When not writing and thinking about writing, I am often found at my day job, teaching high schoolers. I often have music playing in the background in my classroom, music ranging from soundtracks to pop to metal. The other day a Lorde song came on, and one of my female students joked, “You listen to girl music, Mr. K?”
— Whoa! Hold on a minute! —
First off, since when was Lorde “girly” in that sense, anyway?
And secondly, this is one of countless examples of the ways we make art gender-specific. As though certain genres of music, or even female versus male singers, defines who should listen to it. It seems to me that female-led music is assumed to be “girl music.” And apparently men are supposed to listen to only rock or rap?
I’ve been thinking about this comment for several days, and it bothers me. It bothers me just like it bothers me that the boys in my class think that trucks are the only “dude” vehicle.
Vehicular devices are neutral entities. I think the same of art. Some may be statistically more liked by males or females. But that’s it. Things are not gender-specific.
This is one of countless ways we perpetuate gender stereotypes in society, and even create the problem itself in this sort of sick cycle carousel, where something becomes connotated with gender and then members of that gender begin to define themselves by the thing itself. I listen to Lorde, because I am a girl. I drive a truck because I am a guy. I watch “dude” action movies, or I watch chick-flicks.
And I think this is very harmful.
I am a fan of He for She, and I was a big fan of Emma Watson’s recent UN speech. I think one of the sad downsides of the feminist movement is that, while empowering women, it has also largely alienated males, and often turned it into an “us vs. them” scenario. Men and women need to unite on the front of equality. Feminism is only part of it.
Gender equality is a two-sided coin and, unfortunately, we are still a long way from it. Though we are making progress.
Over the years, pop culture, particularly literature and film, has played a large role in the ways we perceive gender, both for good and for bad. In other words, any of us who contribute or wish to contribute in the future to literature have a power we can use to combat or to perpetuate the stereotypes.
I write Kidlit, and I think that children’s and YA literature has done many good things, particularly in empowering girls. We have some pretty great female characters in Kidlit. From Meg in A Wrinkle in Time to Matilda to Lyra Belacqua to Hermione, and to an extent, Katniss. Girls are playing strong central roles in stories.
Even “Bond-girls” have become more about the plot and even an actual love relationship with Bond, rather than simply eye-candy, in the last few Bond films (Daniel Craig era). Of course, there are the Twilights and 50 Shades that, for whatever popular reason, continue to idealize the overly-dependent and even dominated young woman.
There is a difference between romance and dependence. But that is for another day.
On the other side of the gender coin, I think masculinity is a bit of a convoluted mess. It is a different sort of mess than femininity. Men aren’t being marginalized in the job market. But they are being bombarded with harmful stereotypes that leave them unsure who they should be or what it means to be a male. It is evident in my students. It is also, naturally, evident in pop culture.
If girls need more depictions of strong, independent examples in literature, boys need more strong, non-passive depictions of manhood that does not resort to masochism.
Take a look at every sit-com and you will find a lazy, passive, sex-obsessed, but still strangely lovable, male character. The prime example is the show, New Girl. On the one hand, Jessica Day is a strong, quirky teacher who finds freedom after a relationship with a dominating boyfriend goes awry. On the other hand, Nick Miller is an ambitionless bartender who sucks at relationships, and his greatest achievement is writing an awful zombie novel. He won’t even be the one on top during sex, he is so lazy. Schmidt might be the best depiction at an ambitious male. Yet, he works in a female-populated workspace, where he is dominated and acts more like a sex-obsessed puppy than anything. He also sucks at relationships and blunders his true-love because he can’t pick between two women who want him at the same time. He thinks with his penis, and can’t control himself. Naturally. This is portrayed as lovable and typical manhood.
I saw an episode of King of Queens where Kevin James’ character can’t help checking out other women and watching porn. His wife says it’s okay, and she wouldn’t expect him to do otherwise.
Boys will be boys. They are obsessed with sex, and shouldn’t be expected to control themselves. Take that a few steps further and let’s see where that mentality leads…
Take manhood to the other extreme and we are left with the action movies of the 90s, where men are giant testosterone machines who blow crap up and have a personality as deep as a cartoon character.
Boys are told to “man-up” because boys are tough, by golly. They screw, but don’t love. They don’t say they’re sorry, and they never, ever cry. Right?
I know this is not exhaustive. There are positive male examples in literature and film, of course. But I think the negative side is way too common.
Psychology tells us that we become what is believed about us. So I would ask, “What are we telling men with our literature or television?”
The statistics show that fewer and fewer men are going to college. Men who do go to college, tend to live their lives for careers. They suck at marriages and fatherhood. There is a reason the literally-absent or the emotionally-absent father is a literary trope.
And I think all of it may be influenced by what we are telling men about themselves.
I would love to see a day when women and men have equal opportunities in the workforce. I would like to see phrases such as “throw like a girl” or “boys will be boys” mean positive things. I would like to see women and men portrayed as having the capability of having a healthy relationship without dominance or co-dependency. I wish that a dominated woman wasn’t seen as hot and steamy, and a deadbeat sex addict wasn’t perceived as a joking matter. I would like to see “us vs. them” become men standing for women’s equality and women standing for men’s equality.
The truth is we need each other.
Not in a dependent way, but in a supportive way. We are each a side of the same human coin.
Let’s do our part to combat inequality and negative stereotypes and create a future where manhood and womanhood mean great things. Strength and ambition and love. We can start by portraying what we want to see in both men and women alike in our stories. We have a power to perpetuate the stereotypes or combat them.