The Last and Worst: Rules for Men

27 Apr

This while be my final post on this blog, and I think it’s fitting that this last example of male stereotyping be one of the ugliest I’ve personally ever seen. There exists a website called Rules 4 Men. Its tagline is, “Man up and act like you got a pair.” Other than that the site offers no description of purpose or instructions, but visit it and hit the prominent “Generate random rules here” button, and you’ll get the idea pretty quickly. You can give the rule up to 5 “stars,” which forms the basis of a rating system. Here are the 5 random rules I learned today:

  • “No man should ever choose to wear a scarf”
  • “A man will never be afraid of thunderstorms. Ever.”
  • “There is no reason for guys to watch Ice Skating or Men’s Gymnastics. Ever.”
  • “It is only ok to cry if only 1 woman sees you, and it gets you laid for having “feelings”.”
  • “No man shall ever turn down free beer because “it’s not their brand.””

These 5 are actually some of the milder ones. They’re unbashfully homophobic (1, 3) and gender stereotyping (2, 4, 5) in nature, but none of them contain the overt sexism and violence of some of the other rules. Below is the “toplist,” containing the 20 highest-rated rules. The list is rife with homophobia (e.g., 5, 10, 11, 20), male stereotyping (e.g., 8, 9, 12, 15), and sexism (e.g., 6, 17, 19).

1. Women cannot be annoying with a dick In their mouth. 4.16
2. If you trap her head under the covers for the purpose of flatulent entertainment, she’s officially your girlfriend. 3.85
3. The only pink things that men can like are lady parts and the inside of a steak. 3.74
4. No man shall ever own a dog smaller then a housecat. 3.71
5. When eating a banana, never look another man in the eyes and/or comment on the quality of the banana. 3.68
6. When a women is being a bitch, you must always assume there is sand in her vagina. 3.68
7. If a man is eating nachos and they are all stuck together, it is considered one nacho. 3.68
8. No man shall ever use a rolling backpack, carry the bag like a man. 3.68
9. A man in the company of a hot, suggestively dressed woman must remain sober enough to fight. 3.66
10. No man is allowed to pick something out of another man’s face or head. 3.65
11. Every man shall allow one empty urinal of separation in a bathroom with three or more urinals 3.65
12. If a woman asks to open a jar, you must open it with ease, to prove your masculinity. 3.64
13. Never get out of the shower to take a piss. 3.64
14. Women can’t drive. 3.64
15. A man will never be afraid of thunderstorms. Ever. 3.64
16. A man will never allow a friend to drink alone 3.63
17. You can not trust somthing that bleeds for a week and does not die. 3.61
18. A man should not sing and dance at the same time. 3.60
19. If you drive over your woman it’s your own fault. You shouldn’t be driving in the kitchen. 3.58
20. If you compliment a guy on his six-pack, you’d better be talking about his choice of beer. 3.57

Seeing this website made me sick to my stomach. Knowing that there are people out there writing and rating highly numbers 1, 6, and 19 is disgusting. The mere existence of the site demonstrates how deeply ingrained are the notions of men being strong, sexual, alcohol-consuming, dominating, straight. The violence in these statements shakes me to my core.

This brief project has given me so much to think about around male stereotyping and cultural sexism. Cultural sexism can be defined as the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of men and the assumed inferiority of women. These messages are all around us. They’re in the dojo where karate classes are 90% male. They’re in the high numbers of female nurses and social workers. They’re in the way we talk about cars, male friendships, illness, cooking (twice), and interior design. And they come from everywhere: the media, our parents, the news, other people, and our friends.

I will say: life has become more complicated since I began this project and this class. It’s hard now to watch TV, go for a walk, or read a magazine without being hypersensitive to the microaggressions and cultural oppression that surrounds us. Truly, like Tatum says, it’s the air we breathe, because it’s everywhere. I’ve learned through this project that part of being a conscious, aware person means not only noticing the oppression in the world, but perhaps even more so – being in touch with my own reactions. I’ve learned through this project that my own prejudices are deeply, deeply engrained, along with my overlapping privileged identities – white, male, heterosexual, US-born, able-bodied.

My own racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism, and sizeism (among others) continue to loom large in my subconscious. However, having my eyes opened in this way – to examining male stereotyping and its complementary homophobia and sexism – has permitted me to be more aware and (often) critical of my own internal monologue and emotions. I’ve learned through this project that my own challenges to undo the Isms that control and limit me are a never-ending process.

