Outdated gender roles?

My distillation of Warren Farrell’s 1986 book on hetero relations

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I’ve been working through Why Men Are the Way They Are for two years and think it has some really good points. However, I’ve also noticed that, in my little corner of reality, it is mostly out of date. First I’ll summarize the book. I’ll use the past tense so we can more easily imagine that all this is in the past, then I’ll ask if it really is.

The Point

Thesis

Gender roles are symbiotic and largely created out of heterosexual intimacy. If you consider the socialization of men, you will have more sympathy for them.

Author’s Motives

  1. Growing up, work was necessary to his mother’s vitality. When she didn’t work, she was depressed and lost. When she did, she had income, adult communication, purpose, and rights. Farrell likes women’s empowerment.
  2. Male power is a trap. Men step up to do the “right thing” and die for it, have no time for family, face constant rejection, or otherwise lose out. Many men try to perform to expectations and end up hated or dead. Farrell wants to respect men’s grievances because the personal is often political.

Women and Men

Women’s Fantasy

Farrell convinced me that women were socialized to want economic security and quality of life from marriage first and sexual satisfaction second. So they wanted a man who was “safe” but not “too safe.” This is shocking but his examples from 1970s and 1980s media are very persuasive.

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A long-running perfume ad where her beauty attracts tuxedo man, who looks at her with gaze unreturned.

Men’s Fantasy

Farrell also convinced me that men were socialized to have a very embarrassing fundamental fantasy. First, a man wants to get laid. Second, a man wants to get laid with many women. It was hard for men to open about this with a woman because, in her gender role, getting laid for nothing with multiple partners was cheap and easy. To him it was impossibly hard.

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Classic male fantasy.

Both sexes compensated for their unmet fantasy-based needs: men with porn and women with romance novels. While there is clearly more to life, it was very difficult for men or women to abandon the fantasy. Additionally, homosexuality was taboo. Also both sexes learned that if they could accomplish their fantasy too easily, they should try for more.

Farrell points out that, while the idea of a woman making her money had been popular since the 1910s, very little media content supported such an approach. His analysis of magazines and their ads is very convincing on this. Almost no articles about work in any women’s magazines; almost no articles about beauty in any men’s magazines.

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Stock photo of couple. Particularly sexy, woman on right.

Idealized Woman

Most media contained very strong promotions of cute women 19–29. They are usually what is being advertised. This made their looks more important, with charm second, and anything else third.

Idealized Man

Most stories were about a man who rose above his conditions to become a champion and get the girl. Though they achieved success by different paths, e.g. violence or intelligence or politics, they were essentially badasses who did whatever was necessary to win (usually in an upset victory). Looks, charm, intelligence, and strength could all be important, but none were strictly necessary.

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Stock photo of couple. In back, object of affection.

Women’s Socialization

Prettiest girl won the castle: if you were beautiful (with some work), you could win the attention of a man with wealth who could solve your problems and make life great. Don’t settle for less than maximum value! If he only had finite resources, ensure that he gives you everything.

Men’s Socialization

King of the hill gets the girl: choose an environment, become its master, women will come to you. Even before puberty, men knew that winning the attention and affection of “beautiful women” meant winning. In puberty, women were not interested in the boy. With age, men continued to feel that women are scarce and they must compete for them.
Three nasty strategies developed from this socialization:

  1. Objectify women to minimize the pain of rejection
  2. Lie about unseemly sexual feelings to women
  3. Drive towards sex as fast as possible with women

Men’s socialization helped them deal with women’s socialization, but made them poor family members. Dad was too competitive, husband lied about his feelings, brother only cared about chasing girls. The hard exterior, built up with so many rejections, was not so fun to live with. The need to be seen as a master was often paternalistic and arrogant.

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Farrell’s own comics are excellent illustrations of his concepts. This one on page 141.

