Archive for October, 2008

Controversial manliness

Posted in gender stereotypes, Harvey Mansfield, masculinity, Naomi Wolf on October 26, 2008 by Steve

I haven’t read it, but Harvey Mansfield‘s book, Manliness, seems to have created quite a stir. From what I saw in a 10-minute excerpt of an ABC News debate with Naomi Wolf in 2006, Mansfield is unembarrassed about talking about the differences between men and women, and promoting the “quaint and obsolete” concept of manliness.

In the interview, Mansfield speaks about male and female differences in a direct and honest way. He’s not embarrassed that men are stronger than women and more interested in competition (also politics and sports, which are examples of manly competition).

These differences, of course, are generalisations, but they are true generalisations. Though some women are stronger than some men, and some women take more risks than some men, the generalisation that women are weaker and less risk-taking are still true.

Naomi Wolf, of course, reacts in shocked disbelief and reproach. With all her political prowess and intellectual strength, she understandably feels demeaned. At the end of the day, however, neither she nor any woman can escape having a female body (or brain). This is the tragedy of today’s gender-neutral society, in which, according to Mansfield, “women are trying to imitate men, but men are not trying to imitate women“.

Perhaps Mansfield’s most piercing (and controversial) statement is that women are:

…of course the weaker sex. I think it’s quite important that women are physically less strong than men. It means that they can’t exercise the same authority as men with the same easy grace and so they have to try a little harder. So the way they get around this is to either persuade with more seductive tones, or to make a scene.

Ultimately, being bigger and stronger does help one’s sense of authority. You can’t really escape the body, hormones and brain structure you were given. Nonetheless, being a woman doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be authoritative, but having the body of a man makes it easier than having a woman’s body. I suspect there are complex socio-cultural factors enmeshed in all of this too.

Does all this mean that women shouldn’t be fire-fighters or members of parliament? My, and I think Mansfield’s, answer would be ‘No’. Biblically speaking, the endless number of specific roles are not spelled out, but the Bible writers made it clear that, ultimately, women’s roles will centre around the home and children much more than men’s (Titus 2:4-5). There may be some female individuals who are stronger and more competitive than most men, but the vast majority will not fit this mould.

Nor do I think all this means that men can’t be soft, nurturing and non-competitive. There may be manly ways to wash up, drive the car, relate at work (Mansfield would define this by a man’s competitiveness in how he does these things). There are therefore also womanly ways to do these tasks.

How to do these things, though, is not a matter of prescription. We should expect trends according to gender, just as we do according to generational difference and country of origin difference. Therefore, Mansfield’s reiteration of the age-old advice is necessary for our age: “we have a gender-neutral society, but we don’t have gender-neutral individuals, we have men and women. Different sexes… those differences need to be understood and respected.” Pretty obvious, but obviously not all that obvious.

Finally, I ask myself why it is that so many people want to minimise or ignore the observable differences betweens the genders? Is is because they will feel abnormal if they do not fit the stereotype? I suspect that debate over these issues of gender differences relates more often than we would like to admit to personal insecurity. Just a thought.


Women are like spaghetti

Posted in gender stereotypes on October 24, 2008 by Steve

I recently heard it suggested that “Women are like spaghetti, men are like…. lasagne”, meaning that a woman’s emotional connections go everywhere, everything related to every other part of her world. Men on the other hand are more sectioned-off, compartmentalised, less emotionally-enmeshed. Like all generalisations (which are true of much, but never all, of the population), this one seems to have a ring of truth, and I would like to reflect on it briefly.

Now, of course, observable male/female generalisations are just that: generalisations. Regardless of the vast majority who display a certain trait, there are always plenty of men who demonstrate the stereotypical “female” trait, and vice-verse.

I have heard this generalisation in other forms, such as: “Women are like handbags (everything touches everything else), men are like a chest of drawers (everything is in distinct departments)”. It would also fit well with the old one: “Women are like an iron (takes a long time to get them warmed up), men are like a light bulb (you can turn them on in an instant).”

Such differences seem to reflect traditional male-hunter, female-gatherer views. They would fit with the female as nurturer, male as protector well too. More significantly, to me such a difference aligns itself with the Biblical teaching of the husband’s headship in marriage. Being emotionally-less-enmeshed might make the assumption of rational, clear-headed responsibility easier. It would appear to be a strength (as well as a  weakness) in man’s tendency to be less emotionally encumbered.

