Men are from Earth, Women are from Earth

New York Times

May 3, 2007

Escape from the Gender Ghetto


The very same morning that I began to read the new essay collection: “One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers,” which examines the role of women in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and in other instances of American military abuse, I came upon a man out for a walk with his baby daughter. He was wearing shorts; she was in a sunsuit. He wore a hat; she wore a bonnet. He carried her in a BabyBjörn-like-thing on his chest, and as he reached down for a moment to hike up her bottom (reassuring himself, I imagine, that she was still hanging in there), he looked so blissfully happy, so beatific, in fact, that I had to give him a smile.

He smiled back – the somewhat sheepish grin of someone caught in a moment of guilty pleasure – and I thought, what a blessing it is for this man to be able to be a father today.

In the foreword to “One of the Guys” progressive icon Barbara Ehrenreich writes about how seeing the now-infamous Abu Ghraib photographs “broke [her] heart.” The sight of Lynndie England, with a naked Iraqi man on a leash, and Specialist Sabrina Harman, “smiling an impish little smile and giving the thumbs-up sign from behind a pile of hooded, naked Iraqi men,” she writes, shattered her “illusions about women.” While she “never believed that women were innately gentler and less aggressive than men,” she says, she did believe that “women were morally superior to men,” due in part to the fact that “women do most of the caring work in our culture.” The presence of women in our armed forces, she had hoped, “would over time change the military, making it more respectful of other people and cultures, more capable of genuine peacekeeping.” (The essay was originally published in the Los Angeles Times.)

How odd, I thought, reading this.

Chalk it up to having come of age in the Thatcher years; I never have harbored any particular beliefs in the inherent peacefulness, respectfulness or revolutionary potential of women. Thanks to my historical shortsightedness, prior to reading Ehrenreich I’d even managed to forget that, only a few decades ago, such beliefs were commonplace among feminists. They still permeate our culture, these notions of difference, showing up today in the push for boys-only classrooms and in the shelf life of such pop psych classics as “Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus”. They also show up, as Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers, co-authors of “Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs,” have written, in an oddly “presumably female-friendly form of postfeminist ‘essentialism,’ arguing that women are in their very essence compassionate, empathetic, cooperative, loving and sensitive, while men are essentially competitive, assertive, independent, self-reliant and thick-skinned.” And they still have a certain hold over a certain kind of boomer-feminist imagination.

“A certain kind of feminism, or perhaps I should say a certain kind of feminist naïveté, died in Abu Ghraib,” Ehrenreich writes. “What we need is a tough new kind of feminism with no illusions. … a kind of feminism that aims not just to assimilate into the institutions that men have created over the centuries, but to infiltrate and subvert them.”

I’m not convinced, however, that we need a new kind of feminism. I’d like to see instead if we could step away from gender and breathe life into a new kind of ism that turns around simply being human.

After all, men and women aren’t all that different anymore. Both work – according to the Council on Contemporary Families, 70 percent of women aged 24 to 54 were employed in 2000, compared with 80 percent of men in 2005. Both men and women do housework (men more than in the past, and women much less). Both are spending more one-on-one time with their kids than they did a generation ago. Both are suffering from the twin pulls of work and family; in fact, in one study mentioned in the Council’s latest report, “Unconventional Wisdom,” more men than women reported experiencing work-family stress. And both, it seems, are now seen by their kids as frazzled and overwrought; when 1000 children in the 3rd through 12th grades were asked by researchers to name their biggest wish for change in the way their parents’ work affects their lives, most wished that their mothers (34 percent) and their fathers (27.5 percent) would be less stressed and tired.

Sociologists Molly Monahan Lang and Barbara J. Risman have called this a pattern of “gender convergence” – an “ever-increasing similarity in how men and women live and what they want from their lives.” I wonder about the veracity of some of the dad-participation hours (according to the Families and Work Institute, Gen X fathers now spend an average of 3.4 hours per workday with their children, vs. 2.2 hours for Boomer dads – a time investment that I don’t see all that frequently in my own little corner of the world). But the big picture still clearly indicates that — however slowly and imperfectly — the boundaries between the worlds of men and women are dissolving.

My own crowd has perhaps been too early for – or not quite worthy of – the burgeoning revolution, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t coming for others. The long-held feminist goal of becoming more fully human has been, at least in theory, achieved for women, and now appears to be in the cards for the rising generation of men as well – assuming we will see the kinds of concrete social policy changes that are needed to make it possible. Getting family issues out of the gender ghetto and putting them front and center in our shared political imagination would be a step in the right direction.

But being human has its up- and downsides. In the case of Abu Ghraib, says Rosalind Barnett, the female abusers didn’t break with their “nature” as women; they simply had a historic opportunity to act upon what, for some, always lies dormant. “With Abu Ghraib,” she says, “people focused on gender and ignored the fact that these were men and women who were in the same situation. The evidence shows that when women men and women are put in the same situations … they don’t behave differently. All the things we think of as stereotypically female are situational.”

The potential for women to be predatory has always existed. Now women are in a position to act upon it. And men are better positioned to express their better natures. Does this mean men who nurture and prioritize their families are at risk of becoming “one of the girls”? Only if we hold onto outdated notions of what it means to be a guy.


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