WHAT WENT WRONG?
FEMINISM AND FREEDOM FROM THE PRISON OF GENDER ROLES
by Rita M. Gross
In his novel The Town Beyond the Wall, Elie Wiesel tells the story of a time when God and humans changed places and the human, now God, refused to revert to the original order. But after infinite amounts of time, “The past for one, and the present for the other, were too heavy to be borne.” He continues, “As the liberation of the one was bound to the liberation of the other, they renewed the dialogue whose echoes come to us in the night, charged with hatred, with remorse, and most of all with infinite yearning.”1
After thirty years of feminism, I look at the society in which I live. What has gone wrong? I ask myself. Though I wouldn’t want to return to the situation women were placed in before this current feminist movement, it is also clear to me that many conditions of our lives have gotten worse, not better, since the onset of feminism. After thirty years of feminism, the culture is much speedier, much more materialistic, competitive, and aggressive. More people work longer hours in more isolating and alienating conditions and friendship has become a major casualty of our lifestyle; no one has time for it. Women participate in this mad materialistic dash completely, fully. Women can do anything men can do. We can earn high salaries, work sixty or eighty hours a week, fly military airplanes, fight in the army with men. Sometimes it seems that all feminism has gotten us is that now women can be “men” too, can do just about everything that was once defined as the male gender role. But what about the virtues that go with what was once defined as the female gender role? Who takes care of them? Instead of freedom from the prison of gender roles, we have gained freedom from both the virtues and the defects of the female gender role while we— both women and men as well as the entire culture—have become ever more enamored of the male gender role—and a fairly unsatisfying version of that role.
One day some years ago, as I contemplated my frustration with this situation, the phrase “the liberation of the one is bound to the liberation of the other” seared itself into my consciousness. It expresses very beautifully a Mahayana understanding of emptiness and interdependence. The whole Bodhisattva path is built on the insight that if any one person is not free, then no one is free, that individual liberation is impossible. Either women and men are both free of the prison of gender roles or neither is free. That realization is followed by the recognition that dialogue, however painful it may be, is the only way out.
I now use the word “feminism” less and less, not because I have given up on its ideals but because at present it seems better skillful means to use other words to convey its message. Nevertheless, my definition of feminism has remained the same for many years—“freedom from the prison of gender roles.” I contend that most of the unnecessary suffering in human life, the suffering due to clinging, aggression, and bewilderment rather to birth, aging, sickness, and death, is due to the prison of gender roles, which is why freedom from that prison, not new reformed gender roles, is what we need. Clearly, my proposed definition of feminism is gender neutral and pertains to men as much as it does to women, but that vision has not been pursued in the same way by men as it has by women. Therefore, since liberation for all has not been achieved, liberation is quite limited. It is time to renew, or perhaps to start, a real dialogue about the prison of gender roles in which we discuss the reality that both the male and female gender roles are imprisoning and ask what we can do to free ourselves as a culture from an obsolete and dysfunctional definition of the male gender role that has become dangerous to human survival even as it has become more entrenched as a cultural ideal for both men and women.
However, I most adamantly am not advocating that the human variety which expresses itself in varying and multiple concepts of masculine and feminine gender be replaced by a monolithic unisexual human norm. That would also be a prison. By themselves, images of masculinity and femininity are not imprisoning; they are useful cultural constructs with which to discuss human options and possibilities. For example, in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, compassion is said to be “masculine” while wisdom is “feminine.” These are culturally arbitrary associations; many in our culture would expect the opposite assignment. Their purpose is to talk about equally important, yet significantly different human ideals, not to talk about women and men. These associations do not lead to the ludicrous claim that only men can be compassionate and only women can be wise; in fact the ideal person would manifest both wisdom and compassion, the goal of much Vajrayana practice. What imprisons is the insistence that men must and should be only masculine while women must and should be only feminine, not the existence of gender symbolism. Especially imprisoning is a situation in which both sexes are confined by gender norms that are a caricature of human wholeness and prohibit mental-spiritual health and well-being, gender roles that promote mutual incompetence between women and men, as is the case with the traditional gender roles of our culture.
