Tuesday, September 14, 2004

How to Train a Man (And Set Back Feminism Twenty Years)

As I was logging in to check my Hotmail account one afternoon, I noticed a link on the sidebar which read “Should you marry a fixer-upper?” I found the metaphor of mate and house to be, at best, lazy journalism but had reasonably low expectations for what passes as “news” headlines. Before I knew anything about the accompanying article, I guessed it would be incredibly condescending to men (hypothesis gleamed from an unflattering and somewhat mocking male photo accompanying the text) but tried to enter into the reading without a concrete bias in place.

The article was wrought with the predicted condescension but more disheartening was the air of pseudo-feminism. Styled in a question and answer format- the questioner assigned the requisite far-from-clever pseudonym- the "relationship expert" respondent was someone named Mama Gena, of whom I was initially unfamiliar. The female seeking advice was debating whether she should stay with a male partner she was satisfied with, save his appearance, job, ambition, and car. The letter was fairly standard in terms of those submitted to large websites that focus on self-help via psychologies pureed through the blenders of mainstream media.

The response, however, strayed from the typical pop psychology into the realm of (for me at least) pure horror. Promising to “…clear that sweet little head of yours and set you to rights about who and what a man is…” Mama Gena proceeds to distill wisdoms such as “See, guys on their own recognizance won’t necessarily aim very high. A beer and a channel-changer is about enough excitement for them”. “But” Mama Gena advises, “a man with a woman by his side, a woman who wants things from him, a woman who sees his potential and is unafraid of asking the best of him…that man has a shot at becoming a hero.” The article is finished with this gleaming insight into human interactions: “Join the ranks of the brilliant man-trainers of the world: Women who use men to fulfill their dreams and desires!”

Always the optimist, I am convinced this is satire. Surely such blatantly double edged sexism couldn’t be so widely endorsed? I follow the link to Mama Gena’s own website, titled “Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts”. Mama Gena is really Regena Thomashauer, an author, wife, mother, and “one of a handful of pioneers on the planet researching the nature of pleasure and dedicating her life to the discipline of pleasure and fun.” (Who knew hedonism could be defined so eloquently as a profession?) The tone of the site, although not explicitly stated, is that the Mama Gena approach is modern and feminist, empowering to women. Courses are offered for an average of $150 per class with titles such as “Mama Gena’s Owner’s and Operator’s Guide to Men: A course for women”, the description of which says that “Mama wants women to take the control they actually have over the men in their world.”

I sense a wolf in feminist clothing. The basic tenant, the outright definition, of feminism (and women such as Mama Gena, whether they proclaim so or not, are embracing the style if not the substance of the cause) is that the sexes should be equal. Ideally, women should work and persevere until they are direct peers of males in the sociopolitical landscape. The route to this equality, if it is to be something lasting, cannot be based on blatant manipulations and contortions of our gender stereotypes for the means of deception. Mama Gena’s implication is that females are unable to have the life they desire without the bootstrap provided by a mate (or potential mate), so they had better find a way to use the situation to their advantage. That’s a huge step backwards for the feminist effort. Men should not be used to fulfill our whims, nor is it acceptable to refer to them as trainable. They are not house pets. We are responsible for our own dreams and desires. Should we choose to align ourselves with a mate of the opposite gender, it should be because we care for them as a person, not because they fit an agenda.

Sadly, the “degrade men to benefit women” approach is not utilized by obtuse mainstream websites alone Available for purchase in the pointedly progressive Northern Sun catalogue, under the feminism heading, is a button that says: “He’s pretty, but can he type?” It is meant to be humorous, but play a game of pronoun substitution and there would be protests staged. The catalogue category also includes a button that states: “Men of Quality Respect Women’s Equality”. How can men, even those with liberal leanings, respect a movement if there are attacks targeted at them based solely on their gender? Reverse sexism is still sexism.

It occurred to me recently that I could not come up with an equivalent of the word emasculate that could be used towards a female. Is it not possible for a woman to be stripped of her strength, virtue or vitality? I posed the question to an etymology message board and received two responses. The first suggestion was effeminize, obviously not fulfilling my requirements for the sought after term. Defeminize seemed more promising, but is not used as an insult the way that emasculate is. Discussing the dilemma with a friend, she pointed out that “...in most human cultures, our society in particular, to be stripped of power is the worst thing. And since to be man is to be power, and to be woman is to be without power, to strip one of one's manhood would be bad. Whereas how could one be made lower than not man?”

That is the Mama Gena approach to feminism. We cannot be better than “not men” so we have to lower them to our level. Perhaps, Mama Gena, the honor is in rising up, not in tearing down.