Why men should care about gender stereotypes

Alex Gibson considers the harm done by stereotypes of men as beer-swilling, emotionally-stunted brutes

Alex Gibson, 2 February 2008

These days you can find things on the Internet that you would never see published in a magazine, or on television. The cloak of anonymity and the chain-mail culture seems to encourage - among other things - the spread of sexist 'jokes' and stereotypes. The internet abounds with articles taking an apparently humorous look at the kind of things that men and women 'always do'. One particular list that caught my attention was 'Courses For Men, Taught By Women' which included such gems as "Spelling: Even You Can Get It Right", "The Weekend And Sports Are Not Synonymous" and "Parenting Doesn't End With Conception". Of course there was a parallel list for women, but it was the list about men that got me thinking.

Let's not kid ourselves here: men as well as women are limited by gender stereotypes. The idea of men as stupid and sex-obsessed is an enduring generalisation that is allowed to flourish in - dare I say it - a much more brazen way than the stereotypes about women, mainly because no man ever stands up and says: "Hey, that's sexist and it offends me!" The problem is, while women are encouraged to reject the ludicrous ideas that are held about them, men are supposed to embrace them.

In the creation of gender stereotypes, men really missed a trick. Male-dominated culture has cultivated an image of women that I'm sure you're familiar with: endlessly shopping, outspoken (which for women essentially amounts to expressing a strong opinion about anything), money-draining, demanding and contrary. The classic picture that we are presented with in television, films, advertisements and practically every other medium for disseminating information, is of women as a burden, the irritating nagging voice in the back of your head that won't leave you alone even for a second and scolds you for leaving the toilet seat up.

Feminism encourages women to shed gender stereotypes and consider themselves as individuals. Men simply don't think about gender. Why would you, when it rarely impacts in a noticeable way on your life?

But Christ, guys, have you seen what we're supposed to be like? Looking solely at stereotypes, men do not fare well. I would never dare to suggest that men have a harder time than women in general society, because that's just patently untrue, but in terms of stereotypes we fail utterly. Male perceptions of women are designed to make us feel smug in our superiority, but the way we've chosen to label ourselves should make any man feel thoroughly humiliated and ashamed of his gender.

Men are often characterised as spoiled, helpless brats utterly unable to perform simple household tasks, too stupid to remember anniversaries and appointments and completely unable to understand these strange female creatures and their hysterical emotions. We're base brutes ruled by our overactive sex drives who simply can't help being crass and immature, because that is the way God made us. Basically, we are mentally deficient lumps who require a female carer to function in society. This is precisely the kind of ridiculous stereotype that, if applied to women, would be torn to shreds in intelligent debate. So why don't men object at being labelled emotional morons totally in thrall to their basest instincts?

Here's the thing: men don't have anything remotely equivalent to feminism. From an early age, women are aware of their gender and what it means for their lives, far more than men are. Feminism encourages women to shed gender stereotypes and consider themselves as individuals. Men simply don't think about gender. Why would you, when it rarely impacts in a noticeable way on your life? Very rarely is your progress barred because you are a man and it is true that male culture generally does not promote frank and open discussion of such issues.

Many men aren't feminists simply because it has never occurred to them that they should be: when you're not faced every day with the challenges thrown up by gender inequality it is very easy to think: "Well, we've changed the law so we have equality now." I know it sounds ridiculous - you'd never hear anyone claiming that racism died when it became illegal to racially discriminate, for example, but it is a pretty common thought. If women are under-represented in highly paid jobs, it is because these changes take time to filter through, or because there were no female candidates qualified enough to take the positions, not because sexism is still endemic. I'm ashamed to say that I used to think like that: sexism isn't a major issue for men and it is easy to brush it off in this manner.

For a man to become all that is good and masculine, he must revel in his inability to function as an acceptable human being. The ultimate goal of a 'real man' is to spend his life slumped in front of the television, beer in hand, watching the football and waiting for his wife to cook him something appropriately manly

So men don't get to discuss gender in the same way that women do, and there's a reason for this. Male culture - the kind promoted by FHM, Nuts, tabloid newspapers and the like - abhors debate on anything remotely intelligent. Men are hemmed in on two fronts: by the stereotypes the media pins on them and the pervading culture they have created for themselves that leads to such stereotypes in the first place.

