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June 14, 2012

Fun with Outdated Gender Stereotypes

In today's edition of Gender Sensitivity Is Important, Unless Of Course We're Talking About You (in which case, it's political correctness run amok) disrespected Dads are pushing back against inaccurate and outdated stereotyping of fathers in ads and the media:

There's a movement under way among dads in America that's changing what you see on TV. Across the country, more and more are fed up -- and rising up against the stereotype of the inept, clueless father.

"We're not the Peter Griffin or the Homer Simpson that we're often portrayed as," said Kevin Metzger, who runs the Dadvocate blog.

It's often the chief gripe among the dads I interview about modern fatherhood.

David Holland, father of three, rails against "doofus dads" in ads. In his blog Blather. Wince. Repeat., he calls them "Madison Avenue's go-to guy."
During every commercial break, he says, he and his wife "try to see who can be the first one to spot the idiot husband or father."

In a sign of their growing power, dads out to end the stereotype recently scored a knockout blow against a pair of TV ads.

A Huggies ad earlier this year said the company put its diapers "to the toughest test imaginable: dads, alone with their babies, in one house, for five days."

What exactly made time with dad "the toughest test imaginable?" The ad showed dads making some unpleasant faces and ended with a woman saying, "good luck, babe."

Another Huggies ad featured a group of dads not changing their babies' diapers while watching an entire game through "double overtime."
Angry dads and moms responded with complaints, saying fathers aren't incompetent parents who leave their kids in dirty diapers.

Chris Routly took it a step further, creating a petition on change.org.
"This wasn't just that they had created a bumbling dad character or that sort of thing or just excluding dad," like so many other TV portrayals, he said. "They were using language that was really saying dads are terrible at this stuff."

Huggies took action.

It's hard to know what to think of this, frankly. I find the lazy/irresponsible/dumb slacker male stereotype offensive on lots of levels, but then I have found negative stereotyping of women offensive for as long as I can remember. But the fact is that stereotypes exist for a reason: they are a sort of shorthand for phenomena we see over and over again in the real world. A stereotype that runs counter to our experience doesn't resonate - it literally doesn't make sense to us.

What I'm having some trouble with is the "not all Dads are like that..." argument. Not all wives are emasculating nags, not all professional women are vicious, ball breaking harpies who enjoy humiliating men and are threatened by/undermine other women (in fact, literally every mentor I've had in my professional life has been female, which is remarkable since I've worked for far more men than women), and not all gorgeous blonds are ditzy, gold digging bimbos. The real question here is not so much whether all men or all women conform to the stereotype, but rather whether enough men and women conform to the stereotype to make it recognizable to us?

Complaining - or simply being offended - about stereotypes is something I understand. And I have no problem (in theory) with letting companies I do business with know if they're offending me. If they want our business, it's probably a good idea not to insult the customer.

What bothers me about this is the gender grievance aspect. While men absolutely are depicted in negative ways in media, they are also depicted - more often than women - in very positive ways. Which portrayal we get is context sensitive - if the focus is on adventure or heroism, men are portrayed positively as strong, capable heroes:

One of the most prominent male stereotypes in the media is that of the alpha male. Whether a character is the strong silent type, an action hero, a big shot, or an athlete, the ideal of masculinity is the figure of dominance. He is in control of his own emotions and actions, and is often in control of others as well. He is physically strong, or socially powerful. He is probably physically attractive and aggressive. The alpha male character is likely to be either violent, or put in violent situations, which he is more than capable of dealing with.

Characters who possess the alpha male traits are found in movies, cartoons, and video games. He-Man, Rambo, and Batman are quintessentially masculine. Popular actors such as Harrison Ford, Will Smith, Bruce Willis, and Wesley Snipes all have played many alpha male roles.