While extended discussion of conventional gender roles is impossible here, some generalizations help frame the discussion. Most introductory anthropology texts, especially older ones which more unconsciously reveal conventional gender expectations, would see the core of the female gender role as nurturing and the core of the male gender role as protection or defense. The task of providing should not be limited to one sex because familiar patterns of the male “breadwinner” only hold in wage labor situations in which home and workplace are distinct and separate. However, for many North Americans, “providing” was seen as a male task. Another valid generalization is that women often operate in a more limited private realm whereas public affairs, especially politics and public dimensions of religion, are in the hands of men. Going along with these tasks are stereotypical psychological traits which can be described positively or negatively, depending on the whims of those making the comments. The female gender role promotes competence in relationship skills, but cultural incompetence was also a norm for women. The male gender role promotes physical prowess and cultural competence but male achievement usually has more to do with bravado than with sensitivity.
Part of the blame for what has happened regarding gender, despite thirty years of feminism, lies with some of the rhetoric employed by the women’s movement. A common way of stating what that movement is about is the call for women to be able to do whatever men can do or the claim that women are equally competent with men at most or all tasks or the push for women to have the same rights that men enjoy. But notice—that kind of rhetoric assumes that what men do and the way they are is the ideal and the norm toward which women should strive or which they should be allowed to attain.
It is easy to understand why this style of analysis dominated early feminist writing if one has had personal experience of being socialized to the conventional female gender role in the fifties and early sixties. Given the current tendency to dismiss feminism, those of us who are old enough to remember why feminism developed in the first place should write about our experiences of the mind-numbing cultural irrelevance which girls were expected to embrace in the fifties, a time when it was a tragedy if a girl needed to wear glasses because that marked her as too bookish, and possibly too independent in mind and spirit, to be attractive to men, when it was assumed that women’s main reason for going to college was to obtain that all-important “Mrs.” degree. We need to remember how many of the “happy homemakers” of the fifties were so unhappy that they were maintained on valium; no one realized they had good and ample reasons to be unhappy. These are degraded circumstances in which to grow up and to live. In that environment, it is completely understandable that early feminist thought developed as it did. Nevertheless, this style of feminist rhetoric is just as androcentric as the male dominant laws and norms against which it is rebelling, with the result that women are freed from the female gender role to take up the male gender role. But no one talks about the virtues of the female gender role or the down side, the destructive aspects, of male gender role.
When I ask my students about the negative side of the traditional female gender role, they come up with a long list. Feminism has thoroughly critiqued the traditional female gender role, and, as someone who avoided that role at all costs, I share that critique. However, the problems with the traditional female gender role are not the tasks assigned to it, which must be done, or the psychological traits associated with it, which are emotionally healthy, but the rigid way in which these tasks and traits were assigned to women alone, at the same time as women were confined only to those tasks and traits. Especially destructive of women’s well-being was the demand that women should carry out their tasks and exhibit feminine traits in the private sphere alone, thus condemning us to cultural irrelevance and incompetence. Part of that package included the demand that women would expend their nurturing skills and energies in a nuclear family which they cared for emotionally and physically almost without male help, which isolated us and trivialized our competence.
Often my students can articulate much of this critique, but when I ask them about the downside of the male gender role, they draw a complete blank— silence. This silence masks three deeply rooted problems in our cultural psyche. One is lack of awareness that gender is a human phenomenon, not something that pertains to women alone. The second is a deeply rooted cultural preference for maleness over femaleness, probably due in part to religious symbol systems that contain deeply misogynist elements and personify the most valued and ultimate symbols as masculine. The third is that, in the absence of discussions of gender as something that pertains to men, not just women, a dangerous and destructive version of the male gender role is emulated not only by men but also by women, even as it damages those who accept its hegemony.
