Why does American culture constantly tell women to be more like men? The New York Times recently ran an op-ed entitled “Enough Leaning In. Let’s Tell Men to Lean Out,” opposing the assertiveness movement’s message that women should aspire to male standards. I found myself nodding along with the critique of “this fist-pumping restyling of feminism” until the author insisted that boys and men should be “trained” to be more like women.
As the mother of three daughters and one (still tiny) son, that’s most certainly not my goal. There is so much that is special about my daughters, but I have no interest in teaching my son to be an also-ran girl. I expect he’ll grow up fluent in the language of women, but I want him to excel at being himself. Based on what I’ve already seen, that self is quite different from his sisters.
So while I agree that our culture often devalues choices traditionally associated with women “from the color pink to domestic labor,” and it may be true that “girls are routinely given pep talks to be ‘anything a boy can be,’” my family doesn’t believe the former or impart the latter. I’m more likely to tell my daughters that if they work hard, they can be anything they want to be — without reference to anyone else, including boys.
I want my daughters to set their own compasses for success. They should pursue their own interests and talents, not what other people prefer. So, if STEM captures their imaginations, I’ll support that, but not because it’s trendy. If they’re more humanities-oriented like their mother, I’ll support that too. And as my children age, I’ll talk to them about the importance of finding ways to blend family and career, because I believe a full life includes more than work.
Don’t Overgeneralize About Men and Women
Beyond that, I was surprised the Times’ editors didn’t modify the sweeping generalizations. It may well be true that men and women behave in certain ways on average, but such a provocative article would be well served by explicit acknowledgements that neither men nor women are a monolith. So while toxic men clearly exist (read Ronan Farrow on the entertainment industry), it seems unproductive to write things such as:
Indeed many of our problems with male entitlement and toxic behavior both in the workplace and elsewhere could well be traced back to a fundamental unwillingness among men to apologize, or even perceive that they have anything to apologize for.
At the risk of stating the obvious, not all men are jerks. Many are quite wonderful. But what incentive (beyond internal discipline) do men have to behave admirably if women dismiss them as undifferentiated oafs lacking emotional intelligence? And if we agree that it’s condescending, and even harmful, to tell women to be more like men, why would we turn around and tell men to be more like the stereotypical woman, as this essay does?
So perhaps instead of nagging women to scramble to meet the male standard, we should instead be training men and boys to aspire to women’s cultural norms, and selling those norms to men as both default and desirable. To be more deferential. To reflect and listen and apologize where an apology is due (and if unsure, to err on the side of a superfluous sorry than an absent one). To aim for modesty and humility and cooperation rather than blowhard arrogance.
Truly, how is it fair to compare some of the best traits associated with women with some of the worst associated with men? What about loyalty, bravery, and a willingness to sacrifice, whether for one’s family or military unit? Those are all traits our society used to prize in men, and as any parent knows, positive reinforcement is a force multiplier for desirable behavior.
Each Person Is an Individual
Let’s also not pretend that goodness is wholly associated with women. We are all born with good and evil impulses, and it’s up to every individual to make the right choices each day; that’s being human.
The essay concedes that “encouraging [men] to act more like women still instinctively feels like a form of humiliation,” but continues, “which is exactly why we need to try, because until female norms and standards are seen as every bit as valuable and aspirational as those of men, we will never achieve equality.”
This rankles. First, humiliating men is more likely to produce a backlash than to affect a positive change in behavior. Persuasion would be more effective, as would encouraging men to aspire to the best of masculinity and ensuring that all boys have positive male role models.
Second, what does “equality” even mean in this case? Is it having women in 50 percent of C-suites while their menfolk tend the children at home? Surveys of American women have repeatedly shown a disconnect between elite feminist goals and what most married American mothers (a.k.a., those with choices) prefer. You know, because not all women think alike.
Finally, why bother arguing that there should be one ideal for both men and women? Shoehorning men into a stereotypically female standard is likely to suit them as poorly as male standards have served most women. Flipping the experiment is likely only to extend societal misery, rather than resolve existing problems.
It’d be better if we could take a page from “Free to Be You and Me.” Let’s agree that every person is an individual. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, as well as different ideas about what makes for a happy or successful life. America is vast. Not only should we be able to accommodate those complementary multitudes, we should revel in them.