Kim Chernin and Susan Faludi make a case for the crimes of our culture against women -- crimes that women may not correctly and clearly perceive because they are being duped by the media, society, and cultural ideals. Both authors express dismay over the way our culture punishes women for their capacities, and attempts to keep them frail in both a metaphorical and literal sense. They both point out the strikingly contradictory messages society feeds women. Above all, both authors lament that women end up blaming themselves for their unhappiness and defeat in a patriarchy that actually has not given them a fair shake. Though Faludi focuses on sweeping cultural and economic issues, and Chernin zooms in on the issue of weight and its physical as well as spiritual implications, they share the same feminist outrage over the condition of women in contemporary America.
Susan Faludi's essay "Blame it On Feminism" first addresses the glowing media message that women have achieved equality at the clost of the 20th century. From Time Magazine to Madison Avenue, America is celebrating the feminine victory. Yet, as Faludi points out, at the same time there is an almost thunderous growl of reproach and fury at women, a message from society that is almost the opposite. It says, "You have never been more miserable." Women may have careers, but they are suffering from burnout, infertility, and a man shortage; they are depressed, confused, hysterical, and lonely. The source of their pain? Their hard-won equality and the feminist movement, which has "proved women's own worst enemy."
Faludi deconstructs this myth by showing that the majority of women in reality are economically impoverished, earning lower wages than men, without health insurance or a pension, stuck in traditional "female" jobs, and without family-leave and child care programs at work. At home, similarly, women shoulder most of the household duties. According to Faludi, women did make some small gains, but just as the culture began to shift and open up toward women, a backlash seemed to well up out of the cultural subconscious, a backlash that revoked many of their gains, and at the same time punished them for wanting more. She says that women's crisis in part is due to the media and popular culture, which perpetuates its own false images of womanhood.
Chernin, too, blames popular culture. There is, she says, a tyranny of slenderness in America that is a cultural conspiracy -- and it's one that's largely unrecognized. That slenderness keeps women from developing "their bodies, their appetites and their powers." Chernin calls up troubling images of adolescent anorexics so weak they look as if they're about to faint, of women wearing pants so tight that they bind as uncomfortably as girdles once did, and of women punished by a patriarchal culture who then go to weight-loss groups, blaming every failure of their life not on society or the system, but on their extra pounds. An overweight woman left by her husband may once have gone to a consciousness raising group, where she and other women attempt to enlarge their horizons; now she may be more likely to go to a weight-loss group where she will be asked to shrink herself in body and soul, to keep watch over her appetites and urges. These women have been persuaded that they can escape a cultural dilemma by reducing the girth of their bodies. Losing weight, says Chernin, is an unfortunate political act. Like Faludi, Chernin blames the media for perpetuating a mythic ideal of women that is false, and for then feeding women a false solution to a broad cultural dilemma. How will losing weight allow women to overcome misogyny, solve her social problems, convince the business world to "fling wides its gates" and offer jobs of equal status and salary as those of men. "There is a profound untruth here and a subversion of the radical discontent women feel," says Chernin. Faludi's view is much the same: what is actually troubling American women, when polled, is their economic inequity. It is not their supposed equality that has made them miserable, but the attempt by males at work and at home to oppress and suppress them.
Both authors note that this cultural war is not an organized movement, and that its messages are hidden, even if incredibly powerful. On a note that almost approaches despair, both these authors conclude their essays with a dark warning: women have a long way to go before they "enter the promised land of equality" (Faludi) and by trying to conform with cultural standards, "we have to wonder what cost she is paying." Unfortunately, neither essay offers positive suggestions for combating a cultural inquisition that both women see as deeply rooted, widespread, and at the moment, intractable.
Both Barrie Thorne and Cooper Thompson dissect gender as it is played out in the setting of schools, and though they both see a kind of separation of church and state, of boy and girl, from a very early age, they also offer helpful suggestions for changing the current patriarchal, misogynist, feminine-fearing culture.
Cooper Thompson, in his essay "A New Vision of Masculinity," points out that traditional masculine values can be positive for both females and males: independence, pride, resilience, self-control, and physical strength. But our culture, and particularly our schools, take that a step farther, stressing competitiveness, toughness, aggressiveness and power. In fact, there is a male hatred of the feminine, expressed in two overwhelming forms of social violence: homophobia, or the hatred of feminine qualities in men, and misogyny, or the hatred of feminine qualities in women. Thompson begins his essay with a powerful anecdote: at a suburban highschool where four ultra-masculine wrestlers have intimidated the rest of the boys, the most stinging insult a male can receive is to be called a fag. One day Thompson looks at some streaks of pink that one of the wrestlers is wearing and jokes that wearing pink is grounds for being called a fag. The boy did not laugh, but said, "I'm going to kill you."
That statement represents the fear men have of appearing feminine, and the violent hatred with which they will attack another who threatens their masculinity. Even more startling is the data from a study by Alice Baumgartner, where when children are asked to imagine waking up as the opposite sex, the boys are horrified. One simply says, "If I were a girl, I'd kill myself."
Thompson does not despair, however, he offers up some potential solutions for changes at school and thus perhaps in the culture at large. He feels that the school environment can reinforce other values for boys -- experiences in nurturing, cooperation, negotiation, nonviolent conflict resolution and empathy. Thomspon wants schools to become places where boys can learn these skills. In such a school, boys would be permitted to show joy, fear and love. Older boys would be encouraged to tutor and play with younger students. And boys would receive just as much recognition for artistic talent as they currently do for athletics.
Clearly, though Thompson understands gender has a basis in biology, he feels that nurture is more significant than nature, and that schools offer us a genuine opportunity for gender-neutral learning, for encouraging both boys and girls to express the positive qualities of masculine and feminine traits. Thompson sees current masculine ideals as terribly tough on men -- forcing them to constantly compete against other males, isolate themselves from feeling and nurturing and close friendships with other men. "There is no security in being at the top," notes Thompson, and he points out that by the time boys grow up they don't even know how to break down the walls that isolate them.
Barrie Thorne also sees the separation of boys and girls…