women that I’ve internalized. The idea, though, that gender is something for women to struggle with is more widespread, I think. Some theorists have said that only women have gender, which sounds odd until you think about our culture’s understanding of men as the universal. Okay, here is an example of what that means:

illustration for an article about aging in this week's New Yorker

Thought experiment: I bet when you look at that illustration you think ‘oh, this article is about aging’ (if so, then Richard McGuire did a good job as illustrator!). But if it showed female figures instead of male, would you think ‘oh, this article is about women aging’? I bet I would. So the male gender disappears because we see a male figure and think ‘human’, but female figures only ever suggest ‘women’.

Of course, men are influenced by gender stereotypes as much as women are, and it’s only by examining those stereotypes that we can hope to move past them. Sometimes I joke that I’m a good dude because, for instance, I’m not comfortable sharing my feelings and I’m not overly sensitive to what others are feeling, but as much as I like pointing out the negative stereotypes, masculinity is in general a big mystery to me. Because I’ve never examined it! Enter¬†Susan Faludi’s book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, which is about men in post-war America. I read the opening chapter (hat tip to Seth, who has become my gender theory pen pal), and I think I’m hooked enough that I’ll check it out from the library.

One of the main themes she brings up in this opening chapter is our culture’s myth that men are in control– that they are men because they are in control– of nature, of others, of their surroundings. Certainly a lot of ‘feminist’ rhetoric on power structures reinforces this idea. But no one is really in control, because we all have to play by the rules of the institutions we were born into (like corporate capitalism and our political system). It just so happens that so-called masculine traits in vogue in the past few decades, like competition and self-interest, are more valued in our capitalist society than, say, self-sacrifice and cooperation.* But competition and self-interest have not always been as explicitly prized as they are now. Faludi uses the example of WWII rhetoric on the soldiers in the trenches vs flying aces (yes, the comic above is related to something in this post!) to argue that the traits of self-sacrifice and cooperation, exemplified by the ‘small men’ fighting on the ground, were more valued in men than they are now. (Of course, it was in the interest of the powers-that-were that the ‘small men’ enlisted to face their death at war felt valued– but whatever the motives, the point is that that men were praised for embodying these cooperative traits).

She also has an interesting thesis that the situation of young men in the ’90s resembles that of housewives in the ’50s. Basically, the hypermasculinity of the former and the hyperfemininity of the latter were both born of the consumerism they were encouraged to embrace because they lacked a meaningful role in public life. I will have to read the whole book before I say more about that (especially about what she’s counting as ‘a role in public life’), but I do love the idea of drawing parallels between the situation of men and women.

Maybe we aren’t from different planets after all! (I will spare you a diatribe about that notion.)

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*Can’t help but point out that this is institutional sexism: when an institution (capitalism) rewards the traits assigned to one gender rather than the other, such that people taught to be ‘good men’ (competitive, self-interested) are more rewarded than people taught to be ‘good women’ (self-sacrifising, cooperative).

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