Tuesday, January 19, 2010

From the Archives - The Sissy Syndrome


My recent dishwasher installation project, and various other home improvement projects over the years, remind me of an essay I wrote long ago called “The Sissy Syndrome.” I wrote it because it needed to be written, but at that time I had no way to publish or otherwise propagate such essays. Thus, I’m not sure any living human has ever laid eyes on this one. As you will see, it concerns a double-standard: not a simple, well-understood one like women face, but a thornier, more complex one that torments men. I have found it and dusted it off, and present it here as a companion piece to “Dishwasher Man.

The Sissy Syndrome - February 1, 2003

No doubt women have been screwed in many ways by the process of their liberation. For example, men expect women who work full time to continue doing most of the “women’s work.” But the glory days of this double standard are behind us; it was my dad’s generation who got to skip out on most forms of housework while enjoying the fruits of a double income. I’m always eager to pile on when our wives and mothers bemoan the complete injustice of the woman’s double role, but let’s let that be their thing. I have my own bone to pick with the evolution of the sexes.

My beef is this: men have come a long way toward contributing equally to the ongoing housekeeping and child-rearing duties; have developed impressive cooking and diaper-changing and even ironing skills; have sincerely adopted the principles of gender equality; have even learned how to be emotionally sensitive in a manly, non-effete way—and yet both women and men alike are still immersed in the timeless conviction that all men should have the robust, uncomplaining, tireless physical strength and invulnerable armored flesh of the day laborer.

It’s all well and good that modern men are comfortable with abstract mental operations, delicate sociopolitical maneuverings, and ballsy professional grandstanding; that we have a real appreciation for high culture; that we possess the unflagging patience and tenacity required by, say, a mortgage refinancing transaction—but all of this is for naught if we men don’t have an intuitive understanding of, and love for, every power tool and toxic solvent known to man, along with the cheerful willingness to haul all manner of large heavy object. It’s understood that we have a natural affinity, and even enthusiasm, for any brute-force earth-moving project our women can throw at us.

Men don’t get to substitute the ability to choose a necktie for, say, the willingness to unclog a rain gutter. If for all our amateurish efforts with the belt sander we still can’t make the doors in the house close quietly, it doesn’t matter if we can go eyeball-to-eyeball with an angry executive and successfully push through a deal he’s not happy with. Modern business tools or intellectual powers alone cannot make us men, they just makes us better Smurfs. But it’s not the women applying this judgment; the self-loathing comes largely from within. If I can resolve a static IP routing problem on a frame relay interface and bring all the Jiffy Lube stores in the nation back online, but still have to pay somebody to change the oil in my own car, I still feel like a poor excuse for a man.

In fact, if I can have a heart-to-heart talk with my wife and help restore contentment after a painful emotional storm, that almost makes it worse when I get a paper cut in the tender, peach-skin flesh of my finger. On some level, I truly believe that our women would secretly jump at the chance to trade in our advanced verbal skills for the chance to watch us bore a mining tunnel into solid rock with nothing more than a pickaxe swung by graceful and powerful muscles. Beyond the show of strength—and here is the important point—there’s work to be done. And often they need a man to do it.

On some base visceral level, women must be as conflicted as modern men are about our modern refined sense of home-decorating aesthetics and our spirit of familial cooperation. So what if we do half the diaper changing around here? It’s helpful, sure, but a woman doesn’t need a man for that. Women sincerely love it that we’re affectionate with our babies: but wouldn’t it be even better if we could cuddle those babies after building a redwood deck out back?

Perhaps the modern woman would hold firm and maintain that she really, truly is above all that, and if given the choice, she’d actually trade in our ability to fix the sump pump for a willingness to read a book on ovulation. But I know all about spoken positions: they’re easy enough to have because they seldom get tested. (My dad is a feminist from way back, as fair and even-handed is they come, but—happily enough for him—this managed not to result in his doing any laundering or dishwashing when I was growing up.)

Without any behavior to study, the only way to prove or disprove one’s progressive attitudes would be to employ a polygraph machine. And I think it’s the same way with the attitudes women have toward backbreaking manual labor and the male. It’s subtle. They don’t have to say, “Hey, are you going to dig up that tree, or are you worried you’ll get a blister on your finger or throw out your back or not end up being strong enough for the job?” It’s all implied. All they need to say is “That tree needs to be dug up,” and the following chain reaction is automatically kicked off in the man’s brain:

She wants this tree dug up.

Digging up a tree is hard work, requiring strong muscles and tough hands.