This is not easy. Its cost is perhaps the most difficult one to pay: omnipresent intentionality and mindfulness. Paying this price – through draining – is something that I must do. I must do this not only because of my code of ethics, but because I owe it to my fellow human beings – my family, my friends, the communities I work with and my children. The pain and dehumanization that accompanies oppression has become very, very real to me in the last years and days, and continues to affect me in increasingly empathic ways. The pain is so, so, so real. And nobody deserves it. For that reason, we must all work for the liberation of all.

I’m reminded of a quote, and I think it’s a very appropriate one to close on. “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Doing this work during the last two years, I have come to believe that liberation – freedom from the chains of oppression – is possible. But only if we make the effort.

The Gendering of Environmentalism

25 Apr

The discussions of gender differences usually revolve around personal qualities, physical traits, etc. Less often do we see differences of attitude being discussed. GreenBiz.com recently published an article in its blog section titled, “To Men, Green Is a Shade Too Close to Pink,” discussing the gender differences of “going green.” Its “uber-finding”: America believes that women are significatly “greener” than men, because men believe that going green is unmanly. Here’s what the article has to say:

  • “Do you think going green is more masculine or feminine? If you’re like 82 percent of Americans, you’ll answer “feminine” to this question.
  • “The men we spoke to [admitted] they refrained from green activities like carrying reusable totes and even driving hybrid vehicles because they felt girly or self-conscious.
  • “Clearly sustainability marketing needs its Marlboro Man moment.
  • “But how do we make eco-friendly male-ego-friendly?
  • “Some of the greenest men we talked to in our ethnographies were undeniably manly men taking on issues of sustainability as some sort of throw down from the universe: “Solve this! Make this work!” These men see conquering issues of sustainability in their own lives as a personal challenge, a problem to solve, and something ordinary men don’t have the know-how or competence to handle.
  • “There are some brands getting it right. In the male-dominated world of automobiles, for example, those brands grabbing male attention are doing so by relying on old-fashioned sleek and stylish ads emphasizing performance and design, with credible environmental messages woven into the appeals to primal desires to go fast and look good doing it. Brands like Patagonia or Clif Bar that tie the environment to manly pursuits like rock-climbing and snow-boarding. Farming, DIY and technology are other fertile areas for targeting the testosterone when it comes to green.

Interestingly, I realized that I’ve come across these male attitudes in the past. When I moved to New York I was talking with my cousin who lives in UWS (originally from St. Louis), and he expressed to me that he loved New York because, “It’s the only city where you can walk around wearing a tote and not have people think you’re gay.” While his sociogeographical opinion seems a little NYCentric, his sentiment seems to match the survey respondents’: being green is feminine.

Sadly, this article makes a charade out of masculinity and environmentalism. Its equation of “manly” with intellectual competence, competition (against the universe! Seems like a losing battle…), and extreme sports shows how (not) far we’ve come as a society.

I think it’s also timely that this article talks about the “classic” automotive advertising techniques to relate to men, given the recent promotion of the 2012 VW Beetle. VW seems to have taken a lesson straight from the article, evidenced by its use of “old-fashioned sleek and stylish ads emphasizing performance and design, with credible environmental messages woven into the appeals to primal desires to go fast and look good doing it.” It’s as if the manliest of men can “still” be manly, even when driving a car that gets 30 city MGP, because of the car’s “aerodynamic” form and “powerful” engine. These key “masculine” words become the selling point because in our gendered world they override any “green” benefits.

If men are describing greenness as feminine, it makes me wonder how green men are feeling about themselves. Are they playing into this gendering internalized sexism, considering themselves less mascline because they wear totes over their arms or ride bicycles? I’ll confess — when I throw a reusable bag over my arm (I exclusively use them while grocery shopping), I do feel somewhat feminine. It conjures images in my head of what it might be like to wear a purse, and while I’m 99% OK with that, that 1% of me wonders what I look like to others. I’m 1% conscious of the violence committed against gay men at disproportionate rates. Now that I see it in myself, I can relate, in a way, to the men in this survey – and I cast my lot with the majority. And I see that I have much to think about and learn.

Designing for “Dudes”

22 Apr

The Volkswagon Beetle is getting a makeover for 2012, and according to its designers and a number of magazine and newspaper articles, the model has a new market: “dudes.”