One of the reasons I have become increasingly reluctant to give talks on women, feminism, or gender is men’s long-standing refusal to recognize that these topics concern them and are relevant to them. As a result, the audience for such talks is usually about half the size it should be and consists mainly of women. But women really don’t need to talk and think a lot about gender at this point in time. Many women have already done their homework on gender issues; it is men who need to catch up. I remember information relayed to me about one man at a dharma center who responded to the question about whether he would attend my upcoming program on women and Buddhism, “Now why would I be interested in that?” This from a man who has a wife and daughters! Even replacing the terms “women” or “feminism” with the term “gender” does little to influence who attends these programs. With individual exceptions, men as a group have refused to take up their end of the issue of human genderedness, leaving it entirely up to women and continuing to foster the illusion that women are gendered but men are not. “Gender? Oh, you must be talking about someone else; I’m just a normal human being,” seems to be the most common reaction by men to the topic of gender. I think it unlikely that we will get any further in finding freedom from the prison of gender roles until men begin to acknowledge and take seriously their own genderedness.
When this begins to happen, issues of gender oppression and gender justice can take their rightful place among other major social issues, such as the need to stem consumption and growth, to promote economic and racial justice, and to promote concern for the environment. Now, usually gender issues are placed somewhere else in the program, not regarded as significant enough to be billed alongside other major social issues. For example, recent books on various engaged Buddhist movements do not include chapters on Buddhist women’s movements, though virtually every other topic in which Buddhist activists are engaged is covered. The books and chapters on gender and Buddhism are put into another category—a major conceptual mistake in my view. But it perpetuates the tendency of men not to want to talk about gender, to regard themselves as unencumbered by gender, unlike women.
I would argue as strongly as I can that these presuppositions and reactions about human genderedness are rooted in a deep cultural preference for the cultural construct of maleness over the cultural construct of femaleness, which is why women want to act like men, but men don’t want to act like women. It is so much more acceptable for a woman to take on “masculine” traits and tasks than for a man to take on “feminine” tasks and traits. Surely that prejudice exposes deep cultural misogyny. Nothing more cogently demonstrates the pervasiveness of these patterns than the fact that women now wear trousers everywhere with impunity while men never even think about the convenience and comfort of wearing skirts in certain situations. Forget about the fact that men have worn skirts in many cultures historically, or that famous male religious leaders still wear skirts. Skirts (assuming that they are long and full) simply are more comfortable for some activities including most seated activities, than are pants, and they are infinitely cooler. Think of the energy wasted on extra air-conditioning that could be saved! But, when I point out how this fear of and distaste for things female inhibits and limits men, the response is usually that I’m crazy to suggest that men might take up the practice of wearing skirts.
In my own classes, once in a great while, an unconventional, and usually a gay man might wear a skirt to my class on women and religion for one evening. In North America, the only situation in which I have seen men regularly wearing skirts was at Tassajara Zen Monastery during the summer tourist season. There students work in torrid conditions without air conditioning, taking care of tourists who flock to the mountain retreat to partake of its sulfur hot springs. In return, they earn credits to participate in the practice periods that occur during the winter season. These young men frequently wore skirts. They were proud that they were so sensible, proud of their deviance from conventional cultural norms, proud that they had already thought to engage in this gender bending practice before I mentioned my usual proof that men are much more stuck in the prison of gender roles than are women, and that maleness is far more acceptable culturally than is femaleness. (Paradoxically, these two seemingly opposite realities go together.) Imagine my surprise and delight when, while watching coverage of the Samoan color guard engaging in the last lowering of the colors for the last millennium, I witnessed an army in skirts. At first glance, I saw only dark legs below light skirts and immediately thought that there must be women in this color party. Close up footage made it quite clear that these skirt-wearing, gun-toting soldiers were men.
The issue of who gets to wear skirts, by itself, is somewhat facetious. The larger point is that we have no dearth of women taking on male traits in our time. But there has been no corresponding eagerness on the part of men to escape the prison of the male gender role and take on some of healthier and more sane human traits that have stereotypically been associated with women. Not only do men not usually wear skirts; they also rarely take paternity leave or work professionally with young children, and they often are not as comfortable with or competent in the vital human tasks of relating and nurturing. Herein, I would suggest, lies much of the malaise of our times. But when I suggest that the greatest need vis-à-vis gender issues is for men to become more feminine, most men look radically uncomfortable. I see their eyes shifting about, looking above my head and behind my back, looking for an “exit” sign. Failing to find it, they look as if they may become sick in the very near future. What is it that makes men so uncomfortable with their own unacknowledged and unsought femininity? Why is it such an insult to a man to be labeled “feminine” while the reverse is rarely true? Can the cause be anything other than a deeply entrenched cultural prejudice for masculinity and against femininity? For women to gain their human rights will not, by itself, undo this deep and destructive prejudice. Instead, as women have freed themselves from the prison of the female gender role and taken up many tasks and traits traditionally associated with men, so men need to free themselves from the prison of the male gender role and take up tasks and traits traditionally associated with women. In fact, it could be claimed that women have successfully integrated masculinity into their personas and lifestyles; it is men who are trailing behind in their self-inflicted prison of fear and avoidance of anything feminine in themselves.
