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Archive for the ‘gender roles’ Category

To anyone who tries to observe accurately, men are clearly the privileged gender. However, this observation is likely to generate a hostile response from certain types of men, because they do not feel privileged. They have heard their right to privilege questioned, and seen their privilege somewhat diminished in the last few decades. The diminishment does not go nearly as far as it should, so far as I am concerned, but, because their privilege forms a major part of their identity, the change is resented out of all proportion to its effect. To far too many men, being male is a major part of their identity, which is particularly difficult because the traditional roles no longer work.

In the last century, traditional masculinity took two blows it has never recovered from. First, in North America and Europe, two generations were decimated several times over and warped by the loss of millions of men in the two World Wars. Some of the survivors returned home handicapped or suffering trauma, others eager to put their experiences behind them and become an economic success.

Neither of these attitudes made many of the survivors ideal role models for their children. As a result, several generations of men had to re-invent masculinity for themselves.

Lacking examples, many stalled in adolescence, which is often a time of exaggerated and over-simplified gender roles. Instead of learning responsibility for their dependents, the use of their physical strength for others, or any of the other expectations that could sometimes make the traditional masculine roles acceptable, they focused on the superficial – swearing, drinking, watching sports, and domination without responsibility.

In particular, as adolescents often do, they developed a negative identity, defining themselves primarily as not being women. A negative identity is always a shaky basis for anyone’s sense of self, but what made this identity particularly unstable was that the necessities of war time had also caused women’s roles to change as they actively helped the war efforts. The result was that the basis for many men’s identities shifted. Add the reduction of domestic work due to automation, and the liberalization of many laws, and by the 1960s, many women realized they no longer needed to depend on men.

Since male identity depended on a disappearing view of women, the change in the female gender role suddenly left many men with no sense of who they were – a problem that many men still struggle with today. Rather than adjusting to the changes, they prefer to lament them, evoking a view of traditional masculine roles that the men of the past would probably openly despise. Rather than learning from the example of feminists and starting to examine their own roles, they obsessively blamed women for destroying their sense of identity.

Those men who escaped these dead ends have done so mainly by building identities that are not based on their gender. Their senses of themselves are based on their accomplishments or sense of ethics. Rather than viewing themselves primarily as men, like feminists before them, such men have struggled to identify themselves as humans first, and to consider their biological sex as a detail only relevant in one part of their lives. Unlike the Men’s Rights Activists, they have tried to develop an adult sense of themselves, one that is self-contained and not dependent on women’s roles.

There are many advantages to this new definition of masculinity, not least of which is the possibility of actual friendships with women. However, to men who invested so much in a distortion of the past and in not being women, this new definition is unacceptable. They call men who adopt it effeminate, as though the old insult has any power over those whose identity is self-contained. The truth is, they have too much invested in their confusion and resentment to move beyond it into anything healthier.

They would rather condemn or attack, and assert their own psychosis than consider any other alternative – and, unfortunately, there is no easy way to make them re-evaluate themselves. A few learn flexibility as they realize that their wives and daughters benefit from feminism, but for the most part, they continue the confusion and the hurt by passing their perceptions on to other generations, condemning their own sons to a distorted and corrupt perception of themselves, ensuring that their self-inflicted misery will continue.

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When I was researching my master’s thesis, I became a Jungian. I didn’t plan to. But my subject was influenced by Jung, so I eventually read the complete works of Carl Jung. Often, I wondered if reading Jung in translation was any easier than reading him in German would be, but the experience left a major mark upon my thinking, especially about gender roles.

I must say that, as a person with artistic aspirations, I found Jung more sympathetic that I ever did Freud. Freud and his disciples usually make very clear that they are the experts, and that they know more about your unconscious than you do. By contrast, Jung considered artists as experts in symbolism, sometimes even as people he could learn from, and his respect made me more inclined to consider his perspectives.

Before long, the idea that people think and act largely in terms of symbols began to make sense to me. I questioned if all the archetypes were universal – although some, like the Mother and the Father probably were, but modern, often feminist, schools of Jungian thought included the possibility that some might be cultural, which made sense to me.

Either way, Jungian thought seemed to do more to map the unconscious than psychoanalysis ever did. The idea that symbols were how the unconscious expressed itself explains why rational argument so rarely changes anybody’s mind – there’s a basic translation problem between the conscious mind’s use of language, and the unconscious mind’s use of symbolism. Moreover, the idea that people project their unconscious symbols on to those around them helps to explain why misunderstanding is so commonplace – much of the time, people are reading from different scripts.

