To Succeed, The Feminist Movement Must Address Toxic Masculine Social Norms

Opinions on Debatable Issues #30

Common sense seems to indicate that a feminist movement must be devoted to addressing female issues only. Instead of advocating for equality for all, the feminist movement is excluding half of the world’s population as shown in, for instance, the campaign for “women-only coworking spaces” and “‘girlboss’ T-shirts” (Denton-Hurst). Some feminists believe all resources must be devoted to disabusing feminist stigmas. Yet, others are advocating for also addressing masculine issues. In my opinion, the feminist movement is overlooking the potential contribution that could be made by the male population through focusing on empowering women solely. Feminists should prioritize combatting negative male gender stereotypes because doing so abridges the differences between the two genders by normalizing feminist characteristics and attracting joint effort to address gender inequality.

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Eliminating stereotypes of masculinity helps address gender inequality by normalizing feminist traits and abridging the disparity between the expectations of the two genders. In The New York Times, Claire Miller, the winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues, cites a study based on a national survey that questioned 75,573 12th graders from 1976-2014 to portray the modern gap between family gender roles: “The largest share of the respondents said the most desirable arrangement was men working full time and women staying home.” The result from this study indicates that young generations still hold the conventional idea regarding fathers’ breadwinning and mothers’ domestic labor roles in a family despite the feminist movement has been pushing for women empowerment for decades. Some attribute this to women being less educated or intellectually incapable. However, more women are getting a college degree and performing better academically in schools than men are. Thus, the barrier is the heroizing of toxic masculinity and the devaluing of feminist characteristics, not ability. It should be highlighted that the participants of the study preferred men working full time and women staying home because they thought “a father staying home was unacceptable” rather than women being incapable of working (Miller). This shows that significant amount of progress has already been made in empowering women and the most urgent issue feminist movement must address now is the perennial male-breadwinner stereotype that keeps pressuring men to make money and women to give up their careers when work-family balance is hard to maintain. Specifically, the problem is that society associate “desirable” masculinity with the ability to support one’s family and avoiding things that are considered feminine, such as domestic labor and childcare, while feminist traits of compassion and emotional vulnerability are considered weaknesses. Thus, men refuse to give up their jobs to avoid being seen as cowardice and incapable. With the sharp disparity between the two gender stereotypes, men percieve domestic labor as a fatal disease that will immediately break down the armor that they were conditioned to put on since childhood. If the idea that men must make money is changed, then fathers would not be driven by the shame and pressure imposed by society to hold on to the breadwinner role.

Additionally, when masculinity is no longer associated with working and being commanding and tough, the opposite traits of feminist vulnerability, emotions, and childcare are normalized. Otherwise, no matter how hard women try to strive in the workforce, they are still being despised or devalued for being of this gender. As Cindy Leive, a writer who frequently addresses gender equity, points out in her article published in The New York Times, people will likely find articles discussing horrible experiences associated with “stress,” “divorce,” “resentment,” and “burnout” when searching the keyword “female breadwinner.” Those words with negative connotations strengthen the misconception that attempts of women pursuing careers always end up badly. In comparison, men are seldomly the topic of those concerns, so the perception that men are born to be breadwinners while women are unfit for the workplace forms. Yet, Andrew Reiner, an English teacher at Towson University and an author of a book about masculinity, reveals that the opposite is true in his article published in The New York Times: “Men continue to fall behind women in college, while outpacing them four to one in the suicide rate.” This demonstrates that males also face problems, but those struggles remain unknown to most because men are coerced by toxic masculinity to appear problem-free. Consequently, their intentional hiding of their problems and vulnerability intensifies the stereotypes of femininity by communicating the false message that only women have those concerns. The major problem that must be addressed is the stigma around male vulnerability that discourages men from voicing their stress and challenges. If it is recognized that male populations are dealing with those dilemmas or difficulties just as women are, only covertly, then the argument that women are naturally unfit for work due to their biological difference from men can be easily dismissed. Thus, the social norm of honoring some gender characteristics and denigrating others collapses and gender inequality reduces as feminist traits in the male population are normalized.

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Besides abridging gender differences, feminist movements can attract joint efforts of both genders through freeing males from societal prejudices. Men’s contribution gives more momentum to advance the movement for gender equality. Reiner’s use of observations by sociologists Thomas A. DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann effectively shows a demand for change: “Boys’ underperformance in school has more to do with society’s norms about masculinity… In fact, boys involved in extracurricular cultural activities such as music, art, drama and foreign languages report higher levels of school engagement and get better grades than other boys.” In other words, male children and adolescents are discouraged from practicing those beneficial but “unmasculine” activities, missing out on valuable experiences. The increase in numbers of studies and works of literature discussing this topic reveals the mounting discontent that people, especially men, have about toxic masculinity. Since disabusing those stigmas can benefit future male generations by improving their school performances and mental health, most men would reasonably be supportive of such effort. When the feminist movement helps exonerate males from suffocating societal norms, they are sending out the message that feminism is about lifting everyone rather than achieving female superiority as many critiques believe. Consequently, the alienating misunderstanding that the feminist movement intends to belittle men will reasonably diminish.

