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Posts Tagged ‘men and women’

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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“Mansplaining” is the portmanteau word coined by feminists for men’s tendency to lecture women – at length, on the obvious, and even on subjects on which the woman is an expert. Ever since I was alerted to mansplaining, I have noticed it several times a day, and it never fails to make me wince.

For one thing, mansplaining is an embarrassment, like an elderly relative who makes loud racist comments at a family dinner. Worse, it is an embarrassment that I am rarely in a position to divert or shut down. When I try, either I am labeled rude for interrupting, or the intervention flounders with my attempt to explain what is offensive, and ends up with me taking the blame for disturbing a social gathering.

Instead, I am left feeling the discomfort that the mansplaining man ought to feel for himself, but never does. The man goes on and on in a hectoring tone of voice, as often as not getting the facts wrong, impervious to interruption, and all the while leaning closer and closer to his victim, apparently under the impression that he has become endless fascinating to her.

Meanwhile, the woman tries to stay polite, interjecting a few vague words or a polite laugh that the man mistakes for interest. She is rarely able to turn the monologue into a discussion, because the man does not detect anything except the fact that he has audience. He never dreams that she has mostly tuned him out, because, in his world view, the main reason for her current existence is to make him feel important or charming – and, for the most part, cultural conventions back him up. And, just like when I try to intervene, any other response from her puts her in the wrong socially instead of him.

All this is so wrong on so many levels, that I am torn between moving out of earshot and leaning closer, morbidly fascinated that anyone could be so crass and unobservant as the mansplainer.

Yet that is not all that bothers me. I am what some people call a high verbal, and for many years I was a university instructor. Regardless of whether I am talking to a man or a woman, my interest in a discussion frequently causes me to interrupt as I become excited by an idea that has struck me, and I have to apologize frequently and back down to avoid monopolizing the conversation. This behavior is not helped by the fact that, as an instructor, I actually was the expert (at least most of the time), and partly paid for lecturing, although I usually tried to turn the lecture into a discussion after I conveyed a few basic facts.

Consequently, whenever I see a demonstration of mansplaining, I am apt to review my recent conversations, and wonder if I have been guilty of the same behavior that I am privately denouncing. Given the social norms between men and women, mansplaining can be appalling easy to commit, even when, intellectually, I am determined to avoid it.

Sometimes, I go so far as to ask a woman I am having a one-on-one conversation with if I am talking too much. However, that is not much help, because her social role is to reassure me, and even the most activist woman can sometimes fall into it. Although I am pleased when a woman tells me that I haven’t been dominating the conversation, or that I am a man who knows how to talk to women, I can never be sure she is not offering me a bit of conventional politeness, woman to man. In the end, I am left to my own self-observations. The result is that the mansplaining is not only boring a nearby woman (or sometimes women), but also leaving me full of self-doubt and self-accusation.

I grew to understand what mansplaining feels like to a woman when I published a book. The reviews were mostly upbeat, and the criticisms minor, but a few reviewers insisted on explaining why I should have done one thing or another. Had they asked, I could have told them I had considered their ideas months ago, and discarded them for well-founded reasons – but of course they never did ask. They simply expressed their opinions, and, like a mansplainer’s victim, I could say nothing without sounding ungracious myself. However, I did start wondering why there were not more instances of women lunging across restaurant tables, intent on mayhem with the cutlery, and I became more determined than ever not to be a mansplainer myself.

To me, a mansplainer is a Jungian Shadow, an embodiment of things I do not want to be or even have around me. Consequently, whenever I encounter one, I cannot help but react with distaste and self-doubt, hoping against hope that the situation will soon be over. Unfortunately, though, it almost never is.

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Lately, I’ve been disturbed by an unexpected event. The event was trivial in itself, but every now and then it nags me like a piece of tin foil trapped between my teeth, raising questions about the everyday interactions of men and women.

The event was a brief encounter with a woman who had been a colleague of sorts several years ago. I had questioned her approach to collaboration, coming to believe she had used me when I was vulnerable as a recent widower. She responded condescendingly. It was not my proudest moment, but I became unspeakably angry. For a couple of years I publicly criticized her several times when doing so seemed relevant.

