Monday, April 02, 2007

Manufacturing Marketplace Masculinity

I was haunted by this piece, "For Girls, It's Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too," in the NYTimes all day yesterday. I gave a presentation at a local church on my work on enhancement, Prozac and Gender and this article was pervading my consciousness through the whole talk. While this article focuses on the pressures that young women face, who want to be accepted to elite colleges, especially when women are overrepresented and men are underrepresented, I was much more intrigued by the insane pressure they live under at their age.

I am grateful that I grew up in California, went to a big Public high school and had never heard of most of the elite colleges these women aspire to attend. I was a girl in high school. I worked hard and enjoyed what I learned, but I didn't drive myself insane. No one pressured me to get into Williams, Smith or Bowdoin. And, I am pretty sure I turned out just fine having not taken that route.

But, the times are different in many ways from when I was in high school. The world of a child or teenager is more structured, more pressurized, and more driven by a fear that anything less than excellence will result in a destitute life. As I was reading about the young women at Newton North I couldn't help but worry about how much more burned out they will all feel once they get to college. I look around at my current students, who are trying to balance lots of co-curricular activities, a social life, classes and work, and they are stressed out. What I failed to note was how they had been living that stressed out life way before they got here. No wonder one of my top students is likely to graduate with an ulcer (yes Abby, I am talking about you!)

Another aspect of this piece that really haunts me is the new sort of 'femininity' fashioned in these high stakes times. These young women are not silly or frivolous. One could not imagine any of them trying to rush a sorority. They are passionate, intellectual, and driven to be leaders in all aspects of their high school experience. Their teachers (who sound excellent, but his is what a neighborhood with a median house price of $700,000 will buy you) groom these women to be intellectual giants.

And yet, it is not good enough to be intellectuals, they must be 'hot,' while putting off boyfriends, dating, or any other distractions from their goal of admission to an elite college. They want to be feminine, but err more on the assertive side than compassionate side.

It is this transformation in 'ideal' femininity that bothers me and was the basis of my talk with the church group. The intense pressures to succeed in 21st America cannot tolerate compassion, sensitivity, and softness. I am not nostalgic for the media-styled femininity of the 50s. But, I am worried about a culture so bent on success that we breed out of ourselves all the skills that are important and required for building communities and relationships.

Let me also add that I am not just worried that the young women are learning to adopt, what I call, "marketplace masculinity," but the men are pushed to even further extremes of hyper virility.

When I finished my talk yesterday, a woman came up to me and said: "Men manage things, women manage people. Things are easy to manipulate, people cannot be controlled. Hence, this is why women fall into bouts of misery and alienation at far greater rates than men." I thought her insight was clever, but clearly an oversimplification of reality. But, what is worth pondering in her insight is how important the labor of tending and caring for people is and why we can't lose sight of that . . . even if it brings us more misery.

More importantly, we need to recognize that if a high stakes competitive culture is at the heart of re-engineering gender roles, then feminism needs to step in and start asking some hard questions. Certainly, this is not the dream of all, or even most, of the foremothers who wanted to create a more just, more caring society.