The war on possibility—a response to “The war on men” by Fox News

This week, Fox News posted an article titled The war on men. Now, I don’t follow Fox News, but a friend shared the article with it and asked for my opinion on it as a man. I found the article deeply troubling, and decided to write a whole blog post about it rather than just a cursory chat reply.

To summarize the article by pulling snippets out of it:

“The battle of the sexes is alive and well. [...] Believe it or not, modern women want to get married. Trouble is, men don’t. [...] When I ask them why, the answer is always the same.
Women aren’t women anymore.
[...] It’s the women who lose. [...] Fortunately, there is good news: women have the power to turn everything around. All they have to do is surrender to their nature – their femininity – and let men surrender to theirs.”

Upon first read, I had the impression that this article was written by a man who was disgruntled about the changes wrought upon his life by feminism. “The author doesn’t really know a lot about gender,” I reflected to my friend, “or rights issues.”

Then I realized the author’s name is Suzanne. Suzanne Venker is author of a variety of books about marriage, motherhood, and other books and articles that largely decry feminism. Now, it’s likely that Venker does at least recognize some of the rights/benefits feminism has brought her (such as the possibility of even being a professional speaker and author) but it’s clear from the Fox article and from her blog that she’s largely opposed to feminism. I’d like to take this article piece by piece and provide alternate explanations for some of the observations Venker makes.

The dance between men and women

“…for the first time in history, women have become the majority of the U.S. workforce. They’re also getting most of the college degrees. The problem? This new phenomenon has changed the dance between men and women.”

Okay, this is objectively true. In fact, I’ll even agree with the fact that there are problems with the dance between men an women at present. I don’t think that the change in the dance is itself the problem. Learning any new kind of dance is awkward! It will take time and practice for us to become comfortable with this new dance. The dance itself though, offers so many more opportunities than the dull foxtrot we’ve been doing for centuries. This new dance is improvisational and nuanced and expressive!

On a personal note, with respect to dance: dance is something that is very important to me. I enjoy virtually all forms of dance, from swing to interpretive to contact improvisation. I would like to extend Venker’s analogy, and suggest that while men and women used to only do one kind of dance, what has now happened is that we’ve been introduced to a vast multitude of other possibilities. We can still do the old foxtrot if we want, but we also have new options: we can jive, tango, or line-dance. We can do contact improvisation, a kind of partner dance where neither leads and both follow. We can dance on our own, just moving to the music.

The problem that Venker describes would be more accurately characterized by saying that the dance floor is now much more exciting, but now you can’t just say, “Shall we dance?”—you actually have to figure out how you’re going to dance, and that you both want to dance like that. It’s a question we’re not used to addressing, so it makes us uncomfortable. That’s okay. We’re humans; we’ll learn, and then we’ll have so many more possibilities.

Outdated models of people

“I’ve accidentally stumbled upon a subculture of men who’ve told me, in no uncertain terms, that they’re never getting married. When I ask them why, the answer is always the same.
Women aren’t women anymore.”

Or, to paraphrase, their model of women no longer matches how women behave. Women have changed, sure. Womanhood has changed. The word“women” has changed. Deal with it.

The map is not the territory. This phrase, popularized by Alfred Korzybski in 1931, describes how our model of reality is not reality. “Women aren’t women anymore” is essentially a statement that the map that Venker and these men have of “women” no longer accurately describes women’s behaviour. From their perspective, therefore, women (reality) aren’t “women” (model). An alternative view is that “women” (model) is outdated with respect to real women.

What women have today is more possibility. Women can still get married, but importantly, they also can not get married. This was… kind of an option before, but not a serious one. Women can have careers. Women can hold political office. Women can be CEOs. The definition of “woman” has expanded and grown, for many people. Please don’t try to restrict women by refusing to expand your own definition.

It’s important to note here that the definition of “man” is expanding too. I don’t know of a healthy, unified movement for this—most men’s movements today are defensive and reactionary, but feminism is actually fighting for male rights too, in the sense that our culture at large has a list of things real men can’t do, and that the main reason items don’t make this list is that they’re considered feminine, and therefore “bad”. By advocating that feminine-associated qualities and behaviours are positive, feminism has the opportunity to make these traits acceptable for men, thereby expanding male possibilities as well.

The better sex…?

“It is precisely this dynamic – women good/men bad – that has destroyed the relationship between the sexes.
[...] But what if the dearth of good men, and ongoing battle of the sexes, is – hold on to your seats – women’s fault?”