Learning that we would be at the same conference, I tried to make a gesture of apology. It was rebuffed with unnecessary rudeness, but I had become embarrassed by my past behavior, so instead of growing angry again, I simply decided that I would ignore her at the conference. In fact, twice, I dodged her in the hallway to avoid conflict.

I was at a talk of mutual interest, sitting midway in the audience, on an aisle seat. A few minutes into the talk, I noticed that the woman in question was sitting in the back, near the far wall, with half the audience separating us.

For the first twenty minutes, I kept my face mostly to the front. However, when the panel asked for questions, members of the audience spoke from a microphone just behind me, and I turned to face them.

The woman took a couple of moments to notice me, but when she did, she rose hurriedly and left. She did not exactly run because of the crowd at the door, but she looked as though she would have liked to.

I would prefer to think that she was rushing to another talk, but the next sessions were at least twenty minutes from happening. Her departure might have nothing to do with me, except that she looked panicked, even scared — even though being either seems out of all proportion to the event.

Her reaction gave me no satisfaction and no sense of power. Instead, it made me feel both small and imposed upon. I felt like I had been silently condemned as a bully or worse, yet I could not tax myself with anything worse than anger and the occasional sniping. My criticism was never as severe as it could have been, and I had said far less than I might have– as little as the woman is likely to believe that. Even here, I am leaving out details that might identify her.

Nothing was ever said in so many words, but I suspect that I have been press-ganged into her private psycho-drama, playing in her mind a stereotypical man disappointed that I could not have a relationship with her. Nothing to justify that view had ever happened or been said – so soon after my partner’s death, I had had no wish for any new relationship – but my impression was that the woman was reacting to images in her mind and past experiences, and hardly at all to anything I had said and done. So far as she was responding to me, she was slotting my words and behavior into pre-defined categories rather than viewing them independently. Given my views on the typical man, the idea leaves me even more insulted.

Ordinarily, my first instinct in such a situation would be to talk to the woman. However, after seeing her apparent flight, I am reluctant to increase her panic or fear now that I am aware of them as a possibility.

Anyway, I suspect an intervention would never work. It would simply reinforce her interpretation. As much as my reflex is to help, her view of me has such a limited connection to any reality that it is clearly something she has to work out for myself. All I can do is hope that she becomes indifferent to me as quickly as possible; at this point, I can hardly expect her to start viewing me as human.

Meanwhile, in what world is such behavior reasonable? I am left wondering: are relationships between women and men so toxic that other women would react the same way to such a minor series of interactions? I remind myself that the woman has run from at least one female antagonist, so I would like to believe that other women – if not most women – would react differently. But I am left wondering if male-female relationships could generally be as tangled as this, and whether my belief in the possibility of friendship or mutual respect between the sexes is naivety on my part.

Unfortunately, though, I have only fragmented answers. All I have is an uneasy guilt at having unintentionally hurt someone I have sometimes respected, mingled with a sense of being insulted and unfairly accused, and the frustrated conviction that the only action I can take is no action at all. It is a situation that has no effect whatsoever on a daily basis, but it annoys me because it seems so baffling.

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Lately, my mind has been focused on friendship, particularly friendship between men and women. Apparently, I am a man who finds friendships with women easy, very few of which have ever turn romantic. That’s not to say that some of these relationships are uncolored by attraction –just that, even without the possibility of sex, people are intriguing enough to keep the attention of anyone with a normal amount of curiosity. In these friends, the women and and I have simply decided  not to follow up on that attraction. Whether we have discussed the matter or come to an unspoken agreement, we’ve decided instead that what matters is the relationship. The expectations of romance can become tiresome, and to dismiss them can be a mutual relief.

Take, for example, a woman I am going to call Kari. We met a number of years ago at a workshop that I was writing an article about. She was one of the organizers, sitting to one side of the audience, and our eyes keep meeting. On my part – and, I believe, on hers – it was not a matter of love at first sight, so much as a recognition that here was a person of obvious character and individuality. After the meeting, we made a point of talking, and quickly went from professional colleagues to friends.