Farrell doesn’t discuss this, but women’s socialization was actually more compatible with family. Women’s goal was to establish a secure family order, imperiled only by men they might want to fuck. Their socialization mostly did’t interfere with nurturing children, communicating openly with a partner, or keeping everyone happy.

On the other hand, each gender’s socialization had positive externalities. In particular, he explains how men could come out of the process emotionally self-controlled, able to question authority, self-sufficient, fair, and generous.

Women’s Powerlessness

Popular feminism already described this. Women are defined by their beauty and charm, unable to develop their own identity beyond this. They are accessories in public life and feel trapped.

Men’s Powerlessness

Rarely acknowledged before Farrell’s work, men are required to perform to survive. This performance may be anti-life, such as in war. But it can also just be hard. No crying. Success above all else. Sacrifice yourself to put others first. This created contradictions such as between taking all the sexual initiative and yet caring for women; men could easily cross the line into sexual assault, especially as this line changed over time. Men needed to be tough but also be nice and could be punished for erring on either side. Men needed to succeed financially but also be around for their family.

Farrell applies these core concepts to better understand classic gender role issues such as commitment, impotence, self-esteem, and marriage. In general, his framework does an excellent job of giving credit to the challenges men face and making sense of men’s behavior. I liked this because I tend to find men incomprehensible. He does not address jealousy, but one might argue that men want to defend their winnings (his woman) while women want to maintain the guarantee of their material prosperity (her man).

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Best couple of 2016. Magically exempt from reality, history, etc.

So, Is This Entirely Outdated?

Yes!

Today, I see very few people believing that marriage will lead to long-term financial stability. People know it will only last so long, and that if you don’t work during it, you will have trouble recovering from that in career terms later.

I see many women willing to take initiatives with men and interested in companionship other than marriage. Their fantasy is to live for the short term and enjoy; they assume the future cannot be predicted much less controlled.

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Stock photo of couple. Note lack of concern for history of gender roles they are currently performing.

Not entirely!

I think men are largely in the same place.They are still taught they must master and conquer, earn much money, and become self-sufficient. How they spend that money is their business now, though their wages are calibrated to support families. Their socialization still makes them bad at communication, listening, and doing emotional labor in the family. Their socialization still makes them feel inadequate if they depart from the basic male fantasy.

Many women are still interested in marrying a successful man or benefiting from him financially. While most have accepted they will need to work, often this is in a job with little upward mobility that cannot fully support the lifestyle they want.

Some young women think that spending time in a relationship with a man comes at some cost to them, that the man ought to pay for. (Their time is valuable; his is not.) I think this comes from the feeling that they are only in their prime (19–29) for so long, but he does not face this constraint.

Most women still do not take many sexual initiatives, assuming the a hint of interest should be enough.

Quite often, women are more interested in long-lasting relationships than men and are more willing to stick it out when things get bad. I think is related to the old dream of security and establishing an enjoyable life with a man.

To a large extent, homosexuality, asexuality, and non-monogamy are more acceptable options, though they are still not so welcome as the traditional fantasy. These lead to rather different gender roles, though often the structures identified by Farrell still matter.

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The Garden Bench by James Tissot, 1883.

History: the Missing Piece

Farrell does not discuss the history of gender roles at all, which is a mistake.

Women have historically been property, able to advance their position only by marriage. Doing what they could to marry the right guy (rich, kind, handsome, etc.) was a very good idea. If they married well, they could have a rather nice life. Women were not welcome in the workforce and had limited opportunities in it.

Women coming from that experience are not wrong to hedge their bets and make some play to marry rich. This will surely work for some of them and many women would rather play unhappy housewife or mistress than frontline miner, soldier, or business traveler.

There is also the broader question of “incredulity towards metanarrative,” Lyotard’s summary of the post-modern condition. We have become more cynical about all the big stories, including the ones princesses and castles. We appropriate from these stories as needed, but do not expect anyone to follow them.

Culture does not change overnight and I suspect that much of what Farrell identifies will continue to serve as a helpful set of concepts for many decades.

Essayist.

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