I do not think that a man’s lasagne-like-ness need imply that he is cold or emotionally disconnected from others. Though being emotionally cold might be perceived as more masculine, even heroic and leader-like, it would be a mistake to approve of poor relating in the name of “important” things like leadership, strength and manliness.

In the end, whatever the degree of (“male”) compartmentalisation or (“female”) entanglement, there is always the sauce which binds the pasta, adding coherence, clarity and softness to the whole.

The hideousness (and healing) of being a parent

Posted in loving people, parenting, self-acceptance on October 23, 2008 by Steve

Becoming a parent brings with it some of life’s most intense emotions, experiences, and revelations. The highs and lows are manifold: joyous expectation, anxious (pain-filled) labour, wonder in beholding newborn life, total readjustment of daily routines, the testing of sleep deprivation, the lowliness of changing pooey nappies, to name but a few.

What I have been realising lately is that becoming a parent is also a profound way of revealing to us some of our deepest, core-most realities, in painful, yet therapeutic ways. In a way, I believe this is God’s design, a gracious depth of insight into our own hearts and minds, and into the heart of God, our heavenly Father, Himself. In this blog, I will discuss what I mean by the hideousness of being a parent.

First of all, my assumption is that in our parenthood we are most likely to display some of the least attractive aspects of ourselves, as well as some of our best. This is because as a parent in relation to our child we are most tempted and most permitted to show our true colours, whether in love or in anger, in our acceptance or in our disapproval of the child. Where else do we have the authority to rule another’s life, to impress our reality onto another? Where else are we able to be most authentic, and get away with it?

The hideousness of parenthood lies in the fact that parents are both expected and allowed to express the depths of their hearts to their kids. Though often the most tender expressions of respect, dignity and affirmation, it can also be expressions of heartless criticalness, proud judging, or smothering neediness.

Imagine this situation: An energetic 4-year-old boy is jumping noisily and calling out around the house. At first the parent, though irritated, ignores the noise, telling himself that it is normal for kids to be like this. The child continues to shout, sprouting out loud nonsense words and sentences. The parent’s sense of annoyance at his son’s “immature” behaviour rising and intensifying inside him. The threshold is reached, and the parent snaps in anger at the child’s “bad behaviour”. The parent shouts abusively, shocking the child in his shell for something the child had no idea was wrong to do. The child is now nervous, on edge. He will have to tread carefully around Dad, lest he displeases him again.

Here we have an example of the hideouesness that a parent is capable of. In a sense it seems fairly harmless, innocent, justifiable. The father was probably tired, worn out after a long week at work. The child had probably made these noises in an effort to upset Dad. It hardly seems all that ‘hideous’. Or perhaps the hideousness of it was hidden.

In my mind, the reason why a parent would respond in this way is because he cannot come to accept such behaviour in himself. There is an intolerance of the child’s behaviour because it was never acceptable for the parent to behave in this way when he was a child. As a child, this parent probably had to vie for mum and dad’s attention, shoved aside or beaten down for his energetic need for their attention. This parent was not loved to the extent he longed for, instead his clammerings for attentive acceptance were squashed or disciplined out of him. Exasperated and empty, his only way of coping was to suppress his longings, cutting off part of his deepest, truest being. Having been denied the completeness of his emotional self, this child could no longer access those parts of him which allowed him to stretch out to others in selfless, abounding love and acceptance. “I can’t have it, so I’m not going to give it to others,” became his ethic.

Furthermore, naked and shamed, this individual no longer desired to appreciate others’ differences and accept them for who they were, but now sought to expose, ridicule and criticise others, just as had been done to him as a child.

What is the hideousness of being a parent? It is the total and absolute license for a parent to inflict on his own child the horrific and emotionally destrcutive abuses that were inflicted on him as a child. It is the cycle of abuse which too often goes unbroken. It is a hideous crime against humanity, yet it is perfectly legal. Parenting can be hideous because we each were once parented.

The privilege of parenting is accompanied by a huge liability: the care of a human being is entrusted to us as parents. There are many ways to butch it up. There are also powerful factors at work in us in our parenting which we may, more often than not, be unaware of. Our own first years of life are generally unavailable to explicit memory. These may have formed us in ways that we are not aware of.

