Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Looks, Family and Babies: A Man's View of the Hard Lives of Women

I can’t stomach frequent visits to Shakesville, since the things I read there almost always make me angry. But I visited last week and read something astonishing: PortlyDyke's Robbing the Hearts of Men. I don’t know much about PD, but from what I've read her feminist credentials seem unassailable.

Her post went well beyond just a cursory and grudging acknowledgment of what men have to face. Particularly this part:

Think about this the next time you hear someone say the words: "Be a man!"

Actually look at the situation in which this comes up, and think about what is being demanded. In my experience, it usually means: Shut up about your feelings. Grit your teeth and bear your pain and don't let anyone know you're feeling it. Don't show it on your face, don't talk about it, square your shoulders and your jaw and carry on like everything's OK -- hide it however you can.

That, to me, is unbearably sad.


This seemed motivated by genuine sympathy, and she got some well-deserved complements on it from both men and women. She drew a lot of fire too, and said in a comment:
If you appreciate me seeing the men's side of this with this post -- please go write a post about the women's side of it -- and defend it as thoroughly as I've defended mine.

It wasn't directed at me, but I figured I would try. My readers know I'm certainly no feminist. So here goes:

--

I suppose it happens for every girl. At some point, early in childhood, you suffer the frightening realization that how you look marks the boundaries of your life. Girls and women that are loved seem to have a certain look about them. If you are pretty, someone will come for you. If you are very pretty, in an almost magical way, that person that comes will be a prince, someone strong and good who will build a world filled with happiness for you.

The promise is that you needn't do anything or accomplish anything to gain happiness - if you have that look happiness will come and carry you away.

So you take stock of yourself pretty early, comparing yourself against every woman you see and every girl around you. Am I as pretty as she is? Lots of people help you in this assessment - your parents especially. If nature has favored you you'll gain some reassurance early on, and for a while you'll be able to believe you are good enough. But not for long - the bar is set impossibly high. From childhood on you walk a gauntlet of looks wherever you go. You hear comments or laughter from boys, or behind-your-back whispers from girls who you thought were your friends. People that love you understand this - they praise your good features, and show you how makeup and clothes can be used to obscure your more troublesome aspects. Dolls help illustrate these lessons. So you study yourself and pick your clothes and apply makeup very, very carefully, preparing yourself as if you were a dish being served up.

Of course bodies matter to men too - but not in anything like the same way. Boys are taught to evaluate their bodies based on what they can do. How fast can they run? Can they catch up to a high fastball? Can I win this fight? Boys are taught to treat their bodies like instruments to be honed for a purpose - after all boys learn very early that they have to do something to be loved. You are taught that you have to be something to be loved.

And what a difference that makes! There are so many more ways of doing than of being. And suppose - just suppose - you really, really want to do things? You feel some inner call to change the way things are? You can find a few examples of accomplished, independent women in stories, pictures and movies, but all of these examples make one lesson clear - - yes, it is possible to do "manly" things like this, but you'd better look damned good doing them.

No one expects you to show bravery. No one expects you to put yourself in danger. Quite the opposite you are encouraged to depend on your family for protection as a child, and to find a man to protect you as an adult. Fear is more than allowed - it is encouraged as an opportunity to seek comfort from others. Protection and rescue is men's work and women's due - and you sit with the deep fear that those rescued will be chosen for their beauty, and little else.

You learn that independence is risky, almost radioactive. When boys leave the nest it is a source of pride. You can leave too, but only to join another nest - a man's nest. Otherwise it is a betrayal.

Early on a whole range of emotion is severed from you. You can indulge sadness and fear in a way that boys can't. Anger is fine for boys, because it is properly seen as a spur to action. You are not allowed anger. Anger gives you hard edges, and all your edges must be smooth and inviting. Anger is a sign of ambition, and in you ambition is seen as selfish, and lack of proper consideration of others. Don’t rock the boat, don’t make trouble, swallow any anger and keep the peace. A peaceful family is a refuge - you must keep the inner peace, and let the men fight off the world.

