Weird as it may seem, one of the more vivid memories from my childhood is the concept of “Girl Power” as brought to us by the Spice Girls. Even though as a young boy I was not the target audience for this empowering message, the idea that girl power was somehow different or more special than other types of power, that it deserved its own songs, clubs, and merchandise, was alien to me. Over time, however, I learned that historically girls have faced many challenges unique to them and that over the past several decades, society has been trying to remove the entrenched obstacles to female success. Hence, girl power.
For my generation it has become unremarkable to see women-only or women-specific initiatives. In fact, just this past week a number of my friends ran in the More/Fitness Magazine Women’s Half-Marathon in NYC. Our country as a whole is better off because of the advances this focus on female-empowerment has produced; America is no longer the patriarchal society depicted in AMC’s smash hit Mad Men. Yet, despite this progress, I can’t help but feel there has been an unintended consequence: men are being left behind and their problems ignored. The glaring disparity between men and women in the past, and the flood of feminist activism it produced, rested upon the assumption that men are and will continue to be OK. Why would men need help? After all, the world would reward them with a good education, job, and social life simply for having a Y chromosome. But this is no longer the case and male-specific problems are more apparent than ever now that the relative difference between men and women has narrowed significantly. (This is not to say there’s no longer a need for feminism – there’s still work to be done – but the progress that’s been made in the past few decades is extraordinary and undeniable. For example, women have outnumbered men on college campuses since 2000, a likely predictor of future differences in success between the sexes).
Men are starting to notice, too. Like most schools, my alma mater Hamilton College has a women’s center (unfortunately called the Womyn’s Center) dedicated to making the campus a safe and inclusive place for female students. Few questioned the need for such an organization, but whenever the Center would become a topic of conversation, either in or out of class, a male peer of mine would invariably ask why no such center existed for men. Sadly, this question was never taken seriously. Instead it was typically seen as a snide remark aimed at making the Womyn’s Center nothing more than the polarizing butt of a chauvinist joke. The very idea that men have issues specific to them was never once considered meaningful.
Of course this is an absurd idea. Men, and young boys in particular, face a variety of unique challenges that deserve attention, ranging from conflicts with sexual identity in a world that rewards heterosexual male promiscuity to male-specific health problems (e.g.: testicular and prostate cancers). The irony is that, just as women are breaking free of the old stereotypes and impediments that made them marginalized members of society, men are being constrained by outdated notions of male-privilege. In other words, the idea that men will be fine and need no special attention simply because they are men in a man’s world is still widely held.
The downside of this can be seen in the never-ending series of violent attacks and rampages perpetrated by young men in the United States and throughout the world. Most crime in general is committed by young men and large public massacres, such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in late 2012, are almost solely the work of disgruntled males. I am not a criminologist or a sociologist, so my hypotheses should be taken with a Everest-sized mountain of salt, but I can’t help but wonder if some of these events could have been avoided if we focused more on men, and young boys in particular. What if, alongside all the empowering programs we have now for girls there were similar programs aimed at addressing the social and mental causes of violence in men? Maybe we could reduce the frequency of mass violent episodes.
Similarly, more can be done to encourage men to pursue careers dominated by women. At all levels of society, women are being urged and incentivized to pursue traditionally male-dominated fields, such at STEM, but little has been done to encourage the same for men when it comes to predominantly female-held positions. If diversity is as important as people say it is, then this should be a noncontroversial position. We should work to promote greater inclusiveness and access to opportunities for every individual. Fewer barriers to success, whether academically, socially, or career-wise, lead to happier and more productive people.
One of the major themes within 20th century American history is the push to equalize previously marginalized groups of society, such as blacks, women, and to a lesser extent homosexuals. These movements, while not finished, have been unqualified successes. The America of today looks nothing like the America of 50 years ago. It is time we realize, however, that the benchmark of success that was set for these groups – heterosexual, white men in particular – was not perfect to begin with and has potentially worsened as a result of benign neglect. America has changed. The assumption that men are OK because it is a man’s world must change as well.