Thoughts about Men in American Culture
Believe me, I’m not trying to start a new battle of the war between the sexes. The so-called war between the sexes has been going on as long as I’ve been alive. I remember a popular radio song in the 1950s that featured a duet between a man and a woman. The first lines were “Anything you can do, I can do better! I can do anything better than you” Followed by “No, you can’t!” Followed by “Yes, I can!” Followed by “No, you can’t!” “Yes, I can! Yes, I can! Yes, I can!” Well, that’s my memory of it and I’m not going to bother checking it right now. Sometime later I’ll look it up. That’s how I remember it. The exclamations are sung alternately by a woman and a man. Whether intended that way or not, it was received by many people as an expression of a war between the sexes.
Recently the war between the sexes in America has really heated up with one female academic writing a column in the Washington Post asking “Why can’t we hate men?” Now there are churches especially for women and churches especially for men. There’s even an organization (how really organized it is I don’t know) called “Men Going Their Own Way” (MGTOW). Look it up. It’s a reaction to feminism, or at least to a perception of feminism. Many men feel threatened by the rise of women; many women feel threatened by all men (“potential rapists”).
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
If I were a woman I would be very angry. Angry that I could not just go anywhere, anytime, alone without fear. As a man I readily get up off my easy chair at 9:45 PM and drive to the big box store to get something. I might be a bit intimidated about going to ones in certain neighborhoods, but, for the most part, I don’t worry about being grabbed and raped. In fact the fear has never crossed my mind. Mugged, sure. Occasionally, in certain places and at certain times I’ve thought maybe I should park close to the entrance…. But I think everyone knows what I’m talking about. I ask my wife to let me go with her if she needs to run out to a store or anywhere well after dark.
I would also be angry that I would probably be paid less for the same work, having the same qualifications, as a man. And I would be angry about the ever ongoing sexism of many men (and some women) in our society. And in “sexism” I include real male privilege which is still a problem in American society.
However, on the other hand, occasionally I worry that some things are getting worse for and about men—in American society especially. I don’t know how to explain what underlies these observations, but I suspect it has something to do with what some people call “distorted masculinity,” otherwise known in street language as “machismo.” I also suspect it has something to do with a generally negative view of boys and men in society—as naturally violent, overly competitive, aggressive, sinister, even dangerous.
To be specific. The other day I was looking at a new “iphone.” The sales person informed me that mine, two years old, is “old.” She showed me the newest one which is, of course, larger than my two year old one. That is, the smallest iphone is now larger than the smallest iphone two years ago. I keep my cell phone in my pocket. I used to keep it in a “holster” on my belt until I was informed that was clear evidence of being an old man. I am an old man, but being an old man is almost like being invisible. You don’t want to make it any worse than it already is!
I remembered back to when I lived in Europe in the 1980s. One of the first thing we noticed was that many men carried what I can only call “man bags”—male versions of purses. I once had a male colleague (in America) who carried one and many people all suspected him of being gay even though he was married and there were no “other signs” of gayness about him. Sometimes I think how nice it would be to be able to carry a small “man bag” over my shoulder. But then, I suspect, many people—both men and women—would think there was something wrong with me. So, for now, I passed on the new iphone because I don’t know where to keep it on my person!
What’s my point? Well, the above is just a very small, minor example of something I have noticed increasing in American society. As acceptance of gayness has grown so has fear of being perceived to be gay. Many years ago, when I was a teenager, there was nothing wrong with two male friends locking arms or even throwing their arms over each others’ shoulders. Now, one hardly ever sees that except among openly gay men.
Men in American society are becoming increasingly lonely and isolated. Very close male friendships are rare. I’m talking intimacy without sex—sharing each other’s lives. Men in American society are becoming increasingly reluctant to show emotions except anger or joy (but joy only at a sports event). Men in American society rarely sing and when they do, if they really enjoy it, many people think there must be something wrong with them.