Directness in men is admirable - but if you are direct you are being pushy and demanding and hence unattractive. Men are encouraged - even shamed - into getting things done. If you want things done the only acceptable way is to get others to do it. But this requires great art. If men get others to do their bidding, it is seen as leadership. If you get others to do things, it can be manipulative. Men can be clever - you seen conniving.

Anger isn’t welcome - especially by those who love you. Ambition is closed off. Men can dedicate their lives to a creative or intellectual endeavor - any desires you have in that area must remain second to a far more important endeavor: having babies. If you put any ambition before love and family you are seen as cold and stunted. Love must be your ambition. Seek it you must, but not by hunting it. No - you must set bait.

--

Dolls teach you about the importance of appearance, and dolls teach you about babies. Be pretty, leave your family in the arms of a dashing suitor, and have babies - that is the track that was laid down for you. Get the order wrong and there is big trouble. If you focus on appearance and winning love, and avoid the baby - you are a whore. If your baby is born without the bind of sanctioned love, you are a shameful parasite. If you have a baby and don't keep the baby, your are a murderess. If you can't have a baby, you are an object of deep pity, and no - they don’t prepare you for that possibility as a child.

Babies are essential to society, but you bear the burden, and the terror of that. Men are taught to seek out and face danger as a general matter, but you are armored to face one particular and one very specific ordeal that no army can protect you from: childbirth.

If you get through it - and despite any medical advances every cell in your body knows the odds are not good - there is a reward. Something special, almost sacred you've been pointed at since you were a child. Feeding your newborn infant is one of the most blissful experiences a person can have. This is one of those universal feelings that everyone - even men - can experience. But in contrast to men you must have this inner experience - the blessing is mixed with the burden of obligation. God forbid you are one of those rare women who recoil from your wailing infant. That isn’t a feeling you can share - with anyone.

Women have plenty of time to think while they care for their infants, and to reorient themselves to new, and troubling, circumstances. You have a soul to protect now, a soul more important than even your own. Life has played this trick on you: you've been given something infinitely important to protect, but have always been told you are powerless to do so. While protection of your family has always been the one area where fierceness might be acceptable - you've also been taught that men are better, more effective protectors than you could ever be. If you've followed the right order of things, and have a loving man to protect you, this infant you hold should mean just as much to him. But does it? Every pull from your breast makes you wonder if he cares as much. You know you don’t look attractive at the moment, so you wonder at the strength of his bond to you. He has his child - does he still need you?

All of life has prepared you for a family. You've fought through the pain of childbirth, and you've won the purpose you're allowed. You've won a deep and binding stake in the world, and now you know why you've always been encouraged to feel afraid.

--

Obviously this just scratches the surface of the hard lives that women face. This is just my narrow view of one mainstream pathway in women's lives - I suspect the others are no easier.

So having said the above - how do I feel about feminism? As I've said here, I don’t like feminism because as an ideology it is dangerous, and as a movement it provides a welcoming and supportive refuge for anti-male bigots. Has feminism ever hurt me? I've never raised a hand to my wife, I've never had a child by any woman other than her, and I believe any success I've won is due to my talents. Feminism has not hurt me. Will feminism hurt my son? Perhaps it has raised suspicions against men, and he'll have to deal with that. But after all the odious things that men have done, and continue to do, a healthy suspicion about men - and indeed all people - is surely warranted. Perhaps feminist politics have given some evil women tools they can use to torment him? Yes, but I'm just as worried - or more worried - about the dangers he faces from men. If he is a decent man who makes an honest living, and treats women with love and respect, I doubt feminism will make any difference to him.

But when I consider my daughters I know that feminists have forced open some doors. My daughters have some paths in life and tools to use that they wouldn't have had otherwise.

So I am grateful for feminism.

3 comments:

J. Goff said...

I've never raised a hand to my wife...Feminism has not hurt me

Honestly, I have no earthly clue what this means. Feminism, by speaking up for battered women, would hurt you if you beat up your wife? Please tell me this is not a core point you are trying to make.

PortlyDyke said...

Sweating, I'll give you an A+ on that one -- and some news that may disturb you . . . .

Dude -- I think you may be a feminist ;)

Sweating Through fog said...

PD: Thanks. And as for being a feminist: Ohhhh no!! :)