Being a man is okay (if its the best you can do).

Being a man is okay (if its the best you can do). November 25, 2010

Occasionally I will stray away from obviously theological topics into something else that concerns me.  One of my pet peeves (actually a little stronger than that) is our society’s tendency to lurch to extremes in reaction to things.

Just one example of many that I could mention: the fact that teachers in public schools are generally forbidden to hug children.  Just because some adults have abused their power and have sexually abused children our society now denies children the extremely important experience of being hugged by adults other than their parents.  Related to that, a few years ago I read a district attorney of a large metropolitan area declare in the newspaper that the most dangerous place for children is not in the streets but in their own homes.  No conditions.  The clear implication was “all children”–as if all parents are abusive.

Our society has a tendency to over react to things.  We begin to recognize a social evil and then quickly rush to avoid it by going to extremes in the opposite direction.  (One exception to this, in my opinion, is poverty.)

I realize that I am almost alone in my concern about one example of this social tendency–society’s view of men and boys.  The old saying “It’s a man’s world” doesn’t hold anymore except in corporate board rooms and in terms of pay.  It’s true that women still do not earn as much as men for doing the same jobs.  There’s a lot of debate about why, but I’m willing to believe it is sheer gender discrimination.  That’s one area where, overall and in general (with exceptions in some industries) we haven’t reacted strongly enough to revelation of gender inequality.  Women should be paid the same as men for doing the same work.  Period.

And there are other areas where women have a ways to go and it’s up to men, at least in some cases, to remove obstacles we and our fathers have put in their way.  For example, women in ministry.  We need to grow up and face the reality that God calls women and step aside (if necessary) to fully facilitate women’s use of their gifts in the churches.  I have been a member of two churches (in my adult life) pastored by women and they were among the very best preachers and pastors I have ever known.  May their tribe increase.

So, I readily admit that in some areas of our society gender equality is still lacking for women.  But progress is being made.  NOW and other women’s organizations and the feminist movement in general have brought great benefit to women and I applaud them for that.

However, I believe (and I seem to be almost alone in this) that one deleterious side effect of all the good feminism and the women’s movement have brought about is a tendency to treat men and boys as defective human beings.  This appears in schools, in the media and in the health industries.

Let’s start with the media.  Yes, there are lots of male stars of TV and movies, but increasingly they are portrayed as either stupid (as in most TV sitcoms) or sinister (as in most movies).  Yes, yes, there are exceptions.  Of course.  But overall and in general one effect of the women’s movement has been an over reaction in the media to portray women as always strong and competent and men as stupid or sinister.

One example comes to mind (of many I could mention).  Why is it okay for women on TV and in movies to physically abuse men?  We’ve learned that domestic abuse is always wrong–except when it’s a woman physically abusing a man.  Take the show Everybody Loves Raymond, for example.  Ray’s wife often slapped, punched and kicked him–often in the groin–and everybody laughed as he recoiled in pain or doubled over in pain.  A frequent them in movies is women beating up men–often in ways that look wholly unlikely (e.g., a rather slightly build young lady completely demolishing a very large, muscular man).  Why is violence against women always wrong but violence by women against men is okay?

Last year ABC television aired a segment of its Primetime TV magazine show “What Would You Do?” in which two actors, one male and one female, pretended to be fighting in a public place.  The woman was slapping, hitting and kicking the man who was having trouble escaping.  Not one passerby or observer stepped in even though the woman actor was clearly getting the better of the man.  One woman jogging past the scene, completely taken in by the acting, raised her fist and shouted “You go girl!”  When the host of the show stopped her and asked her she said something to the effect that she assumed the man deserved it.  Huh?

I have not seen a man portrayed as a good and decent man with real competence and skill in a TV sitcom since Bill Cosby’s father character in the Bill Cosby Show–at least a decade or more ago.

Now, in case you’re thinking I feel badly for men, let me say–it’s not men I’m worried about.  It’s boys.  What must boys watching these shows and movies think it is to be a man?  What impression of society’s view of men do they get?  We want boys to grow up to be good husbands and fathers, but where are any good husbands or fathers on TV or in movies?  Some are “good” in the sense of “well-meaning,” but few are solid characters with real competence. 

