“Hey, Kenneth! You gotta birthday comin’ up, dontcha?” one of them blurted from the end of the counter.
“Yessir,” came the diffident reply.
“I think I’m gonna buy you a tractor. You think you’d like that?” the boisterous interrogation continued.
“I know you need sumpin’ to pull your head out of your ass!” With that, the guffaws erupted from all four at the end of the counter—all pleased with their comedic wit.
Those bullies said Kenneth was “retarded,” and they seemed to think that made it okay to talk to him like that. I was just a kid and didn’t know if words like “retarded” were bad or not, but I felt sorry for Kenneth. I don’t know how smart he was, but I know he never got my order wrong, and he could make a pretty mean grilled cheese.
He was born and raised in Galena Park, just like them bullies were, except he didn’t seem to mind it so much. I liked him because he never seemed to have anything to prove, and the cherry sodas he made were delicious. He never treated me like a kid, and I never treated him like one, either, even if he was like 40 or something.
I think that’s what bothered them bullies so much. Kenneth didn’t care. He didn’t get mad or cry or anything. He just made cherry sodas and grilled cheeses and kept the drugstore counter spotless all the while.
He was a good man, and them bullies knew it. But they had to try to convince people they were better than Kenneth, because everyone knew they damn sure weren’t any better than anyone else. And they weren’t any better than Kenneth, either.
On March 14, I learned of a new holiday known as Steak and BJ Day. Known as a humorous response to Valentine’s Day, the idea behind Steak and BJ Day is that women get all the attention on Valentine’s Day (men spend about twice as much as women) and there should be day for men to get what they enjoy, which is, obvious to the creators and celebrants of this day, steaks and blow jobs. It’s just a joke. It’s all in fun. If you don’t like it, don’t participate.
Many women seem to feel this is a fair way to compensate men for being so generous on Valentine’s Day, apparently having no qualms describing their romantic relationships as blatant prostitution. (“After all the trouble he went to for Valentine’s Day, I owe him something. Teehee.”) If people want to live their lives exchanging gifts for sexual favors and cooking services, I have no problem with it, so long as everyone knows what is going on and feels comfortable commodifying relationships. I have a different problem with this holiday.
Steak and BJ Day is based on a crude masculine stereotype that is inoffensive to men who live for their next steak and treat of oral sexual gratification. All men are supposed to want this. Any man who doesn’t love and know how to prepare steak, in fact, should turn in his man card, according to this web site. Again, it is just a joke. If you don’t love steak, you are just a girl. Hilarious. I mean, who would want to be a girl? It isn’t meant to offend anyone. Any man who objects to this stereotype is himself at risk of being told he is too sensitive or not a “real man” or a “typical man.” People who are less kind will tell him he is a sissy, wimp, girl, or any number of nastier anti-gay slurs.
So, men who don’t want these things should turn in their man cards (see this site for an uproariously funny rendition of this ). “Turn in your man card” is the functional equivalent of “you throw like a girl.” As much as people insist this is all just a joke, the consequences of masculine stereotypes are severe. Children who fail to express their gender in expected ways are more likely to be bullied and abused and suffer from depression and PTSD (see a study on the risk here). You may have heard what happened to a boy who liked My Little Pony. Further, anti-gay attacks are typically in reaction not to sexual activity but to perceived non-conformity to gender stereotypes (a 1982 study by Joseph Harry found that “effeminate” men are twice as likely to be victims of gay bashing than gender conforming men), which means gay-bashing victims include many heterosexuals or children with no obvious sexual orientation or identity at all.
This bias against unmanly men is nothing new. Through an essay by Elizabeth V. Spelman, I found a passage in Plato‘s Republic describing what kinds of men would be inappropriate for a decent society:
We will not then allow our charges, whom we expect to prove good men, being men, to play the parts of women and imitate a woman young or old wrangling with her husband, defying heaven, loudly boasting, fortunate in her own conceit, or involved in misfortune and possessed by grief and lamentation—still less a woman that is sick, in love, or in labor.
People sometimes want to credit Plato with an early form of feminism, because he felt women should be trained in the mode of men. Like many today, he felt it was quite admirable for women to strive to “achieve” masculine traits. Men being the highest form of human perfection, Plato thought it made sense for women to strive for the masculine ideal. The man who would follow the lead of women, however, would be lowering himself below his station and be pathetic at best. His view persists as we encourage girls in sports, mathematics, and leadership, but forbid boys from nurturing, crying, creativity, and careers related to care and empathy. It seems odd to me that eating meat is considered particularly masculine, but vegetarian men are portrayed as being the least manly of all. The hatred and devaluation of “feminine” men is an extension of the oppression of women. Feminist philosopher Jean Grimshaw points out that the conception of a feminine ideal depends on “the sort of polarization between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ which has itself been so closely related to the subordination of women.”
The hatred of “effeminate” men is an extension of the devaluing of the feminine, but it leads to violence and oppression of both men and women. In order to be free, we must assign equal value to all human activities and emotional dispositions. Leadership and assertiveness have their value, but we will not last long in a society devoid of nurturing, care, and concern. Another feminist philosopher, Genevieve Lloyd, puts it this way:
If the full range of human activities–both the nurturing tasks traditionally associated with the private domain and the activities which have hitherto occupied public space–were freely available to all, the exploration of sexual difference would be less fraught with the dangers of perpetuating norms and stereotypes that mutilated men and women alike.
I added the emphasis on the word “mutilated,” because I am grateful to her for using such strong language to describe accurately what sexist stereotypes have done to us. I often hear women struggle to describe how sexism hurts men. Some say it discourages men from working hard or from caring for others, but they miss the fact that sexism destroys men from the inside out. Very few men escape childhood without having their masculinity questioned and challenged. And too many men have responded violently to a woman who has taunted them with, “If you were a real man, you’d . . . !” The constant demand that a boy or man prove his resilience, indifference to pain and fear, and lack of compassion rends men from their humanity. Those who resist are often trampled under foot and left with depression, addiction, anxiety, and self-loathing. Too often, it ends in self-destruction through addiction, isolation, or suicide.
You may be thinking I take things a little too seriously. No one would kill himself over Steak and BJ Day. I agree, but I am asking you to consider the good of masculine stereotypes, and I tell you they serve no purpose and provide no benefit. The cumulative effect of such stereotypes is to prevent men from being whole and to destroy those who are uninterested or unable to fulfill the social expectations such stereotypes are designed to enforce.