This model has been especially useful for me in understanding gender relations. For example, Jung suggested that one of the most influential archetypes for a man is the Anima, or the female version of himself. As much for symmetry as any other reason, he suggested that a woman is motivated by a similar archetype called the Animus, which is the male version of herself.

The Animus seems so much an after-thought in Jung’s writing that a widespread debate, especially among female Jungians, is whether the archetype exists. Realizing that men tend to define themselves in terms of not being a woman – in fact, to treat women as the archetype of the Shadow – I had no trouble in concluding that the Anima exists.

But the Animus? The evidence for that archetype seems much weaker. Some women go into mental contortions, even enduring abuse, to make themselves over in the image that men want, but – to many men’s intense dislike – women as a whole do not seem to define themselves as being the opposite of men. Men need women to tell them who they are, but women do not seem to need men to the same degree or in the same way.

For me, this difference explains the difficulty that many men have in accepting feminism. Because their identify depends on women’s roles, any change in women’s roles means that men’s own identity is under-mined. Already inclined to see women’s roles as mysterious and even sinister, they move easily to seeing any change as a threat – something that the Shadow is never far from being at the best of time.

To avoid this reaction, a man needs to reject the Anima and Shadow as an influence on his thinking. But the two archetypes are such a fundamental part of male thinking that rejection is difficult, and often impossible.

This reaction is one that most feminist theory seems to have largely overlooked. What Jungian theory suggests to me is that male hostility to feminism is generally not about the threat of a loss of privilege or power. Rather, it is about a loss of identity, about no longer having models to tell men who they are (or, to be more accurate, who they are not).

By contrast, women may not approach changes in gender roles easily. If nothing else, habit remains a strong motivation. But traditional gender roles have less to offer modern women than they do men, because less of their identity is based on not being men. Women may feel unsettled when they try to move beyond tradition, but the average woman is far less likely than men to feel that their entire sense of identity is being destroyed in the process.

What makes the situation all the harder is that, because the problems are played out symbolically, men are frequently unable to express what has happened. They may become angry, depressed, or abusive, but these reactions in themselves only indicate that something is wrong – and not what the exact problem is. At best, the number of men – or women – who understand their symbolic life is always going to be very few.

Jung is not the only way to this perception. In Stiffed!, Susan Faludi comes to a similar analysis simply by hearing the same problems over and over from the men she interviews. But my guide was Jung, and he remains – mistakes and all – one of the foundations of my thinking.

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The idea that I could outgrow a book surprises me. My tastes are liberal, encompassing everything from nineteenth century classics to the latest graphic novel, and I can largely separate personal taste from artistic sensibility. Yet, sadly, that is what has happened with Nevil Shute’s On the Beach.

I first read On the Beach as a young teenager. Its years as a bestseller were about a decade in the past, but it seemed to me a bridge between mainstream and science fiction – something I was making a conscious effort to find, since examples were few in number. I read it two or three times, finding myself haunted by its depiction of the last humans waiting their unavoidable death from radiation poisoning after a nuclear war.

The book survived all my moves, yet somehow in the intervening decades, I never took it off the shelf to read again until yesterday. Something of the effectiveness of the setting remained, but I found it a clumsy, almost unreadable book. Part of what bothered me was Shute’s fondness for telling rather than showing, and his painfully obvious red herrings, but what bothered me most was the shallow characterization of the two main female characters.

Not, you understand, that Shute depicted his male characters with any skill. The first is Dwight Towers, the captain of the last American submarine. He is dull as most characters defined by their dedication to duty are. He might generate a little pathos in his continued devotion to his deceased family, but since that devotion makes him reject any but the most Platonic relationship with the Australian woman he loves – despite their impending fate – he comes across as a cad instead. Still, he comes off better than Peter Holmes, the Australian liaison officer with the submarine, who has no observable personality beyond being a newly married man with a young baby.

The men, however, are masterpieces of Shakespearean subtlety compared to the women in their lives. Moira Davidson, the woman Towers spends time with when he is off duty, is a hard-drinking party-goer in her mid-twenties, with a reputation – apparently undeserved – for being a loose woman that is based mostly on her risque talk. Influenced by Towers, she responds to his nobility by discovering her own.