Let me turn now to education.  Studies have shown that boys learn better from men than from women.  (Girls also learn better from women than from men.)  And yet the number of men teaching in the lower grades continues to dwindle.  What are the professional societies of educators and public school systems doing to recruit men teachers?  I haven’t seen anything about that.  Instead, whenever I see a teacher featured in an ad promoting education it’s a woman.  Yes, that reflects much of reality.  But when women were lacking in certain industries a lot of money and energy was put into public service spots in the media to recruit more women.  For example, there is a distinct lack of women in the fields of engineering–both in the academy and the industry.  As an educator I have encountered many efforts to recruit women students to enter that and other fields lacking in women.  There are many endeavors to help girls in mathematics and the sciences.  In the meantime there are very few endeavors to help boys become teachers or even to succeed in school.  The vast majority of dropouts are boys.  Girls are excelling beyond boys at every level of education.  Seventy percent of college and university students in America are females.

A couple years ago Newsweek featured a cover story about The Boy Crisis in public education.  It set off a flury of criticism from women’s groups as if we shouldn’t care that boys are failing in school.  I suspect that some women’s groups are afraid that any exposure of the boy crisis in public education will somehow detract from their efforts to help girls.  It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, however.  More help for boys (and men to become teachers) doesn’t have to detract from help for girls and women.

I could say much more about how our public schools and educational institutions are failing boys, but let me turn now to the fields of health and medicine.  Every February the American Heart Association launches a public ad campaign called “Go Red for Women.”  Great!  I’m all for bringing greater attention to women’s health.  But where are the campaigns for men’s heart health?  I haven’t seen a single public service announcement or educational event aimed specifically at men’s health by any non-profit organization in years.  Look at the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s work on behalf of victims of breast cancer.  I’m all for it.  But when is some non-profit health organization going to pay some attention to men?  More men than women die of cancer every year.  The AHA says more women than men die of heart disease, but it neglects to explain that many of them die of congestive heart failure in old age.  Men continue to die of heart attacks and strokes at younger ages than women.  When the statistics are age adjusted more men than women die of heart disease.  One never hears that.

You can’t turn around without seeing an ad or pink ribben symbol or something aimed at women’s health.  That’s great.  I’m all for it. But I’m also for more attention to men’s health since men die on average 5 to 6 years younger than women.  If the statistic were reversed with women dying 5 to 6 years younger than men I’m sure we would hear about it all the time and there would be great efforts aimed at ameliorating that.  Instead, the federal government funds and runs an Office for Women’s Health that funds and encourages research on women’s health.  There is no parallel office for men’s health.  Such has been suggested in congress for years, but nothing has come of the bill.

Sure, men are largely to blame for their own poor health.  But it’s still a public health issue–partly because when men die young(er) they often leave behind an impoverished wife and sometimes children. 

I could go on and on.  Please know that I am in no way advocating less attention to women’s health and education.  And I think it’s good that women are generally portrayed as strong and competent and good on TV and in movies.  What I’m against is thinking that boys and men have to be ignored or badly portrayed in order to promote the well being of girls and women and, to some extent, at least, that is happening. 

Garrison Keillor said it best in his Book of Guys (paraphrasing here): Being a man used to be an advantage, now it is just a problem.  Indeed.  But I don’t really care that much about men.  We can take care of ourselves.  It’s the boys I worry about. 

The University of Kent (England) recently conducted a study that showed that boys are falling behind girls in schools in part, at least, because they are expected to perform less well than girls.  (“Gender Expectations and Stereotype Threat”).  In other words, European and American societies are raising boys many of who will end up in prison and/or unemployed and drifting because that’s what we expect them to be when they grow up.  That’s especially true with regard to minorities.  But I believe it is also true, to some extent, across the board.

So what should concerned people do?  I write letters to the editor and occasional guest columns about these situations–advocating more attention to men’s health and better role models of men for boys in the media, etc.  I write letters to organizations that I perceive to be neglecting men’s health or ignoring boys’ education.  I have written numerous e-mails to TV shows when they continually portray men as murderers, incompetent nincompoops and cute but silly idiots. 

My basic assumption is that two wrongs do not make a right.  Yes, our society is guilty of having oppressed women.  But that is largely being addressed.  For the most part, anyway, educated movers and shakers of society are aware of the need to make sure girls and women have equal opportunity.  In the field of education that is definitely the case even if a few disciplines such as engineeering are still largley populated by males.  (I have yet to see the same advocates for girls and women in higher education arguing that nursing or teaching or social work would be better with more men involved!)  I think some people think men deserve the treatment they are increasingly getting (and I’ve only touched on some of the examples–another is that men get harsher sentences for the same crimes women commit) because of the sins of our fathers (and some of us).  Perhaps.  But what about the boys?  Boys are increasingly growing up unsure of the value of being male.  Boys need respect, too.  By and large they aren’t getting it from society.  Girls are.  I don’t think our boys deserve to suffer for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers and male ancestors.

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