We don’t live near each other, and our lives only occasionally intersect unless we make an effort. In fact, months sometimes pass between phone calls or emails, and even more time between meetings. Yet I frequently wonder what she is doing, and any time we have been out of contact for too long, one of us is sure to remedy the lapse.

Part of our relationship is based on an exchange of favors. I wrote once or twice about an organization that Kari was leading, and, the weekend after my wife died, Kari invited me to just hang – a favor that I badly needed, and will never forget.

However, the relationship long ago became more than any sense of obligation. Part of the relationship is that we can talk to each other about problems and ambitions, perhaps because our interactions can be intermittent.

Yet the friendship goes beyond that. I can’t speak for Kari’s opinion of me, but I take for granted that she will one day leave her mark. It may be in social activism, or in something more mainstream, but short of some appalling random coincidence, one day she is going to be successful, and I sense that she wants that success very badly. If I could, I would like to help her ambitions along, even in a small way, and to witness their fulfillment.

Sometimes we talk about her ambitions, or mine, and what the next steps might be in fulfilling them. Mostly, however, we talk everyday events, and exchange suggestions about how to solve each others’ problems. We make plans, too, to see more of each other, most of which we never carry out. Simultaneously, it is both a distant and a close relationship between two people who think very much alike, yet lead different lives and are just different enough in temperament and pursuits to make discussion insightful.

Since I am a few years older than her, cynics might say that what I have achieved is an avuncular sublimation of sexual attraction, but that, at best, would be an over-simplification. In fact, it would be an insult to both Kari and I, and fails to explain why we have maintained our friendship at the same time as love-relationships with other people I may not understand exactly why we are friends, but it seems to be enough for both of us that we are.

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No, I haven’t been watching When Harry Met Sally recently. But in the last month or so, I’ve been thinking now and then about the question of whether men and women can be friends without any sexual feelings interfering. About a month ago, a woman accused me (incorrectly) of having an “inappropriate” interest in her, and I was so deeply insulted that I haven’t been able to forgive the affront. The idea that men and women can be friends and nothing more is very much a part of me, and I have proved the fact to my satisfaction so many times that I was unprepared for someone who holds the opposite view. How, I wonder, could such a discrepancy of viewpoints come about?

I don’t deny that heterosexual men and women are always aware that someone is a member of the opposite sex. That is as true as the fact that a straight man can hardly have another man – especially a stranger – move into his personal space without an unconscious feeling of rivalry.

But what I do deny is that such awareness is automatically the defining feature of a relationship. Although I have no idea whether awareness of another person’s gender is biological or cultural (although I suspect a little of both), I don’t believe that it has to dominate a relationship — unless you let it.

Over the years, I have been in several situations in which either I was strongly attracted to a woman or she was strongly attracted to me, yet our relationships were about work or common interests. The attraction may have been difficult at first, but soon became irrelevant, if not always disappearing altogether, for the simple reason that I and the woman involved had decided, generally without any mutual discussion, that it would not be acted upon. It was really no more complicated than that.

However, I am thinking now that not every man can be friends with every woman. Those who can, I think, are largely those who do not define themselves primary by gender, but consider themselves people first.

If you are a man for whom your sexuality is primarily about your own predatorship, or a woman who believes that men see you primarily as prey, then I suspect cross-gender friendships are unlikely. The same is true, in more complex ways for some feminists (I regret to say), who condition themselves to see all interactions in terms of gender politics, or male supremacists brooding over the supposed wrongs that women have done them. In all these situations, the awareness of gender is too strong to be relaxed. Consequently, the people involved can never relax, either.

In their different ways, such people have all come to be obsessed by gender. Instead of gender being only one of many characteristics, for them it has become the dominant one. In fact, for many such people, it has become the only characteristic. At times, gender seems to be all they can see.