In ordinary circumstances, she confides to the other woman, she would do all she could to seduce him away from his wife. “’It’d be worth doing her dirt if it meant having Dwight for good, and children, and a home, and full life,’” Davidson says. “’But to do her dirt just for three month’s pleasure and nothing at the end of it – that’s another thing.’” I may be a loose woman, but I don’t know that I’m all that loose.’” Instead, she supports his doublethink about his family still being alive, and follows his suggestion that she take secretarial classes to give purpose to her life in the brief time that remains.

As for Mary Holmes, an examination of her mental competence would have no sure outcome. Her only interest is her new baby and her home, and, while some allowance must be made for denial she makes no effort to understand what is happening. Her stupidity gives her husband Peter an excuse to lecture the readers through her, but she is genuinely surprised when the radiation arrives, and wonders if cough drops would protect her from it. “’I’m glad we haven’t got newspapers now,’” she says shortly before they die. “’It’s been much nicer without them.’” She is humored by her husband, and, needless to say, no help at all when the family commits suicide to avoid suffering the lingering death through radiation. Instead, she follows her husband’s lead, and only in her last moments shows any understanding of what is happening.

These female characters are despicable in themselves. But what is worse is that, despite their very different attitudes, they have no trouble confiding in each other for no better reason than the fact that their men are at sea. In reality, two such women would despise each other. Yet Shute assumes that because they are women, they want the same thing, which allows them to become confidants.

Even worse, Shute seems to consider Mary Holmes an example for Davidson. Despite Davidson’s greater intelligence, she ends up much the same, following her man into death without a thought of her own.

Naturally, it would be wrong to blame Shute for setting On the Beach in a time when gender roles – especially for women – were so limited. But I do blame him, very much, for accepting those roles without any question, and being unable to see past them and depict the women in his novel as individuals. A more talented writer would have had Davidson resisting the transformation into a good woman, perhaps even tempting Dwight unsuccessfully and uncertain whether to be angry at him.

Similarly, Mary would be more human if she showed more awareness, and a scene or two revealed that she was playing the role she thought necessary for her husband’s well-being, or wished she had more time for herself. The gender atmosphere of the novel might still have been uncomfortable for a reader today, but at least it wouldn’t have seemed so much the result of an impoverished imagination.

I dislike discarding a book; it always feels close to censorship. But I found On the Beach so distasteful that I know that I’ve read it for the last time.

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Gender issues don’t play well in comics. The most notorious example is Dave Sims’ Cerebus series, which, as soon the topic was raised, degenerated from a hilarious and inventive series into self-indulgent, misogynistic rants that quickly became unreadable. By contrast, though, Garth Ennis has not only been discussing gender issues repeatedly in his series, but doing so in with an artistry that makes what he has to say intelligent even if – as I do – you have reservations about his opinions.

This suggestion, I realize, requires some defense. Garth Ennis? The hard-swearing, raunchy, ultra-violent, hilarious Garth Ennis, who had to start his own publishing company to write the sort of things he wanted? And there is no denying that Ennis is fascinated by machismo and war, so much so that his treatment of super heroes almost always involves men trained in violence overcoming those with super powers.

Remember, though, that this is the same writer whose best-known work, Preacher, ends with the hero literally riding into the sunset with the love of his life – the same writer who gave loner John Constantine a major love interest in Kit Ryan, a tough, cynical woman from Belfast, and even managed to make their breakup poetic and sentimental.

If you focus on the scripts and ignore the often gratuitously sexist artwork, he is also the writer who manages believable portraits of strong women like Deborah Tiegel and Bloody Mary. Yes, there is a large degree of male wish-fulfillment in female characters like Tulip O’Hare or Annie January, but there is also an effort to give them their own inner lives and concerns in a way that few male writers of graphic novels have even attempted.

I have read much of Ennis’ work, but far from all of it. To say the least, he is prolific, and some of his work, such as his war stories, would only interest me because they were done by him. However, three of works stand out as places where gender roles play a major role.

Pride and Joy

The first is Pride and Joy, a relatively little-known series that fits into a single trade paperback. Pride and Joy tells the story of Jimmy Kavanagh, a petty criminal who goes straight because of his love for his wife. His wife dies, to Kavanagh’s frustration as much as his despair – cancer being something he cannot fight – leaving him to raise their daughter and son on stories of his own father’s exploits as a tailgunner in World War Two. These stories cause endless conflicts with his son, a quiet, more intellectual type than Kavanagh.

One of the most interesting scenes in the series shows him with his wife in the hospital. She asks if he remembers her reply when he assumed that he would be making the decisions in the marriage. With a wistful grin, he quotes from memory, “Like hell.” She replies:

That amazed look on your face . . . It was priceless. You were such a little boy. I gave you such a hard time about that stuff, that Being a man thing. I used to really hate it. My Mom and her Mom, they both lost their men to wars. Men off being men, chasing some ideal they’re meant to live up to. My Mom used to say, ‘All men can do is die and leave the women and children to suffer.’