When we come finally to examine this masculinity that men so jealously guard from the taint of femininity and the male gender role that women so eagerly seek and imitate, what do we find? Granted, they confer independence and privilege, qualities that women want as much as men. But the rest of it? The violence and competitiveness that are so prevalent in many contemporary images of masculinity, especially in media and popular culture, are decidedly unattractive and destructive, both for individuals and for society. Even if we look past the Rambo images so popular in movies and comic books as merely psychological release rather than role models for men, we mainly see images of successful businessmen and politicians—and that success demands extreme competitiveness and hyper-activity (an extremely long work week with little attention to friends and family). As Allen Ginsberg once said to me, “Being a man in this culture means needing to have it up all the time.” What men, and those who aspire to the male gender role, take on is astounding; what we, as a culture do to men and to surrogate men, is inhumane, though no more inhumane than what was done to women under the gender conventions that held before feminism. Men have relatively few role models of men who are both gentle and competent, not because such men do not exist but because they are not idealized in our speedy, competitive, hyper-masculine culture—a culture that focuses upon and instead idealizes the most problematic aspects of the male gender role. Why not have men like the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, or Gandhi as male culture heroes and icons of highly accomplished masculinity, rather than athletes, lawyers, businessmen and generals?
Lest I be accused of simply overdrawing this stark portrait of the male gender role, I have gathered items not intended to discuss gender, but which reveal gender stereotypes quite well, from popular media. A Newsweek article about a successful investment banker who suddenly left his position spells out the competitiveness and lack of concern for relationship skills that are the norm for men.
The local newspaper runs frequent columns in which high school students review movies. Comments about the movie “Gladiator” by a young man and a young woman spell out the male love affair with violence. The young woman wrote that the movie did not appeal to her because it was about three things: “Violence, violence, and more violence.” She goes on: “Perhaps I didn’t like ‘Gladiator’ because I’m a girl. I suppose that is why my male colleague could not find anything wrong with ‘Gladiator’ and was astonished that I thought otherwise.” She points out that the movie’s elaborate killings generated the most audience approval, expressed in the form of “excited bellows.” “This was especially true with the men seated behind me exclaiming with laughter every time a gladiator was sliced in two or dismembered.”3 When I ask my students to think about the disadvantages of the traditional male gender role, a few people sometimes mention their typical inability to be involved with young children and their frequent difficulty with feelings and emotions. Almost no one mentions the expectation for men to be soldiers, probably the stereotypical male work throughout much of recent history, as a negative aspect of the male gender role. Yet most defenders of rigid and strictly segregated gender roles posit both the necessity of military activity and the need for men to take charge of this activity. Men need to be aggressive and territorial because defense (offense) is assigned to men for biological reasons. And that is the end of the story, many claim. Yet the logic defies me. “From what am I, a woman, being defended that requires such destructive traits to be socialized into men?” I must ask. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the answer comes down to “Other men!” whatever other verbal slights of hand may attempt to disguise this reality. What a waste of human ability! Channeling the toughness required for military success into economic or legal competitiveness and victory does little to alleviate the damage done, both to individuals and to society, when toughness and winning are all that matters.
We should also note that this version of male gender role, focusing on military prowess, physical superiority, and beating everyone else is actually neither very Christian nor very Buddhist, (nor, for that matter, in accord with the values of most other great religions). The spiritually mature practitioner of any tradition would rarely, if ever, be described in such terms. (This is not to suggest that the traditional female gender role is any closer to the traditions’ ideals, as is sometimes argued by those who explain women’s exclusion from many religious practices by saying that women in their traditional submissive and passive roles already embody religious ideals.)
