Straight White Guy Does Some Man-splaining

I did some catch-up reading at two of my favorite blogs today, both Alyssa Rosenberg’s joint and Blinded Trials. I found myself going back and forth between an Atlantic essay by Elizabeth Wurtzel that Rose talked about, and yet another post by Rosenberg on the Pixar movie Brave.

Going back and forth, I found myself getting incredibly sad.

Let me start with the Atlantic piece by Elizabeth Wurtzel. For those that don’t know Wurtzel, she’s the author most famous for the chronicling of her issues with clinical depression and substance abuse. I tend to think of her as one of those people who is now mostly a New Yorker famous for being a famous New Yorker. Her essay in the Atlantic is a feminist critique of wealthy women choosing to stay home and raise children (or let nannies do it for them). The essay itself is – I’m sorry – terrible, more of a screed than coherent argument. I won’t go into all the reasons I disliked it, mostly because I’d be a fool to think I could do better on that score than Rose has already done. But this line from Wurtzel caught my attention:

“Who can possibly take feminism seriously when it allows everything, as long as women choose it?”

At the risk of putting my toe into a pool where it is neither needed nor welcomed, I’d like to suggest that in this sentiment, Wurtzel gets what feminism should be entirely wrong. I realize as I say this that I am not a woman. I’m also not gay, or from a poor family, or a person of color. I am, in fact, a bit of a poster child for all of those DNA-given attributes that allow me an undeserved seat among America’s privileged set. But this seat of undeserved privilege does give me a unique perspective, which allows me to have a pretty knowledgable opinion about what the true advantage of being part of said privileged set means.

Let me explain.

You know how one of today’s social conservative memes is that non-poor, straight, white males are really the only people in America that are truly discriminated against? That we represent a group in chains, yearning to be freed by society’s firm and unfair hand? Yeah, well that’s a bunch of sh*t.

The strategy by this generation of conservatives to play the victim card can be entertaining if you don’t take it seriously, but it lacks a serious mooring in Realityland. Because the truth of the matter is that being a non-poor, straight, white male in America is awesome – but not for the reasons everyone always says that it is.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, the reasons people point to are true enough.  For example, I know a lot of conservative men who complain about their “rights” being infringed upon these days. And it is true that I do know one who truly appears to have been repeatedly passed over for promotion in a company where literally all the managers are women, but he’s a pretty far-out-there outlier. Aside from him, the biggest complaints I hear are that we straight white men can no longer tell off-color jokes round the water cooler, try to score some action in the office without being threatened by a lawsuit, or do a tomahawk chop at an Atlanta Braves game.  This last one despite the fact that:

  1. no one’s stopping them,
  2. they don’t live in Atlanta, and
  3. they never watch baseball.

That’s how cushy we straight white males with money have it in this country: our big “rights issues” are being told it’s not OK to treat other people however we want even if it offends them.

Compare this to women I know that outperform men in their fields but can’t get the market to translate that to equal, let alone superior, pay. Or my friends that are gay and have made life-long commitments to a partner, who simply want to get married but are not allowed. Hell, I live in one of the more liberal metropolises in America, and a recent study here by our own police department revealed that blacks and hispanics are pulled over for searches twice as much as white drivers, despite the fact that they find significantly more contraband with the white drivers. Not having to deal with any of these things is definitely nice, but they still aren’t what’s the best advantage to my accidental situation.

My advantage is so innate, so drilled down into the societal DNA that binds us together, that it was many years before I even recognized that I had it. My advantage, born from being a non-poor, straight, white male, is this:

It never occurs to me that I can’t do or become whatever I want to do or become based on anything but my comparative knowledge and skill level.

It seems simple, but there’s a power in that realization that cannot be overlooked. Unlike many blacks I know, I never had to think long and hard about what kind of black person I wanted to be; I certainly never worried if I were being perceived as “too white” in a job interview. Unlike a lot of my gay friends, the success of my career choice isn’t dependent on either finding just the right kind of job in just the right field with just the right company, or keeping quiet about what makes me me. Unlike most women I know, I don’t have to worry that if I don’t dress attractively enough at work I might not be taken seriously, but that if I dress too attractively I might not either.

