Across the past couple of years, I've learned a lot about humanity, politics, and social justice. This is due in large part to Twitter, which has opened up my sheltered world to all kinds of different perspectives and to the voices of many authors who advocate for social change. I used to be pretty ignorant and uninvolved, despite being an idealist who was against stereotypes, I'd experienced sexism and ableism because of my own gender and disability, and I'd seen other women and disabled people in my life experience them too, but I didn't know much about the broader cultural and structural problems behind those experiences. I didn't know about how marginalized identities play into politics, about modern social justice movements, or even about words like "ableism." Learning the language of social justice (beginning with #YesAllWomen on Twitter) has been incredibly empowering for me. It's been such a relief to see others talking about things I once lacked the ability to truly understand or communicate about. I've become more politically and socially involved as a result, and my perspective on so many things has changed.
Living as a privileged person in a town where there's not a lot of racial, ethnic, religious, or class diversity, I hadn't previously realized how those issues continue to be relevant, just like gender and disability. I thought that they were mostly confined to history--"No more racism! Martin Luther King Jr. gives a speech," as I've seen it described online. I thought color-blindness was the ideal. But as I've learned the language to discuss the social justice issues that affect me personally, I've also learned so much about other marginalizations. I've learned to value diversity and to stand up against all the many subtle and unconscious ways that prejudice continues to affect us in our culture. (As well as the less subtle ways it does so.) I've learned to listen more to the voices of others and to promote and lift up those who know best how these issues need to be addressed.
I especially have great admiration for Kaye, a Muslim YA writer who began the #YesAllWomen campaign and who continues to stand up against racism, sexism, and Islamophobia on her Twitter account. I've learned so much from her. I've also learned a lot from the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, which I strongly support. We need to be able to learn from the experiences of all kinds of different people, whether we're similar to them or not. One of the best things about books is that they teach empathy!
However, not everyone has been able to hear these voices and learn about these issues. (Not everyone is willing to listen.) I've been having some trouble with that here at BYU - I. This semester, I'm taking Family Foundations, a required religion class that teaches some controversial LDS doctrine about the traditional family. My own family is "traditional" in the sense that I have a married father and mother, but our situation isn't exactly the ideal. I won't share too many details, but due to disabilities and the like, there are violent tempers in my home. As a result, we don't do a lot of the family bonding people talk about in the Church. We don't even have dinners together. This has been a difficult point for me, because even though I struggle with my family, I also love them deeply, and I feel that we do things the way that fits us best. We're a bunch of disabled neuroatypical introverts, after all! So I can get kind of up in arms when people hint that their way of doing things is better. Like, a couple weeks ago, I told my professor that I want to focus my main Family Foundations project on doing therapy via Skype with my family for the sake of my autistic brother, and she suggested I should instead do something from her pre-approved list... like gardening.
Let's just say that gardening is not my priority here.
So this class doesn't have the best track record for being on top of social justice issues. I'm comfortable with my beliefs as a member of the Church, but being in Family Foundations has made me realize that even pre-Twitter me was much less conservative than some people. That spelled trouble this week when we started our unit on gender identity and roles. LDS doctrine states that men and women have gender identities eternally and that there are specific responsibilities that come with those identities. However, it's also doctrine that God recognizes, accepts, and plans for us as unique individuals and that His Judgment will be a fair one that takes personal situations into account. I believe that Jesus Christ is a pro-social justice feminist--but apparently, my professor doesn't see that.
Today, she started going on about "the feminization of men" and how feminism in the modern age has become anti-equality and anti-masculine, encouraging men to become stereotypical lazy guys on the couch playing video games or, conversely, promoting pink skinny jeans for little boys. (How terrifying!) Basically, she said a bunch of damaging and false things about modern feminism that I very much wanted to argue against. I wasn't able to do so in class, partly because I was too angry. but I mentally composed a rant, as you do, that I'd like to share here.
My response: True modern feminism is not about making men lesser. It is not about stereotyping or destroying masculinity or anything like that. All those things are, in fact, anti-feminist. True modern feminism actually supports many of the things my professor is in favor of. We want there to be equal respect for the choices women make and the choices men make. The most damaging idea we as modern feminists are fighting is that the "feminine" is lesser than the "masculine"--basically, that anything we as a culture associate with women is not as valuable or worthy as the things we associate with men. This is the problem my professor was actually talking about, though she didn't know it. The issues we see men facing today are not about the feminization of men, but the defeminization of men.