One of the greatest problems in proceeding further in dealing with these issues is that critiquing cultural ideals of masculinity or the stereotypical male gender role is culturally unacceptable. The excesses of gender feminists, with their notions of female superiority, have contributed to this situation, but men have also become quite defensive about feminism’s legitimate complaints concerning male gender privilege. In such an environment, discussions about what’s wrong ethically and psychologically with the stereotypical behaviors of those who take on the male gender role, whether they are men or women, are likely to be evaluated as “men-bashing” or as blaming men for everything that’s wrong with human civilization. But, to understand my arguments, it is critical to distinguish between men and masculinity or the male gender role. I am talking about cultural definitions of masculinity and about what men do with their maleness, not men, per se. It is quite possible to be horrified about cultural constructs of the male gender role without being anti-men, hating men, or blaming them for all human woes. Men in general, though not every individual, could perhaps be criticized for being too addicted to cultural definitions of masculinity and for lacking a critical perspective about those definitions. That is vastly different from criticizing men for being men, from men-bashing.
Whether or not individual men manifest these traits, many of the traits associated with men or socialized into men, are just plain stupid, as are many of the traits of the conventional female gender role, of course. It is stupid not to ask for directions when lost and it is stupid to be reluctant to go to a doctor. It is stupid and self-destructive to thrive on violence and it is stupid and self- destructive to work such long hours that one does not know one’s children. It is stupid and self-destructive to refuse to become relationally competent. Yet criticizing these tendencies is culturally taboo because criticizing the expectations placed on men or others who fill the conventional male gender role is confused with being anti-men. But such stances are actually radically pro-men. Such expectations should not be placed on people because they happen to be men. Nor does requiring those qualities in women who want to be free of the liabilities of the traditional female gender role address the fundamental problems surrounding gender in our time and place.
Another way of talking about the cultural malaise in a situation in which everyone tries to emulate the conventional male gender role is to point to a dearth of “feminine” energy and skills, especially those having to do with caretaking. No one wants to take the time to nurture and befriend anyone—children, other adults, community life, civic projects. The arts and humanities, which nurture an interesting and meaningful human life, go unsupported while fields that enhance “technology,” economics, or militarism flourish.
If the problem is too much “masculine” energy and not enough “feminine” energy, the solution is not to pull women out of the classrooms, courtrooms, boardrooms and other places where “public” work is done to send them back to the private world of nurseries and kitchens, as many who decry what feminism has done to the culture suggest. That would only put us deeper into the prison of gender roles, not free us from excessive pursuit of the male gender role. If anything, rather than confining the nurturing and relationship skills associated with the female gender role to the private sphere, we need to infuse the public arena with these skills and see both men and women exhibiting these skills.
What would it take for that to happen? I suggest that only a massive defection from the conventional male gender role by men, parallel to women’s defection from the conventional female gender role over the last thirty years, will bring us a more humane society. I do not believe that women can do much more to solve the cultural malaise surrounding gender. Many women have become much more androgynous, in the sense of combining positive elements of both the male and the female gender roles, than have most men. I suggest that much of our continuing discontent over gender stems from the fact that most men have not taken their own genderedness seriously, have not taken seriously the project of attaining freedom from the prison of gender roles, and have not become more feminine in the same way as women have become more masculine. “The liberation of the one is bound to the liberation of the other.”
