Critiquing masculinity

A friend sent me an article on male violence from a feminist perspective, and I’ll return to the issue of male violence soon; but in the meantime, this got me thinking:

Recently my younger son, a huge Frozen fan, asked to go to a school fancy dress disco dressed as Queen Elsa of Arendelle. We’d spotted an outfit in Sainsbury’s – a long, sparkly blue dress, complete with a silver wig. Despite the well-intentioned warnings of grandparents, I let him wear it. A dress is a dress. So he arrived and there was a lot of fascination – and some mockery – of this “boy dressed like a girl”. He didn’t care and went and got his nails painted blue to match his dress. I felt proud of him. His disregard for social norms makes him strong, not weak. And yet there was a part of me that still feared the consequences of this “like a girl/not like a boy” definition imposed upon him by his peers.

http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/10/male-violence-greater-threat-our-sons-so-why-are-we-so-over-protective-daughters

While I agree that it would take strength for a boy to wear a dress to a school function, I’m skeptical of the claim that this indicates his disregard for social norms.

Adopting the social norms of the opposite sex is not the same as disregarding social norms. If her son made the choice naively, he still did so in the context of a family with particular values, and a particular attitude to social norms. There is no ‘view from nowhere’, whether we blindly follow the crowd or try to stand apart from it.

A mother who writes “a feminist take on parenting and politics” and who feels proud of her son for wearing a dress is not a value-neutral background for childhood development. Family is the beginning of society, not a hermetically sealed environment or laboratory in which human minds are formed free of external influences.

Feminists (in general) have their own ideological aims, and it makes sense that the columnist would feel proud of her son for making a choice that affirms her political theory.

But ultimately the “disregard for social norms” is better expressed as an affirmation of one set of norms against another more predominant set. True disregard for social norms would be indicative of psychopathy. In fact, the columnist’s broader and more interesting point is that the gender-gap cannot be overcome by giving women increased access to male domains, or by “celebrating femininity“, but must instead come about through a more thorough critique and deconstruction of masculinity. Plenty of women wear pants, but hardly any men wear dresses.

I have to admit I have some sympathy with this idea. As a part-time stay-at-home dad who has always done more the majority of the cooking and cleaning, I’ve come to realise that it’s not enough to get women into the workforce: getting men into childcare is the other half of the equation. The first day of looking after my 18 month old son convinced me that a generation of stay-at-home dads would utterly destroy the foolish notion that caring for children doesn’t constitute real work.

At the same time, I’m not inclined to wear a skirt or dress for a number of reasons beginning with what I thought would have been a fairly obvious point: skirts and dresses are not made for male bodies. But beyond that, it’s also somewhat inappropriate for a woman to be spearheading a critique of masculinity, as evidenced by the discussion of violence, with a false dichotomy of ‘kill or be killed’. Nonetheless, it’s great to have these issues raised because there is so much dysfunction in the culture of masculinity. I’ll never encourage my son to wear women’s clothing, but I will do my best to instil in him virtues and ideals that give noble expression to masculinity.

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