Here’s what “macho” changes we can expect to see:

  • “Enlarged”/”bigger body”, “less ‘cute'”, “more sporty.”
  • “A sleek rounded-off top.”
  • “Fierce-looking LED headlights.”
  • “Stretched the car slightly to give it a ‘powerful appearance with muscular tension'”
  • “Most masculine of all are the Beetle’s wheels. It rolls on eye-catching 10-spoke wheels that span 19 inches.”
  • “A row of analog instrumentation”…”perhaps most indicative of the Beetle’s personality shift”
  • “Clean, self-confident and dominant”
  • “Ambient lighting to set the mood” (Geeksugar.com)
  • No more “plain Jane details,” like “circular tail lights” and the “flower vase on the dash.”

The wording used to portray the car’s new features parallel our socially gendered notions of masculinity and the dominance of the gender binary system. Fierce, powerful, sleek, 21st century, dynamic“more power, less flower.” They dichotomize men and women by painting a vision of masculinity that is ultimately harmful to us all, reinforcing our vision of men as intellectually and physically superior to women. In a spirit typical of journalism, the article titles – Ditching the Daisy: Will the New VW Beetle Rev Men’s Engines? and 2012 Volkswagon Beetle: A Bug With a Rampaging Y Chromosome – employ no less aggressive verbage.

When I first saw the Time article, I felt angry at the hypermasculinization of this car and the intense langauge being used to de-feminize it. When I saw the photo of the car, however, the thought flashed in my mind: it does look masculine…it looks like a Porche, or a sexy little sports car. Reflecting on these thoughts – I’m disappointed at myself for being manipulated by the publicists and the marketers, the sensationalism of journalism and how deeply I have internalized this notion of masculinity.

Addressing this issue has also opened my eyes to the notion that male stereotyping does not fall under the definition of sexist. In all likelihood, it’s upper class men that created this marketing campaign. Can men be sexist against men? Certainly, where other domains of oppression are involved (race, sexual orientation, age, etc.). But in this case, we see none of that. We see men living in a world of competition, in which our socialized version of masculinity is the gold standard of worth. Yet as discussed, this hypermasculine vision is harmful to us all – if men are measured by their masculine features or behaviors, then women are judged in opposite. By measuring men’s masculinity by their strength, we measure women’s femininity by their weakness. Men drive Hummers, while women drive Beetles.

Guys Aren’t Meant To Care About Their Glutes

19 Apr

The University of Virginia’s student-run newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, ran an article today that is more than a bit disturbing. Contrary to its title, “The Guy’s Guide to a Girl’s Workout,” by Abby Sigler, is not about helping men understand the unique exercise needs of women, or how male and female anatomy differ. Rather, it’s a lesson for men on how to avoid “doing some girly work out.” Here are some of the gems of advice that Sigler offers both men and women:

  • “Men’s stretching should be particularly nonchalant”
  • “Walking on the treadmill is for girls. The only time it’s acceptable for men to walk on the treadmill is to warm up or cool down after or before a run. That’s it. I don’t care if you’re power walking uphill; it’s not OK if you’re a dude.”
  • “Guys, stick to running on the treadmill, or even better, man up and run around.”
  • “Guys, if you’re on the bike, you better be riding like Lance. Coasting on the recumbent bike simply will not do.”
  • “Men should not be on the elliptical. I don’t care if you’re on resistance 5,687 and your elevation is set so high that it’s vertical, you shouldn’t be on an elliptical….Otherwise, I, along with all the other girls on ellipticals, am judging you — harshly.”
  • “Guys aren’t meant to care about their glutes.”
  • “It’s hard to make weight lifting girly. Abide by one simple rule here. If your grandmother can lift it, you probably shouldn’t.”
  • “If there are two complementary machines that men should not use at the gym, it’s the hip abduction and reduction machines.”
  • “Most of the time the inhabitants of Man Land are spotted doing their manly thing — pumping iron and engaged in bro talk with the occasional fist bump.”
  • “Sometimes, you spot a girl in Man Land. When I do I think, ‘Wow! That girl’s intense and really jacked! You go girl!”