And I don’t mean to insinuate that any of those examples I gave above are by any means the worst or most common thing people who aren’t non-poor, straight, white males have to deal with. Anyone reading this could think of dozens more, I should think, but that’s not the point. The point is that I don’t have to worry about any of them. Hell, I never have to think about any of them.

Which brings me to Rosenberg’s blog. If you’ve never read it, I’d encourage you to start. She’s a terrific and engaging writer who effortlessly goes back and forth between being serious and fun. More than that, she has a way of viewing things that never occurs to me, that allows me to stand and view something as familiar as my favorite TV shows from an angle I never realized was there. She is, simply, quite awesome.

And yet…

So much of what she writes about is the role of women in popular culture. How is this female character being portrayed; how is that one? What will their degree of allowed sexuality say to other women? What will the way they’re drawn, or shot, or dressed, or scripted say to young girls who might look up to them? It never stops with Alyssa. With the state of our pop culture this says more about her dedication and pop culture’s failing than anything else, but still… it never stops. What must it be like to have to deconstruct everything, all the time, to get a sense of where society thinks you as a person currently stand? What must it mean for parents of daughters, to constantly wade through all of that because you want them to have better opportunities to be themselves than generations before were allowed? It seems like it must be exhausting; reading too much of Alyssa in one sitting makes me sad, even when she is not.

And this is why I think that Wurtzel is entirely wrong in her declaration that feminism will only have won when women have finally limited themselves to a certain number of choices for their career and lifestyles. I realize that, being a man, my saying this is going to come off as man-splaining, but as one of the people who lucked out in the ridiculous and unfair Societal DNA Sweepstakes, I have to tell you that limiting yourselves as a group – any group – seems a dangerous path. Feminism, from my man-splaining viewpoint, will have finally won when there are equal opportunities and results to the point where no finds themselves wondering what feminism’s role should be anymore. It will have won when a woman is allowed to choose any path (including physicist, President, or even mother) and be rewarded the same as a man, without having any group of people tell her that she should do something else based on the biological obligations of that extra X chromosome – even if that person is a self-described feminist.

Wurtzel says feminism means nothing if it allows everything a woman might choose.  I think she’s wrong.

Feminism should allow everything, so long as a woman gets to choose it.

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38 thoughts on “Straight White Guy Does Some Man-splaining

  1. “So much of what she writes about is the role of women in popular culture. How is this female character being portrayed; how is that one? What will their degree of allowed sexuality say to other women? What will the way they’re drawn, or shot, or dressed, or scripted say to young girls who might look up to them? It never stops with Alyssa. With the state of our pop culture this says more about her dedication and pop culture’s failing than anything else, but still… it never stops. What must it be like to have to deconstruct everything, all the time, to get a sense of where society thinks you as a person currently stand? What must it mean for parents of daughters, to constantly wade through all of that because you want them to have better opportunities to be themselves than generations before were allowed? It seems like it must be exhausting; reading too much of Alyssa in one sitting makes me sad, even when she is not.”

    In reflecting on my privilege (and I, like you, am an ubermensch of American privilege), I sometimes try to simulate this process that PoC’s/women/gays/ethnic and religious minorities/etc. go through on a near minite-to-minute basis. Not only do I likely fall remarkably short in even achieving a reasonable approximation, but I can barely manage what I do come up with… It is physically, emotionally, and mentally draining. If folks like us had any idea what folks not like us go through… Shhhhiiiiiiiit.

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    • When I first heard about that, my thoughts were along the lines of:

      OK, yeah, assuming that all girls care about lipstick, etc is kinda sexist. But let’s be real here, we live in a society where girls are socialized to care about lipstick and guys are socialized to care about cars. And with that in mind, if your goal is to get more women involved in STEM, I don’t think it’s out of line to highlight the science that goes into making lipstick, which is just as real as the science that goes into making cars.