Recent attempts to show women as strong, capable heroines have met with resentment and derision, as though being someone others can look up to/emulate is strictly male turf (or simply laughable on its face). Often cited are the improbable scenarios where a female defeats men in a fight, though the point is somewhat undermined in the context of cartoons, fantasy and science fiction movies, and other genres that regularly show men doing wildly improbable things like jumping onto a truck moving 60 mph from an overpass or the hero with no previous fighting experience who magically (!) defeats 6 ninjas in a dark alley armed with nothing more than improvised numchucks constructed on the fly from a string of extra strength dental floss and two stale Twix bars.

When the context shifts to comedy, we get an object of ridicule: the beta slacker dude.

Another influential trend in the media portrayal of men is the beta male. This character is often found as one of the main characters of television sitcoms. Unlike the capable alpha male, the beta male is more or less incapable of everything. He tends to fail, and rarely tries to be successful. He is fundamentally worthless to society, and manages to survive through luck, or a capable mother, wife, sister, or friend.

He is Homer Simpson and Al Bundy. He is Spencer Shay from the children's sitcom iCarly, and Raymond from Everybody Loves Raymond. This male stereotype is another version of masculinity; another choice for boys and young men to emulate.

I often wonder whether the real solution to the problem of negative stereotypes isn't more complaining but more praise for the companies who get it right? Let's face it: whether it's an ad campaign, a blockbuster movie or a children's show, what companies really want is a product their customers like.

At the risk of conforming to another negative stereotype (the smug, know it all mother), positive reinforcement works - and without the tiresome, speech and humor squelching side effects of campaigns to pressure companies to show us only pleasing depictions of ourselves that bolster our amour propre.

What do you think?

Posted by Cassandra at June 14, 2012 07:46 AM

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Comments

I think we have too much time on our hands as a society. Seriously, when the worst complaint you have is that a diaper commercial portrays men in a negative light to the extent that you create a petition, you officially have nothing to worry about. Stereotypes be damned, no man has been refused a job because, "Oh, you're a father? HAHAHA, sorry... we don't hire you bumbling fools!" It's not 'discrimination', it's a damned joke. Get over it.

Posted by: MikeD at June 14, 2012 01:04 PM

I'm not offended by stereotypes, it's monotypes that really set me off. Moreover, fathers are supposed to act bumbling, inept and confused. It is our very bumbling inept confusedness that empowers women to feel that they are our equals. "Oops! Sorry, Ms. Crankypants, I'm so bumbling, inept and confused that I plum forgot to give you a raise!" "well, dear, you know how bumbling, inept and confused I am, that's why you should be the one to help junior with his algebra homework." "Say, is that two new zeros on the end of this credit card balance, or has my bumbling inept confusion finally damaged my eyesight?"

Posted by: spd rdr at June 14, 2012 01:18 PM

I find the lazy/irresponsible/dumb slacker male stereotype offensive....

With particular respect to advertising, what I find offensive is a bunch of thin skinned, professional victim whiny-a*sed cry babies bellyaching about this sort of thing. Advertising originates as a dishonesty, and anyone who takes an ad seriously deserves the wedgy they give themselves twisting their own panties.

There are stereotypes that persist that aren't outdated--they were never indated. These are the ones worth getting upset over. And then doing something about, rather than sitting on the sidelines whining some more.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 14, 2012 01:38 PM

I find it interesting to read these two arguments together:

1) But the fact is that stereotypes exist for a reason: they are a sort of shorthand for phenomena we see over and over again in the real world. A stereotype that runs counter to our experience doesn't resonate - it literally doesn't make sense to us.

2) Often cited are the improbable scenarios where a female defeats men in a fight, though the point is somewhat undermined in the context of cartoons, fantasy and science fiction movies, and other genres that regularly show men doing wildly improbable things like jumping onto a truck moving 60 mph from an overpass or the hero with no previous fighting experience who magically (!) defeats 6 ninjas in a dark alley armed with nothing more than improvised numchucks constructed on the fly from a string of extra strength dental floss and two stale Twix bars.

