Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What Boys Want

Gender?  We all look much the same starting out....
 Before about 1970, gender roles were fairly rigid and traditional, i.e. men were the gender in power in American society, they did the work, supported their families, and when single, pursued women (sometimes also when married).  Women were expected to marry, have children, run a household, cook, clean, support their husbands, do volunteer work, and defer to their husbands (or to men in general as I saw my mother do over and over again).  This was American patriarchy.  There were individual exceptions.  Women who worked often chose teaching or secretarial jobs, although the arts were also popular among independent women.  But in general, women stayed home.  Children were socialized by their parents to perpetuate these gender roles.  The problem was, these roles were artificial, and they oppressed 51% of the population. 

American society has come a long way since about 1970, when women began to protest being locked into a role not of their choosing.  Women have made great strides of equality, but there are still gaps that need to be filled.  However, as far as gender roles are concerned, the traditional housewife role has been shattered.  Women now have choices.  Young women now take for granted that they have those choices.

But I think American society continues to be in flux, taking two steps forward then one step back.  Rape is still very much a serious issue, as is equal pay for the same work.  And, unsurprisingly, as Rosalind Wiseman writes in the December 2, 2013 issue of Time magazine, boys are struggling to find their place in the world.  She's written a book, Masterminds and Wingmen, about the emotional lives of boys and how confusing American culture with its hypersexualized messages and images can be to them.  They struggle with the traditional patriarchal role they're given, not of their own choosing, and not really suitable for today's society. 

American society still struggles with the vestiges of its patriarchy, and men over 40 can still be locked in the traditional gender roles.  Not all of them, of course.  But I meet enough of them to know those attitudes and beliefs are still with us.  Hispanic culture also follows traditional patriarchal attitudes and beliefs that are the foundation of the gender roles.  But I also agree that how boys are brought up and socialized has not changed much, so they have had to face a culture changed by the women's movement and they don't know how to be in that culture.

Wiseman has done us a great service by writing about this issue.  We do need to change the messages sent to boys in society -- that it's OK to express emotions and to talk about feelings, to forge your own path and be true to yourself and still be a part of a group that values you and respects you.  Macho has its place but doesn't define who you are.  Boys need to be taught that conflict avoidance does not work in friendships, that it's better to talk through problems and issues, to tell friends they've hurt your feelings.  Wiseman details in her Time article examples of situations in which boys hadn't a clue how to respond and as a result have done nothing, suppressing their feelings or allowing them to fester.

I remember when I was a teen, I was told that as a female, I was a prisoner of my biology.  Women rebelled against that view.  Now, Wiseman is exposing the harmful belief that boys are prisoners of their biology, i.e. that all they think about and want is sex.  No.  They are multifaceted human beings just as much as women are, and need to be recognized as such.  It's strength to be self-aware, to be able to express oneself well, to express emotions, and to communicate well.  How is it that with all the changes on the female side, the male side got left behind?

American society is not perfect by any means.  We're struggling through a prolonged sociological change and maybe the next step is to focus on boys and how they are socialized to bring them up as equals to girls. We need to insure that our children, boys and girls, are healthy not only physically, but also emotionally and psychologically.   Neither gender needs to be in power.  Together, they can complement each other's strengths and contribute to our society's progress and success.  But we still need to get rid of the old patriarchal way of thinking, the gender roles, and find a new paradigm.  I think Wiseman's book could be a large step in the right direction....  

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