Bushmaster and the Cult of Masculinity
A few people have asked me whether I, as a dad of a seven-year old, was going to write anything about the tragedy in Connecticut. I replied that I had no expertise or anything unique or helpful to say- I’m just as pissed and sad as everyone else, and who wants to read a story about how I embarrassed Nick by hugging him for too long as he got off the school bus.
So, I’m not writing about Newtown. But I did come across this advertisement for the gun used in the mass murder, and it got me thinking about the signals our society still gives men about who they are expected to be.
What do messages like this demonstrate about how we view “men” in our society?
Over the past generation or so, we’ve seen a huge shift in expectations and opportunities for women. While they still face stereotypes and discrimination, for the large part women have been freed from the shackles of having to conform to traditional role expectations. The majority of women work outside the home and many are now in positions of leadership, and women represent the majority (55% last I checked) of incoming college students, medical students and law students (see here). Women don’t need to be trapped as caretakers and housewives dependent on their husbands for income. Girls who play sports, are good at math, and are “tomboys” are now lauded for these achievements. These are most welcome developments, and we are all better off for it.
Progress for men has not come as quickly. Men who do not conform to traditional masculine roles still face stigma and invisible barriers. Men are still far more likely to choose careers that require long hours, intense stress, dangerous work, frequent travel, and long commutes in return for being a better provider- no matter that these jobs take a physical and psychic toll, are less satisfying, and crowd out time for prioritizing family (see here and here). Men who don’t earn a good living or work in “women’s professions” have a harder time attracting female attention, getting married or staying married (to say nothing about men who are short, weak or overweight). Divorce often comes on the heels of a man’s unemployment (see here for the 2012 work-family research study of the year that found that while social pressure discouraging women from working outside the home has weakened, pressure on husbands to be breadwinners largely remains).
“Real men” don’t need work-life balance, or so they say. Men fear huge career consequences for even broaching the subject of flexible work or work-family balance, so they need to be strategic about negotiating for it (see here), and will often only avail themselves of informal or hidden ways to address family concerns (see here). To put one’s family on par with one’s career is somehow still too progressive for many organizations and for society as a whole. Often, media portrayal of men could not be more patronizing or relentless in showing men as crude, thoughtless and tough (see here).
Men who take on parenting and household responsibilities also face subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle) discrimination. See this excellent blog post from a friend of mine who recently transitioned from a corporate career to being a stay at home dad.
Unlike girls who are now encouraged and rewarded by society for athletic achievement, taking on leadership and progressing towards “men’s” professions in the STEM fields, boys who show an interest in girls toys, activities or “women’s careers” are generally not accepted, and the reaction they get from peers and adults can be cruel and harsh. As a result, many boys learn to repress or discard parts of their personality, and choose paths that lead to less satisfying lives.
I’m not sure any of this has anything to do with Newtown, but it is a big problem.
Luckily, the past decade has seen some progress in this area. Many workplaces are far more open to informal, part-time telecommuting. Stay-at-home dads are mobilizing as a group to provide help and social support. As more men demand to take a more equal rile in the home, workplaces and society will slowly shift. There is now media outcry when men are portrayed as unable or unwilling to take care of their own kids. Part of why I write this blog is to help dads struggling with work and family to share ideas, advice and support. And, boy, am I not alone in blogging about fatherhood.
… And, maybe, we as a society are slowly realizing real men don’t need to be tough, violent, or own semi-automatic rifles to get their “man cards”.
What do you think? Let’s discuss in the comments section.