Friday, May 20, 2011

Men Behaving Badly

I suppose it was inevitable. With the rush of bad news about bad male behavior, you knew that we would be reading more theories about the difference between men and women.

Not because women never behave badly. They do, all the time. But because they behave badly differently.

The young young writers who indulge this speculation were probably brought up on feminist gender-neutered thinking. For them gender differences are not self-evident. They need to be theoretically established.

In itself this isn’t a bad thing, even if it feels that these thinkers are trying to talk themselves into something that does not feel quite natural.

Imagine that, a group of intellectuals who cannot relate to the fact that men and women are different by nature. And who have to keep explaining it to themselves in theoretical terms.

We all know, intuitively, that powerful and successful men seek out extra-marital dalliances far more often than do powerful and successful women.

No one has spent much time pondering this disparity, because it is intuitively obvious. A brief excursion into Darwin, coupled with a minimum knowledge of reproductive biology, will solve the mystery.

Writing in the Atlantic, Lane Wallace makes a more sophisticated point, point with which one cannot help but concur:  “ ... the very features that make a male politician so much more attractive to people they meet (power and competence) make their female counterparts less sexually attractive, at least in many people's eyes.” Link here.

I find it strange that Wallace cannot bring herself to say that male politicians are more attractive to women and that their female counterparts are less attractive to men, but I would guess that she has spent so much time in the ideological bath of gender neutrality that she habitually uses the word “people” instead of men and women.

Wallace does err when she implies that this dynamic only pertains to our culture: “For better or worse ... as a culture, we see competence and power as very attractive features in a man.”

In truth, ours is hardly unique among human cultures. The structure she defined is not specific to only some human cultures.

Why not admit to the fact? Perhaps because a universal cultural characteristic is much more likely to be natural, thus, immutable.

Anyone who wants to change culture in order to banish social contructs like gender will naturally want to pretend that the task is not futile.

Be that as it may, Wallace makes the salient point that women who aspire to positions of power and authority do not imagine that success will bring them more access to a bevy of attractive young men.

In her words: “I know women who have career aspirations on Wall Street, but none that involve making it big so they can have sex with a whole lot of men.”

Finally, she makes an important observation: “The link between power and sex for women, on the other hand, has been to withhold it, not to force it.”

Nicely stated, clearly conceptualized... good point.

Writing in Time Magazine, Meredith Melnick takes the theorizing one step further by asking how it happens that men become more violent and aggressive. Link here.


She begins on a promising note. Manliness, she explains, is something that men have to earn. It is not their birthright. It is not a biological given.

I think it fair to say that it's a moral imperative. Being a man means being an honorable man. Yet, when a man cannot be a man honorably, he will do so dishonorably.

In Melnick’s words: “... manhood is a social status, something a guy earned historically, through brutal tests of physical endurance or other risky demonstrations of toughness that mark the transition from boyhood to manhood. But while that masculinity is hard-won, it can be easily lost.

“Once earned, men have to continue proving their worth through manly action. In modern society, that may no longer mean, say, killing the meatiest wooly mammoth, but there are equivalent displays of masculinity: earning a decent living or protecting one's family. One misstep — losing a job, for instance, or letting someone down — and that gender identity slips away.”

Is manliness hanging by a thread? I doubt it. Losing your job and letting your family down is not a minor disturbance in your manly force field. It is a cataclysm.

I will mention in passing that when a primitive man killed a meaty wooly mammoth he was earning a living and protecting his family from starvation.

While Melnick correctly defines the cultural meaning of manliness, she is less persuasive in defining womanhood.

She sees it as a mere biological transformation: “Women don't have the same problem, of course. Womanhood is largely seen as something innate, immutable: girls become women through puberty; once achieved, womanhood sticks.”

If puberty does not make boys into men, why should it make girls into women? Why should manliness be culture-based while womanhood is purely a natural phenomenon? Does Melnick realize that if womanhood is purely natural, it does not involve any moral requirements? Doesn't she know that women take pride in being good women, in much the same way that men take pride in being good men?

I think it more correct to say that womanhood is defined in terms of relationship success, more than business or worldly success.

Like it or not, most women feel that they become fully women when they are involved in a relationship. More so when their relationship involves a public commitment. That is, when they are married.

Marriage is the social institution that turns girls into women, in ways that it does not turn boys into men.

Therefore, a woman’s fidelity and loyalty to her husband has greater moral value than does a man’s fidelity and loyalty to his wife. Her moral character depends more on fidelity; a man’s depends more on how well he protects and provides for his family.

Bad behavior for women involves giving away sexual favors too freely. I will spare you the litany of insulting terms that women use to label other women who do not uphold the highest moral standards. A promiscuous women is the rough equivalent to a man losing his job and being unable to provide for his family.

Melnick goes one step further when she reports on research that helps us to understand why men behave badly, and why they engage in mindless violence.

If you want to provoke men to behave badly, the way to do it is to insult their manliness. One research study discovered that men would react more aggressively and violently after you asked them to braid hair, thus to perform a more womanly action. 
If you want a man to become more violent and more aggressive, just hand him a feather duster, ask him to clean house, or tell him to do the laundry.

I am not suggesting that these are intrinsically demeaning tasks. They are simply not manly tasks. Doing a task that does not befit your gender counts as an insult, because the person who is asking you to do it is saying that he or she fails to recognize you for who you are.

This means that those who try to force men to perform household tasks that have traditionally been done by women are provoking them to be more aggressive and violent.

Who would have thought it?

4 comments:

David said...

Since Lane did say "sexually attractive," I think it's implicit that she was talking about "attractive to the opposite gender," at least in a heterosexual context.

Re the "in our culture" thing, I notice people saying this sort of thing all the time. I wouldn't be surprised to hear someone saying "in our culture, objects generally fall down rather than up."

btw, not sure whether or not it was linked in the article, but Lane has an interesting blog here

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for providing a link to her blog. I had not known about it, and I join you in recommending it.

In a better world I would also agree that she is referring to a heterosexual context. I still suspect that she was simply using words that would not offend those for whom sexual attraction is not for members of the opposite sex.

Most people who neuter their language do it in order not to give offense to certain groups.

I am not sure whether or not she was using the phrase, "in our culture" in the way I suggest, but I do believe that most people, when they read the phrase, which is extremely common, will come away with the idea that the cultural characteristics in question are more local than universal, and thus, something that can be changed.

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