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Also, men who see themselves benefiting from the feminist movement are more likely to recognize their crucial role and responsibility of contributing to this effort towards gender equality. As a result, making substantial progress becomes easier as the feminist movement transforms from a battle between women and men to a united effort to reform the flawed social structure. Leive cites the observation of Liz Pank, who interviewed hundreds of men, to affirms males’ desire for this change: “Many wanted to upend their fathers’ tired definition of masculinity.” The aspiration for ending the overwhelming toxic expectations of males depicted here conveys that men would be most likely to be attracted by the cause of battling those stereotypes if feminists reach out. Men’s participation reinforces and gives merits to the feminist movement by showing that a good balance can be maintained with men taking the supporting role and women being the breadwinner. A great confirmation to this is the story of Kamala Harris, the first female vice president of color, and her husband. Harris’s success is unquestionably an encouragement to all women who envision taking leading positions in society. But that effect on the feminist movement would be greatly undermined without the actions of her husband, Doug Emhoff. He quit his job at a law firm and studied how to be a second spouse at the Library of Congress to better assist Harris from a supporting position. By publicly and proudly embracing his new, unconventional family role, Mr. Emhoff presents a vivid example to all American men with the message that having a more accomplished wife is not a shame and taking care of one’s family is an important and respected responsibility. If he does not show support, then Harris will likely become the target of questions about her relationship with her husband and the challenges she has on balancing work and family after becoming the vice president. Nevertheless, the endorsement of Mr. Emhoff removes that weak spot, furthering this historical event’s impact on advancing gender equality. The same logic applies to any family. Therefore, men are needed in the feminist movement to play the crucial role of complementing and justifying women’s actions. Their participation effectively lessens friction and augments the momentum.   

Many dismiss this prioritization of the male population’s issues, believing that it diminishes the limited resources that can be used directly to support women and addressing negative female social norms. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton University and the first female director of policy planning for the United States Department of State, acknowledges this situation in her article published in Atlantic: “Millions of other working women face much more difficult life circumstances. Some are single mothers; many struggle to find any job; others support husbands who cannot find jobs.” Though I concede that focusing on males’ issues takes away some of the finite resources available from the feminist movement to provide poor women with basic needs and diminishes momentum from the female camp, addressing toxic masculinity is crucial for the eventual success in achieving gender equality. Relief payment or subsidies cannot solve the issue of poverty and vulnerability from its root, which is the lack of equal opportunities due to gender discrimination that puts women at disadvantage in the workplace. Thus, the ultimate success of a feminist movement and the solution to female suffering is to make the society decrease gender gap, which requires legislative reforms that fundamentally provide women the means to become self-sustainable and the opportunities to get high-ranking jobs that empower them financially and politically.

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This would be an uphill battle if women are fighting on their own when males are holding most of the government offices and/or corporate positions. Miller’s observation attests to men’s important role in this effort: “Studies have shown that men can feel threatened if their wives earn more than them, and that to compensate, men who feel this way might do even less housework.” This demonstrates that men naturally suppress the progress of the feminist movement when they are alarmed and feel threatened by women making more money and obtaining high social status. Men’s unwillingness to do housework is an example of that counterforce. Someone must take care of the chores; if men are unwilling to share that responsibility, then women would not have the time, the energy, and the space to pursue their career goals. This situation is especially worrisome because men are the dominant gender in society while women are the minority. In 2021, according to Pew Research Center’s analysis of women leaders, women only make up 26% of the Senate, 27% of the House of Representatives, and 7.4% of the fortune 500 CEO (“The Data”). Being in such a disadvantageous state, women need men’s endorsement to push for gender equality policies in Congress and beneficial employment terms in private businesses. If the male population remains indifferent or antagonistic, then the obstacles that feminist movement faces are numerous. The solution to this problem is prioritizing addressing toxic societal stereotypes of men to create for a mutually beneficial alliance.

In short, the switching or sharing of the breadwinner and housekeeper roles between the husband and wife will become more acceptable with men’s support and without stigmas around male doing domestic labor. However, this can only be achieved through galvanizing a united effort by addressing all gender problems rather than female ones only. Remember, the feminist movement is about creating gender equality, not just empowering women.

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