      Then, well, I actually watched the video.

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  2. > It never occurs to me that I can’t do or become
    > whatever I want to do or become based on anything
    > but my comparative knowledge and skill level.

    It’s all about the networking, iff’n you ask me. Minor nitpick in an otherwise great piece, since guyfolk have the advantage in networking, as well… as most of the decision-makers are still guyfolk.

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    • PC-

      I think what Tod was getting at is that he never has to think, “Will my maleness/whiteness/straightness/etc hold me back or be held against me?” It is a really disconcerting feeling to have. As a male in early childhood, right or wrong, I know there are things I can’t or shan’t do. (There are also ridiculous and unfair ways it works to my advantage, mind you.)

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  3. Wurtzel has the core of a worthwhile idea, here. Shame that she takes it and runs in exactly the wrong direction.

    She’s right that society, by default, treats women as caretakers. As she observes, in a two parent, one income household, the one income usually belongs to the father, and that’s hardly where the presumption ends. And she’s right that women suffer for it. I don’t think anyone who’s aware of how women in this culture are treated would deny any of that.

    Wurtzel’s solution, though is where she goes wrong. She supposes that the solution is for women to push harder into the workplace. Nevermind that, as is frequently noted, some women prefer raising their children full time. Nevermind what the implicit concession that childcare is a low-status task does for the still disproportionately female professional caretakers, and indeed the children themselves.

    And it’s also where I must disagree with you, Mr. Kelly. Because men aren’t free to do whatever they want to do, either. Where a social force pressures women out of the workforce and into childcare, it pushes men out of their homes and into being breadwinners. When we note that some women would prefer to raise their children full-time, we should note the same is true for some men.

    I don’t mean this as a whine; acceptance of stay-at-home fathers is improving, just as workforce conditions for women are improving. But I don’t think it can be honestly denied, any more than the pressures towards childcare on women can be denied. And I can’t imagine that society will stop treating women as default caretakers until society stops treating men as default breadwinners. Sexist cultural norms don’t exist in isolation.

    Thus, criticizing women’s life choices is exactly backwards. If you want fairness and equality, don’t try to add create a new stigma. Fight the stigmas that already exist. If you want wives to be free to work, help husbands feel free to take care of their kids.

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  4. Okay, I’m a bit of a numbers nerd so maybe some leaguers can help me out with this and your post reminded me of it.

    The common quote is that women make $0.75 for every $1.00 a man makes. I see that stat and I scratch my head and wonder where they got it, and what variables it controls for.

    For example, until recently, women would take two months for maternity leave, men might take a day or two. Women may have gaps in their employment history while they stayed home to raise a child to preschool age, for men that is not so common. So just there, it would imply that if you looked at two 40 year old employees, with the same education in the same job at the same performance standards, one simply has more time on task by virtue of not having had time off. Now, having spent 2 hours tonight with a teething 5 month old I assure you I’m not suggesting that child rearing is “Vacation”. Far from. But as an employer, staying home with a child is not making product for the company.

    I hope I’m not misunderstood here; I’m a numbers nerd but I also get my dander up when people misuse statistics or imply causation where all they have is correlation. It’s a quirk.

    So, can anyone point me at one or two solid statistical surveys of this that do hold up well so I can sleep tonight?

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      • That is for multiple reasons. There’s testimony in there that shows exactly what I get my dander up. It cites the 75 cents on the dollar by looking at “what men make” and “what women make” and adding it all up, which isn’t good statistical analysis.

        There is some evidence that when you do put in controls there are problems and disparities and that is useful. It’s easier to put out there and not have it dismissed out of hand as poorly construed statistical falicies. I like having useable, reliable data. : )

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        • A Teacher,

          What I find interesting is that they do the analysis you asked for. They control for the intervening variables that are often used to explain the difference and still find a gap.

