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Miriam González Durántez, Nick Clegg’s wife, recently criticised prejudices towards men who look after their children. Interrupting Clegg’s speech, which he was giving to an audience of City fathers, she addressed what she saw as an “issue of attitudes.” There are many, she argued, “who still think that if a man takes care of his own children, he is less of a man.” González proceeded to challenge her husband and other working fathers to “start saying, not only loudly but also proudly, that taking care of your own children and being responsible for your children does not affect your level of testosterone.” Clegg and González, who works for international legal firm Dechert, shared parental leave responsibilities after the birth of their three children.
In recent years, there has been a much-needed increase in dialogue about gender, and not without results. In the UK, there are now more women than men in higher education; at Lancaster 53 percent of students are female. Women are also successfully moving towards closing the pay gap, whilst in most U.S. cities, the number of single, childless men under 30 is just eight percent less than their female counterparts. Traditional gender roles are being transformed and it is increasingly the case that the woman takes on the “breadwinner” role.
Though, as González states, the somewhat unenlightened still see professionally successful women as “scary” and those that defend their rights as “hard,” the stigma facing men in what are traditionally women’s roles, especially from amongst their male peers, is far harsher. In our society, it’s possible to argue that more people look at a female lawyer with admiration than a male “househusband.” Why is that?
Take the brand Dove, for example. When it was launched, brand executives found that “the name lacked macho mystique, especially when rendered in slender italics and accentuated with a stylised bird logo.” Certain colours and shapes, it seems, are considered more feminine than others – blue for baby boys and pink for baby girls is gender stereotyping at its most basic and level. Yet here’s the thing: by changing the colour of the logo to a more “masculine” grey and the shape of their signature soap from having rounded edges to the “manlier” square, Dove had an annual increase in sales of $150 million dollars. The brand executives weren’t wrong.
It’s not just brands that do it either – clear lines are drawn even in dialogue. During a routine, stand-up comedian Simon Amstell draws attention to this. What exactly is meant by “guyliner,” he asks, “as if men don’t have eyes?” Even now, women are more likely to reach for products aimed exclusively at men than men are to reaching for products targeted at women. What exactly is it about femininity that is so off-putting to men?
It’s not just “slender italics” and warm, soft colours: women are consistently made vulnerable and weak. In “Killing Us Softly” Jean Kilbourne discusses the portrayal of women in media, focusing on sexual objectification – something so common that we hardly notice it any more. This is the problem. Kilbourne argues that all media works on a cumulative, subconscious level. So whenever there’s a submissive, scantily clad woman in a television show or an advertisement, it’s not only women that are exposed to this image of weakness but also men. The average person is exposed to thousands of these messages daily. Subconsciously, that re-enforces a negative image. It’s not just in media, but in everyday interactions. Women are still characterised as the “weaker sex” whilst men are taught things like being emotional is “feminine” and therefore bad.
So yes, González is absolutely right; we desperately need a change of attitude. But it’s not just a question of changing our perception of men as carers of children; it’s a need for change on a much larger scale. We need to re-examine and re-define how we look at women in order to change attitudes to femininity for both men and women. Essentially, it’s what feminism is about and why it’s still, despite some progress, desperately necessary.