“Be a Man” – Christianity and Gender Mystiques

by Kristen Rosser cross posted from her blog Wordgazer’s Words

A “mystique” is defined by TheFreeDictionary.com as “An aura of heightened value, interest, or meaning surrounding something, arising from attitudes and beliefs that impute special power or mystery to it.” A “gender mystique,” therefore, is an idealized concept of what it means to be a man or a woman, such that rather than simply describing one’s physical sex, there is a specialized/romanticized state of gender identity which a man or a woman should strive to attain in order to be a “real” man or woman.

Well-known sociologist, teacher and author Stephanie Coontz defines gender mystiques like this:

Fifty years ago Betty Friedan shocked the nation with a best-selling book claiming that American women had been making themselves miserable by trying to live up to a myth — that a normal woman wanted nothing more than to be a model housekeeper and attentive wife. Friedan named this myth “the feminine mystique.” . . the flip side of the feminine mystique [is] the assumption that a normal man has no interest in care-giving or any other activity traditionally thought of as “feminine.” 

While in our greater society in America, women have largely rejected the idea that there is one state of true womanhood which they should be trying to reach, men in our society still (if television commercials and movies are to be believed) strive under the power of an ideal of manhood.  Hence, while you no longer hear people talk of “womanliness” or give pat definitions of what constitutes a “real woman,” men still struggle with talk of “manliness” and what it means to be a “real man.”

Coontz is quoted again in this Citings & Sightings post:

[There is still] a pervasive masculine mystique that pressures boys and men to conform to a gender stereotype and prevents them from exploring the full range of their individual capabilities. The masculine mystique promises men success, power and admiration from others if they embrace their supposedly natural competitive drives and reject all forms of dependence.

 

And in article in The New York Times she explains:

One thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood. Men are now experiencing a set of limits — externally enforced as well as self-imposed — strikingly similar to the ones Betty Friedan set out to combat in 1963, when she identified a “feminine mystique” that constrained women’s self-image and options. . . .[J]ust as the feminine mystique exposed girls to ridicule and harassment if they excelled at “unladylike” activities like math or sports, the masculine mystique leads to bullying and ostracism of boys who engage in “girlie” activities . . .  Now men need to liberate themselves from the pressure to prove their masculinity.

Evangelical Christianity often takes a stance against attitudes and expectations of modern culture by harking back to earlier cultural attitudes and expectations which purport to be more “godly” or “biblical.”  Nowhere, perhaps, is this clearer than in the proud upholding of gender mystiques by its complementarian/patriarchal branch.  Interestingly, due to the differences in the way masculine and feminine mystiques are viewed in the general culture, this type of evangelicalism, while upbraiding the culture for not clinging to the feminine mystique, often finds itself standing with the culture in its clinging to the masculine mystique.  At the same time they sneer at the ideas promoted by Coontz:

 

It is a clear confession of the Christian faith to postmoderns who are so twisted by our culture that they find themselves most comfortable with femininity in men (doubting themselves, using hedge words and phrases, wearing jewelry, abdicating authority, shedding tears, being vain in their appearance) and masculinity in women (taking leadership and authority, working out, getting ripped, teaching men, playing soldier, playing cop, playing pastor, being brash). . .

 

Break out of your conformity to the androgynous patterns of our evil world. Be handsome and beautiful. Be man and wife. Take your manhood and womanhood to corporate worship this week and use them there to glorify God.
Tim Bayly of the Bayly Brothers, quoted on The Wartburg Watch

Evangelical minister John Piper puts it like this:

The egalitarian impulses of the last thirty years have not made us better men and women. In fact, they have confused millions. What average man or woman today could answer a little boy’s question: “Daddy, what does it mean to grow up and be a man and not a woman?” Or a little girl’s question: “Mommy, what does it mean to grow up and be a woman and not a man?”

So how does this branch of Christianity actually define manhood and womanhood?  This article from the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (“CBMW”) contains a very long explanation which essentially boils down to this:  to be a man is to be a “leader,  protector and provider,” while being a woman is to be a “helper, support and companion.”  Since the CBMW considers itself to be a major spokesman of this movement, it’s reasonable to look at the Bayly examples of masculinity above, (working out, getting ripped [muscles], teaching men, playing soldier,” etc.), as an outworking of the principle of “lead, protect, provide,” while its examples of femininity (doubting themselves, using hedge phrases, wearing jewelry, shedding tears, etc.) are part of the outworking of “help, support, be a companion.”

