Do Men Need “An Idiot’s Guide to Gender Roles”?

While flipping (electronically) through the Huffington Post, I came across an article titled “Men in the Post-Women’s Lib World: Should We Give Them a How-To Guide?” by Janet Carlson.  At least half of this article’s appeal (to me, anyway) derives from the fact that it’s piggy-backing off the plethora of “What about the men?”-type articles in the news recently. As with all pop-psychology phenomena, there is usually a breaking point in the popularity of a subject, after which a tidal wave of criticism hits and the topic goes down like Atlantis, never to be heard from again.

Thinking articles lamenting the downfall of traditional manhood had run their course, I assumed this piece would be a rebuttal. How wrong I was. Certainly, it’s less mystifying than Hanna Rosin’s “End of Men” screed in the Atlantic, which mournfully details how women are pulling ahead in education and certain job fields (mostly “womanly” spheres like nursing, child care and food prep, which, unlike speculative banking, never seem to go out of style). And it’s not nearly as egregious as Ben Shapiro’s opus, “America Loves Manly Men Not Metrosexual Emos” (that’s really it, content-wise), in Big Hollywood. But Carlson’s article still took me aback, because it’s a mish-mash of some of the weakest excuses for male misbehavior I’ve ever read.

Carlson’s article starts out by acknowledging the burn-out that women who “have it all” often feel:

“I grew up in the time of women’s liberation, just after the early feminists had cleared the way for me to assume I’d enjoy equal opportunities and respect, have a career and, if I felt like it, a marriage and children, too — and financial independence. So I did all that, and somewhere along the way, I got to feeling exhausted, and chronically pissed off at my then-husband for not doing more, managing more, caring more, remembering more.”

This excerpt rings true for me, because I got married a year ago and have had to cope with a metric ton of added responsibilities, feeling like as soon as I accomplish one thing, someone else is clamoring for me to move on to the next. On one side I have family members who expect me to fill the traditional domestic role of decorating, cooking, cleaning, et. al, and on the other I have my own ambitions and my peers’ expectations for me to begin a career and find some measurable (in tax dollars, I assume) way of contributing to society. I don’t think many men feel this same tug-and-pull.

Had Carlson continued to write about how partners can achieve better balance, or how to accept that, as a woman, you will likely never reach a point where society stops making demands, I would have applauded. However, she goes on to state:

“Fast forward to a few years ago, when I finally figured out it might be good to quit complaining and ponder instead what might have led our society, many of us, into this untenable situation”¦”

So she begins by assigning blame to herself–she, and by extension all whiney women everywhere, needs to figure out how to put things right. Carlson then goes on to give a Brief History of How Women’s Lib Changed Everything, outlining the upheavals at home and in the workplace, and concluding that men simply haven’t ever been able to fully adjust–not even 40 years later:

“[N]obody rewrote the user’s manual for men”¦ So how were men to know how to behave vis-à-vis women in the new order? They were working from a gender-based handicapped position to begin with, what with their being memory-challenged about things like anniversaries and the milk, and clueless about peripheral events because they are hunters (eyes fixed on distant prey), not multitaskers as women, with their pinball brains, are said to be.”

First of all, “pinball” as a descriptor for a woman’s brain is a wee bit close to “pinhead” for my comfort.

Second, I wish the mass media would call a moratorium on using evolutionary psychology to justify anything, ever, because it holds such little scientific water. How can you type “eyes fixed on distant prey” and not feel like a parody of a writer? Fact: Paul M. Burgess, an English neuroscientist, says his studies have found men and women possess equal amounts of multi-tasking ability (though both men and women think that women are better multi-taskers). Fact: “Women have the upper hand in storing and recalling verbal episodic memories, whereas men have the upper hand in storing and recalling visuospatial episodic memories.” ““ Encyclopedia Britannica blog. Let’s call that one even.

Third: men born before the 80s have had more than long enough to figure out how to live in a world full of achieving women. Men born in the 80s and beyond grew up in a more equalized society, and should be able to deal with having a partner who works.

I thought all the ev0.-psych. justifications might be satire, but then Carlson ended with this:

“I’m not sure what the answer is for our out-of-joint work/family lives, but I believe it lies in the  territory of forgiveness. Instead of criticizing men for behaving badly or not evolving in the “˜right’ ways, I think now’s the time to rewrite the manual.”

I will not dispute that forgiveness is a virtue and every relationship needs a heaping dose of it to survive. However, instead of citing evolution as the source of men “behaving badly,” we need to address why and how society trains girls to be pliant and kind and thoughtful, yet evidently fails to instill those traits in many boys. Ignoring the source of the problem in favor of pious forgiveness isn’t going to radically change the way men approach dual roles.

Finally, this article sparked me to ask: where is the user’s manual for how to be a woman in the 21st-century? We can commiserate with Gloria Steinem’s unhappy classmates in The Feminine Mystique. We can read women-centric blogs like this one or Feministing; we can join communities that cater to women’s needs; we can engage in self-reflection and try to elucidate the line between ourselves as humans and ourselves as specifically female. But ultimately, nobody tells us how to do that but ourselves. Despite the challenges, I suspect this is a far more rewarding way to establish identity than having it handed to us in an open book.

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