The lovely Commencement at my institution this weekend was shadowed, for me at least, by the latest school shooting—the psychotic Californian kid who blew away six other kids in a highly premeditated murderous vendetta against young women who, he claimed, refused to cooperate with his sexual fantasies.
The shootings have prompted millions of social media postings and propelled the issue of misogyny on to the front page of The New York Times and many other staid bastions of male-dominated media, which only pay attention to the most sensationalized of crimes against women.
The latest high-profile cases of campus sexual assault have provoked outrage from women and the men who respect them. Young women are refusing to be muzzled by their colleges, filing lawsuits recently bolstered by the Federal government, which has ordered colleges and universities to get their act together and stop the sexual harassment and assault of women by men—or face Federal Title IX lawsuits.
Yes, imagine that—singling out women for assault on a college campus is actually a Federal crime. That this should come as a surprise is a measure of how very normalized the sexual targeting and bullying of women has become.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about how much one’s physical body matters. In an ideal world, it should not matter what kind of genitalia or hormonal make-up you’re born with. Men and women may be differently abled, but we are certainly equal in our potential for positive contributions to our society and planet.
However, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a highly cultured world where, unfortunately, the dominant messages young people receive about what it means to be masculine and feminine are highly differentiated.
We all know the stereotypes. Manly men are strong, dominant, powerful—leaders, speakers, do-ers in the public sphere of business, government, finance, medicine, media. Womanly men are compliant, nurturing, sweet—homemakers, caregivers, do-ers in the private realm of the home and family.
Kids absorb these messages like sponges, often uncritically, especially when these are the norms they see around them in the real-life environments of their families and schools.
To live the stereotype of the manly man, a man has to distinguish himself from being a “sissy,” “pussy,” or “girl” by putting females in their place. Woman are there to serve, whether it’s mom getting dinner and doing the laundry, or a hook-up partner giving a blow job. Women wear those skimpy clothes because they “want some,” and they like men who are aggressive in “getting some.” They like the attention of catcalls and fondles. After all, the girlie-men are nerds and they never get the pretty girls.
Welcome to the imaginal landscape of the stereotypical teenage boy, reinforced by thousands of video game sessions played, movies and TV episodes watched, comedy routines and talk radio listened to. Even in the cartoon world of super-heroes, female heroes have to wear swimsuits and show a lot of skin.
Girls inhabit a parallel universe for the most part, a soft, rosy pink-imbued landscape where romance still takes the form of a gentle, courtly but powerful knight on a white charger who will make everything all right.
Is it any wonder that when these two universes collide on college campuses, mighty rumbles and explosions result?
So to those delightful, earnest young men who keep telling me that gender is just a social construction, that discrimination against women is historical, in the past, and that today women don’t need any special attention or bolstering—I have to shake my head sadly and say simply, “I wish that were the case.”
The casual disrespect of and disregard for women runs deep and wide in our culture. For young women, it often wears the venomous face of sexual assault. For women of child-bearing age, it’s about being culturally encouraged to stay home with the kids in a career environment that is entirely un-family-friendly, resulting in effective career sabotage of women on a society-wide scale. For older women it’s about ageism in a youth-obsessed society, where it’s assumed that if you haven’t “made it” by the time you’re 40, it’s because you’re mediocre and don’t have what it takes.
Women of all ages suffer from the arrogance of the male-dominated cultural oligarchy (otherwise known by that loaded term, “the patriarchy”) that assumes that women are under-represented in Western intellectual history because they never did anything important enough (and weren’t intelligent enough to do anything important enough) to merit representation.
We got a recent example of this unthinking cultural misogyny in the two most recent New York Times columns by David Brooks, entitled “Great Books I & II,” where in all of written history the only female author who made it on to his great books list was the one who forced herself to write under a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously: George Eliot.
There has never yet been a mass shooting by a woman. Women are far more likely to be self-destructive, turning the razors against their own arms and legs, or starving themselves as anorexics. It’s the boys who turn their rage outward, bringing down innocent people before they turn the gun to their own disturbed heads.
The truth is that both boys and girls in our culture need a lot more support than most of them get. We need to start combating the ugliness of gender stereotyping early, long before the girls start trying to conform to unrealistic body image expectations, and boys start thinking of purchasing the all-too-easy-to-obtain shotguns and pistols.
Because we live in a patriarchy, girls and women still do need extra support and encouragement to raise their voices against discrimination and cultural sabotage, to insist on equal treatment and respect in every social sphere.
We are an imitative species—we learn by observation. Every adult should be conscious of the need to set a good example for the young people in our lives, and that includes the adults—mostly men at the moment—who control that incredibly powerful educational system, the media.
Boys and girls need to see men and women relating to each other in responsible, respectful ways, in the media and in the flesh. If we could accomplish this, then maybe we could cry victory and declare unnecessary the need for Title IX and affirmative action protection of women, as well as the kinds of work I do in support of women and girls through my teaching, writing and activism.
I hope that day does come soon…it’s clearly not here yet.