Now, she is doing the same to him. Yet even in the stress of the moment, Kavanagh needs her reassurance that this is a case where he can cry.

Another key scene is his discussion with his son. While his son asserts that “we’ve got nothing in common,” Kavanagh expresses concern that his son needs to toughen up in order to survive. He remembers his father’s war stories, which Kavanagh’s wife condemned as “macho bullshit,” and for a moment father and son bond. “I guess that’s why she made sure you . . . . You saw a different side to things, maybe. But I still think your Grandad had a point.”

However, as they flee a killer from Kavanagh’s past, any fragile understanding is broken by Kavanagh’s admission that his accidental killing of a child has poisoned his life. His son considers the admission proof of the underlying hypocrisy of Kavanagh’s machismo.

The story ends with the issues unresolved. The son stands up to the killer long enough for Kavanagh to kill him, but as Kavanagh lies dying, it is him, not the son, who cries. As the authorities close in and ask whom he is kneeling over, his son fights to keep from crying – apparently remembering his father’s advice about how not to cry — and replies simply, “He’s my Dad.” Belatedly, the son has found some truth in his father’s philosophy, although there is no reason to believe he accepts it whole-heartedly.

The Boys

The Boys is a twelve volume series about an off-the-books CIA team whose job is to keep super heroes in line. The series cynically assumes that super powers lead to corruption, and is full of thinly-veiled parodies of mainstream comics – for instance, the creator of the G-Men, and most of his original team, turn out to be child molesters. However, beyond the obvious critique of the traditional morality of comics, in many ways the story centers on Billy Butcher, the leader of The Boys, and Hugh “Wee Hughie” Campbell, the newest recruit.

Butcher and Wee Hughie each see the woman they love murdered by self-indulgent super heroes. However, as the son of an abusive father and as an ex-Marine who saw action in the Falklands War, Butcher’s response is to launch a decades-long campaign for revenge that ultimately leads to the attempted genocide of everyone with super powers in the world.

By contrast, Wee Hughie is “an ordinary bloke.” In that respect, he resembles Butcher’s deceased young brother. He learns to fight and kill, but, unlike Butcher, not to enjoy it. Hughie also resembles Butcher’s maternal grandfather, who lost an arm in World War Two, but refuses to dwell on those aspects of his life. Butcher is constantly trying to get Wee Hughie to accept the need for violence, but he also views him as someone who, like his younger brother, can potentially keep him from becoming a complete sociopath.

Wee Hughie’s back story is given in the eighth trade paperback of the series. Despite being an orphan, he turns out to have had an idyllic childhood, complete with adventures straight out of popular children’s literature – in fact, as the cover art makes clear, he has a childhood straight out of the British children’s annuals. However, a return to his childhood home ends in the death of one of his childhood friends. Innocence, clearly, is no option for him; violence can still affect him.

Butcher’s back story is given in the tenth trade paperback in the series. Like Kavanagh in Pride and Joy, Butcher was raised by a tough father. But where Kavanagh’s was simply macho and ultimately fell short of his own ideals, Butcher’s was outright abusive.

Uncomfortable in his growing resemblance to his father, Butcher is saved from becoming his clone by the love of his wife Becky. Trying to be worthy of her, he quits drinking, and learns to control his temper. Thanks to Becky, he also manages to get his mother to leave his father and free herself from abuse, a move that he considers the best thing he has ever done in his life.

Becky sets the limits in the relationship the first time they are in bed. She notices a scar, and as he launches into what is obviously an often-told tale, silences him with, “I don’t wanna hear war stories.” Later, as she runs a finger down his body, she muses, “All this strength. All this power. It has to be tempered. Men without women, Billy. It ain’t a good idea.”

As he lies dying at the end of the series, Butcher expands on her viewpoint: “All that macho shit, that gunfighter, Dirty Harry bollocks – it looks tasty, but in the end it’s fuckin’ self-defeatin’. It just leaves you with bodies in ditches an’ blokes with headfuls of broken glass. Men are only so much use, Hughie. Men are boys.”

Ennis does not spell out the message, but, considering the behavior of the super heroes in The Boys, it seems that men’s physical strength and social positions are just other forms of power that lead to corruption. The dying Butcher’s last advice to Wee Hughie is to return to his estranged lover. “Grab hold of her, Hughie,” Butcher advises. “Feel her strength inside yer own. An never, ever, ever let her go.”

