Sunday, August 21, 2005

What It Means to Be Real [Guest Blog]?

In the New York Times bestseller, Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher refers to characterizations of women as “weak, docile, and other-oriented.” Pipher presents several startling stories of young women in the early nineteen nineties struggling to fit the societal mold of a model woman. These girls starve themselves to near-death to be thin, take charge of crippled households, defy their individuality for men, and give in so they can fit in. Giving in comes in many forms: giving in to men who see them as sexual objects, giving in to a society that often tells them that their place is in the home, and giving in to an adolescent experience which crushes the unbridled, confident spirit of their childhood. The overarching theme of Pipher’s book is powerful: our society is polluting our young women and we need to stop it.

A decade later, I wish I could say much has changed. The tides of feminism have given young women in this society an access to opportunity and a source of confidence that was once nonexistent. However, a look at the incidences of anorexia, teen suicide, teenage pregnancy gives a clear indicator that the work Pipher spoke of a decade ago is far from finished.

In many ways, our society still promotes unhealthy images for young women. Many activists, Phyllis Schlafly as one example, promote the natural providence of women in the home. With this in mind, I begin to wonder, “What does it mean to be real?”

Schlafly argues that feminism is an attempt to “repeal and restructure human nature.” She answers the question of what it means to be real like this, “What I am defending is the real rights of women. Women should have the right to be in the home as wife and mother.” For Schlafly and crew, the natural place of the woman is in the home, away from the public sector of society, raising the family.

The ‘feminine mystique’ that Betty Friedan spoke of with such disdain, according to these individuals, is the natural position of women in civil society. I think not.

In order to discuss such issues, we need to look at the philosophies that underlies them. This involves asking a few questions. Here are a few? What distinguishes women and men? Women are the sex with the reproductive ability. But beyond that, what predisposes women to the constraints of home? What tells us that women are weak, docile, and other-oriented? Quite simply, nothing.

I am a man. It is inescapable. And I like being a man. But what does it mean to be a man? Really? Are we less capable of loving our children, less capable of raising them? Are we better equipped to earn income for the family? How are we different? On average, one can argue, men have more physical strength. So what?

These questions are really best answered in context. The context is 2005. We live in a society which has established the parameters that enable men and women to take on equal roles in society. Neither sex is more qualified for the task of raising families or providing for these families.

Yet we allow the constraints of the past to haunt us. If men take on qualities that aren’t macho, they are considered to be weak. If women attempt to dream a life for themselves in the public sector and fulfill that dream, some accuse them of defying their natural position. Young women are taught to judge themselves based on their physical appearance and society continually allows women to be objectified by men.

We are still using gender as the dividing line despite the fact that the healthy functioning of society is hurt by such inane distinctions. Women are as qualified as men to be doctors, engineers, lawyers, and such forth. Men are as able as women to take care of their families, to show human emotion. Yet when we watch a forum on C-SPAN of the nation’s leading female CEOs, they are asked questions about juggling family and work. When we see society’s leading male CEOs on C-SPAN, they are asked questions about their work. Why are these women judged on their efficacy as caretaker and businessperson, while their husbands are judged on their efficacy as businessperson?

This should be common sense. We have created a societal framework that allows for egalitarian values. The framework exists to treat men and women according to their virtue, yet it is so frequently ignored in favor of a system that divides genders among lines which are read as weak/strong, nurturing/stoic, man/woman.

I don’t say this just as a young, idealistic, male feminist. I say this as a son, a brother, a nephew, and a friend: Gender doesn’t shape identity. Society shapes identity. Why aren’t we better fostering a society which enables man and woman to pursue their goals and dreams without arbitrary barriers to their advancement? Isn’t that the democratic thing to do?

Earlier I asked, What does it mean to be real? The answer: Anything you want it to mean. Perhaps we would be better off if we stopped trying to force men and women into gender straightjackets, and worked harder to promote a society which encourages individual identity. Any woman who wants to affect change in society is real to me. Just as real as the man who values nurturing and loving his children.

Guest Blogger: Gburgkid