Ask Dr. Helen: Is Male Bashing Curable?
"We're tired of the way the media portrays us as either abusive, career-driven, slovenly, or one of the myriad of other male stereotypes," one married man complains to Dr. Helen Smith. She sympathizes.
February 21, 2008 - 1:10 am
So many of you have emailed me and commented in response to my last column, Single Men in Never-Neverland, that I decided to follow up in a similar vein with another letter from a married man who wonders if his “maleness” is worth fighting for:
I am a 30 year-old married man. I have been with my wife for eight and a half years, and we’ve been married for five of those. Throughout my youth I was surrounded by women who, to be diplomatic about it, weren’t of the best opinion when it came to me. As a result, my mother, aunts, and to a small extent my older sister, would constantly make both my father and myself question our worth simply because of our gender. I’m more than willing to put it out there that karma is a fickle thing and that many members of my gender might deserve this type of abuse, but I’d also like to comment that because of this underhanded and maybe unconscious abuse by the women in my youth, I tend to not talk to them that often. Of course then I get chided for not keeping in touch with my family.
It is also, with no small amount of smugness, that I remind my mother that every woman in my family has been divorced at least once and all of the men in the family are on their first marriage; we must be doing something right. I’ve never cheated on my wife – or anyone, for that matter. I was only with a handful of other women before dating her. I still believe that there are very noble things about my gender but, as you mentioned, there seems to be a law of diminishing return when it comes to being a man.
A few years ago Lionel Richie allowed his wife to knock him around a bit. When the media started to question his masculinity he reminded them that it didn’t matter what line of defense he took, the media would turn it on him; if he hit his wife back in defense or retaliation, he’d become a woman-beater and abusive husband, but if he sat there and took it, he’s labeled as less than a man. It doesn’t matter what we do, we’re vilified through the narrow focus of society and the media. The world has changed and it’s folly to believe that our gender hasn’t changed with it.
While I understand and celebrate things such as the civil and equal rights movements, I deplore the animosity toward men that, I feel, was birthed from them. Despite this, I still believe that there are honorable men in the world today. I still believe that there are good men out there, despite the media’s attempts to tell me otherwise. I still believe that men are a necessary part of society, despite what science is beginning to tell us; that sperm has been crafted from stem cells was an inevitability. I believe that for a very long time men have held up the world by both altruism and greed. I believe that the equilibrium that is gender equity has shifted, and now the onus of responsibility has fallen – not out of disrespect – to women. For better or worse it’s an arguable proposition that men have been integral to the advancement of the human race in many, many different ways. I’m starting to believe that the responsibility for the world may now lie with women not because the honorable and noble men of the world are ignorant or lazy, but because we’re tired.
We’re tired of the way the media portrays us as either abusive, career-driven, slovenly, or one of the myriad of other male stereotypes. We’re tired of the barrage of abuse that we may or may not deserve. And we’re tired of always having to be the ones to carry the weight of the human race. We’ve chosen a different path than our forefather Sisyphus, however; rather than keep pushing that weight up the hill we’ve chosen to cast it to the ground to see who will pick it up. Very many women have risen to the task and succeeded admirably, but it has never been fashionable to criticize a woman for not picking up that weight whereas it is always socially acceptable to criticize my own gender. In seeing who has stepped up to the task at hand, it is important to maintain a critical eye toward both genders, however, and perhaps for the first time the other gender can see that it’s really not as easy as history and the media has made it seem.
The media is singularly focused on the damage that society inflicts upon the feminine psyche and form but pays no attention to the unending attack on the psychology of the male gender. So why fight it? Apathy is much easier than fighting a losing battle and it is, indeed, a losing battle when most of the world is against you. So why fight? If women want the responsibility of running the world, then you can have it. I’m a good husband, a hard worker, and a good friend. And that’s all that I need to be. I don’t blame any of my hardships on anyone other than myself, but I will not abuse myself and dwell in these stereotypes and dim modes of thought.
So now that all of that is out of the way, and despite the way it sounds all of that stream of consciousness above sounds a hell of a lot less self-indulgent in my head than it probably does in the ether, my question for you is this:
Why should we fight this battle when the odds are so weighted against us?
Dear Married Man:
[Readers, the above letter is rather long, but I left it in its mostly unedited form because I believe the writer raises some very good points that I would like to address.]
First, let’s change this question from how the collective, “all men”– to the individual–you–can learn to handle negative stereotypes of men in the culture. It really does sound tiring to think that one has to fight a battle just for being male in our society. Having dealt with a lifetime of putdowns for your male gender from one of the most important persons in your life–your mother–it is no wonder you feel like Sisyphus pushing that rock up a hill. Your desire is to just give up, let women and the men who support them, take hold of the reins while you retreat and lick your wounds. Perhaps there is a middle ground between an all out “battle” and 100% retreat. I suspect part of your difficulty is a psychological one. You have a hard time dealing with the fact that someone who is supposed to love you is also making you miserable and doesn’t even seem to care! You mention that your mother may be doing this unconsciously, without awareness that she is hurting you. This may truly be the case (hard as it is to believe that someone is that unaware, but people can be dense). Start by giving her the benefit of the doubt.