In the closing pages, Wee Hughie takes this advice, and the series ends with a classic romantic happy ending at the end of all the destruction and political upheavals.

Preacher

Preacher is generally considered Ennis’ major work to date. The main plot concerns Jesse Custer, a young Southern minister who becomes possessed by Genesis, a creature whose power causes God to flee from heaven. Angered by this literal abdication of responsibility, Jesse sets off with his girlfriend Tulip and a hard-living vampire named Cassidy to hold God to account.

However, the story is as much about Jesse’s self-discovery, in which gender roles play a major part. The dialog even includes references to feminist theory that are used as humor for those in the know – for instance, Jesse mentions that he much prefers reading Germaine Greer to “the Dworkin woman.”

Jesse is the ideal of a Southern Gentleman: Good-looking, polite, and slow to fight but more than able to hold his own once he does. In fact, he is so much the epitome of traditional male roles that he channels the spirit of John Wayne. Early in the series, he witnesses Tulip being killed. When she is resurrected by God in an effort to placate Jesse, he remains haunted by the fear of her dying again.

After a firefight in which Tulip’s shooting skills help them to survive, this discussion takes place:

TULIP: If I was another guy, you wouldn’t have given it a second’s thought. You’d just think, “He can handle himself. Cool.” but you can’t accept the fact that I can deal with this stuff, can you?

JESSE: Honey … What I been trynna tell you is, it ain’t what’s happened at one time or other that worries me. It’s the thought of what could happen to you. It scares the livin’ shit clean out of me.

TULIP: So no matter what you see me do, you’ll never believe I can take care of myself? Jesse, that just doesn’t make any sense.”

What makes this discussion work is the fact that both views have some validity. Tulip is proud of her competence, so her anger at the thought that it might be ignored is understandable. At the same time, while Jesse’s attitude is part machismo, it is also the natural concern for someone he loves.

Unable to overcome his fears, Jesse abandons her to rescue Cassidy. When he rejoins Tulip, she leaves him handcuffed to a bed for several hours in revenge. Later, they discuss what happens:

TULIP: You know what the worst thing about it was . . .? It reminded me of when I was eight and the boys wouldn’t let me play soldiers . . . . And when you dumped me in that motel and ran off on your big guy’s adventure, I felt just as dumb and useless and stupid as they made me feel all those years ago.

JESSE: Well . . . um . . . I ain’t trynna get off the subject her or anything like that, but I really got to ask . . . How come you wanted to play soldiers, instead like with dolls an’ stuffed toys an’ shit like that?

TULIP: Remind me why I have sex with you again?

. . . .

JESSE: I know, I know. I’m constantly reexaminin’ my approach to gender issues. But sometimes I slip up . . .

Despite the humor and Jesse’s best efforts to act differently, the problem remains. In the sixth trade paperback, they discuss it again:

TULIP: Nothing but demeaning, patronizing, sexist, macho crap

JESSE: Or badly phrased love.

TULIP: Can you think of a single reason why I shouldn’t kill you for trying a line like that?

Yet, as they start to make love, and, she murmurs, “Don’t ever change,” suggesting that, at some level, she responds to the machismo that she verbally condemns. While the limits of Jesse’s ethics anger her, his code of behavior is part of what makes him deeply attractive to her.

In the end, Jesse is unable to overcome his fears, and abandons her again as he goes into action. Waking after being drugged by Jesse, Tulip arms herself while muttering, “I’m going to kill him. I’m going to save his stupid fucking life for him – and then I’m going to kill him.”

For Tulip, this is the last betrayal. At the end of the series, when Jesse catches up with her at the bus depot, she asks him, “Do you think breaking your word doesn’t matter when it’s to a woman? Do you think honor is something that only counts between men?” Jesse starts to give his usual rationales, but even he is aware that he has gone too far. He breaks off with, “I ain’t got no defense.”

Chasing after her, he finally admits that their love is what matters most to him, and that “I do know that I have to change a little, if this macho bullshit you talked about is gonna keep getting’ in the way.” Unable to shed a tear ever since he watched his father’s murder, faced with losing Tulip, he finally manages to cry. “I guess I must be learnin’,” he says, and this sign of humanity gives Tulip and Jesse their last minute happy ending.