It may take becoming a parent to realise what we are, deep down inside. This is the hideousness as well as the graciousness of God to us in parenting: a chance to know the depths of brokenness and of our need for restoration. It is humbling to know the extent to which we cannot control ourselves, just how infused with fallenness our lives are.

The depths of our hideousness in our being parents leads us to the depths of healing that parenthood brings.

Too much too soon, or not enough? – Honouring girls’ sexuality

Posted in 1960s-70s, children's sexual development, Naomi Wolf on October 20, 2008 by Steve

Having been born in the early 1980s, I confess my ignorance about the details of the social atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the more I learn about these decades of “peace”, “free love”, “liberation”, etc., the more I realise how important learning about them is, comparing what is different  between what we take for granted today and what life was like then. Indeed, studying this period feels to me a bit like a lesson in ancient history, yet it is an era that the majority of Australians alive today have lived through, and therefore is directly relevant to those whose parents experienced that era.

It has been Naomi Wolf’s 1997 book Promiscuities which has, in recent weeks, aroused my interest in this historical period. After previously overlooking her as some predictable man-hating feminist with lofty and godless ideologies and nothing particularly relevant to say to me, her book has proven to be thought-provoking, and I have found myself agreeing with her more often than I expected to. Despite her view of sex outside of the marriage covenant as a universal norm, I appreciated her emphasis that female sexuality is an extremely precious gift – something that our world has too often abused, shamed or even sacrificed for the sake of some “higher” calling.

I would like to reiterate a couple of the applications she makes which I think are pretty important, and which are too easily overlooked. In my mind they apply equally to boys as to girls. Firstly, Wolf points out the great need to better protect chidren’s sexual development (by shielding them from inappropriate movies, etc). She sees neglectful parenting and a selfish demand for free speech as the cause of this damaging trend: “Our collective refusal to respect the sexual development of children, in the interest of defending our own freedoms constitutes a collective psychic assault on kids for which we must all take responsibility.” (p.241)

Furthermore, in Wolf’s mind, the distinction between the world of adults and the world of children in recent decades has become so blurred as to no longer exist: “I think that we who were young in the 1960s were perhaps the last generation of Americans who actually had their childhoods, in the… sense of childhood as a space distinct in its roles and customs from the world of adults, oriented around children’s own needs and culture rather than around the needs and culture of adults.” (p.26) This is a tragic reminder for parents to not make their kids grow up too fast.

Lastly, Wolf proposes certain rites of passage for a young girl in the laying of secure foundations for her transition into womanhood. Here, she recommends that a thirteen-year-old girl be taken on a retreat with older women to learn about sex, sexuality, motherhood, and so on. I see the value in giving such recognition and attention to what it means to as a young girl becomes a woman. The silence about human sexuality that still exists in so many homes as children grow up is a devastating tragedy.

These suggestions of Wolf’s are refreshingly thoughtful and practical. Though Promiscuities boldly over-applies Wolf’s very personal and limited experience to a whole generation, it is the intense realness of her (and others’) story which makes it compelling and relevant. As a New York Times review puts it: “Anyone – particularly anyone who, like Ms. Wolf, was born in the 1960’s – will have a very hard time putting down “Promiscuities.””

Awkward love a means to deeper self-understanding

Posted in loving people, loving your neighbour, self-acceptance on October 8, 2008 by Steve

What do you do when you’ve offended someone but they’re not making it easy for you to approach them about it? How do you express love to someone who wants to shut down an avenue for further communication?

This situation has been on my mind a lot these past weeks. More than once have I recently done the wrong thing by someone simply out of carelessness or absent-mindedness. Am I more careless and absent-minded than I have been previously? I’m not sure, but I am critically aware of the hurt I have caused another when they alert me to it. And I kick myself as soon as I realise I have caused offense.

I suppose it does no good to simply dwell on my past err in the hope that I might somehow find a way of not having to take action about resolving it. It is very tempting to want to justify myself by blaming the other, or explaining away the reason for my careless behaviour. I feel a rage against injustice welling up inside me, wanting to cry out in my defence, getting me off the hook, allowing me to avoid confrontation.

