When I saw an article “Save Face” in a recent edition of the magazine Men’s Journal reviewing men’s skin-care productI was frankly astounded. Are men really willing to spend anywhere from $36 to $289 for a tiny bottle of a product that allegedly would help fight age- related damage? Apparently, contrary to my old school sensibilities, there is a sufficient market for these companies to advertise and sell their vanity promoting products. Besides my personal views on the superficial aspects of manliness – real men aren’t overly concerned with appearance – is there a more important message about masculinity that these types of products represent? I think it does reflect an overall obsession by both men and women not to look old. What has changed is how much this fear of appearing old has grown among men. The feminist movement attempted to reduce women’s fixation on superficial appearance and probably reduced young women’s need to apply makeup. Yet it seems that men are willing to step up and fill the demand gap by their purchasing of cosmetic and grooming stuff. I find this trajectory disheartening. Over valuing superficial attributes- hard bodies, perfect skin, etc., – diminishes the importance of character, values and compassion in how we think of ourselves. An unhealthy shift that has been a long standing issue for women and now increasingly for men.
I was re-watching the television series “Breaking Bad” and my attention was grabbed by an interchange between the main protagonist – Walter White – and his drug distributor Gus. Walt was telling Gus that he no longer wanted to manufacture meth because of the negative impact on his relationship with his wife. Gus responded with the argument that the role of a man was to provide even if there were consequences and that a man must step up and do whatever is needed to promote the financial well being of his family. This appeal to Walt worked and he relented and agreed to resume cooking meth. The concept of men as providers as an essential part of the male code and has been challenged by the success of women in the workforce. There are growing numbers of households where the wife out earns the husband or the husband is the stay at home parent while the wife is the primary bread winner. In my view there is nothing inherently wrong with these changes in our society. However, men who see being a provider as an essential part of their masculine identity experience these changes as a loss of their manhood with the resulting consequences of increases in depression, domestic violence and substance abuse. We cannot change a man’s need to provide but we must help redefine the concept of being a provider so that it is not entirely based on a man’s income.
Although not specifically a father’s day issue, how men are portrayed in the media does have a direct input on the value of men as fathers. A recent commercial for paint really got my goat. The first image was a women in a business suit sitting on a hotel bed “skyping” with her husband and children on her laptop. The husband, presumably the children’s father, is shown in a tight shot with three children sitting in a kitchen. She asks if everything is OK at home. He answers that everything is under control. The next scene is an expanded view of the kitchen totally trashed with all sorts of writing and drawing on the walls. Of course the mother does not see this on her computer. The narrator then pipes in that it is a good thing they used a particular brand of paint in the house so that these walls can be cleaned before the mother returns from her business trip. I guess the paint company wants us to identify with the helpless Dad who cannot manage his children and allowed them to scribble all over the household walls. I feel certain that the advertising agency which came up with this commercial thought it was humorous and reflected what they think is only a mild exaggeration of fathers who are unable to parent their children. I find the underlying message to be offensive to all fathers who quite capably parent their children whether or not their wive’s are present. In my opinion this advertisement is just one more example of how men are identified in the media as being inept needing advice and approval from a women in order to respond to life’s challenges. Without their guidance, guys are just screw ups who avoid meeting responsibilities – especially those dealing with family business.
There is strong data that suggests that father’s play a crucial role in helping adolescent boys manage their aggression and risk taking behaviors. Aggression, a component of the Warrior archetype, can be expressed either in the shadow or the light. Shadow behaviors include violence, bullying and physical coercion. In the light, the warrior is protective, assertive and bold. Fathers through appropriate modeling and teaching provide adolescent boys with a road map for handling their surging hormones. Boys who are poorly fathered are far more likely to join gangs, drop out of school and wind up in the juvenile justice system. Even in the animal kingdom we can observe the impact of fathering. Researchers report that rogue adolescent elephants who destroy property and threaten villages usually come from herds without an older male elephant in proximity.