In other words, manliness is comprised of learning and showing leadership/protector/provider skills such as developing one’s physique (“the better to protect you with, my dear!”), while womanliness is about learning and developing skills to make you a better helper, support and companion (wearing jewelry makes you a more pleasing companion; being less assertive and less self-confident makes you more easily led; shedding tears portrays you as emotionally weak, etc.).

Feminism, with its talk of “mystiques” which are actually myths to be counteracted in the interests of the freedom of each man and woman to be their own individual selves, is vilified by this group as the enemy of society and the source of cultural malaise.  Passages of the Bible are quoted (see the CBMW article linked above) to show that the masculine and feminine mystiques are actually God’s plan and design for men and women.  If we will simply return to these biblical ideals (the message goes), we will finally feel truly happy and fulfilled in our God-given identities as male and female. Any facts which would seem to contradict this (such as a woman’s unhappiness in being restricted to home and motherhood, or a man’s unhappiness in a weight of responsibility he feels inadequate to bear) are attributed to human sinfulness.  Conversely, any evidence which would seem to uphold this paradigm is set forth as an example of godliness.  Those women who happen to feel happy and fulfilled as stay-at-home moms, or those men who happen to thrive on challenge and leadership, are upheld as model Christians for everyone else.

The result is that, while claiming that feminism and Christian egalitarianism seeks to erase the differences between the sexes and force us all to be the same, this evangelical ideal attempts to erase the differences between individual men and women and force all men and all women to be essentially the same.  Men are to be different from women but the same as all other men.  Women are to be different from men but the same as all other women.   Guilt and shame are brought into play for those who fail to fit the categories.

The continuing mystique of masculinity in the general culture becomes an ally of this line of thought– men still want to be thought of as “real men,” and complementarian evangelical Christianity is upheld as the last refuge of masculinity in a culture that seeks to erase it.  The error of second-wave feminism in disparaging women’s choices of homemaking and motherhood, is held up as a failure of feminism as a whole– even though feminism today embraces stay-at-home motherhood as one of its many faces in a world where “we’re fortunate to have made enough progress that we can live our feminism as individuals. Every woman gets to decide what her feminist life looks like.”

Thus this brand of evangelicalism seeks to remove the speck from the eye of feminist and egalitarian Christians, while missing the beam that is in its own (Luke 6:42).

The question to ask as a Christian, then, is whether the Bible actually does uphold these masculine and feminine mystiques as the norm for manhood and womanhood.

I showed a while back in my post The Bible and the Nature of Woman that there is actually nothing in the Bible verses traditionally used to uphold this mindset, that define the nature of womanhood as inherently one of “help, support, companion” or that cut her off from positions of leadership or authority.  In the first chapter of Genesis, God creates both the man and the woman in the image of God and tells them both to “have dominion” over the creation.  Unless one starts with the presupposition that Adam is in charge, and then reads the text that way, there is nothing in the second chapter of Genesis that shows that Adam expected to be Eve’s leader, or that Eve expected to have to consult him prior to taking action of her own.  Not until the curse that is spoken after their sin warns, “your desire shall be for him, and he shall rule over you (Gen. 3:16)” does Adam do anything towards Eve that could be read as taking authority over her.

Sometimes 1 Peter 3:3-4 is held up as a definitive statement of what womanhood is to look like: “Your beauty. . . should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”  But though this particular verse is written specifically to women, Rachel Held Evans’ book A Year of Biblical Womanhood accurately states:

What they forgot to tell us in Sunday School is that the “gentle and quiet spirit” Peter wrote about is not, in fact, an exclusively feminine virtue, but is elevated throughout the New Testament as a trait expected of all Christians. Jesus used the same word– praus, in Greek– to describe himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29). Gentleness is one of the nine fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:23), and Paul told the members of the Philippian church, “Let your gentleness be evident to all” (Philippians 4:5).
Emphases in original.

