Monday, September 22, 2008

The Importance Of Cookies

One of the perpetual issues in feminism (and actually progressivism) is how to make what was formerly "women's work" more equitable in terms of gender and in terms of the distinction and emphasizes the significance and value of that work. We fight consistently for women to make distinct choices, to allow women to enter the workforce and various kinds of workforces or to stay at home and raise their children and take care of the house. We fight for gender equality, and we celebrate the in-roads we make in terms of women succeeding in fields previously dominated by men and we celebrate women challenging stereotypes and the gender binary. At the same time, we don't seem to do quite as much for the men who challenge their own privilege and lend their voices and actions toward working for gender equality by making alternative life choices. For men who stay at home with their children, and help with the dishes, and cook dinner, and do the laundry, the response more often than not is, "What, do you want a cookie or something?"

I'm as guilty of this as the next person. Some of my most hated ads are the Klondike ads that pronounce "So-and-so listened to his wife! Get that man a Klondike bar!" or "So-and-so put his dish away! Get that man a Klondike bar!" No! Men should not be 'rewarded' for doing things we should expect them to do anyway. And we should not have media that reinforces the idea that men who do things like listen to their wives or clean up after themselves are extraordinary and worthy of special treatment in some way. But at the same time, I do believe that we should get more in the habit of positively reinforcing the challenges some of these men present to the gender binary.

Human beings are social creatures. And generally, we want some sort of recognition for our actions, especially positive recognition. And that is where the importance of the cookie comes in. We should be praising men who make an effort to check their privilege. We should be holding these men up as role models for other men; yes, men have been, as gender, more likely to get more than their fair share of cookies throughout time. Yes, even today, men will get more cookies than women. But that makes it almost more important. We need to make doing the right thing seem appealing. We need to socialize men -just as we need to socialize women- to expand upon what is expected from them. We need to get to the place in which a father being an equal caregiver for his child is not extraordinary, where a husband is just as likely to wash the clothing or clean the house as his wife. But first, we need to reward the men who do make that leap. Yes, they should be doing so anyway. But they are consistently inundated with images and media that says otherwise; and they get praise and suffer nothing if they are lackadaisical about taking up the mantel of implementing change. They will forever get unearned cookies for maintaining, however passively, the status quo. Why not give them a few cookies for actually proactively working to undermine those gender assumptions? Why not offer some words of encouragement to the father who does stay home with his children, for the husband who does the majority of the cooking, for the man who protests commercials that make him and his children out to be slovenly fools? Why not hold these men up as examples -not examples of someone doing something extraordinary, but someone doing something that is right? Why not make doing what is right appealing?

We do this for women. Women were ridiculed for wanting preposterous things like the right to vote or hold a job, or even play a sport. We found women to highlight and to make an example of what women could accomplish. We offered praise to women who fought against discrimination, who tried (and sometimes failed) to break the multiple glass ceilings women have faced over the years. Men may be the privileged gender, but they face their own "glass floors". Men are expected to adhere to gender norms, perhaps stricter gender norms these days than even women are held to. After all, women can almost do it all - we just have to be pretty and feminine. We will still encounter opposition, but wanting to play with the boys or being interested in sports or liking more masculine colors are not scorn-worthy offenses anymore (liking math may still be). But men are either heralded as the Best of their Gender if they know how to cook and like to clean or will take the baby for a day, or derided for being the stay-at-home dad and looked at oddly for wanting to see the next romantic comedy. We need to change that; and one of the ways to do that would be to emphasize what these men are doing right and how we should expect no less. It both gives these men the recognition most humans crave, and also reinforces the notion that this behavior should be the norm anyway.

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