She is not as strong as I am.

Her skin is not as tough as mine.

Based on my superior strength and tougher skin, I am not only the logical choice for this job, but it would be shameful for me to allow her to do this herself.

Hard though it may be to dig up a tree, this and countless other much harder jobs have been done by normal male individuals throughout time.

Based on the countless number of individuals who could dig up this tree, if my muscles are not strong enough or my skin not tough enough to do the job, I am actually a lot more like her than I am like the men who do this kind of thing routinely; that is, I am not really a man at all, but more like a modern woman who happens to own a penis.

If I do this job but complain about it, I am maybe just barely a man, since I live in a world of real, uncomplaining men, any of whom she might come to wish she had around instead of me.

Naturally, it doesn’t seem appropriate for me to complain about this state of affairs. After all, men enjoy being stronger; on average we make more money than women, for no good reason; we still dominate high offices throughout the world; we get to pee standing up; and we never have to wear panty hose. Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut. But I do feel justified in pointing out that at least on this homemaking front, the tide is turning in an unfavorable direction for us men, and not just in the reversal of past ills. Without attempting an exhaustive discussion of the equality of the sexes—after all, I don’t want to stray too far from my main thesis—let me take a minute to address the chance examples I just gave:

Without much hand-to-hand combat or many long marches through the mire with a badly injured comrade on our backs, the modern American adult, male or female, has little need for great physical strength; indeed, there’s a downside to this strength—the burden of it—that I hope to make clear in this essay.

It’s immaterial how much money the average male makes compared to the average female, since a) my wife’s and my incomes are combined anyway; b) this is just another area where I risk falling short of my male peers; and c) it makes zero sense for me to actually wish for this state of affairs, since I want my wife to make as much money as possible, ideally many times more than I do.

Men’s high office stranglehold is of no benefit to us, as these leaders are totally beholden to corporations, lobbyists, and pundits anyway; moreover, the tendency of people to elect men instead of women only benefits me if I’m a chauvinist (which I’m not) or want to run for office myself (which I don’t).

Okay, I have to admit, peeing standing up is great, but the average person only goes six times a day, and one of those times is at night when we have to sit down anyway, so it’s just not that big a deal.

Women almost never wear panty hose anymore, and women’s slacks today don’t look any less comfortable than men’s.

But these considerations are beside the main point: that there is really no female equivalent to the double-standard of the modern, sensitive male needing to have the physical attributes of the sinewy, gritty landscaper. Is there truly a female equivalent to a man’s not being manly enough? I can’t think of one. Not being feminine enough? No, guys love tomboys, and if asked any woman can put on makeup and flattering attire. A woman wearing her man’s clothing has a certain type of sexy chic that takes nothing away from her femininity and if anything enhances it when employed properly. Not being good looking enough and/or thin enough? Not a good example. There are obvious benefits to looking good, whether you’re male or female, and if women are scrutinized the most, at least their investment in their appearance is well amortized across virtually every waking moment of every day. How does it benefit a man to build up the strength, stamina, and calluses necessary to occasionally build a fence or landscape a yard? Who’s going to know he did these jobs, besides his wife? (Yet if he shirks them, he has to face himself.)

Sure, I could brag to my male buddies about how I dug up and fixed a leaking sprinkler system (if I’d actually done this), but how much mileage would I get out of that? The difficulty of the task doesn’t speak for itself. And generally the wiser tack is to avoid discussions of home improvement altogether, lest we end up admitting to something we’d rather not: “Well, actually, we paid a contractor to build the fence. I’m sure I could have done it myself, but being so busy at work and all [unspoken details: driving a desk, typing all day, making phone calls] I just didn’t have time. I did stain it myself though. Yep. Tough job. The stain really didn’t smell very good.” No, better just to field a complement by saying, “Yeah, it’s a good fence,” and then changing the subject. (Perhaps this explains the origin of the strong, silent male.)

Nor is there a female equivalent to the inability of a self-respecting man to gracefully get out of doing a man’s work. The entire notion of “a man’s work” is completely solid and inarguable. Sure, there are tasks formerly thought to be the exclusive realm of the male, that it turns out are equally achievable by a female, like doing math and programming electronic equipment and driving a car in bad weather and barbecuing. And other tasks, such as taking out the garbage, have belonged exclusively to the male for reasons involving, perhaps, the last vestige of chivalry rather than any notion of difficulty. But there are other jobs that simply demand too much strength for a woman to do. It’s obvious to anybody, progressive or not, that the man is the appropriate person to do this work.