Yet as though to show that Ennis is not willing to completely abandon machismo, the last pages of the series show Cassidy waking, newly human again. He starts to put on his sunglasses, the symbol of his irresponsible lifestyle, then throws them away. “I think I’ll try actin’ like a man,” he tells himself. The macho code may be flawed, but it is still better than the amorality with which Cassidy lived as a vampire – if for no other reason than because it prohibits abusing women.

The Power of Ambiguity

I am not claiming that gender issues are all that Ennis’ work is about. But I do suggest that their importance have been overshadowed by more obvious aspects of his work, such as the critique of the comics tradition. No one who is not deeply interested in a subject would return to it as often as Ennis does gender issues.

Nor am I agreeing with Ennis’ positions. If nothing else, I can imagine few women who want to think that their role is as the redeemers and moral compasses for their lovers and spouses. Yet, despite everything, Ennis’ discussion of gender roles works in a way that Dave Sims’ does not, and is far less offensive.

The reason, I think, is that Ennis seems genuinely divided on the subject. On the one hand, he is obsessed with machismo, and of how manly men interact with each other. On the other hand, he also views machismo as ultimately childish, and needing to give way to a less violent maturity that can only be won through the love of wife and family. The places where machismo operates may be the places where he finds stories, but he also considers those who remain there too long as immature.

This unresolved dichotomy, I suspect, is what keeps Ennis from descending into polemic. Genuinely fascinated by all perspectives on gender – including women’s – he weaves his interest into the sub-plots rather than interrupting the action to lecture. You don’t have to agree with his perspectives to see that the result is the complexity of true art.

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I sometimes think that the hardest part of being a widower is not learning to live alone, but going to a party. To my relief, nobody has tried to fix me up with anyone (although I fear it’s only a matter of time), but everybody does something far worse: they try to send me home with food.

Apparently, it’s a heartfelt conviction that, because I live alone, I must be either starving or else eating at restaurants seven nights a week. Or perhaps people imagine that I’m like one acquaintance whose idea of meal preparation was to cook seven pounds of hamburger on Sunday night then wrap it up in seven pieces. The idea that I might actually enjoy cooking, or find it an important part of my routine never occurs to them.

The truth of the matter is very different. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I made a point of stocking my kitchen with basic supplies and taking a cook book, in the firm belief that normal adults, male or female, should know how to feed themselves. This outlook baffled the room mate I had briefly, whose idea of food was whatever he could find to eat when he was hungry.

In fact, one reason we parted ways was that I thought he should reciprocate and do some cooking occasionally. But his idea of cooking was to fry an egg, and, after he burned through an over mitt by leaning on a stove burner while he was talking, I thought it wiser not to insist.

When I married, I continued to cook twenty-nine days of the month out of thirty. Often, I was working from home, so I was the logical cook if we were going to eat before midnight. I didn’t mind; it was better than washing dishes, and freed me (I used to claim) to dirty as many pots and pans as I wanted, secure in the knowledge that I would never have to scrub them.

Besides, preparing a meal helped to divide my work and personal time – a line that easily blurs when you work at home. Instead of a commute, I drag myself away from the computer and spend half an hour in the kitchen, clearing my mind by focusing on the simple tasks of cutting up vegetables and mixing sauces.

As a result, while nobody would call me a gourmet, I like to think that I know my way around a kitchen. My freezer is packed with meats and berries, the refrigerator with vegetables and fruit. I have firm ideas on which spices or cheeses I should use in a given circumstance. I have two dozen standard dishes, ranging from sweet potato pie or risotto to lasagna or meatloaf for days when I’m not feeling imaginative, several dozen side dishes such as potat bravas, corn fritters, or spanakopita I can mix and match for variation, and a dozen carefully selected cook books I can use as the starting point for improvisation when I experiment. Unless I’m meeting a friend, I only eat out or order take in a couple of times a month, usually when my work has run late or on the Friday after an exhausting week.

In short, I am a better than average cook. Moreover, many of my friends should know that, because I’ve fed them. Yet, at the end of a party, surveying the leftovers and wondering what to do with them, everyone seems to forget that fact. Perhaps they even see a chance to do a kindness. All the same, I’m irked to be an object of pity, and annoyed that my hard-won competence in the kitchen is overlooked.

But of course I say none of this. Instead, I express my thanks, declining the offer with the (usually) true excuse that my freezer and fridge are full. Then, just before I leave, I check my pack for any stray tupperware containers that might have been slipped into it when I wasn’t looking.

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Anyone who troubles to think knows that traditional male roles are outdated. They started going stale fifty years ago, and by now they are too moldy for anyone to digest. Yet almost no discussion takes place about what – if anything – should replace them.

