Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Real Shady

"Please Stand Up, Please Stand Up"

I have been struggling to find the time and topic for a post.  I had been hoping to finish up a piece that has been in the works for about three years regarding my disdain for the sport of football.  My intention was to have it done just after the Super Bowl, but seeing as that was over a month ago, it seems kind of like a moot point now.  I was starting to get the feeling the blog might be taking on the characteristics of the quintessential 90s rock song that can't find an appropriate spot to end, and just slowly fades out to static....

Then someone decides to put up a billboard in North Carolina that gets some people riled up^.


In case you missed it, the above billboard went up at the end of February in the Winston-Salem area of North Carolina.  It has since draw groups protesting the message they believe it says about assigning gender roles.  The billboard itself seems somewhat ambiguous, as it lacks reference to what is being provided by men and appreciated by women by failing to provide an antecedent to the existing pronoun "it".  Because the purveyor of the message on billboard has chosen to remain anonymous, we can't really know their agenda behind the ad.  A peculiar thing about free speech and anonymity.  A new billboard put up a few days ago, presumably by the same people who paid for the first billboard, hasn't seemed to make things any clearer.

Many of the opponents think the billboard conveys an attitude comparable to days gone by, calling the message sexist, misogynistic and marginalizing of women and other people who don't fall into those defined categories of "real men" and "real women".  Given historical precedence and the way in which gender is still often viewed today, even given our evolution of gender roles since the mid-19th century, it doesn't seem hard to understand why that sentiment might exist.  When we hear the phrase "Real Men Provide", odds are the image that we conjecture is the household where the man/husband/father makes the money, and the woman/wife/mother appreciates it while tending to the domestic affairs.

Because of the ambiguous nature of the billboard, we can all render an opinion on what it implies.  But even if we optimistically assume the message on the billboard is encouraging men to provide for others in whatever manner they can, not solely by "bringing home the bacon", the second line of the billboard still gives me some pause.  Stating that "real women appreciate it" seems to suggest that women have little choice but to appreciate what men are providing, no matter what "it" is.  Men can provide all sorts of things.  Some of them good - like love, support, and security.  Some of them not so good - like the vast majority of inmates at federal prisons, higher percentages of seemingly preventable deaths, and greater numbers of bankruptcy filings.  We have a saying in our house, "you get what you get, and you don't throw a fit."  I don't know how well that applies here.

I don't think it serves anyone well when attempt to box people into certain definitions, whether they be by gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or any of the various other characteristics that make us unique from one another.  By trying to define what constitutes a "real" man or a "real" woman, we are marginalizing those who don't fit that into that mold.  If the billboard message was meant to imply that "real men" provide by being the primary breadwinner, then obviously I don't qualify as a "real man".  I don't really take offense to this, though I see how many can; especially women advocating for their own equality in the work place, who even in 2016 have to listen to prominent figures question the merits of a concept like equal pay.

If anything it disappoints me.  It disappoints me that we have to try to define what is "real" when it comes to a concept like gender, suggesting that what does not match that reality is somehow fake.  It makes me wonder, who would be considered more of a "real man"; my former colleague who drives a Harley and is gay, or my neighbor down the street who can fix pretty much anything in your house with a Swiss Army Knife and also ferments his own wine.  They are both men living lives that (presumably, hopefully) bring them joy and fulfillment.  Can they not both be real?

Men can provide in all sorts of ways, but when we advance a narrative that constraints the way in which they should provide, it not only robs women of the opportunity of being able to provide those things (and potentially more and better), but it also shortchanges the men who might rather provide for those he loves in a different manner.  Either because it is a better use of his passion and talents, or it just makes more sense.  I've written before why I think my being a stay-at-home dad is good for my kids.  It's certainly not for every dad, but I would hate to see a dad who thought staying home and taking a more active role in the child rearing would be best for his family, not do it because he felt society was saying that wasn't the right way for him to provide.        

Ultimately it is up to us a society to decide what we will accept as "real" or not.  Research shows that despite drastic improvements in dads increasing the amount of time they spend per week on "stereotypical mom" duties, like housework and child care, moms still spend about twice as much time per week.  It also shows that a large chunk (46%) of fathers feel as though they spend too little time with their children.  I would hypothesize that if you surveyed wives (without their husbands present) a vast majority would indicate that they wished their spouses, especially if they are male, would spend more time assisting with the house work and child care.  Even though you can pass a law (or sign an executive order, more precisely) to make it easier for dads to change diapers, it doesn't mean they'll necessarily change more diapers.  

 A former colleague of mine, a very intelligent and well respected tenured professor at a prestigious institution*, forwarded me an article about the phenomenon of Sweden's "Latte Pappas".  Sweden has long been a bastion of gender equality, especially when it comes to parenting.  Sweden provides some of the most generous parental work leaves, and allocates, and highly encourages, six months of leave that can only be taken by fathers.  In examining the results of various other studies, scientists and others have presupposed that encouragement of hands-on-fatherhood has very likely changed the hormone balance of Sweden's "Latte Pappas".  Presumably a decrease in their testosterone levels, the hormone that encourages risk taking, and increased levels of oxytocin, the "cuddle" hormone.

I would argue on the whole that we would be well served by having a little less testosterone and a little more oxytocin fueling the decisions of how our society moves forward, especially for the sake of our children.  As someone who has been able to assume a role similar to the "Latte Pappa" for the last few years, and very likely has significantly decreased levels of testosterone, my viewpoint is obviously a bit skewed.  But I will continue to encourage any father who wants to use their unique talents and passions to best provide for their family in whatever way they see fit, regardless of what they may be providing.  If that is something you can get on board with, then I'd encourage you to do the same.

I'm hopeful that my experiences can show other men, especially fathers, that they don't need to be bound by what the societal narrative often deems as "real" if they don't want.  I consider myself a man, and last time I looked down in the shower, what I learned in anatomy confirmed that observation.  If the way in which I express my "manhood" make anyone else insecure in their own, then I figure that is their problem, not mine.

I provided these muffins for my family.
They appreciated it.

^This even happened a few weeks ago, but that's more akin to the standard amount of delay I usually have when trying to comment on current events.

*Yes, it's my alma mater so I'm a little biased.