A verse often used in sermons to men is 1 Corinthians 16:13, which reads in some versions (such as the New American Standard), “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith; act like men, be strong.” The NIV renders this verse: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong.” The message usually taught is that courage and standing firm define what it means to be a man. It’s difficult not to notice, however, that the context of this verse is a message to the entire church at Corinth, not just the men. The Greek word here is transliterated “andrizomai,” which literally does mean “act like men,” but as New Testament scholar Marg Mowczko points out:

The word is used in the context of bravery and valour in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and the Greek New Testament. Plenty of Bible women, as well as men, were brave, and the cognate adjective andreia is used in Proverbs 12:4 and 31:10 of the Septuagint of valiant women.

[This section of this post has been edited after additional input from Marg Mowczko. I will quote from her: The etymology (the breakdown of the parts of the word) of andrizomai literally means "act like a man/men", but etymology doesn't always reflect how the word is used. The word is used to refer to bravery/courage and valour/virtue and could be used of women.] In any event, clearly both men and women are being told to be brave and courageous in 1 Corinthians 16:13– so how can it be said that courage and bravery are being defined here as masculine?

And then there are the actual women and men of the Bible.

It has to be said that the teachings of the Bible accommodate human cultures in which men are in charge of women and women are their property.  But a reflection of cultural norms is not the same as a definitive Bible teaching that sets out that the nature of manhood is one thing and the nature of womanhood is another.  When we look at those men and women who are praised in the texts for their actions, we simply don’t see anything upholding “lead, protect, provide” as definitive male behavior or “help, support, be a companion” as definitive female behavior.  Most bible heroines are distinctly independent and leadership-oriented:

  • Ruth, who was in charge of providing for her little household and took the initiative to get a man to marry her.
  • Esther, who deliberately disobeyed her husband’s clearly stated law in order to save her people.
  • Deborah, who judged the nation of Israel and sent men into battle.
  • Abigail, who intervened in the destruction of her household by taking charge and acting without her husband’s knowledge.
  • Phoebe, who carried Paul’s letter to church at Rome and whom he described as a leader of many, including myself also.

The man in the Bible (other than Christ) who is most often held up as a hero is King David–  but he was extremely reluctant to take the kingship away from Saul, and when his son Absalom attempted a coup, David abdicated without a fight, leaving it to God to restore him to the throne.  And when his infant son was in danger of death, David cried.  And cried.  And cried.

Actually, interestingly enough, the two men in the Bible who most closely fit Tim Bayly’s ideal of confident leaders with ripped muscles who take strong initiative without self-doubt are King Saul and Samson– neither of whom is shown as a good example!

Christ Himself, despite being held up as the supreme example of manliness by the CBMW (see the CBMW link above), describes Himself as meek and says that the meek will inherit the earth.  Although He does do some things which evangelical complementarians/patriarchalists like to emphasize as manly, like driving money changers of out the temple, He also sheds tears when His friend Lazarus dies, shows fear in the garden of Gethsemane, and when it’s necessary to accomplish His task, He becomes completely passive in the hands of the Sanhedrin and the Romans who crucify Him.  Jesus simply does not act according to the masculine mystique, no matter how much some of His followers might want Him to.

Christ is also never held up in the Scriptures as a model for men only.  The Bible tells both men and women, on more than one occasion, to be imitators of Christ– and I for one resent unbiblical attempts to keep me from imitating my Savior as a woman.

In short, I’m going to have to side with the feminists who believe the masculine and feminine mystiques are myths.  Neither the Bible nor modern evidence support the concept of meaning-laden, ideal gender identities which all must strive to attain.  There is no one right way to be a “real/true” man or woman.  And this is not the same as saying that men and women are exactly alike.

Perhaps if we as Christians just focused on following and imitating Christ as the selves we were created to be, we’d all be better off.

 

[Editorial Note: This article is written from the premise that the Bible is as authoritative last word for faith and practice. If you are not one of those readers, please be understanding of the intended audience and refrain from commenting on whether the Bible should be taken as such. Please show some respect for the writer and others of her faith by discussing her topic, rather than questioning whether her topic is one that even should be discussed. For more info on the site please visit - Is NLQ an Atheist Website?]

