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Not too long ago, I found myself imagining an alternate universe. In this universe, women used to be the breadwinners but are now relegated to their parents’ basements. Generally, women fall into two categories—useless and overly aggressive or just useless. Mother figures in movies and TV shows are generally clueless or downright abusive; memes are shared gleefully on the internet enumerating women’s many failures: “Women are stupid, if you forget just give them a minute—they’ll remind you.

Sounds kinda like the fifties, you might say, and you might be right. But knowing that doesn’t make it better—my fictional universe still sounds like a terrible, dehumanizing one, dismissive and belittling toward one half of the human experience.

And the thing is, it’s not that fictional: it’s just reversed. These days a solid chunk of young adults live in their parents’ basements, and the number has only increased in the last five months (hello, breaking into the job market during a global pandemic!) but the trope (and reality) of young men in their twenties living downstairs playing Call of Duty has been widespread for years. The dramatic and powerful Thor of the early Marvel movies becomes an overweight punchline in Avengers Endgame, easily palatable because we’re so familiar with the trope: a stupid man being stupid. What could be more natural? If you just give them a minute—they’ll remind you. 

I’ve been part of my fair share of conversations complaining about men. If we’re honest, it’s part of the fun of being a woman—making just a little bit of fun of the opposite sex. But I think the problem is that we take it all too seriously. For one thing, especially within a group of single ladies, it’s far too easy to sigh and wring one’s hands and say that the state of men just isn’t what it used to be. “The men” are wimpy, thoughtless, and unmotivated. A friend of mine even gave me a card with an illustration of a man in a suit of armor with the ironic caption, “Does this outfit make my fear of commitment look big?”

What we always conveniently set aside during these conversations, of course, is the wonderful men many of our friends have married, our respect for our fathers, and the dynamism and virtue we admire in our men friends. Of course, that’s part of the game—it’s fun to complain about men being commitment-phobic and to tease a guy friend about not asking a friend on a date.

On the other hand, if the men in our lives try to make generalizations about women—even the most jovial “get back to the kitchen” or “your feminine mind just wouldn’t understand this”—we take it very seriously (and perhaps we even should). And yet for some reason we think nothing of rolling our eyes, looking sidelong at one another, and breathing out the eloquent word: “Men.”

I wondered what this experience was like from the inside. Over months of conversations with my guy friends and research about masculinity and relationships between men and women, I realized that it is even more demoralizing than I had thought.

Feminine empowerment and the battle of the boys

Don’t get me wrong; I’m thrilled about female empowerment. I like being able to vote. I’m a big fan of being able to get a Ph.D. If I had spent my childhood and young adulthood being told there were only a few things I was allowed to do and even allowed to say, I would have been beside myself with frustration. I’m an intelligent woman starting a graduate degree; I’m also a professional woman with satisfying work; I’m also a sister, a friend, a daughter, capable of baking bread and fixing a typewriter, reading poetry and taking long solo road trips.

But part of the reason I feel so secure about all of these things is certainly due to cultural conditioning. In the booming economy and enlightened politics of the nineties and aughts, no one forgot to tell me that, as a girl, I could do whatever I wanted. I could love Barbies, or Legos, or both. I could aspire to be a stay-at-home mom or a rocket scientist. Whatever I wanted to do, society would cheer me on.

And what I wanted to do was camping and fencing, embroidery and gardening; math camp and debate and Irish dancing and writing stories. I sometimes thought I was a tomboy, wearing ripped jeans and playing with the boys; but that weekend I could be dressed to the nines and performing piano with all the aplomb of a character in a Jane Austen novel. It never occurred to me that there might be any conflict among my many activities. How could there be? My femininity expressed itself in the thousand different ways I expressed myself.

I never really thought about this as a particularly feminine experience. Weren’t they telling all of us that we could do whatever we wanted?

In the meantime, two of my guy friends—I’ll call them Henry and John—were having a very different experience. At their respective schools, in the South and Midwest, there was one axis along which masculinity (and therefore identity) was evaluated. And that axis was sports.

“If you don’t play sports, it’s not like you’re not popular, or whatever,” said Henry. “It’s like you don’t exist. You’re not even there.” Henry had abandoned a promising career as a high school wrestler because he preferred reading books. To this day, his coach tells him he could have been something.

I was aghast. “Did you make friends with any other guys who felt this way?”

Henry and John almost smiled. You don’t make friends with one another, they explained. You avoid each other. Both of you don’t exist. It’s better not to acknowledge that.

Books are, indeed, a sore subject. Where John grew up in the rural Midwest, caring about the intellectual life is immediately suspect. “If you like ‘all that book stuff,’” he explained, “you’re probably—weird.”