It seems like in argument (2), a stereotypical male hero is so acceptable that it passes without anyone batting an eye; whereas a woman in the same role raises derision. If argument (1) is correct, then, the problem is that the woman in that role 'literally doesn't make sense to us,' whereas a man in that role is in accord with 'phenomena we see over and over again in the real world.'

Since I'm one of those people who has often complained about movies of the type, I'd like to reassert that any derision I feel isn't pointed at the woman (who isn't real and, according to your argument, couldn't possibly be real: as you assert here and have asserted in the past, these are fantasy creatures). What I find worthy of derision is the cravenness of the writers and producers of these films, who can't find a way to tell a plausible way to tell a story about a strong female. That a woman might sometimes win a fight with a man is not implausible; it happens sometimes. A woman who is so invincible that she doesn't even break a sweat against any male foe doesn't line up with experience.

One of the things I wanted to accomplish in the Arthurian book I wrote was to try to tackle the problem of showing strong women, not a masculine action hero wearing feminine clothes. The book is filled with strong female characters, some of whom end up in combat in one way or another (though not on purpose, since in general women in the period didn't seek out combat). Along the way, they do in fact sometimes kill men. That kind of thing really did happen.

For example, during the Roman period, it was common for the roofs of buildings to be made out of heavy tile. During the event of the siege of a walled city, men defended the walls until they fell, and the streets thereafter. But women and those too old or young to fight took to the rooftops. They would drop those tiles on the invaders until the tiles were all broken in the streets below. Usually the attacking army could not advance until tiles were exhausted: each tile weighed only ten to twenty pounds, but falling from the roof they were deadly.

One of the greatest generals of the period was killed by a woman throwing a tile from the roof of her home. So yes, it happened: but it happened like this. She didn't go down into the street and challenge him to a swordfight. Nevertheless, she defended her home bravely -- doubtless facing down enemy arrows and slings -- and struck a blow for her city.

That's the kind of story we ought to see about strong women: one who really is brave and strong, and even victorious, in spite of the fact that she isn't going to have the same level of physical strength as men.

Posted by: Grim at June 14, 2012 01:44 PM

I have a simple solution to this problem, shut off the damn TV.

Posted by: Pile On at June 14, 2012 02:37 PM

Whoa! Way too simple there, big fella. You must submit a much longer essay here before we can get you commenter credentials.

What was that name again? Pile On?

Mr. On, my people will be in touch with your people.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at June 14, 2012 02:48 PM

If argument (1) is correct, then, the problem is that the woman in that role 'literally doesn't make sense to us,' whereas a man in that role is in accord with 'phenomena we see over and over again in the real world.'

Heroes are (or were until the WOT silliness made us lose our collective minds and call everyone a hero) exceptional by definition. They are not commonplace or ordinary - they are quite literally "extra" ordinary. 50 years ago, seeing a female boss or working mother didn't conform to what we saw over and over again in the world but it would appear times have changed so much that these figures are now not only commonplace but in the case of the working Mom, in the majority.

What I find worthy of derision is the cravenness of the writers and producers of these films, who can't find a way to tell a plausible way to tell a story about a strong female.

Plausible in what sense? They can't find a way to tell a plausible story about male heroes either - I've been rolling my eyes at people jumping off buildings and landing w/no injury, single men fighting off 6 or 7 men who are far larger (whereas we all know a woman can't beat a man b/c men are bigger and strong, apparently the laws of physics are suspended for male heroes) :p

That a woman might sometimes win a fight with a man is not implausible; it happens sometimes. A woman who is so invincible that she doesn't even break a sweat against any male foe doesn't line up with experience.

Neither do the many men who are depicted in exactly the same way. I watched 3 movies this weekend. All three had wildly implausible male heroes doing things that "don't align with experience". At the risk of getting in trouble here, men don't object because the image flatters them.

One of the greatest generals of the period was killed by a woman throwing a tile from the roof of her home. So yes, it happened: but it happened like this. She didn't go down into the street and challenge him to a swordfight. Nevertheless, she defended her home bravely -- doubtless facing down enemy arrows and slings -- and struck a blow for her city.