I was shocked when I read this article, and saddened that it was (a) written in the first place, and then (b) allowed to go to print. The article perpetuates so many stereotypes that hurt men and women: men should be stoic, aggressive, physical, and concerned only with having big biceps. Women, in contrast, deserve accolades for “upping their game,” but mostly should focus on “gazing dreamily” at men lifting heavy things, “toning their thighs,” “wanting to look great in your swimsuit at Beach Week,” and fitting into that “favorite sundress” that “as feeling a little too tight there.” According to Sigler, any man who is concerned about such “girly” pursuits needs to reassess his priorities.

After reading the article, I expected that the comments section would echo my thoughts. While half of the comments express what a terrible article it is, the other half contend that this is Sigler’s version of “tongue-in-cheek writing” and “sarcasm.”  I have a hard time swallowing that. GoodMenProject.org – a reliable source – seems to agree with me, and I hope that most people would. Yet I recognize that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; what is “obvious” to me is only so because I push myself to be more aware than Joe Sixpack.

My strong reaction to this article also led me in a direction that I am not proud of. Upon reading this and searching for the author on Google and Facebook, I saw myself categorizing her in sexist ways. I wanted to call her out for her internalized sexism and for harming both men and women. Her other articles suggest that she’s in a sorority, that she watches The Bachelor, that if she were the First Lady, “she’d never wear dress pants like Hillary.” I began to think of her as “another dumb white sorority girl.”

I own this prejudice. I check myself. I recall an article I read that says something to the effect of: each of us interacts with oppression in the best way we can, given our training/skills/awareness. We’re all doing the best we can, and getting angry is not the productive reaction. It’s easy to get angry; what takes skill – what works – is being patient and working alongside people to forge new awarenesses and alliances. It’s instances like these that remind me: we are all works in progress.

“The Kitchen is the New Garage”

13 Apr

In my continued effort to move away from the advertisements, here’s a lovely article published on 4/11/11 on MSNBC: “Home Kitchens Heat Up as More Men Start Cooking.” According to the article, men spend thrice the amount of time in the kitchen today as they did 40 years ago, and are developing new interests in cooking. To meet men’s new cooking needs, some interesting new resources are popping up. The article features three:

  1. Food Republic‘s mission is to “[explore] the new culture of food through stories, interviews, global conversations, and experiences. This is the site for men who want to eat and drink well, and to live smart.” Its “philosophy” section claims: “men are underserved in today’s conversation about food,” “a good drink is as important as a great dinner,” and “entertaining will enrich your life.”
  2. Man Tested Recipes offers “grilling tips and recipes for all types of meaty, greasy goodness,” according to the article. Indeed, the site’s homepage is a smorgasbord of chili, ribs, chicken, pork, burgers, pastas, bacon, shrimp, tacos, and pancakes. Of the 61 “top tags” (categories/descriptors attached to recipes), 25 contain the word “easy” (e.g., “easy chicken recipe”), 4 contain the word “football,” and only 2 vegetables appear (corn and carrots). The word “family” appears once.
  3. Cook To Bang, new book and website, offers tips on cooking and seduction, linking the two in a symphony of misogyny. The author suggests, “Food and sex have been linked since the dawn of civilization,” and that all men should learn to cook, for three simple  reasons: “1. Cheaper than a restaurant. 2.They’re already in your home. 3. You’re dessert.” The site also contains ads for AshleyMadison.com and recipes such as “Garlic (My Balls) Bread”, “Ho’s May Blow-Tatoes”, “Lick My Zucchini Stick”, and “Reverse Cowgirl Eggs”.

The article goes on to make some pretty bold statements. Some of the gems include:

  • Food Republic offers “man-friendly topics such as how to cook a rib-eye steak or make a Rob Roy cocktail”
  • “Because if there’s anything every man is obsessed with, it’s gadgets”
  • “The kitchen is the new garage”
  • “Food Republic offers recipes that are fast and easy to execute, using seven ingredients and taking just 20 minutes — leaving plenty of time for cocktail-making”
  • Reasons for men’s increased interest in cooking include: “single guys needing to fend for themselves and, of course, their need to impress the ladies”

The article and all of the sites it promotes are bewildering in their ignorance. In so many ways, they shove men into the same boxes that we see over and over: men should be able to drink; men should be tech-savvy; men are simple-minded; men are obsessed with sex; men are the life of the party. These stereotypes hurt men by creating unrealistic expectations, both for themselves and for others. They deny of any man who does not live up to them his masculinity, thereby threatening his self-esteem and the respect of those around him. The man who cannot drink alcohol, is not interested in sex, is boring, or is emotion is demoted to the status of un-masculine (or, feminine).