I started to realize that there are thousands of different and widely-respected ways to be a girl—girly girl, tomboy, literature-focused, math whiz, shy, outspoken—and, at least in certain circles, only about one and a half ways to be a boy. There’s the overbearing sports-bro personality—or having emotions, reading a book, or caring about other people, which leaves your masculinity in question.

Peggy Orestein found this in her years of interviewing boys, which she reported on in a longform article in The Atlantic. Orenstein writes:

By adolescence, says the Harvard psychologist William Pollack, boys become “shame-phobic,” convinced that peers will lose respect for them if they discuss their personal problems. My conversations bore this out. Boys routinely confided that they felt denied—by male peers, girlfriends, the media, teachers, coaches, and especially their fathers—the full spectrum of human expression.

Even in circles where these behaviors are not stigmatized as being strangely revealing of some conflation of gender expression and sexual orientation, the integration of their humanity is neglected in the pursuit of teaching boys to “be a man.”

Orenstein’s research even confirms my own observations about the differences in expectations between boys and girls. She cites a study on gender differences describing this phenomenon:

Feminism may have provided girls with a powerful alternative to conventional femininity, and a language with which to express the myriad problems-that-have-no-name, but there have been no credible equivalents for boys. Quite the contrary: The definition of masculinity seems to be in some respects contracting. When asked what traits society values most in boys, only 2 percent of male respondents in the PerryUndem survey said honesty and morality, and only 8 percent said leadership skills—traits that are, of course, admirable in anyone but have traditionally been considered masculine. When I asked my subjects, as I always did, what they liked about being a boy, most of them drew a blank. “Huh,” mused Josh, a college sophomore at Washington State. (All the teenagers I spoke with are identified by pseudonyms.) “That’s interesting. I never really thought about that. You hear a lot more about what is wrong with guys.”

Many of the frustrations my friends and I experienced while dating through high school and college were frustrations about that lack of integration—why couldn’t we find any men who could both carry on a conversation and catch a football? Why were men who were so polite in class so irritatingly consistent about being too polite to interrupt a conversation to ask one of us to dance? Having been raised to see ourselves as valuable and constantly built up in self-esteem and confidence, we’re less worried about others’ perception of us, but that isn’t always the experience of the men in our lives.

An overblown ego can be concealing insecurity

Overall, men are in a necessarily demoralizing situation. Men are run down for the very things that are required of them—competitiveness, strength, even aggression. If they express their masculinity in ways that don’t conform to these sometimes-damaging norms, their masculinity is immediately questioned. And the question of masculinity is something that is very fraught for many men. Research suggests that, for men, being respected is an even higher priority than being loved—to men, respect is love. In her book For Women Only, Shaunti Feldham recounts her interviews with various men about their relationships with their wives and a significant point of contention is their sense that their wives don’t respect them.

One married man put it very starkly: “The male ego is the most fragile thing on the planet. Women have this thought that He’s got such a huge ego that I need to take him down a peg. No way. The male ego is incredibly fragile.”

Not only is this anecdotally true, research suggests that masculinity tends to be seen as a precarious state, and therefore “men feel especially threatened by challenges to their masculinity.” Men feel pressure to prove themselves. Whether or not this should be the case, it is something that at least some men struggle with. This struggle is compounded in some cases by the lack of a positive role model. As Craig, father of two and competitive paintball coach, explained to me, men who didn’t have strong father figures tended to display more tendencies of “toxic masculinity” in the form of aggression and refusal to work together with the team. “True masculinity is building up those around you,” said Craig. Often, as Feldham suggests, an overblown ego can be concealing an insecure personal identity.

Building up those around you

Of course, women can’t be responsible for fixing an insecure personal identity. Just because their self-esteem is something that our men friends (or boyfriends) are struggling with doesn’t mean it’s our responsibility to affirm their every thought, word, and deed. But it does seem worthwhile to offer our male friends the respect that we offer to our female friends. While we take respecting other women for granted, I don’t think we always consider the importance of appreciating the men around us for who they are and what they do. As much fun as it might be to make fun of our guy friends for not doing their dishes, I think it’s important also to appreciate it when they help us out, even to admit (just every once in a while!) that there might be a few things that they can do better than we can. My electrician-apprentice brother is just better at wiring lights than I am. My bookseller friend who carries around fifty-pound boxes all day is just stronger than I am. I have a guy friend who makes incredible bread and another who’s incredibly musical. Wherever you stand on the spectrum of gender normativity, it’s always good to appreciate the unique skills of others, and in the case of our guy friends, we may sometimes forget to do that when we focus too much on the negative qualities of the opposite sex.

What’s more, it’s worthwhile to interrogate the public perception of men as big, stupid, and mean. When we see these portrayals in the media, it’s important to think back to the men we really know—our fathers, husbands, brothers, and friends. And as much as I hate to say it, we also need to remember those men at our late-night cocktail parties with the girls.