We live in a strange world. I definitely agree that any suggestion that one gender is better than the other is destructive to inter-sex (note the hyphen) relations. As I described above, though, it’s not as clear-cut as “women good/men bad”. The issues are various: stereotypes of men as buffoons, stereotypes of women as over-emotional, and so on. Aside from Hanna Rosin, the author of The End of Men, I would suspect that most feminists don’t have an ingrained sense of superiority over men. I would also posit that feminism itself has no such tenet.

All this said, as privilege is revealed and reduced, men find themselves having more competition: for jobs, for education, and even for something as simple as the chance to express their opinion. In the first two cases, women have now surpassed men in terms of numbers. Does that make them smarter? Better? Only if one entirely ignores circumstantial factors. Circumstances used to skew these gender ratios in favour of men, and now they’re skewed the other way. Without delving too deeply into the causes, I think it’s fair to say that we could create a world in which youth of all kinds pursue education and fulfilling careers, but that’s not going to happen by trying to rollback the changes that have already happened.

“Women’s fault.” Well, this specific instance can trace its roots to feminism, if that’s what you mean. The underlying problem is either men’s fault for creating the patriarchy in the first place that forced such an uprising, or neither gender’s fault because coercive patterns exist in our society and are exploited by all kinds of people. Blaming gender conflict on feminism is like blaming the damage of your house to the firefighters, not the fire.

“…the so-called rise of women has not threatened men. It has pissed them off. It has also undermined their ability to become self-sufficient in the hopes of someday supporting a family. Men want to love women, not compete with them.”

First of all, this simplification totally ignores not only homosexual people but asexual people as well. It also ignores the nuances of straight men(and women)’s needs and aspirations. My primary goal in life is not to support a wife and kids. I, mean, I would like to have some offspring someday, and to create for them an ideal space to grow and learn and mature. I believe that that space must include female role models who have purpose beyond child-raising, and hopefully one such role model will be their mother.

What is femininity?

“So if men today are slackers, and if they’re retreating from marriage en masse, women should look in the mirror and ask themselves what role they’ve played to bring about this transformation.
Fortunately, there is good news: women have the power to turn everything around. All they have to do is surrender to their nature – their femininity – and let men surrender to theirs.
If they do, marriageable men will come out of the woodwork.” (emphasis mine)

If we define “femininity” as “the traits of females” then Venker’s proposal becomes essentially tautological and not very useful.

The definition she’s using for “femininity” is probably something more like “the traits that, historically, have been associated with females”. These traits just don’t fit all females—there’s nothing to surrender to! I have female friends who are some of the most genuine people I know, and they are genuinely androgynous in dress and in behaviour. Venker implies that women all have the urge to become subservient housewives. This is preposterous. It’s no more true than the idea that every man wants to be a quarterback on a football team or a CEO.

The following statement might be a stretch, but I’m going to say it anyway: consider the directive “all you have to do is surrender to your nature—you know, all of those stereotypes about your [age|race|nationality]“. Would that not be an insanely rude thing to say? Since “femininity” as defined by historic gender norms is essentially a collection of expectations and stereotypes, isn’t essentially the same thing?

The unboxing of humans

With regard to Venker’s suggestion for how women can find a man to marry, well… it might work. The question is, would you want it to? The issue in the first place, as I said, is that for many men “womanhood” is an outdated idea and it’s only that kind of woman they have an idea of how to be with. So, either women can change their behaviour or men can change our models. My stance is that the former option would be insincere.

In case it’s not obvious, I’d also like to point out that insincerity isn’t good for you in romance. This fantastic article on LessWrong describes how behaving most genuinely will not only attract potential partners that are most compatible to you, but may even attract them more.

My alternative proposal is that people should act in ways that feel congruent, get married if/when they want to, and stop trying to fit in the tiny gender box. It may take us some time to learn how to engage with each other when the gender-norms and roles we’re used to start to disappear, but in the long run this will produce more individual well-being, deeper and more fulfilling relationships, and a more diverse and productive society. I’m an engineering student, and I have female classmates who I know will do awesome things to the world. I’m glad that they didn’t “surrender to their femininity” and avoid engineering altogether.

There are a number of forces trying to put people in boxes and limit their possibilities. Gender norms are one that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, but there are others. Not only can stereotypes do this broadly, but the expectations that people have of you will shape the actions that you can perform without serious judgement. If we want to create more possibilities, we must give people freedom of self-expression, rather than trying to put them in tiny, simple boxes.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Founder of Complice.

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