By contrast, those of us who can be friends with the opposite sex tend to see gender as important only in certain circumstances. The rest of the time, it is part of the background, either ignored or not considered primary. We don’t generally say things like, “Men are like that” or “Well, you know women,” because we don’t see people mainly in terms of male and female. Instead, we are likely to consider other people in terms of shared goals or common interests. For us, any initial awareness of gender generally fades as other aspects of a relationship become more important. That tends to happen even if the other person is strikingly good-looking.

In my own case, this outlook was strengthened for many years, because I was a well-known monogamist. One of the advantages of being happily married is that – unlike many single people – you don’t think about the availability of a person of the opposite sex when you meet them.  Instead, you are freed to talk about what matters to you. That holds true whether you are with your spouse or alone.

But, whatever the reasons, throughout my adult life, I have had at least as many female friends – both straight and lesbian – as male ones. By seeing women as people first, I have learned more about humanity than I would have otherwise.

That’s why, when someone declares through their actions or words that men and women can’t be friends, I always feel sorry for them. I always suspect that their experience is too limited, or too framed by popular movies and fiction, or perhaps too conditioned by a traumatic experience. I consider them narrow people, and take their insistence on their world views as a personal insult. So far as I am concerned, they are denying both my beliefs and experience – all without knowing what they are talking about.

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Last weekend, I had coffee with a woman I hadn’t seen in six months. Well, actually I had a milk shake and bagel, but you know what I mean: we were eating and drinking in a public place as an excuse to talk. She was unemployed, and the doubts she was having about herself demonstrated, very concretely, one of the reasons why feminism is still important.

This woman, you should understand, is someone who could only be called accomplished. When she was young, she not only traveled around the world by herself, but lived in the Middle East and Japan. She is a mainstay of one social advocacy group, and worked for poverty wages to set up another from scratch. At times, she assists a leading civic politician. Intelligent, occasionally rowdy, committed and well-read, she is very much the sort of person I would like to be like more often, but whose example I can only occasionally match (if that).

She was just back in town after three months away, and having trouble finding work. But, where a man would probably blame the economy and try harder, she was convincing herself that the fault was hers. She had been ousted from the group she set up by office politics, and had a reputation in some circles as overbearing and aggressive.

Having worked with her a couple of times, I am in the position to say that this reputation is in no way deserved. Yes, she is business-like when organization needs to be done. But she never gives needless orders, and the way that she always pitches in with whatever work needed doing is proof that she doesn’t let authority go to her head. If she were a man, you’d say she was a competent and efficient leader.

All the same, I know the gossip that circulates about her. More to the point, I know the type of people who spread the gossip. One that comes to mind (who probably isn’t the one you’re thinking of if you’re familiar with the situation I’m describing)  is a middle-aged man who compensates for living in his mother’s basement by trying to convince everyone how important he is. Another (who probably isn’t who you think, either) is a male geek with a soccer ball for a paunch who is always getting into arguments because nobody is as impressed with his views as he believes they should be.

Both are the sort of men who not only act as though they are single (even if they happen to be married), but give the impression of not having had a date in some time. They are men who are made profoundly uneasy by women, and feel threatened by any woman who does not value them at their own estimation, and who deals with them on her own terms.

Knowing those responsible for the woman’s reputation, I suggested that the problem was theirs, not hers. That was not just a bit of coffee shop philosophy, but literally true. The sort of men I describe are rarely in positions of influence – in fact, that is one of the reasons for their bitterness and for their envy of women who succeed.

But the woman I was talking to only said, “That would be easy to believe.” She went on to describe the difficulty of getting a recommendation from the group she had setup.

Realizing that I would not persuade her easily, I said no more on the subject, not even to mention that she was exaggerating the difficulties. Sometimes, people just want to articulate their worries, and don’t want to hear suggestions. As she went on to wonder if she had made the city unlivable for herself – obviously contemplating a move elsewhere – I realized that this was one of those times.