          Page 69:
          In our report, Behind the Pay Gap, AAUW found that just one year after college graduation, women earn only 80 percent of what their male counterparts earn. Even women who make the same choices as men in terms of major and occupation earn less than their male counterparts. Ten years after graduation, women fall further behind, earning only 69 percent of what men earn. After controlling for factors known to affect earnings, a portion of these pay gaps remains unexplained and is likely due to discrimination.

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          • another portion is due to socialization. women, by nature or nurture, are less inclined to battle for a pay raise (esp. when first hired).

            Guys’ll leave if they aren’t being paid enough… why else do 3rd world factories employ women and not men, all things equal?

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          • Even looking at one-year-out, there are still confounding variables. Women are more likely to go into lower-paying fields more generally. When they go into the same fields, the numbers change.

            Of course, as Fnord points out, these decisions aren’t made in a vacuum.

            As the member of a household with a female breadwinner, the question of pay-equality is not of insignificant importance to me. I believe pretty strongly that discrimination does exist. Unfortunately, I think a lot of it exists in intangible ways that are extremely difficult to nail down statistically, and rather hard to prove.

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            • I wasn’t actually referring to large statistical trends, but my experience of working with women at an executive level. Politics aside, I think it’s generally assumed – by men as well as women – at a certain high level of executive authority that a woman simply doesn’t earn as much as a man, because competing firms are less likely to pay them as much to come work for them as they would an equally qualified man. (At that level it’s not an issue of a set salary for a position, it’s what you are able to negotiate on a case by case basis.)

              It’s one of those things everyone seems to agree is there, agree is less than perfect, but just kind of shrugs their shoulders and says, “it’s the market, what are ya gonna do?”

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    • Teacher,

      I don’t know if I can lay my hands on it now, but I read something a while back about the types of jobs that women tend to go into vs. types of jobs that men go into. This won’t do it justice, but essentially women are selectively attracted to low-pay jobs (say, like child) care with greater frequency than men, while men are more selectively attracted to high-paying/high-risk jobs (jobs with a risk premium built into the pay).

      That doesn’t explain all the differential, of course, but it’s one of the factors. (And in that situation the male is not necessarily better off; along with the higher pay comes a higher risk of death or disablement).

      It’s also good to keep in mind that while it’s not yet universal, a increasing number of companies pay men and women the same amount for the same jobs. So to the extent the gap still exists it’s explained less by different pay for same work than by differences between career choices.

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      • And, I would ask, why do those differences in career choices exist? It may mean that simple equal pay laws are a bad idea. But it doesn’t mean we simply stop investigating.

        Why is it that men more than women take high-pay, high-risk jobs?

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          • This has something to do with it. Males tend to have a greater tendency toward risk taking in general. That’s only a statistical tendency, of course, and says nothing about particular males or females. When I was a bike messener I realized that probably 90% of messengers were male, although there was no discrimination in hiring. Fewer females applied, and fewer stuck it out more than a few days. The ones who did were just like the guys who did, ranging from average to really good. But there were a really small number of them. And it’s a very dangerous job (not a great risk premium, though; the supply of wanna-be gravy dogs will be endless, as long as young men are filled with testosterone and a reluctance to work inside an office).

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            • And that’s the fundamental problem with aggregate data. You really have to ~work~ to be sure that you’re comparing apples to apples. What I dislike about the “Women make X compared to a man’s Y” is that it is SO easily dismissed as false because of all of these intervening factors. What we really need is more work done to control variables, drill down to do true comparisons where the only factors at hand are gender. But the more specific you get, the less data you have and thus the bigger the error.

              Job selection is one of the bigger challenges, though it does beg the question as to why it is we pay “women’s fields” less then more male dominated ones? Is there still some form of discrimination at work even there?

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              • There probably is still some discrimination at work. I’m not remotely pollyanaish enough to think there’s not. But lots of it can be readily explained by labor supply.

