Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Masculine Mystique?

Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was about "the problem that had no name." This problem turned out to be a society in the 1950s and early 60s that told women they should only find fulfillment from being a wife and mother.

History and Family Studies Professor Stephanie Coontz writes:

“The feminine mystique” of the 1950s and 1960s did not just tell women to become “happy homemakers.” It also laid out a laundry list of things that a woman was not supposed to do or feel. Women were told that it was “abnormal” to want to excel, either athletically or academically. A “normal” woman, according to the mystique, found emotional and sexual fulfillment in dependence and passivity.

Society today, Stephanie notes, is quite different. Girls now do many things and act in ways that used to be considered masculine without anyone batting an eye. However, boys seem to have a very rigid definition of masculinity and often berate each other (and get berated by adults) for participating in behavior deemed to feminine.

I saw this growing up and still see it around me as an adult. Anything from dressing nice, to crying, to sharing one's feelings, to having an Asia poster in your house apparently makes you gay and not masculine.

We now live in a society where it is ok for girls to like "boy things" (yay!) but still not ok for boys to like "girl things" (hmm...)

This is not just about trucks and dolls or sports and...dolls? (I don't really what little girls who didn't play sports did for fun. I always played sports. Go figure) But actually it leads into a more important topic of work life balance and parenting. Work life balance is still seen by the majority of people as a women's issue.

As long as these debates focus on what mothers choose to do, and ignore the choices that fathers could make, we won’t take the next step needed for gender equity—the fight to make parental leave and reduced work hours available for both mothers and fathers, and to convince men as well as women to take full advantage of work-family policies.

Today’s problem with no name is how to maximize women’s choices in work and family life without letting those choices bolster men’s primary position in the labor force and reinforce their secondary position in the family.

I actually think the "masculine mystique" is (sadly) alive and well. I kinda feel bad for men in this regard (OMG, are feminists allowed to do that?!). The definition of feminine and what it means to be a woman has changed so much over the last 50 years (at least in mainstream society). And I'm not just talking about stupid "You can be tough AND sexy" ads geared towards women, but women have real choices that just weren't there before the 1960s. Many of these choices involve acting in ways that were for a long time considered masculine. But even today, if we see a man staying home to take care of the kids, he's still referred to as a "Mr. Mom." Really? Why can't he just be "Dad?" Granted, this situation is becoming increasingly more common.

But in order for it to succeed, work-life balance does need to become an issue for both men and women instead of just women. And really, back to the larger issue of the "masculine mystique" men should be able to embrace their "feminine" side without being ridiculed. Seriously, what's the worst possible insult men dish out to each other? Usually it's something along the lines of "don't be such a girl." And usually it's more crude than that, but you can use your imagination. Bottom line, we should make our definition of masculinity as broad (no pun intended) as our definition of femininity, and that will benefit both genders.

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