Grim, when I start to see male heroes depicted realistically, I'll be far more receptive to this line of reasoning. But the fact is that the standard for male fighting isn't at all realistic, yet somehow when it comes to women, exaggeration and lack of realism are deal killers?

I think context matters. In an historical film, I would object just as much as you b/c one expects (vainly) some degree of fidelity to the facts. So Abraham Lincoln, vampire killer isn't credible, but it's acceptable as entertainment.

Cartoons, action movies, thrillers, etc. aren't historical documentaries though and the same standards aren't appropriate.

Posted by: Cass at June 14, 2012 02:58 PM

I have a simple solution to this problem, shut off the damn TV.

I had to laugh at that. Last week The Unit and I waited up until after midnight on two consecutive nights as we were expecting our Offspring to arrive after late flights/long drives.

We were both zonked out, so rather than search for something we actually wanted to watch, we were channel flipping - something we almost never do. We ended up watching Conan O'Brien, and were both really gobsmacked by the crudeness of what we saw both on the show and the commercials. Guys, I'm far from being a prude (and having put in 30 years in the Marines, neither is the spouse) but I don't think either one of us expected the constant references to prostitution, p0rn, blow jobs, etc (actually BJs were the tamer of the sexual references). It was as though they were talking about going to the grocery store - not a topic that hasn't really been something adults normally discuss in public except by way of double entendre or vague references.

The whole thing reminded me of obnoxious kids I knew in HS who were trying too hard. Very weird, but then I've always been something of a pop culture philistine.

Posted by: Cass at June 14, 2012 03:48 PM

If I may, Cass... you're watching (some) different fiction than I. If you want to see slight women beating the stew out of men and monsters... well basically turn on any Joss Whedon show/movie. I would particularly direct you to Firefly/Serenity. No one, and I literally mean NO ONE I know complained that River Tam annihilating scores of baddies was "unbelievable" or "unrealistic". Heck... I don't recall that complaint about Mulan either.

I mean... I get your point about male action heroes doing ridiculous things. And believe me, I HAVE complained about crap I've seen in bad action movies, I ESPECIALLY get torqued about vehicles doing ridiculous things (see "Hazard, Dukes of" and "A-Team, The"), but then again, when I watch THOSE kinds of movies, I'm not really looking for intelligent entertainment or social commentary.

Posted by: MikeD at June 14, 2012 04:09 PM

I hear that the studios tested "Mary Todd Lincoln, Vampire Slayer," but it didn't poll well with audiences (most of whom thought that she was Mary Tyler Moore's sister). I know that the reader gals are still waiting for someone to make a decent movie about Boudica, but not me. I have to live with them.

Posted by: spd rdr at June 14, 2012 04:21 PM

I know that the reader gals are still waiting for someone to make a decent movie about Boudica, but not me. I have to live with them.

Yes, but you rather enjoy it :)

Seriously, I'm a bit mystified by the female action hero thingy. Lately I've noticed several cases were a woman gets beaten up in a fight just as a man would (IOW, they are both giving as good as they get, not the typical "mean man beats helpless woman" scenario). It got my attention b/c it was novel, but also because in all the cases the woman lost the fight exactly b/c she was smaller. Later in the movie, she does win one or two but it really was the scenario we often see with male protagonists where they manfully stand up to a much larger guy and get their clocks cleaned, but good!

Wrt to Mike's comment about River Tam, my husband objected the first few times we saw it but I pointed out that:

1) Sci Fi
2) She is supposed to be a prodigy/engineered weapon, and so obviously not typical. That's why the bad guys are trying so hard to get her back: she's exceptional.

But I'm with you on not expecting reality from sci-fi/fantasy plots. I had to look up Josh Whedon, but isn't Buffy supposed to have supernatural powers?

FWIW, I have never longed to see female action heroes fight men. That's just not important to me at all. It doesn't bother me, but it also doesn't excite me. It just "is".