As with any trend, the media is eager to seize on every explanation for the unsuitability of traditional male roles. The decline of heavy industry and the outsourcing of jobs are popular explanations. Often, too, the changes in women’s roles is cited, sometimes with urban legends like reverse discrimination, but increasingly by even uglier methods such as personal misogyny and laws about reproductive issues that have been called a war on women (and that have about as much chance of succeeding as demands to ship both legal and illegal immigrants home). But the shallowness of these explanations is suggested by the facts that they are inevitably voiced in aggrieved and puzzled tones, and that they offer no alternatives.

The trouble is, men are the least politically conscious gender. Robert Bly’s mythic men’s movement was never much more than another media-manufactured craze, while modern male supremacists sound like a parody of the popular stereotypes of feminism and provoke laughter more than serious consideration.

Even more importantly, such efforts are essentially reactionary. They demand a return to the roles of a past that lasted very briefly. To the extent that these roles were widely accepted, they existed from about 1850 to 1960, and never did manage to influence the working or lower middle classes very thoroughly.

While gender roles certainly existed before that, and were often weighted in favor of men, any social history reveals that they were rarely those that we think of as traditional. Nobody thought it odd that a medieval English merchant’s widow should take over his business, while women in tenth century Iceland had legal rights that women in modern society only regained midway through the twentieth century. Nor, as we find increasingly, is there much evidence of our social roles having an evolutionary origin – all of which only makes the arguments of male supremacists even more desperate than they initially sound.

So far, the best analysis of modern male roles can be found in Susan Faludi’s Stiffed. Faludi, who is best known for Backlash!, an analysis of the reactions against the second wave of feminism, is equally insightful in talking about men’s roles. She suggests that the generation of men who fought World War 2 returned home emotionally distant, losing themselves in their careers in their overwhelming desire for normality. As a result, they became distant parents, and failed to pass on an image of responsible masculinity to their Baby Boomer sons.

Left to shape their own images of masculinity based on the movies, these sons focused on the more superficial aspects of their father’s roles. They expected control of both family and society, but failed to notice that this control was supposed to be justified by their support and loyalty. Male roles became such a caricature of themselves that today, watching sports is supposed to have more to do with masculinity than making sacrifices for your family, or worrying about the moral values of your children.

In a few places, some of the old masculine roles survived. Faludi notes, for example, that until just before the millennium, father and son roles were common in places like shipyards, where new workers were routinely assigned to the care of older men. These mentorships, by Faludi’s accounts, were highly valued by everyone involved. But most Baby Boomers had no opportunity for a similar experience, and had to make up masculinity as they went along.

Many never got past an adolescent concept of masculinity. If you doubt that,check the leading movies of the last twenty years, especially the comedies.

Yet even if they learned their father’s values, the usefulness of these values in recent decades would have been limited. As self-actualization and economic necessity brought more women into the workplace, the justifications for traditional sex roles quickly declined. In particular, the economic justification of marriage for women diminished. At the most, a woman might marry to extend the prosperity of herself and her future children. No longer needing marriage for basic survival, why should any woman put up with even the appearance of deferring to her partner?

In this light, the confusion and anger of many modern men about feminism is understandable – not admirable and by no means excusable, but understandable. Unsure of their roles, then finding those roles diminished, they could hardly be expected to react except with fear and anger, especially when no obvious alternative exists.

This subject is, of course, endless. But it seems to me that, in the same way that women are starting to learn to move beyond their traditional roles, men need to learn to move beyond theirs. The trouble is, the average modern man is completely unprepared to do so. For many men, their gender role is central to their identity. More – making sure that no one can accuse them of being in any way female is important to their sense of self-worth. Yet, with the social differences between men and women diminishing in industrialized culture, men have less and less to compare themselves to. They can only fall back on trivialities, such as preferring beer to wine – which in the end makes their gender identities even less secure.

What men need is to analyze their recent history as thoroughly as feminists have analyzed women’s. Once they do that, more men might manage to identify themselves less as men and more as humans, and even learn to ally with feminists.

But that is an effort that many men are still reluctant to make. Instead of recognizing the inadequacy of the roles they model themselves upon, they would rather cling to those roles and ignore their increasing irrelevancy. But, until they are ready to move on, the personal and social cost is going to be as high as it is needless.

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When I was a teenager, the norms of swearing changed. Even now, the conflicting messages leave me firmly in neither camp.