What’s even more enraging about this article is that it plays at promoting social justice. According to the creator of Food Republic, “Traditional gender roles have been turned upside down, and now being a well-rounded man means knowing about food, too.” The article attempts to trick its readers into believing that it is good for men and women. Men – because it will get them laid. Women – because “Relationships are growing stronger as they cook alongside their mate.” Yet in reality the article is an attack on masculinity by defining it in the same way it has always been defined.

Sadly, in less than 36 hours, the article has already received 82 reTweets and 77 Facebook recommendations. Its popularity is a testament to its appeal – people want to believe that men are becoming more “feminine” and that the genders are become more “equal,” when in reality this is simply more of the same. I’m afraid that too many people reading this will not be shocked by the stereotyping it commits, especially since it’s coming from a reputable news source – MSNBC.

BRUTal

11 Apr

Many of the advertisements that I’ve featured on this blog are examples that have captured the attention and ire of the public, having appeared on various blogs, non-profit/advocacy organization websites, the Huffington Post, or other online sources. Today’s example arrived on my own stoop two days ago, along with the weekly Target, C-Town, and JCPenny ads, and various coupons. It is an advertisement-coupon combination from the cologne brand Brut, which is owned by Unilever.

Image: man with cucumber facial mask. Text: “Some men just need to be slapped.” Coupon: Save $1.00 on any Brut product.

My initial reaction: funny. This is funny. First off, they may be cucumbers, but they kind of look like pickles. Also, anyone who’s ever seen any of the other milion cucumber facial ads knows, the pickles are placed in ridiculous places – his cheeks, nose, forehead. Part of me also thought about the text as related to domestic violence and gender inequality; women suffer abuse and violence at significantly higher rates than men. In that sense, the ad and its message that men also may “need to be slapped” sometimes can be viewed as a poke at men, and a sort of leveling of the playing field. The audience for this ad is very clear: all around it are ads for women’s deodorant and cleaning materials, and the only breathing creatures featured in the pictures are White women and dogs, aside from our masked man.

After my initial chuckle, I saw the ad as falling into line with so many other examples I’ve brought to this blog, for it places men into a box. If the man “needs to be slapped,” it’s because he’s doing something wrong. But wrong by who’s standards? The implication of this ad is: men should not be interested in looking “pretty.” Also, they should be smart. With little more extrapolation, we see the classic gender roles ascribed to men: men should be strong, physical, and intelligent, not sensitive, emotional, and ignorant/dumb. Because it perpetuates these gender norms, the ad hurts men by spreading the aforementioned notions.

I repeat – the ad is funny! But without a conscious evaluation of its implication, the ad hurts women, too. If men are not supposed to wear cucumber facial masks, then by default (within the gender binary system), this is the domain of women. And yet to expect that all women should be concerned with their appearance is tremendously sexist. The ad hurts women because it indirectly forces these stereotypes on the reader, who will then either internalize or externalize the message and continue to spread it to his/her children, students, and peers. Is this ad sexist? Covertly, I say yes. It combines prejudices (the aforementioned attitudes) with institutional power – the power of capitalism. We don’t know if this ad was created by a man or a woman, but regardless it spreads a message of inequity and stereotypes that hurts both men and women.

I began this post with my initial reaction because I think it’s important to place this ad within the context of our daily lives. The ad is funny. It’s funny because it pokes fun at men, who hold institutional privilege and power in the world. It appears to “level the playing field” by giving women “the upper hand” in this very specific situation. And for that reason, very few people will speak out against this. In fact, I would bet that most men and women would defend the ad, claiming that the man does deserve to be slapped for his stupidity and sissiness. “Girls rule, boy drool,” as I heard daily in 1994. Yet beneath the shallow victory lies a much more sinister message: men and women are opposites and there are rules that they must follow. All others must be slapped.

Fighting and Flighting

5 Apr

During the doula training I mentioned a few posts ago, I was introduced to a concept that made scratch my head. The premise is that men and women respond to acute stress in different ways. My trainer explained that while the male response to acute stress is the famous “fight or flight” response, research has shown that women react in a different way: they “tend and befriend.”