Through past feminist movements, women have been able to reclaim space in most of the areas that are considered stereotypically "masculine" in our society. Since masculinity has always been seen as the better of the two--stronger, smarter, more moral, more accomplished, more important--women reaching for masculine things is seen as somewhat understandable. Men reaching for "lesser" feminine things, degrading themselves by "lowering" themselves to the level of a woman, is not. Because of this, not only have men have not been able to reclaim areas that are "feminine" in our society, but as the female sphere broadens, a sexist backlash pushes men to separate themselves from femininity in more and more extreme ways, worsening this bias. Men are told that if they want to be "real men," if they want to avoid being "weak" and "useless", they must remove every shadow of potential femininity from their aspects.
This is what has led to a perversion of what it means to be masculine in our society. Empathy, compassion, affection, and devotion to family are devalued, and men are taught to be cruel, rude, brash, and selfish instead. Emotion is seen as a weakness, and men are taught to show none other than rage and horniness. (This is, of course, very bad for their mental health.) Everything else that is associated with women in some way--art, romance, hygiene, childcare, household duties, animals, boy bands, the color pink, even the "soft" sciences--is likewise treated as anathema. Men are taught that they must instead spend all their time doing manly things like video games and sports. Because the masculine is "better," they come to believe that if they do these things, they deserve whatever they want: a voiceless woman to be used like a sex slave, a place at the top of the power ladder. They develop a egotistical lack of respect for other human beings. This all comes from a terrible, horrible backlash against the feminine, not against the masculine.
Both men and women are suffering because of this bias against anything associated with women. Men are forced into an increasingly tiny box of "pure manliness" that makes them into socially and emotionally underdeveloped jerks who never get the chance to learn and grow as they ought to. They leave a trail of destruction behind them, sometimes quite literally as they turn to violence. Other men, unable to fit themselves into that box, spend their lifetime being bullied for the parts of themselves that are seen as "feminine." My brother is an example of this. He's an honorable, compassionate, often shy human being who hates cruelty and respects other people of every identity. Because of this, he has been buffeted on all sides by people saying he is not manly enough, that his compassion makes him "gay" or "a girl," and that his behavior is therefore lesser and wrong. He suffers from severe depression in part because of the way he's been treated, and the cultural insistence on not allowing men to process their emotions hasn't helped with his treatment..
Meanwhile, women are forced to face a reality where everything they touch becomes "bad." Some women spend their lives chasing after masculine pursuits and mistreating other women just so they can look like "the cool girl who's not like other girls"--and it's still not enough. In the end, they'll never be good enough because they are female. Other women, like myself, spend their lives feeling like they're weak and stupid because they have lots of feelings, enjoy reading, cats, and pretty dresses, and care about their loved ones. We don't have it as bad as the guys because this "lesser" feminine position is supposedly where we "belong," but it's still super upsetting to see the way you are and the stuff you like being treated like garbage.
That, dear Family Foundations professor, is what you are actually talking about. Men are struggling in modern society because treating the feminine as integrally lesser than the masculine inevitably leads to this corruption of what it means to be masculine. You can't disrespect and blacklist the feminine and expect the masculine to then remain intact! That's why feminists believe it's so important to consider values, traits, interests, and pursuits for their actual worth, not for what gender our culture has decided they're associated with. Something being "feminine" doesn't make it worth less. Something being "masculine" doesn't make it worth more. We have to consider how to be ourselves, whatever our gender, in the best way possible. Nobody fits into a box, and everyone deserves to be able to make their own choices and feel comfortable with their own traits and interests.
But since you don't seem to be all that understanding of differences, maybe you won't understand that. 🤷🏻♀️
My professor went on to describe real "manliness" as being a man with honor and compassion who acts as a loyal husband and a father, who respects the people around him, who goes out to provide for his family to the extent at which he is able because it's his duty. That is the image of a man who is not afraid of the feminine, who is not being destroyed by sexism, and who has not listened to society when it says that a corrupted manliness is the ideal. So you see, what we need is true modern feminism. People just have a hard time realizing that that's what they're looking for.
Maybe I can help, though. I have an opportunity here to open up others' eyes the way my eyes have been opened. I don't know if it'll have any effect, but I'm grateful to be in a place where I can use shared values to stand up for what's right. I'm grateful for all the people who made it possible for me to make sense of this complex world.
There are lots of different ways to live a good life. I just hope I'll be brave enough to say so the next time it comes up.
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