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Read everything by Kristen Rosser!

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Kristen Rosser (aka KR Wordgazer) blogs at Wordgazer’s Words

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 

 

About Suzanne Calulu
  • Joy

    Can you provide the link please? It sounds interesting and I’d like to read it. Thanks!

  • stairway to heaven

    This should work. http://www.examiner.com/article/are-you-dating-a-loser-Are you dating a loser-National marriage advice|Examiner.com

  • OK1

    Thank you for this article. This topic is very important to me because my daughter is aspiring to build the proper biblical marriage with roles defined by “Fascinating Womanhood” and “Man of steel and velvet”. I felt that squeezing all men and all women in the mold that may be so far from their real personalities is unrealistic, but I couldn’t have expressed this as well as you did.

    I have one question though if you don’t mind. It’s regarding “whether the Bible actually does uphold these masculine and feminine mystiques as the norm for manhood and womanhood”

    I remember my daughter showing me some pretty long verse from the King James Bible where a perfect woman was described: how she dresses and covers her head, how she behaves, how she respects her husband, and so on. I haven’t seen this verse mentioned here. I wonder why. Do you know what verse is this?

    Please bear with me as I am trying to make sense of everything I heard and experienced recently. Thanks in advance for your help.

  • Kristen Rosser

    OK1, the only thing I can think is that this might be the Proverbs 31 woman– described in the last half of that chapter. But this woman doesn’t fit the feminine mystique mold at all, if you actually look at the passage. She has her own business, earns her own money, makes major decisions like buying land without consulting her husband, etc. I don’t remember anything in the passage about how she covers her head. And the passage says her husband is respected “in the gates” (the place of government for the city) because of her– it doesn’t say anything one way or the other about her respecting him. Also, in that first sentence, “a virtuous woman, who can find?” — the word translated “virtuous” is actually one of those words that means “courageous” or “valiant.” When the complementarian/patriarchalist group quotes this passage, they tend to somehow skip all of this. I invite you to go and read it for yourself.

    If it’s another verse you have in mind, it would help if you gave me some indication of where it is in the Bible. There are a number of verses in the New Testament that these groups like to use to support their position– but they actually don’t, when looked at more closely. See the link to the FAQs above, and click on the ones for “The Bible and the Nature of Woman,” and “The Bible and Male Headship, Parts 1-3″

  • newcomer

    First off, their reference to women ‘playing’ at being doctors, cops, and soldiers is just so gross and awful and demeaning to women. If we were talking about women who aren’t actually any of those things dressing up as them for Halloween, then there would be no reason to specify ‘women’ since men do those too. It is rare these days that the misogyny in a statement is so unveiled as this, that it strips away someone’s identity as a doctor, cop, or soldier, someone who puts in all the work, does the job and does it well, takes as many blows and sometimes more than their male colleagues, sometimes die in the line of work, but none of that matters because vagina.

    Now, one minor quibble with something you said: as a very thin woman, I’m told that I’m not a ‘real woman’ all the time. That phrase is still very pervasive, and is still thrown around to tear down one group of women and elevate another; the change is that now it is used to tear down the women who live up to various cultural ideals more than most. The meaning has flipped, but it’s still used in a nasty, divisive way.

  • Kristen Rosser

    Newcomer, you’re so right about the horrible misogyny of “playing at doctor, cop or soldier.”

    I was unaware (as a fairly round woman) of this use of “real woman” against women like you. That’s rotten.

  • Theo Darling

    YOU MUST BE SWIFT AS THE COURSING RIVER

  • Sara Lin Wilde

    I’d also be very interested to read this, as a woman who married an abusive loser. He wasn’t religious, but sometimes the Christian patriarchy stuff gives me flashbacks.

  • Dooby Scooby

    That “playing” nonsense got to me, too. Go home, gynophobe. You are out of your league. And by the way, my husband is a real man because he ‘abdicates authority’ to me happily, as often as I do to him. But then, this neanderthal wants to know nothing of happy marriage of equals.

    I’m sorry that people feel free to insult you because of your body. We have such a long long way to go as a culture.


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