“Men on Strike”: A Critique of Feminism (Or Male Tears)
Sully Moreno | On 16, Jul 2013
When I took gender and communication in graduate school, I remember a classmate who returned to college in her 30′s express surprise at the fact that our course included discussions about the ways gendered expectations of behavior affected men as well as women. When she had taken a similar course for her undergraduate degree, she said, it had been entirely about women. I am glad that men were part of the discussion in 2011, because to me it only makes sense that gender identity is a part of all of our lives. However, not everyone seems to understand that examining gender roles and advocating for their flexibility benefits men as well.
A recent example is Dr. Helen Smith’s book “Men on Strike.”
The basis of Smith’s book is the fact that men do not feel fulfilled in several areas of their lives. I am all for exploring how cultural norms affect men’s lives, and if these norms are leaving them unsatisfied I agree it’s important to understand why. However, that’s just about as far as my agreement with Smith goes. Her explanation of men’s dissatisfaction can be summarized as: women’s equality has come at the expense of men. Smith maintains that the world has become “feminized” and that men are floundering in it. The fact that she considers that the world has completely tipped the scales in favor of women was my initial red flag. What I view as the slow churn of a hyper-masculine world to a more egalitarian one she views as a war on men.
Her book mainly focuses on men’s dissatisfaction with marriage, reproductive rights, higher education, and media portrayals, so I will section my critique around these areas as well.
According to Smith, men marry less because they have nothing to gain from marriage. Live-in girlfriends are on average thinner than married women, they can no longer expect to be treated as “king of the castle” when they return home from work, and divorce may cost them years of alimony. First of all, for a book invested in eliminating harmful stereotypes of men, it is not off to a good start by implying that one of men’s main concerns in life is their partner’s weight. Furthermore, the expectation that a man should be able to come home and do nothing other than prop his feet up while his wife dotes on him for marriage to remain a good deal directly clashes with Smith’s qualms about divorce law. Alimony is awarded to a spouse who has sacrificed educational or career opportunities to tend to the household. This means that women who are financially independent have no need for alimony, and men who are financially dependent receive alimony. It is gendered expectations that make it more likely for women to be in a financially dependent situation.
When it comes to reproductive rights, Smith claims women have all the options while there is nothing men can do to protect themselves. Maybe she has been able to remain blissfully ignorant of personhood bills. Apparently men cannot be counted on to use and dispose of condoms if they desire to remain child-free. Smith also cites instances where women who have sexually abused men or committed statutory rape have been able to collect child support to illustrate how men have drawn the short straw of reproductive rights. She rightfully views it as a problem that we live in a society that does not readily acknowledge male sexual abuse by women but does not reflect on why this is the case. We live in a society where men are still thought to have power over women, a belief that is inconsistent with the reality of male sexual abuse committed by women.
Smith is preoccupied with the fact that women outnumber men in college campuses and attributes this to hostility towards men on campus. While declining college enrollment within any demographic can be cause for concern, Smith’s argument that college campuses are hostile toward men hangs on the flimsy threads of personal anecdotes. One man cited numerous on-campus protests and disagreement with his personal stance on guns as the reason why he dropped out. Another seems surprised that the women in his gender and ethnic studies classes did not want to hear him say that their theories were ridiculous and offensive. Apparently even “Take Back the Night” marches, performances of The Vagina Monologues, and classes where the reading material consists of “chick victim lit” can rub some men the wrong way. The hostility Smith speaks of seems to boil down to the fact that men must share their college experiences with people who are different from them and that the conversation cannot center on them and their issues 100% of the time.
When Smith called Miss Representation sexist propaganda, I almost couldn’t make myself continue reading the book. She dismisses the issue of female media representation that is lacking at best, downright sexist at worst, by saying “it is much worse to be shown as a suspicious pervert.” Yes, media representations of men can be lacking, too, and I am always happy to see men stand up and say they are much more than the clueless fathers the media portrays them to be. But to say that the focus on media representations of women is pointless is just ridiculous.
I could not stop thinking about this chapter as I left the movie theater last weekend, downtrodden after watching Despicable Me 2. Aside from presenting caricatures of Mexican and Asian characters, the movie took the competent lead female character and, in Anita Sarkeesian’s words, damseled her. This would be disappointing in any movie, but in a children’s movie it is downright devastating that this is the message that children will absorb. That the most women can be is the supporting character in someone else’s heroic story. In my view, this affects women’s everyday life as much as being viewed as a pervert or a goof affects men’s lives. I also could not believe Smith’s hypocrisy in lamenting the stereotypes levied on men while showing no qualms with stereotyping women as manipulative and materialistic in her chapter on marriage.
We should all go on strike against harmful gender stereotypes and advocate for more flexible performances of gender. This is the only way to address the problems Smith observes. Let’s resist the narrative that there is only one way to be a man and only one way to be a woman, let’s resist the narrative that some performances of gender are more valid than others. Let’s take it further and resist the narratives of race and sexuality, the narratives that Smith largely ignores in her book, that intersect with the narrative of gender to create unique oppression. Smith speaks of a man who is so disillusioned by society that he threatens to opt out. Society has left us much to be disillusioned with, but instead of opting out, we need to rise against the challenge of creating a truly equal world.
Written by Sully Moreno