As I have already indicated, most men look for an escape route or look as if they will become ill when I make the suggestions that men need to own their genderedness, look into the negativities of the conventional male gender role, and take on certain “feminine” traits and tasks. Rather quickly an appeal is made to “hard-wiring” and the Y chromosome. Competitiveness, aggression, and lack of relationship skills are all built into the Y chromosome, I am told. We know that higher levels of testosterone do make people, not just men, more prone to aggression. But the words “more prone” indicate a high level of cultural complicity. The Buddhist distinction between innate and acquired afflictive emotions (kleshas) would be useful here. Men, on average, probably do have more innate aggressiveness than do most women. But both men and women will be more tolerant of aggression and competitiveness in a culture that values these traits over gentleness and friendliness and both women and men will pursue them. The “hard-wiring” argument is often a handy excuse for not doing the psychological and spiritual hard work that genuine growth and change require, especially if that growth contradicts socialization and cultural values. But it should not take too much thought to realize that “Gladiator”-type violence is not conducive to a peaceful, non-violent society. I find it difficult to believe that young men are condemned to relish such violence by virtue of their Y chromo- some rather than by virtue of a culture that tolerates violence and rewards competitiveness. Nor do I think it is too much to expect of men that they would turn their backs on such violence, as well as on the lifestyle of “not having a life and being proud of it.” The more stereotypically “feminine” reactions to both these examples are simply more humane and more sane. There is no good reason for men to shun them because they are culturally associated with “femininity.”
I have a friend, who happens to be a man, with whom I regularly walk. We have spent many walks talking about gender. We also talk about emotional maturity. One day, he said to me, “You know, Rita, most men eventually do make it to emotional maturity, but, damn it, it takes most of us twenty years longer than it takes most women. Why is that?” The only reply that makes sense to me is “Because men can get away with delayed emotional maturity.” Having employment and girlfriends does not seem to be connected with emotional maturity for men and so men have little incentive to develop themselves emotionally until their own pain brings them to a breaking point. This is one of the many disadvantages of the conventional male gender role.
In suggesting that men need to defect from the conventional male gender role and become more “feminine,” I realize that I am suggesting a cultural tec- tonic plate shift. But I am not suggesting something impossible. We know that because of the way in which women have defected from the traditional female gender role in the last thirty years. It is often said that our culture does not support men making the kinds of changes for which I am calling, but our culture did not support the changes women were making in the early days of the current feminist movement either. We made those changes anyway. Women’s lives have changed radically in the last thirty years. Even religiously conservative women now espouse beliefs that were once considered radical: that women should work outside the home if they want to, that women should be able to have any job for which they are qualified, including supervising men, that women should have equal pay for equal work, that there is no problem with women making more money than their husbands. I certainly would be the last person to contend that men are incapable of doing what women have done. Certainly men can do everything that women can in the realms of culture, psychology, and spirituality. Women have critiqued and transcended conventional gender expectations. Surely men can do the same!
As always, vision is easier than practicality. It is easy to imagine what could happen if society were to defect from its current version of the male gender role; it is more difficult to figure out what practices would encourage that defection. Furthermore, I believe that men are the only ones who can do much of that work. For women to try to coach men too much in this undertaking would be arrogant and inappropriate. All they should need from us is some cultural analysis, a challenge, and encouragement as well as emotional support. As with every significant cultural revolution, this tectonic cultural plate shift would happen only because of deep internal psychological, moral, and spiritual changes, individual by individual.
But one suggestion may be appropriate. Just as women studies and women’s groups worked so well for women, men studies and men’s groups, both of which are already somewhat developed, should work for men. Just as women often complained, when the generic masculine was the norm, that we couldn’t tell when we were included as humans and when we were excluded as women, I believe confusion between maleness and the human norm has limited men from understanding their experiences specifically as men. Rather than being suspicious of men studies and men’s groups, I would suggest that women should encourage them, so long as it is clear that such activities do not replace or substitute for women studies and women’s groups and their purpose is not to blame women, especially mothers, for whatever problems men encounter. We have reached a stage where three closely interrelated but distinctive disciplines are needed—men studies, women studies and gender studies. That development would help us find something closer to true “freedom from the prison of gender roles.” That is only one suggestion. Many others are needed. But given that “the liberation of the one is bound to the liberation of the other,” I call for us to “renew the dialogue whose echoes come to us in the night, charged with hatred, with remorse, and most of all with infinite yearning.”
1. Elie Wiesel, The Town Beyond the Wall trans. Stephen
Becker (New York: Avon Books, 1969), p. 190. See also Carol P.
Christ’s feminist quotation and retelling of this story in her
book Laughter of Aphrodite: Reflections on a Journey to the
Goddess, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), pp. 20–1.
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