[One of the first Google Images “Fight or Flight” search results]

“Fight or flight” was first coined by Walter Bradford Cannon in the second decade of the 1900s. This phenomenon has been studied many times over, in humans and animals. According to its theory (or at least Wikipedia’s version of it): “animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, priming the animal for fighting or fleeing.” The physiological fight or flight (F/F) response includes acceleration of heart and lung action, inhibition of stomach action, constriction of blood vessels, relaxation of bladder, inhibition of erection, dilation of pupils, tunnel vision, inhibition of salivation, etc. According to my trainer, these biological reactions prepared ancient man to fight the saber-toothed tiger or climb a tree for safety. She suggested that this model is outdated because it does not account for another reaction to stress that humans exhibit: social connections and bonding.

To explain this omission, she explained that  women, in contrast to men, naturally “tend and befriend” (T/B). This refers to protecting one’s offspring and seeking out social support for mutual defense. This theory came out of the research showing that when women are faced with stress, they release significantly higher levels of oxytocin – known by some as the “love hormone” – than men. Oxytocin is the same hormone that is released during sexual intercourse, birthing, and peer bonding. According to Linda Rolufs, MTF, oxytocin “has a calming effect and creates in [women], a strong desire to nurture, protect and build relationships. Then in response to the nurturing, protecting and relationship building more oxytocin is released and this brings on stronger feelings of calm and well being.” Thus, it is posited that the female physiological reaction to stress pushes them to seek survival through human contact and bonding, while the male physiological reaction prepares them toward survival through solo action.

Tend and befriend for stress relief

[One of the first Google Images “Tend and Befriend” search results]

This framing of differences makes me uncomfortable, although I’m not sure if what I’m feeling is anger because I think it’s false, or fear because it may be true. On one hand, this theory has far-reaching implications, the worst of which being that men are inherently aggressive and women are innately social creatures. We see this all over the place: boys commit physical aggression (e.g., fighting) while girls commit “relational” aggression (e.g., gossip). Yet I have a hard time swallowing this. Although the male and female physiologies are obviously different in many ways, do these differences extend to our programmed responses to stress?

Many would say that men’s aggression and women’s “tending” are socialized, gendered behaviors. Men are taught to be strong and aggressive, while women are taught to be emotional and social. “Tend and Befriend” discounts the socialization argument and dives straight for the pituitary: our reactions are determined by our genes, not our culture. While this explains women’s “social” habits, it also attempts to explain men’s high rates of violence, thus exonerating them of agency.

Is “Tend and Befriend” sexist? When pitted against “Fight or Flight” as an “either-or” situation, I think it has negative implications. It reinforces the idea that males are innately violent and that gregariousness is an inherently un-male (or feminine, in the gender binary system) quality. This hurts males by normalizing certain (violent) behaviors and pathologizing other (more social) ones. It also hurts women, by implying that they should be more pacific and connected to other women. Thus, those who do not fit these descriptions are “defying their nature” (a Google-able and bigoted phrase we often hear about gay people). Am I off here? Does this smell fishy to anyone else?

Real Boys Play with Trucks

4 Apr

Given this blog’s reliance on sexist marketing advertisements for kindling, I’m reluctant to post more ads. While these are clearly contemporary and powerful examples, I’m also interested in writing about current events, policies that reinforce male stereotypes, and anecdotal encounters. However, I saw these Toys “R” Us magazine advertisements during the holiday season and was recently able to find them online. They are simply too good to pass up. Below are two ads that appeared in Toys “R” Us’s ad flyer in December:

In these ads, the marketing executives make very clear their stance on race and gender roles. Three white boys and one boy of color are featured, surrounded by a cornucopia of trucks, cranes, tools, trains, airplanes, firemen, and technology. No girls. No remotely “feminine” colors or activities. Just white boys controlling things. Subjects controlling objects. The boy of color, instead of wielding a remote control, drill, or truck, is standing passively next to a three-tiered tower of presents, as if recipient of the charity.

When I saw this ad for the first time in December, it really scared me. Millions of parents out there will be receiving these ads in their mail and millions will view these sexist representations of boys and girls. And they will accept them without question, because they have been taught not to. Boys build things, women don’t. Boys are strong, women are weak. And millions will buy these products for their children and perpetuate gender norms and stereotypes that teach boys that if they aren’t strong, they aren’t real men, and that teach girls that if they like trucks, they are not feminine. It reminds me of the terrific piece from CrimethInc.