The notion of “women’s work,” on the other hand, is a total anachronism. Name a single job that a woman can do that a man truly cannot. There isn’t one. Sure, there are skills that have traditionally been in the women’s domain, like knitting and crocheting and sewing clothing from fabric and patterns, but nobody does that stuff anymore, and no woman would ever have her womanhood challenged by refusing to do them. Lots of women don’t even cook much these days, and they practically boast of it, since it marks them as modern and liberated. (Note that this does not cast doubt on their femininity.)

Worse, if a man gets sore about the home project double standard, the woman doesn’t have to take any blame—she gets to chalk the whole thing up to a man’s hang-up. It’s unbefitting of a male to complain about the difficulty of the work, and in fact can cause big trouble. Envision this scenario: a man—okay, a male adult—does some yard work, and he gets completely pissed off because he has just developed, and in the process lanced, a large blister, and it hurts. He complains bitterly, and there is absolutely no appropriate course of action for his wife to take. If she snidely says, “Oh, poor baby, did you get a little boo-boo?” or “Get a backbone, you pathetic excuse for a man,” the effect is obvious. But if she sweetly coos, “Oh, I’m sorry, let me kiss it and make it feel better,” even if she could do this without a trace of irony, that’s even worse because it makes the husband a child and his wife a mother figure. There is no human social protocol for this scenario other than the man to grimly and silently bear it. Only if he sustains a respectable injury like the loss of a limb is there room for the woman to notice it, freak out, and let the man shrug and say, “It’s nothing.”

By complaining of a blister, the male paints both himself and his mate into a corner socially, and there is no escape. Though we can’t complain about the work itself, at some point the unfairness of the situation begins to grate on us. When I say “unfairness” I’m referring to all the progress men have made toward being more thoughtful spouses, better parents, effective housecleaners, fairer people, and yet how little these things do to relax our duty to take on all the physically strenuous jobs.

If the male decides to point out the double standard, then the female really has him over a barrel. Because she hasn’t said a thing! All she asked was for the job to be done, since she couldn’t do it, so his plaintive response takes on the aspect of some difficult male complex, his internal emotional struggle, the kind of thing that can be summed up as a man talking about his feelings, which is an acceptable thing for the modern male to do under certain circumstances, like when all his manly obligations have been met, but not right after he’s made a big fuss over having to do the kind of work that real men have done cheerfully for millennia, without sustaining even a slight soreness, much less a blister, much less a spoken grievance. No, the abuse comes from within the male himself, so women don’t even have to fess up to it. It’s an invisible button they don’t even have to push.

So what is to be done? I guess we men could maintain the role of sensitive, articulate, well-educated, fair, sweet housekeepers, and loving, doting fathers and husbands, but take careers as day laborers, to build up the strength and stamina and (let’s just say it) manliness required for the occasional home improvement project. But then we wouldn’t make enough money, which is a pity when you’re as educated and articulate and sensible as the modern man has become.

So should the women try to even out the playing field by building up the strength and firmness of flesh to do the jobs themselves? Of course not. They’d be snared in their own ideal of femininity and beauty. No good for them, and besides, no man wants his wife to be tougher and manlier than he is.

So should women relieve their men of all housekeeping and child-rearing duties to give them time to work out and toughen themselves up? Yeah, right—and recreate the wretched state of affairs my generation grew up with, the overburdened career woman/homemaker/mother, but now with both parties resenting the man for the injustice of it? Not a good solution.

Perhaps the only kind thing for women to do is to silently hire somebody to do this work, and let the husband find out only after it’s too late. Then the man can save face by pretending to be annoyed at his wife’s fiscal irresponsibility, saying “Hell, honey, I could’ve done that!” while secretly breathing a sigh of relief. (And the woman can humor him in this bluff.)

If this scenario isn’t practical, or the job is something truly within the husband’s grasp, at least the woman can let the man seem to talk her into letting him try it himself; she can exercise saintly patience while he struggles with it; and she can make sure she never, ever downplays the difficulty of the job, and never shames him into doing it by starting to do it herself. And if he complains—not about the job itself, he would never do that—but about the injustice of this double standard, she can make sure she readily agrees, and acknowledges the absurdity of it. She can concede that males have come too far in our evolution from jerks to be subjected to backbreaking slave labor, that he should be spared this work not because he’s not capable of doing it, but because it’s not interesting enough for his heightened intellect and his advanced appreciation of the higher planes of human existence to which he has ascended. And she can bring him a beer.

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