Next time she starts saying derogatory things about you or other men, say politely, “Mom, it really hurts me when you say things like that about men. You may not be aware of how you are coming across but I feel like you don’t like me when you say that ‘all men are (fill in the blank).’ Please try to consider my feelings and refrain from saying bad things about men because you are also saying them about me. I know that you care about me and don’t want to hurt me that way.” With any luck, your mother will look upset or concerned and try to bite her tongue in the future. If she lapses once in a while, give her a bit of a break–just gently remind her again that she is hurting you with her statements.
But what do you do if she doesn’t respond at all? That is, she simply keeps up with the negative putdowns against you and your gender? The next step is, “Mom, you are an abuser. Until you learn some self-control, I cannot be around you except once in a while for perfunctory family holidays. If I am not around as much as you would like, you have chosen to keep me away with your sexist abusive attitude towards me.”
And mean it. Simply go to whatever obligatory family functions you must and do not allow her to “chide” you about not coming over more. Finally, it does not serve any psychological purpose to smugly tell the female family members that they are not so great at marriage. That sounds a bit passive-aggressive. Be direct. Let the female members of the family know how you feel about they are saying and make them take responsibility for it.
Now that we have looked at what you can do on an individual level with family, what about the greater world? Does it matter that you hear negative comments about men and should you do anything or just forget it? It depends on your personality. I am not the kind of person who can sit back when I hear toxic comments.
To give you an example, I was once at a Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant with my husband and daughter having dinner and listening to our pregnant waitress gush about her baby being due soon. “Do you know if you’re having a girl or boy?” I asked. “Oh, a girl, of course, we don’t need anymore men in the world!” Taken aback, I loudly said across the restaurant, “What do you mean, we don’t need ANY MORE MEN in the world? What an ugly sexist thing to say!” The waitress looked embarrassed and went slinking away, probably to the back where she spit in my food, but I didn’t care. I bet to this day, she will think twice before opening her mouth in such a nasty and utterly selfish way.
Okay, I felt good about that experience, but maybe you would not. Yet, I can’t help but think that aversive conditioning is not a bad way to react to people who think it is their God-given right to male bash. They do it because it is socially acceptable and there are not only no consequences for it, but often both men and women get kudos for “sticking it to the man.”
One thing, Married Man, that you must remember about human nature, (and especially women) is that most people are terrified of confrontation and will do anything to avoid it. They want to be liked or at least feel that they are a person worth liking. Make it unpleasant for them to let out their toxic tirades and they will stop–and it often takes so little effort. Notice that people in public places and the media rarely say anything derogatory about women. Why? It is socially unacceptable and they are afraid to. Make it costly for people to bash men and they will stop. Start with small steps–if all men and the women who gave a damn spoke up or told people to knock it off when the male bashing started, we would hear a lot less of it.
As far as the media goes, I like what Lionel Richie did in the case you mentioned of his wife beating him. He did not blame himself but nor did he blame his wife–for he knew that this would backfire. Instead, he put the media in a double bind, “It doesn’t matter what I do or say, I will be villainized.” He turned the focus away from himself and to the fact that men in our society can never do or say the right thing, no matter what. He spoke up for all men in that regard–and at least clearly stated the problem. And his career still seems to be on track.
The good news is that more and more men and women are turning away from the MSM and its negative approach to the world. There is so much alternative media now with talk radio, the internet, cable stations that cater to men and other sources of entertainment that one can easily find other like-minded individuals who can make you feel less alone and off-set some of the negative stereotypes you mentioned. I find myself getting upset when I watch a number of MSM shows and therefore, have a few funny sitcoms that I watch if I want to unwind. I rarely watch the regular channels because the propaganda is too much for me to tolerate.
Finally, you do not have to prove your “worth” to anyone. You mentioned that you are a good husband, worker, and friend. That is indeed, good enough. You are not the catalyst for all of the evil stereotypes that some misinformed people wish to project onto the male gender. Disavow yourself of that, for shouldering that burden would make anyone tired. Live your life in a way that brings you satisfaction and let the naysayers wallow in their inflexible negativity.
I could go on forever, but at the risk of boring anyone reading this, I will end with some questions for others to comment on and/or think about:
Is maleness worth fighting for, can the culture be “cured” of its malebashing nature, or is the fight just not worth the hassle? Would it be better to let women take over the burden of running things? Also, any personal experiences with negative male stereotypes and how you handled the situation would be welcome.
If you have a question you would like answered, please leave it below or email me at email@example.com. Your questions may be edited for length and clarity. Please note that your first name only or no name at all will be used to identify your question-if you want me to use your name, tell me, otherwise you will be referred to by your first name or as “a reader” etc.
Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee and blogs at drhelen.blogspot.com. This advice column is for educational and entertainment purposes only and does not purport to replace therapy or psychological treatment.