There has been much recent discussion about the “rise” of the empowered woman and its effect on young men, Kay Hymowitz’s appearance on the ABC’s Q&A last Monday night being a particularly good example. The common narrative goes something like this. Young women are growing up in a society with destabilised traditional gender roles and increased economic and sexual independence. They no longer “need” men and thus the “natural” equilibrium of centuries old gender hierarchy has disappeared leaving a gaping, murky hole. Men do not know what to make of these highly evolved modern women and feel unsure and suspicious about how to navigate their complex, contradictory desires and “mixed messages”. This results in them either “opting out” and remaining perpetual adolescents or becoming confused, lonely and sad because no matter how hard they try they just can’t get women to behave how they “should”.
This fairytale vastly overstates the true progress made regarding women’s equality. Its entire premise assumes that women are on the heels of men in regards to the accumulation of economic, social and political power. While feminism has made substantial gains, a glance around demonstrates that we are incredibly far from the realisation of the above proposition. Reproductive freedom is still an ongoing battle, sexual and family violence remain incredibly high, women are still disproportionately burdened by child rearing responsibilities, sexual double standards relentlessly persist, the wage gap continues and a lack of representation of women in many powerful areas of life remains. Moreover, traditional gendered practices, like marriage, are still firmly engrained in our culture. It is estimated that 80 to 95% of women in Norway, Australia and the United States still take their husband’s name, indicating how attitudes in this arena have not shifted nearly as much as imagined.
The myth perpetuated by the “rise of women and decline of men” discourse distracts from the persistent gender inequality that remains. Moreover, it prevents us from being critical of the kind of “success” women are increasingly achieving. Current conceptions of gender equality operates on an “add women and stir” principle, rather than really challenging and transforming social, political and economic institutions. While women may, limitedly, be present in greater numbers within these institutions, they are still forced to operate within and adapt to male dominated frameworks. Women in powerful positions does not automatically equate to increased power for women. At times it seems like we are focusing blindly on statistics without looking to substance and aren’t aiming high enough in regards to what real, transformative equality looks like.
The decline of men hysteria also distributes an incredibly demeaning representation of men. Men are viewed as emotionally ill equipped to navigate the changing landscape of gender roles and in need of sheltering from the unpredictable consequences. This description is analogous to a two-year old having a temper tantrum because they need to share with their new sibling. This vastly underestimates men, who are complex and variable, and is grounded in essentialist views that seek to excuse bad behaviour. It is also grounded in the same male entitlement that feminists are trying to fight. Why are men entitled to being comfortable? Why shouldn’t they struggle with the changes around them? This is simply part of being a human, particularly when living in a time of such rapid social change. Ultimately the narrative falls back into the same old pattern of women being blamed for male behaviour. Our demand for equality is positioned as problematic and inconvenient, the focus yet again shifting onto men and their needs. An extreme manifestation of this modern male entitlement to women was displayed by murderer Elliot Roger in his haunting online posts.
Presenting the empowerment of women as merely a “threat” to men inhibits the communication of the incredible advantages that feminist progress has for both sexes. Patriarchy hurts women and men and rather than female empowerment being pinpointed as the source of male angst, it is this system that should be scrutinised. While men clearly benefit from patriarchy in ways that women never could, they nonetheless have as little choice in regards to compulsory conformation to gender roles. Just as women are taught to be passive, ornate objects, men are taught to be aggressive, powerful and unemotional. The same binary system that imprisons women in their feminine roles, imprisons men in their masculine positions. Similarly, male dominance underscores both male-male violence and sexual and physical violence against women. Therefore, when feminists fight against norms that harm women they are simultaneously fighting for the abolishment of standards that hurt men. Feminists believe women and men should be empowered to be whole, complex, non-binary beings and if that brings “confusion” and “mixed messages” then so be it.
Relinquishing power will always be accompanied by resistance and if anything it is this backlash that is shaping the attitudes of young Western men. Pretending their experience is anything other than the loss, or more often than not the perceived loss, of privilege, vastly misrepresents the present reality of gender dynamics. Dismantling patriarchal culture, will inevitably involve dismantling male entitlement and this may hurt. Call it a momentary failure of my innately caring womanly “nature” but I just can’t find it in me to feel an ounce of empathy. Talk to me anytime about the toxic effects of patriarchy on women and men’s lives but don’t attempt to illicit my sorrow for young men who are essentially angry because women’s move beyond the sexist status quo is proving rather inconvenient.