With Father’s Day fast approaching – hard to miss with all the ads for dad’s gifts – each day leading up to father’s day I will offer a reason fathers are important. With the growing number of children raised in homes without their biological father it is essential that we are reminded that men have a significant role in raising well adjusted productive children.
Father’s play with their children tends to be more physical which promotes confidence in taking physical risks and self confidence.
A must read article in Scientific America Mind (May/June 2014) by Paul Raeburn provides hard data on the influence of fathers on their teenagers. One such finding, “researchers have revealed a robust association between father absence – both physical and psychological – and accelerated reproductive development and sexual risk-taking in daughters” reinforces the notion that having a Dad involved in a daughter’s life is essential for their having a balanced and mature attitude about their sexuality. Girls who grew up with a high-quality father- who spent more time as a high investing father – showed the lowest level of risky sexual behavior. There is more good stuff in the article and it also discusses Dad’s and sons. The takeaway is that we have undervalued the role of father’s in our children’s development and if there is a single mom raising kids they must find others that can help fill the role of the absent father.
It is not surprising that men are uncertain about what masculinity is all about when they are exposed to so many mixed messages. On one extreme we are told that gender neutrality is the marching order of the day and that society would be better off if men would develop their feminine side – whatever that means. On the other hand we are getting messages in advertising and other media about expressing manliness in the stereotypical characteristics of manliness that are totally out of sync. with societal norms and expectations. A recent ad for a watch in a popular car magazine -whose primary demographic is probably men- with the headline, “How to Tell Time Like a Man” used the following verbiage to describe their watch. “Your watch…..It should look like a power tool and not a piece of bling. Wearing it shouldn’t make you think twice about swinging a hammer or changing a tire. A real man’s timepiece needs to be ready for anything.” The ad goes on, “call me old fashioned , but I want my boots to be leather, my tires to be deep tread monsters, and my steak thick and rare. Inspiration for a man’s watch should come from things like fast cars, firefighters and power tools. And if you want to talk beauty, then let’s discuss a 428 cubic inch V8.”
This ad is not a parody or tongue in cheek. The company that placed is convinced that the descriptors of masculinity that they used to entice men to buy this watch will resonate with men. No wonder we are confused about our manliness. After all, the reality is that is often difficult while wearing our leather boots to change a diaper and swing a power tool at the same time.
To see into the future, look at 8th grade. If an 8th grader gets As and Bs in school that student will likely earn a college degree. If that same student gets only Bs and Cs college completion is unlikely. That is one of the stunning conclusions from authors Thoma DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann in their report on gender mobility, and college attainment. The implication of their findings are astonishing when correlated with the data that girls do better than boys in school by 8th grade and continue to widen their lead over boys in educational success. Over a life time recent data reveals that a college graduate will earn over $800,000 more than a high school graduate. The educational gender gap suggests that women may become the primary drivers of the US economy. What are the implications for defining one’s masculinity if this prediction becomes reality?
An excellent article by Leonard Pitts, recently published in the Miami Herald reflected on just named most valuable NBA player Kevin Durant’s comments about his mother’s extraordinary efforts that led to him being the man he is today. When it came to remarks about his father, who deserted the family when he was an infant, his words were expectedly brief characterized as an up and down road with the support his father had given “from afar.” Pitts’ point is that the absence of fathers matters. He goes on to say that we have evolved a society wherein we pretend the opposite is true. The disappearance of fathers is now nearly the norm. Almost one in four American children lives in a household without their biological dads. For black kids it’s a little better than half. Pitts describes the new morality that says it’s okay for a man to wander away from his child because he is immature, selfish and young. For a woman her clock is ticking and she really doesn’t need a man for anything more than sperm. If we tell ourselves this new ethic is not a problem, that the disappearance of a father leaves no scar, we are ignoring the statistics showing an increase in poverty, drug use, educational failure and incarceration that correlates with the absence of a father.
It’s time for an honest discussion about the role of men in our current social/cultural climate.