I might get a lot of shit for this, but as a girl, I haven’t really faced all that much that’s made me feel the need to rally through the streets as a die-hard feminist. Let me get one thing straight before you all come after me with pitchforks – yes, I believe adamantly in gender equality. Yes, I’m concerned by the ramifications of gender inequality. Yes, I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum, from utmost respect to feeling absolutely inhuman. But no, I do not think that women are the only victims of gender equality issues. There’s a whole population of people out there who I consider to be heavily under-protected. Men, I’m looking at you.
I don’t really view having two X chromosomes as something that I can point to as a definitive reason for any opposition I’ve experienced in my life. I’ve earned positions that I’ve wanted the shit out of; my gender doesn’t seem to have affected my ability to do so. To my knowledge, I’ve been paid the same as my male counterparts. I’ve been respected for my work by both men and women alike. Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones, but I have a hard time believing that that’s all I can chalk my experience up to: “luck.” It seems like an awfully ungrateful approach, considering just how much has been truly wonderful about my life.
All of this is not to deny the flip side though: I’ve been hit on in some of the most degrading ways possible in bartending and waitressing jobs; I knew this in how guys would call me over, what they would say they wanted to do to me, how they would grab me. I’ve had it suggested by a boss minutes after quitting a job in film that we should get drunk sometime and “if our clothes happen to fall off, whoops.” Last Christmas, my dentist made a joke that he wouldn’t be doing any holiday shopping really, that his wife had it covered – “because you women really do the shopping, right?”
And this stuff frustrates me. But personally, my biggest concern isn’t with the way women specifically are treated in our society. I think that people are degraded all the time. That very much includes men. And yet we’re often quick to brush over the possibly even more pervasive problem of how we simply don’t acknowledge the ways that men are degraded.
Here’s what I’m more worried about than the unwarranted cat-calls whistled my way as I’ve walked down a street alone at night with my arms folded tight across my chest: how men in our society don’t feel like they can show emotions. Hell, how men in our society don’t feel like they can HAVE emotions. We all degrade men when we do anything at all that encourages them to further feel like they can’t be sensitive and gentle and earnest.
When we buy into the philosophy that girls should play with dolls and boys should play with trucks. When we market a product tailored to men with aggression and dominance and a product tailored to women with sweetness and nurturing. When a girl who plays football better than her male counterparts makes national headlines; when a boy who wants to take ballet classes is mocked for it or shown even the smallest hint of skepticism. When the male characters in a movie have to be the brave, unfaltering heroes while the female characters are allowed to be expressive and feeling.
I get that there is a part of our brains that’s wired for differences across gender. I won’t deny that studies have shown a correlation between higher levels of testosterone and increased aggression. But if you look at gender from a psychological standpoint – if you compare our brains side by side – there are more similarities than differences between guys and girls. And yet in many ways we deny that.
I think that masculinity might be one of the most fragile constructs out there. No matter what men do, they’re likely to be judged. Work hard to be more “masculine” and you’ll be considered a “tool,” a “meathead.” Work hard to be honest and kind and you’ll be considered a “pussy,” “gay.” There is no middle ground. There is no refuge when you’re a guy. There is no space that is safe. And I think that what happens as a result of this is that men come to harbor a secret need, hiding behind a false front of strength and assertiveness and generally not giving a fuck. I think that possibly even more so than stereotypically emotional women, men need and crave love and acceptance and validation, and yet they aren’t made to feel able to ask for that.
Especially in our society today, where we’ve learned to use apathy and irony and sarcasm as our primary modes of moving through life, it feels rare to get the kind of sincerity from men that I feel both men and women want. I want more of the times where I’ve platonically laid in bed with a friend, curled up around each other and talking about the darkest things we’ve ever known. I want more of the times where a friend has felt like he could call me late at night, crying about a girl he really cared about, who he hurt and wanted to fix things with, me on the phone until he fell asleep. I want more of the times where a friend has felt like he could share his writing with me without having to make a self-protective joke about it actually being something sincere. I want something real, something shared. Am I the only one who wants this? Am I the only one who feels this might liberate us?
Here’s the scariest part about all of this to me: when basic human emotions are treated as “weak,” we deny every guy out there the most simple, most important truth in the world – the ability to be human. Doesn’t that scare you too? The men in our world are the people who we are going to work alongside, live alongside, support and be supported by. The men in our world are the people who are going to help us raise our kids – who are going to be there alongside us, teaching our kids how to treat people, teaching them whether they can be sensitive and compassionate and loving themselves.
To me, the fact that we degrade men on a daily basis is representative of a larger societal issue. Are men becoming less and less able to connect on a meaningful, vulnerable level? Has fear of polarizing and painful judgment – of going outside the norm of what’s considered acceptable, of being anything other than a “man” – outweighed the so basic desire to be human and fully alive?
I don’t think that most of us even realize what we put men through and ask of them every day, because we often do it subconsciously and in the smallest of ways. What might happen if we started to take on a more empathetic approach to the gender issues that men face from moment to moment, if we made ourselves more aware? What if we started to consider that something happened to these guys at some point that taught them to do and speak and act – to treat women, to treat other men – without love or compassion or sincerity, that to ever write someone off as a “douchebag” only contributes further to the alienation of men? What if we started to consider that change starts with us, with how we treat men and thereby teach others how to treat men? How much happier, how much more honest – how much more genuinely and authentically connected – might we all be? I hate that I’ve been honked at while walking home; I hate that I once received a $100 tip on a single drink. But until men feel like they can drop the act and express the tiniest bit of vulnerability, the tiniest bit of humanity – this is what I’ll be most worried about.