The 'real man' is encouraged to reject intelligence and self-improvement as ideas firmly in the domain of women, creating a wonderful self-perpetuating cycle of idiocy. Creativity, interest in academia and a desire to learn are all frowned upon by a male culture where footballers are considered legitimate role models. Reading? Boring. Poetry? Something for 'gays' and 'nerds', lesser men in the eyes of their peers. Lesbianism? A spectator sport designed for the titillation of men. For a man to become all that is good and masculine, he must revel in his own stupidity and inability to function as an acceptable human being. The ultimate goal of a 'real man' is to spend his life slumped in front of the television, beer in hand, watching the football and waiting for his wife to cook him something appropriately manly. I always found it amusing that massive slabs of meat are considered more fitting for a man's meal than those no-good effeminate vegetables, but it's the only part of this rotten aspirational model that makes me smile. We're meant to feel good about this? This is the goal of a man's life? No thanks.

I'm by no means the only one who rejects the idea of a 'real man' embodying all these things, but - and here's the crucial point - despite the fact that there are many of us who grew up resenting the dominance of this (to borrow a phrase) idiocracy, we are content to let it continue. The people labelled nerds or geeks for not wanting the worthless life that traditional masculinity offers them, allow themselves to be ostracised for it. Yes, it is gratifying to look back at those people who, during your teenage years, were the epitome of the classic ideas of manhood. They mostly now live dead-end lives, but don't forget that their culture is still the dominant one among men. Intelligent men who don't subscribe to this ideal of a 'real man' as a rugged emotionally-stunted womaniser probably outnumber those who do, and yet it's still not quite alright for a man to be interested in poetry, be a feminist, or know how to darn socks (hey, I'm a student, it's all about saving money!). A lot of men don't realise that instead of feeling troubled because they fail to fit this mould, they should be rejoicing in breaking free of it.

Let's start converting some more men to feminism: considering the problems caused by gender for women is a fantastic way to make them think about how gender also holds them back. It worked for me

Feminism has taught women who are prepared to listen that their traditional gender roles needn't be upheld as a good thing, that to branch out from the way women are 'supposed to be' is a way of marking yourself out as independent and intelligent. Men simply haven't got anything to raise their consciousness about this issue: we are still, as a gender, wedded to these damaging ideas of manhood that do nothing but churn out generation after generation of men unable to aspire to any goals worth having.

So what can we, a group of individuals who clearly care about gender equality and despise gender stereotypes, do about this? Granted, it isn't fair of men to expect feminism to deal with male gender stereotypes as well as female ones, and I don't for a second they should, but it is a problem that affects all of us. A prevailing culture of stupidity just isn't good enough for men or women, even if the former often don't realise it. Men can be the attentive and understanding partners that women want, and it is a tragic shame that society has conditioned the male mind to reject this sensitivity as weak and inappropriate. The change that needs to be made is cultural, but that doesn't make it any less difficult. Let's stop putting sports stars on a pedestal and start celebrating poets, writers, scientists and artists. Let's start converting some more men to feminism: considering the problems caused by gender for women is a fantastic way to make them think about how gender also holds them back. It worked for me.

It is easier to see the problem than come up with a solution, but just letting male culture continue down this road isn't good enough for me. Guys, unless we learn to throw out these damaging ideas of manhood and learn to aspire to something better, when we truly have equality of the sexes we're going to look very shabby and stupid compared to women. I'm used to being ashamed and disappointed by the way my gender acts - I don't want to add embarrassment to that list.

About the author

Alex Gibson

Alex Gibson is a modern history student at Magdalen College, Oxford. He is very proud to add feminism to a list of 'isms' he cares passionately about, and is quite fond of making his friends uncomfortable in the pub by talking about it

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