On the one hand, according to the old standard, swearing was something no decent man did in front of women and children, but was essential for membership in some aspects of masculine culture. Women weren’t supposed to swear at all, and the most feisty woman looked embarrassed if she did.

On the other hand, with publication standards being relaxed and the rise of the counter-culture, everyone was starting to swear. In fact, to swear was to be modern and unbound by convention.

Today, this time of transition feels so remote as to be incomprehensible. What, anybody under forty-five might ask, was the fuss about? Yet knowing when you could swear and when you couldn’t was an important social skill, and swearing inappropriately said more than anyone today can imagine about your class and personality.

For example, to my father, who had been in the army and was employed in working class positions for most of his life, an atmosphere of casual swearing was a normal part of his week day. Yet perhaps because he was upwardly mobile or because my mother would never approve, he was careful about his swearing outside work.

Until I was fifteen and worked my first summer in the Canadian Telephone and Supply shops where he was a front-line supervisor, I was under the impression that he hardly swore at all. He might use “bloody” or “hell and damnation” if he was frustrated with one of his house-building projects in the basement, of “hell’s bells” if he was seriously fed up, but never when any of the family were in the same room. These mild swear words were as much as I ever heard, and my impression was their English-flavored colorfulness made them almost acceptable.

Laboring under this illusion, I was surprised when, after I made a mistake in the shops, he loudly asked, “What the heck you were doing?” and was greeted by howls of uncontrollable laughter by the workers he supervised. For weeks afterward, they would exclaim, “Heck!” around him in a good-natured way, and he would respond with a burst of ordinary profanity and mock-anger. A few times, I joined in myself.

More than anything else, this episode drummed into me that, for years, my father had been restraining his normal vocabulary around me. But that was what men of his generation did, living with a double-standard for expression. Any man who didn’t swear at all was considered effeminate or snobbish, but any man who swore in what was called “mixed company” was uncouth and boorish.

In such a complex atmosphere, I went through a period when when I was eight or nine when I prudishly avoided swearing. When my best friend took up the habit of saying “shit” at every opportunity, after a couple of months, I shocked his younger sister by telling her what he was saying. A few days later, he shamefacedly promised me he would change his language.

I was not going to be “one of those teenagers,” I repeated told my mother, referring to those who accepted modern standards (and were no doubt unruly because they didn’t speak properly). I believed firmly in the old standard’s last line of defense: swearing showed a lack of imagination and vocabulary, and I could prove that I had both by not swearing.

I still find that condemnation of swearing true. Now, however, I have to add that the whole point of swearing is to have some forceful words available when you have no time to be imaginative. When you want to swear, being original isn’t your priority (although I do envy some of the medieval kings, who, according to T. H. White, had such oaths as “By the head, teeth, and the splendor of God.”).

However, the times were changing, as I said. By cultural and personal necessity, in adolescence I found I could no more do without swearing than anyone else. I knew better than to swear in front of my parents; strangely enough, my father wouldn’t have approved any more than my mother. But I started using some of my father’s milder and more colorful expressions, like “bloody.” At the time, I still had a residual Christianity, so “God” seemed a suitable addition to my vocabulary as well. Both remain with me – although the religion does not. “Bloody” in particular seems to delight some American women when spoken with an English accent.

For several years, I held out against the more popular words like “fuck” or “shit.” I even winced when someone used them. They just weren’t words I could bring myself to use.

However, by the time I started university, the change in standards was complete. Swearing or not swearing was no longer an indicator of anything. Almost everybody was swearing, and there was something wonderfully liberating about hearing women swearing as freely as men – both to my ears and, so far as I could observe, to the women themselves. It seemed part of the march towards equality that such superficial gender differences had disappeared overnight, and that men no longer needed the double-standard of my father’s generation, except when talking to the old.

Now, of course, swearing is not even remotely a political act. A generation, if not two, no longer think twice about swearing as the mood hits them. It’s just another means of expression, and I no longer react to it. In a hard-swearing company, I usually notice myself swearing freely myself as I unconsciously try to fit in.

Still, childhood habits persist. Left to myself, I remain an infrequent swearer, a habit that gives me a reputation for politeness. Even today, I’m most likely to use “fucking” when reporting what someone else says, or in fiction because it’s part of how a character would talk. If you listen carefully, when I do swear, a small catch in my voice reveals the last trace of my first conditioning.

Mostly, though, I just consider swearing a matter of personal style – and that’s how such words should be viewed. They’re just words among words. They never were worth the worry they used to cause.

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