Inside, though, I was full of indignation on her behalf. Nearly forty years after feminism’s second wave began, this smart and independent woman was blaming herself – never mind that the only alternative was to conform and to hide her talents and kowtow to those whose only claim to superiority was their sex. How dare those petty-minded men take out their own insecurities in spiteful whispers against her? And how stupid are we as a culture, that we raise such obstacles against the capable, solely because they happen to be female?

For all the progress of the last few decades, the woman I was talking to, despite her abilities, had been so worn down by the gossip about her that she was assuming blame in exactly the stereotypical way that women are supposed to do. Nor is she the first capable women whom I have seen act in this way.

Often, of course, feminism is about helping the helpless, from the working mother who needs day care to the victim of abuse. However, it seems to me that feminism is also about enabling the talented, about making sure that talents aren’t crippled by an agony of frustration by the roles that women are still expected to play.

Yet, at that moment, all I could do was provide a sympathetic ear. And let me tell you, I didn’t feel like I was doing nearly enough.

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On July 5, 2010, I was unexpectedly widowed. I’ve spent the months since then learning how to live alone. I am starting to adjust, although I dislike parts of how I live now, and probably always will. But one thing I have not accustomed myself to is the difference in how women regard me.

For me, one of the bonuses of being in an obviously happy relationship was that other women could relax around me. They trusted me not to come on to them. If I helped them, they understood that I had no agenda beyond being helpful. If I found them attractive (and, of course, sometimes I did), I wasn’t about to act upon the attraction.

What I liked about this perception of me is that it allowed me to talk to women, and to get to know them as people. Of course, I’m sure that some women entertained lingering doubts about me, and that their interactions with me were hedged with reservations. But, so far as the culture permits, as a married man I could be friends with women.

Now that I’m suddenly single, much of that is gone. Although I’m not aware of having changed my attitudes or behavior, how I’m perceived by women is suddenly changed — even by women who have known me for years. Although I’m still operating on the assumptions built up by years of marriage, I’m reclassified as single.

Being relatively young and looking younger, I am assumed to be looking for another relationship As a widower, I’m assumed to be missing regular sex. Suddenly, my speech is being scanned for innuendo, and my actions are viewed with skepticism. At best, there’s a reserve and a questioning in the women I meet that wasn’t there before.

And, just to make matters worse, my awareness of that reserve makes me more nervous, which makes many women more nervous still, creating a vicious cycle that I don’t know how to break.

The irony is, I am far from sure that I want another relationship. I can’t say that I would turn one down, or that I don’t have excruciating bouts of loneliness, but the possibility barely registers with me. I’m still recovering from the last one, thank you very much, and I’m not sure which would be worse: being widowed a second time, or leaving someone I loved to survive my death.

I can’t help thinking, too, of how Raymond Chandler and George Orwell made fools of themselves after their wives died, begging every women they met to marry them. Orwell even went so far as to suggest that any woman who married him would soon end up a wealthy widow with control over his writings, a piece of bribery that strikes me as both gauche and as being at odds with the upright image he affected in his writing. I would hate to be a figure that attracted similar ridicule and disdain. Chandler and Orwell sounded so desperate.

But the main reason that I contemplate staying single is that I never did care much for the mating game. The ritual has changed since I was last single, but for all the loosening of outdated tradition, it still seems to degrade men and women alike. I mean, no wonder there are so many breakups and divorces: the game is so stylized that you have practically no chance of getting to know a lover or a spouse until after you’ve moved in together.

True, I was lucky once. But the odds of repeating that luck seem slight. And why should I settle for second best? The thought of looking for another relationship seems so tiresome to me that it’s hardly worth the effort.

Right now, all I really want is friends with whom I can talk, regardless of whether they are male or female. A cause or two to distract me wouldn’t hurt, either.

But the frustrating part is that there is no way to communicate this attitude to the women I meet. If I tried to express my attitude, it would either seem too personal too soon, or else some roundabout strategy in the mating game. There are no rules in the rituals of male and female for declaring that you are not playing, and no way to protest your classification.

So the fact remains: against my wishes, I am suddenly a single man. And every woman knows what a single man wants, right?

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