Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Effete, Effeminate and At Risk of Emasculation

This is the American Man, at least in the opinion of many right-wing and anti-feminist writers and bloggers. I came across these adjectives in reading what right-wing columnists and blogs worry about in the male presidential candidates, indeed in the American men. Glenn Reynolds, for instance, is most concerned about the feminization of the American culture (don't laugh). He recommends, repeatedly, a new book entitled A Dangerous Book for Boys. The idea of this book is to teach boys how to be boys, not the effete and effeminate wimps us feminists would wish to make out of them. Honestly.

Glenn Greenwald has an interesting post on the whole topic. He notes that the right-wingers think America is being emasculated, and they want to fight back before it is too late. Notice how the terms pile up: effete, effeminate and now emasculated. It is the testicles of boys that are at great risk, it seems.

The fragility of masculinity is an odd and important topic. I have never quite understood how masculinity can be so immensely fragile and at the same time so immensely powerful in the minds of some people. It is such a paradox: First, the traditionalists believe that men and women are biologically very different, in fact extremely so, and these "innate" biological differences are proposed as the explanation for anything at all that women might not excel at.

Why so few women in sciences? It's because women can't do math and don't find it interesting, silly. Evolution has built that into our genes. Or why do women get paid less than men, on average? Well, women "choose" to focus on children and the family. This is a biological imperative and nothing much can be done about it unless we want the Western civilization to collapse. Hidden in all this is the assumption that it would be similarly biologically impossible for men to take on some of those childrearing tasks. Because men and women are innately different and intended for different tasks. In a complementary way, natch. For instance, the low earnings of women compensate for the higher earnings of men. And so on.

But then suddenly this very concept of masculinity is at risk, threatened, something that needs to be taught to boys who would otherwise grow up to be something totally different. Turtles, perhaps.

This makes no sense, no sense at all. Either masculinity is biologically determined and will take a certain form in any case or it is not. You can't have it both ways, but the anti-feminists insist on this impossible combination.

Hence the need to change the education, upbringing and environment of boys (by, say, having them read books about how boys should act). Changing education, upbringing or the environment of girls is seen as totally futile, given the biological imperatives these folks embrace.

But of course this nonsensical view tells us much about what really lies behind the fear of the emasculation of American men. The fear is that men might end up not being any better than women are, and given the hierarchical world we still mostly inhabit, this would be a real loss for the men who currently stand on a high rung of the power ladder and also for the women who depend on these men. One of Ursula le Guin's books contains a snippet of conversation about this between Tenar and Ged. When Tenar wants to know why women in that book can't do men's magic, Ged answers by arguing that if women could do the same magic as men then men would be nothing but women who can't give birth.

I found that fascinating, because it is such an insulting statement and also such a revealing one about how women might be viewed. Note first that all women who live long enough will at some point be women who can't give birth and that some women are never able to give birth. Ged sees these women as something without purpose or without use. Then note how Ged defines women by their ability to give birth. This is revealing, because at its most extreme misogyny allows women now other area but the one in which men can't substitute for them. In a sense, the definition of femininity becomes the ability to give birth and this is then the totality of what it means to be a woman. In such an extreme case masculinity is pretty much everything else; all other abilities, characteristics and traits. Only female sexuality and fertility and practical tasks associated with them will be viewed as properly feminine.

This long preamble is to explain why I find the wingnut worry about the emasculation of American culture so frightening. To me it looks like yet another attempt to hoard all sorts of human characteristics under the title of masculinity, and to the extent this succeeds the allowable spheres for women's lives become smaller and tighter and meaner.

Consider the terms "effete" and "effeminate". I looked them up on the Internet and found this definition of effete:
depleted of vitality, marked by self-indulgence, trivial, decadent, overrefined, effeminate

Effeminate, in turn, is defined as follows:
having qualities or characteristics more often associated with women than men;
characterized by weakness and excessive refinement

The antonym of "effeminate" is "manly", which is defined as
having qualities traditionally attributed to a man;
courageous, strong

See the problem? The definitions of effete and effeminate are both circular, being based on what one deems as typical for women or men. But then the additional definitions assign good things to masculinity, such as courage and strength. By definition, then, femininity will lack those.

And this is why Glenn Reynolds worrying about the masculinity of American men and boys directly affects me and other women.

My apologies for the writing. It's hard to do any at this conference. I promise I will rewrite this later on. Heh.