I’m not saying that no parent should ever buy his or her boy a truck, or that any girl should be given a doll. These toys can help children develop prosocial behavior habits and fine and gross motor skills, and they can promote positive parent-child relationships if playtime is regular. And yet – all toys can support these developments. One real issue is the dangers associated with playing with opposite-gendered toys (for lack of a better term). Boys who play with dolls and girls who want to play sports may become the targets of teasing or bullying, which can have severe negative impacts on children’s self-esteem and social development. This is the main reason many refuse to buy opposite-gendered toys for their children. And yet, what if every boy played with Barbies and wore dresses? Would teasing end? The answer, of course, is yes.

We must let children explore gender just like we let them explore their foods. If girls don’t like broccoli, we offer alternative vegetables. Why do we made them wear dresses or play “house” if they want to wear pants and wield tools?

“Would That Gross You Out?”

2 Apr

Not long ago I had the opportunity to take part in a four-day doula training. If you’ve never heard of a doula before, you’re not alone. Most people have never heard of one. It comes from the ancient Greek word for “woman who serves”, and nowadays refers to certified birthing assistants (although they do so much more). While hospital doulas assist the mother-to-be in the birthing process only, doulas can also be hired to support the mother prenatally, at the hospital, and during the postnatal period. This support includes prepping the mother for all aspects of this unique experience, supporting her and others emotionally and physically during the birthing process, and relevant follow-up.

I was the only male in the 16-person, 28-hour training. During the training I was floored by how much there is to know about the hospital (industrial) system, the physiology of pregnancy, birthing, the biochemistry of birth drugs (e.g., pitocin, epidurals, etc.), and how interventions can so effectively and naturally facilitate 8-hour births. I learned so much and am so grateful for the opportunity to participate in the training and learn from our incredible trainer. The training was very interactive, including role plays giving birth, supporting a birthing woman, and practicing pain reduction techniques. I wholeheartedly appreciate the dozens of mothers and families who captured their births on tape, in order that I might be able to see real images of the positions best for easing pain, and the magical process itself (similar pictures are posted after each paragraph, so you can get an idea of the content and frequency). What I did not enjoy, however, was the constant onslaught of attention paid to my maleness during those four days.

As a student of social work, I’m accustomed to being around women in my professional environments, and I’m very in touch with my maleness. When it gets pointed out at school, it’s normally to critically discuss male privilege in an academic or social justice context — its existence or my perpetration of it. Either way, I try to walk away from these discussions as a more aware and critical person. Almost never is it brought up to make a joke. This was the theme that dominates my memory of the training. At so many times during the training, comments were made about my maleness. Otherwise, I felt the stares of my peers, or, during partner role-plays or practices, the discomfort of my partner.

Examples of these comments came mostly from my peers:

  • “Would that gross you out?”, prior to watching a video of a woman giving birth.
  • “TCM, you may not be able to feel the difference,” regarding practicing a lunging position.
  • “Does this make you uncomfortable?”, during a discussion of orgasm during birth.
  • During a role play activity, my partner’s assumption that I would play the role of the doula, not the pregnant woman.
  • Laughter when I asked clarifying questions during the Birthing Physiology unit of the training.
  • Stares while I was paying close attention to the videos, or highly engaged in general.
  • “TCM, you would be great at working with the fathers.”
  • “It’s like catching a football, TCM,” said specifically to me, on delivering a baby.
  • Being ignored.

I haven’t felt this singled out like this, as a male, in a long time. The experience of being actively isolated from the activity and ridiculed for my participation and passion was discouraging. I felt like my input was not worth as much as the other participants’ — “He just doesn’t get it…and he never will.” Adding insult to injury was the fact that the training took place within an overtly feminist organization, where men are so rarely seen, and I’ve been so appreciated in the past. I identify strongly as a feminist, and prior to this training thought that my allyship was understood by those around me. Granted, I still have far to go in undoing my learned sexism. But I’m trying. During the training, I felt like my work and commitment were devalued. Sometimes I felt singled out. Other times, I felt invisible. More of the time, I felt like I didn’t belong in that room.

To commit an ism, one must have institutional power. Because I held more power and privilege than the women with me in the training, their behavior cannot be defined as sexism. It can, however, be categorized as perpetuating male stereotypes. Some of the stereotypes that I saw and felt were: men do not understand or want to be around vaginae (outside of sexual contexts); men cannot identify with women’s emotions; men do best working alongside men; men like sports. Taken a step further, some of these notions reflect homophobic ideas: any man who wants to be near vaginae outside a sexual encounter must not be attracted to them (i.e., be gay); men who empathize with women must not be “real” men (i.e., are gay). During my career as a social worker I’ve felt similar judgments, but never this strongly or in such a short time frame.