All this seems to be an excuse for my own awkward fear over confrontation and having to say sorry. I think I dislike saying sorry since it is so debasing. It makes me feel like I am grovelling, pathetic and worm-like as I plead for restoration – a second chance at making the relationship work again. I suppose it is pride to not want to have to admit to what I did, mainly out of preoccupation with other things, things which I could justify as worthy distractions from the thing that I neglected to do right. Is it perhaps that in apologising for my poor behaviour I am opening up the possibility for the other person to reject me more, to not reopen the door to restored friendship, thus making me feel even more worthless? This risk is frightening, the source of my crippling dilemma.

What I do want to say is that reaching out to others in this world is always going to be messy. Authentic love is awkward because it involves our whole personalities, including all our quirks, and playing on our many insecurities. Living and loving as whole persons in relationship with others is so fraught with pitfalls that it is no wonder that so many give up, retreat, close themselves off and shut themselves away as hermits and drop-outs.

Loving my neighbour as myself is not going to be easy, since it is me that so often and easily causes offense that upsets my neighbour. If living with others at work, in homes, suburbs and families so often brings out my worst, I can see why there is such a temptation to recoil and hide from others, rather than extend myself in the vulnerabilities of humble, sensitive love. I am very tempted to run emotionally from those who I don’t click with, who don’t quite understand me, or who don’t give me the benefit of the doubt.

While anger, grumbling, bitterness and a sense of injustice are all legitimate feelings as we rub shoulders with each other in this messy world, I sense that there is more to it than these initial feelings want us to know about. I would say that such feelings are an indicator of deeper aspects of ourselves that we might not necessarily want to allow to come to our attention, memories about parts of us that we have squashed down in the hope that we wouldn’t have to face them. It is at the very moment we wish to gloss over such things that such a discovery is invaluable to us.

I conclude that it is worth the risk of digging beneath gut reactions to find within ourselves the deeper causes of malcontent. I resolve now to turn my mistake and pride into an opportunity for better understanding of what is at work within me, seeking to find how I might relate with deeper maturity into the future. In this way my neighbour’s grief at my annoyance will not have been in vain, nor will my initial awkwardness over how to respond to this grief have been. Thus, my own struggle in loving my neighbour will become the means for deeper self-acceptance as it provides an opportunity to grow in ways that wouldn’t have been otherwise possible.

Curiosity killed the Kat

Posted in homosexuality, Katy Perry, sexual curiosity on October 6, 2008 by Steve

Katy Perry T-shirt

Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl quickly shot to the top of the charts and currently still receives plenty of time on the airwaves. Other than its sheer catchiness, I suspect this song owes its popularity to the fact that listeners themselves are curious, having at some time doubted their sexual orientation and contemplated other options, but not having dared to act on it. Whatever the exact reason, Katy Perry has struck a chord amongst many, and yet, in doing so, has come under fire from others. Indeed, the song has proven very controversial, evoking strong emotions particularly amongst those who denounce it as a backward step in the feminist cause.

As with most songs, there are many possible interpretations as to the precise intention in its composition. The writer at Feministe sees Perry’s song as endorsing male objectification of women, while others see it promoting a healthy sense of questioning of sexual orientation. Personally, I view the song as an honest confession of a young woman’s mixed-up emotional experience as she learns about her sexuality – a necessary and difficult journey for each of us as sexual beings.

In the song Perry reports back on the experience of having kissed a girl at a party – under the influence of alcohol and out of curiosity – “just to try it”. While I first thought that Perry was simply encouraging female homosexuality, on further listening it became clear that she is not so figured out or probably all that keen on other women.

As you listen to Perry retell the story of her ‘decision’ to kiss another girl, you can’t help but sympathise for her in the pain of the moral and personal implications for what was involved in taking that step. Caught between the teaching of her devout Christian parents and the curious desire to explore the unexplored, Perry’s dilemma is understandably agonising. While on one level she feels a joyful liberation, at another she is plagued with guilt, knowing that she has disobeyed the wishes of her parents:

It’s not what, good girls do
Not how they should behave
My head gets so confused
Hard to obey

Above all, Perry is confused and curious about her sexuality – a common experience amongst teenagers and even adults. Yet she is daring enough to let her curiosity prompt her to action. Though she knows her boyfriend will probably disapprove, she sees the girl-kissing experiment as worthwhile. One blog commentator puts it well:

A lot of the time when people are confused, they act in a way that they normally don’t. Maybe she doesn’t mean what she is saying, or maybe she is just trying to get a new song out there for those of us who don’t know what to do and in a way, she is letting us know that there is more people out there who are like us and that we should just be ourselves.