I am a church-goer. I even go to church when on vacations. I like visiting churches. I suspect I have worshiped in more churches than most people. Something I have definitely noticed is how few men sing in church—anymore. When I was growing up in evangelical Christianity in America in the 1950s and 1960s male singing ensembles were common in churches. And most men sang the hymns during worship. Choirs were close to half men and half women. Now I see a change. Whenever I visit a church, or attend my own, I pay attention to how many of the men around me are singing during the “praise and worship” or “song service” times. I would venture to say that less than half sing—compared with most of the women who are singing or at least trying to sing. (Many contemporary “praise and worship” songs are hard to sing, but I see and hear more women than men at least trying.)My wife and I enjoy watching various cable television shows about international travel, different cultures, etc. Many of these travel programs show men in places like Ireland and Poland and other countries singing without shame. I remember one such program (I don’t recall which) that lingered for a while in an English pub where the men drowned out the women singing traditional cultural songs. It’s evidently a tradition in that locale. But so it is in many countries. How often, if ever, do American men sing? O, sure, there are some men’s choirs, but they are rarely as large as women’s.
A few years ago I attended a high school choir concert. The two hour long program included only one song by the male choir. Most of the program was women only. A mixed choir had a few men. But the difference was very noticeable.
I simply don’t accept the argument that men “naturally don’t sing as much as women.” They do in many cultures and used to in America. All male choirs and male singing groups used to be extremely popular. (I’m not talking about “boy bands” but ordinary boys and men.) Now they are difficult to find because, so I am told by professionals, they are difficult to organize.
I believe that somehow, for some reason, singing has come to be associated in most American men’s minds with vulnerability if not femininity. The same is true of very close, intimate friendships. The same is true of showing emotions other than anger and jubilation when a favored team is winning a sports event.
Then there is the second problem I mentioned above. All men—at least in America—tend to get blamed for the violence, aggressiveness, even sexual perversions of some men. Imagine a man volunteering to babysit children. I see television ads for companies that connect parents with child care givers. Not once have I seen a male child care giver shown among the pictures of available child care givers. I doubt the companies would accept one as a client.
A couple years ago I happened to be alone in the toy aisle of a large supermarket grocery store. I was just pushing my cart through it to the cash registers. I noticed a very small boy, no older than two, alone in the aisle. I stopped at the end of the aisle just to see if there was any adult supervising him. None appeared. He was clearly alone. I’m sure his parent or an older sibling or some adult who should have been supervising him was somewhere in the store, but he was clearly being neglected. It was a huge store with hundreds of shoppers. I looked in both aisles beside that one. No one that looked like they were paying any attention to him. I waited for at least ten minutes. Nobody came; he was abandoned for all practical purposes.
The point is this. I knew instinctively that, as a man, I could not help him. I waited at the end of the aisle until a woman came along. I said to her “I think you might help this little boy. He seems to be lost. Better you than I.” She said “You’re right. I will take him to the office for them to find his adult.” It’s taken for granted in American society that men cannot help children unless they are uniformed. Suspicion of being perverted or at least dangerous falls on all men.
I remember an episode of “What Would You Do?”—the prime time “hidden camera” television show—in which a young male actor holding an empty gas can was sent by the producer and presenter to ask both men and women at gas pumps to help him. He explained very nicely that his car ran out of gas and he didn’t have money to buy any gas. He didn’t want money; he only wanted a gallon or two of gasoline. Most of the men offered to help him. None of the women did; they all turned him away. Why? The presenter asked a female psychologist to watch the segment and explain what happened. She blamed the boy himself—for lacking sufficient confidence in his approach to people. Hardly. Much more likely is that the women had been sensitized by our society to be fearful and suspicious of especially young men.
I have no definite solutions to offer. I have only one suggestion. We need more good men, self-confident, strong and vulnerable, teaching our boys in the younger grades of schools. There are almost none.
In the city where I live the public school district is sponsoring a campaign to hire more ethnic teachers—especially African-American and Hispanic—better to reflect the ethnicity of the student bodies of the schools. What about a campaign to hire more men? There are almost no men teaching in the public schools—at the lower grades. Apparently the administrators don’t care about that way in which the teachers do not reflect the make up of the student bodies.
I’m not trying to have a pity party for men. I’m trying to open up a slightly different part of an already going conversation about the sexes in American society. Boys and men are too afraid of appearing vulnerable. Men are lumped together as all suspect of being violent if not sexually perverted. Somehow these deficiencies need also to be addressed in the conversations about the sexes.
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