I do not plan on becoming a doula. The certification process is long and expensive, and I feel my talents will be better utilized elsewhere. The training definitely informed my practice and understanding of pregnancy and childbirth, and I’m grateful for it. I hope that I can incorporate some kind of supportive services for pregnant and birthing mothers into my future programming and grant writing projects wherever I end up working, because the training opened my eyes to the importance of what doulas do to empower women during such an important time in their lives. My experience during the training also taught me about privilege. The words that I used to describe my own feelings around my experience read like echos of what I’ve heard and read from women, people of color, and LGBT folk about their everyday experiences. Making this connection – while acknowledging that my experiences are not equal to the oppression experienced by people with non-dominant identities – taught me personally about the harm caused by microaggressions and silence.

Gender Matters

29 Mar

My second cousin is pregnant and recently learned the gender birth of her unborn second child. Here’s what she posted on Facebook:

OK for those of you that have not yet figured out what my changed profile pic means… It is a PINK square!! Think Pink and most of you should be able to figure it out now LOL.

My issue with this perpetuation of the gender binary system is not the act itself. Of course the gender binary system is inherently flawed, because it presumes and reinforces the lie that gender is a “this or that” construct, rather than a fluid, socially constructed category that contains “this,” “that,” and everything in between. And yet I cannot blame her, nor should I. We’re all socialized under the same system, and the invisibility of the transgender community is omnipresent. We’re taught since birth that we are either boys or girls, not both nor neither. Indeed, many children (like my cousin’s unborn child) are genderized even before birth, as mothers and fathers pick names, design rooms, buy clothing, and tout Facebook statuses asking friends to “Think PINK.” One would be hard-pressed to find a “Congratulations” card at Duane Reade saying, “Congratulations on your new gender-queer child!”

All that said, while my cousin’s enthusiasm and poor grammar may be notable, her attitude is not. She is excited, proud, and – based on the score of comments on her post – completely average in her thinking. Many of the comments correctly “figured out” that her child will be a girl. These attitudes are also not surprising. What was shocking, however, were two other comments to her post: “It’s a girl!! Or a gay boy!!” and “wow. coming out on facebook. I guess that’s normal nowadays…”.

These displays of homophobia bewildered and saddened me. The first comment (#9 of 23) sticks out as mirroring much of what we’ve seen on this site: the subordination of gay men as being the opposite of “real men” in their presumed femininity. Not only does this assume a monolithic gay culture (feminine, flamboyant, “flaming”), but it covertly reinforces our expectations for non-gay men to conform to society’s masculinity protocol. The fact that the commenter is a man (I assume, based on his classic Judeo-Christian name) is also saddening. It’s this type of internalized gender roles and homophobia coming from men that is most damaging to masculinity.

The second comment (#16 of 23) actually confused me more than it saddened me. In her comment (again, I assume gender, based on the commenter’s classic British name), the commenter suggests that my cousin is disclosing her homosexuality by changing her profile picture to a solid pink square. For the life of me, I have absolutely no idea how these two are connected. This is the source of my confusion. The source of my sadness is that sexual orientation was mentioned as a joke, and that my cousin replied, “lol” – laugh out loud. Neither am I sure what she’s laughing at, but what seems apparent is that somehow in this fallacious equation, homosexually ends up being the butt of the joke.

Yet despite the 14 comments that came after #9, nobody called out the commenter for his homophobic comment. Neither did anyone comment on #16’s ambiguous reference to sexual orientation. As we see again and again, silence dominated this conversation. I include my own silence in this condemnation. Silence has the same effect as agreeing, because it allows the perpetuation of prejudice to continue.

And yet, I wonder: how might one effectively and sensitively “call out” this kind of behavior when the context is something so joyous – the pending birth of a new human being? To complicate matters more, how do you address it when your relationship to the person is blood? What must be taken into account when the medium is Facebook? And, to play devil’s advocate against my own doubts, does any of this actually matter? Is it me that’s the problem in this? – my own unwillingness to risk stressing my relationship with my cousin by ruining her happiness, staining my “polite, good boy” image by raising a brouhaha in this context, and causing myself undue stress by waging an online war of morality (which, in my experience, end up simply polarizing both parties)?