I have gender issues. Not with being a man (I’m smart enough to appreciate the good fortune my chromosomal composition has afforded me in America) but with the way our culture continues to define gender, and by reflex, the expectations of each gender. Specifically, what it is to be a “man”.
For instance, I wear pink shirts. I like pink shirts. Not as much as blue or white shirts, but enough that I’m glad to have the option to add that color to the palette of my life. That shouldn’t be worthy of note, any more than liking yellow shirts, yet at the office recently a woman said, “I like your shirt. It takes a confident man to wear a pink shirt.”
Actually, it doesn’t. If I could bottle self-doubt, I could make a fortune — though the product seems to be in plentiful supply, so I can’t imagine who would buy it. What it takes to wear a pink shirt is fatigue with blue and white and plaid and whatever other shirts a man has in his closet. It’s not just me — I work with other guys who wear pink shirts, and if you believe some people’s prevailing wisdom, we’re either a troupe of swaggering mavericks who boldly thumb our noses at conventional perceptions of manliness, or we’re a bunch of dandies. In fact, I DO thumb my nose at the archaic yet common conventions of masculinity in our society — but it has nothing to do with a pink shirt. Because a pink shirt is just a shirt that happens to be pink. I’m not making a statement, I’m simply aware that with ivory-colored khakis and a brown suit jacket, a pink shirt looks quite nice.
I was recently in a Facebook “conversation” (my euphemism for the exchange of opposing viewpoints that follow many posts) about women who ask their men to get tampons or hair dye at the store, and one female commenter stated that any man who would buy these things “doesn’t have a man card.” This strikes me as a juvenile approach to both menstrual cycles and grocery shopping. I have no problem buying tampons — I know the brand and box my wife prefers, and I don’t feel a need to disguise the product in a larger pile of groceries. That doesn’t make me less of a man, nor more of a man – it makes me a shopper. If tampons are on the list, it would be ridiculous for me to tell my wife she needs to make a special trip to the store after I’ve returned with all of the other groceries because I am honor-bound by my Y chromosome to avoid the feminine hygiene aisle.
It was that exchange that enlightened me to a flaw in my thinking: Historically, I have blamed the ongoing delineation of gender roles on men. I thought feminism was working to make women genuine equals, and it was vestiges of the old-boy network that perpetuated the narrow idea of “manly” behavior. This bias was based on my personal observation that many men remain very much hung up on being “manly” – choosing a manly drink at the bar (because what kind of pussy would order a drink with grenadine in it?) or driving a manly car (which explains why VW is trying to define their new Beetle as manly) or refusing to wear a pink shirt. I find these attitudes misguided, but they’re common, and I’ve come to begrudgingly accept it. My error was in thinking that I was taking the women’s side on this, because I’ve been noticing lately that women are just as likely to have a skewed gender perspective.
I remember my wife (before she was my wife) pointing out a “starter” toolkit at one of the big box stores, made for someone who wanted to have basic tools in their home: hammer, pliers, screwdrivers, saw, wire cutters, and an assortment of nails and screws. What made this set noteworthy? Every handle was pink, and they were all encased in a box labeled “Her Toolkit.” (In a flowing font that looked like it had been lifted from the front of a cheerleading outfit.) My wife laughed because she owned a black-handled, non-gender-specific hammer, because she never perceived a hammer as an outlet to express her femininity – she simply wanted something that could drive a nail into the drywall. The idea of someone marketing a pink-handled hammer to her was absurd. Of course, she only felt that way because it was absurd.
Another example: a woman called my friend’s hardware store and asked to talk with a deck specialist. They sent the call to the resident desk specialist, an experienced woman with a deep knowledge of materials, construction, and local zoning ordinances. The caller asked again to speak with a desk specialist. “That’s me,” the salesperson insisted, “how can I help?” In short order, it became clear that the caller didn’t want to speak to the smartest desk specialist in the store – she wanted to speak to a male deck specialist. Because men really know that kind of stuff, you know? Satisfying the caller meant transferring the line to a less-qualified male employee. Fortunately, they had such a person on staff.
I know that I’m not exposing some seedy, secret underbelly of American culture. This is par-for-the-course even in the 21st century, and that’s exactly why I’m speaking of it. These attitudes get reinforced every day, and too many people seem to shrug it off as “just the way things are.” We can blame marketers who create ad campaigns like Dr. Pepper 10’s inane “It’s not for women” or beer ads that contribute catchphrases like “man card” to the cultural dialogue; we can blame Hollywood for perpetuating gender stereotypes under the guise of “that’s what audiences respond to”; we can blame anyone and everyone, but there comes a time when we have to accept some responsibility ourselves. Yes, it’s the way things are, but it’s not the way things ought to be.
With all the negativity that life can throw at us – job insecurity, health scares, resource depletion, domestic violence, terrorism, poverty, natural disasters, insert your personal demons here – does it really matter what color shirt a man wears or who’s buying the tampons? Gentlemen, if you like vodka on the rocks, by all means, drink up – but don’t choke it down because your preferred Tequila Sunrise makes you “look” like a pansy; and ladies, recognize that a man who faithfully adheres to the testosterone playbook may only be showing his studiousness, not his strength. Rather than worrying about who’s wearing the proverbial pants, how about we all put on whatever we want to wear and get to work addressing the things that really matter.