                And an underlying question there is how much of the differential in selection of careers is driven by innate differences (statistically) between the genders, and how much is driven by enculteration? I’m pretty sure it’s a mix, but I’ve read a fair amount on the subject and the only thing I’m absolutely sure of is that we don’t (yet, at least) have any real clue, or even any really good way to try to study that question.

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  5. “It never stops with Alyssa. ”

    Man…….hit the nail on the head with this one and it’s comforting to know that I am not alone in my impressions. So many times I’ve read Alyssa’s blog and came away with a “Huh, never thought of it that way before” moment….which is a good thing….but just as often, I come away dismayed at all the gender sorting.

    In a recent post on female action heroes, she wrote:

    “[M]ore thoughtful movies about what femininity brings to the table in fraught situations would make for more interesting storytelling, and more nuanced role models.”

    And while I took her point, I also couldn’t escape the impression that “what femininity brings to the table” in this case is better personified in Irina Spalko than Willie Scott, which seems like a terribly narrow view.

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  6. (re: Rosenberg) I wish more people read more books and knew about more things aside from what’s currently on tv and the internet. I’m perfectly happy that they know about those things, of course, but it would make idle chatter a lot less boring if they knew about other things too.

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  7. For a few months, I helped close down a dot-com startup. There was some good code in there they’d basically written for one client, who was buying it outright. The rationale for that LLC was gone: they were doing the right thing shutting it down.

    I would spend some time after work at a bar named Uncle Remus under the Chicago El tracks. One of the guys, an Albanian, wanted to go with me. It’s frequented almost exclusively by black people. So he sits down, very nervous, obviously never been around people of colour. And starts talking about race. Everyone’s eyes roll to heaven.

    I said “There will come a day, won’t be today and likely not tomorrow, but there will come a day when a man can sit down for a cold frosty beer and his skin tone won’t be a topic of conversation.”

    The old woman who ran the bar laughed and applauded.

    When someone’s gender stops being a topic of conversation, that will be a good day, too. What’s the big deal anyway?

    The prophet Tiresias whom the gods turned into a woman for some trespass, the stories vary. He seems to have adjusted to his life as a woman, becomes a famous temple courtesan, has a daughter named Manto, also a prophetess. After some years, he’s turned back into a man, with the exception of his breasts. He appears in many Greek tragedies, in Odyssey and famously in Eliot’s Waste Land.

    An argument arises: which is better, to be a man or a woman. Tiresias is summoned, having been both. Tiresias said anything a man can do a woman can do, with the exception of giving birth. We shouldn’t be reduced to deconstructing our roles as men or women or white or black or gay or what have you. Obama talks about his mother taking him to see Black Orpheus:

    I decided that I’d seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.

    The emotions between the races could never be pure; even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart.

    My mother was that girl with the movie of beautiful black people in her head, flattered by my father’s attention, confused and alone, trying to break out of the grip of her own parents’ lives.

    –Barack Obama, Dreams of my Father pp 92-94

    For all our heartfelt good wishes for people who aren’t Straight White Men, everyone’s still stuck with their alternate identities, mostly because they’ve accepted them. And it’s absurd, most of it. These identities were foisted off on us, we were told who we were and we accepted all this dumbassery as Gospel Truth, from the bigots and Elizabeth Wurzel alike — but I repeat myself. We can end this charade in our own lives when we refuse to be defined by anyone else.

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    • I had some thoughts along the same lines.
      To say it tactfully, overly aggressive concern for the state and comparison of another is a disturbance in the sense of self.
      Sans tact, that comes down to: You’ll never be where you are by looking at a roadmap. (So I did choose a somewhat tactful alternative from among the many; I’ll make up for it next time…)
      Or, as Gibran wrote:
      The fear of thirst while the well is full is the thirst that cannot be quenched.

      Which is to say, that no matter how equivalent some out-group might come to be, there will always be those disaffected sorts looking to the average toward the end of identity disturbances.

      Will people one day be satisfied?
      With themselves? With others?
      I wouldn’t bank on it.

      Reminds me of this for some reason.

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