What seems so strange to me is the very negative strong reaction from some guys. Having taken several years of Karate as a young lass, I learned early on that mere size/strength aren't as important as smarts and agility. And since a lot of TV fighting (especially women) involves martial arts style moves, I don't really thing strength or size are as important as skill and experience, even in the manifestly unreal world of TV/movie fights where farfetched fight scenes are pretty much de rigeur.

I will admit to being sick to death of women shrieking ineffectually on the sidelines whilst their boyfriends or husbands are having the tar beaten out of them, though. Thank God we're seeing less of that these days.

Posted by: Cass at June 14, 2012 04:40 PM

I ESPECIALLY get torqued about vehicles doing ridiculous things (see "Hazard, Dukes of" and "A-Team, The")...

My personal favorite meme is when Joe SixPack who has never done anything more dangerous in the automotive realm than changing his oil a few thousand miles after the recommended mileage suddenly acquires the skills of someone who has been to a full course in anti-terrorism/evasive driving maneuvers....on black ice... all while thinking several steps ahead of the professional bad guys on his trail :p

Riiiiiiiiight...

Posted by: Cass at June 14, 2012 04:45 PM

My personal favorite meme is when Joe SixPack who has never done anything more dangerous in the automotive realm than changing his oil a few thousand miles after the recommended mileage suddenly acquires the skills of someone who has been to a full course in anti-terrorism/evasive driving maneuvers....on black ice... all while thinking several steps ahead of the professional bad guys on his trail

Why do you think we play video games? For fun? Lady, you might not think Joe SixPack's much to look at, but I assure you, he's training every day of his life to be there when you need him.

Posted by: spd rdr at June 14, 2012 04:54 PM

*snort* :)

Posted by: A Man's Work Is Never Done.... at June 14, 2012 05:23 PM

If you want to see slight women beating the stew out of men and monsters....

Personally, I watched Wonder Woman and Xena Warrior Princess for the plot lines.

Yeah. I'll go with that.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 14, 2012 05:41 PM

That's OK - we totally watched Hercules for the searing power of Kevin Sorbo's acting and the Highlander for Adrian Paul's cerebral theatrical stylings.

Yeah... that's the ticket :p

Posted by: A Woman's Work Is Never Done.... at June 14, 2012 06:11 PM

for the plot lines

vs

searing power of...acting and...cerebral theatrical stylings

Is there any clearer gender stereotypical difference than that?

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 14, 2012 07:07 PM

I watched 3 movies this weekend. All three had wildly implausible male heroes doing things that "don't align with experience". At the risk of getting in trouble here, men don't object because the image flatters them.

I don't know what movies you've been watching, but the cases remain different. In the case of males, here's what you're extrapolating from.

Nobody objects to heroes like the one in Die Hard because -- as unlikely as it may be -- guys like that turn up just every now and then. Our experience is that men of that stripe are not unheard of: extraordinary, but not unexpected.

Posted by: Grim at June 14, 2012 07:39 PM

I think my reply got stuck in your moderation filter, Cass.

The upshot of it was that there's a reason that this kind of 'action hero' character is essentially (rather than accidentally) masculine: we can point to many examples of real men of the type. Hollywood physics aside -- a problem with nearly all movies -- the character type is a living truth: extraordinary, but not even terribly rare. Thankfully, we have examples in nearly every generation of real men who are at least the equal of most 'action hero' sorts.

Of course these days, that's not enough; not satisfied with heroes, we now mostly make movies about super-heroes. It's not enough to be a hero: you've got to be able to fly like a bird and be entirely impervious to harm. Such are our tastes: yet there are real heroes among us, whom we as a society barely bother to notice.

Posted by: Grim at June 14, 2012 08:35 PM

Let's see if I have this one straight:

You don't like female action heroes because you can't point to real women who have demonstrated they can perform the same physical feats.

I point out that male action heroes constantly do things that are just as implausible, if not more, than female action heroes. But that is irrelevant because some men are heroic in spirit (even if they also can't do the things that make you so scornful of female action heroes).

So clearly, it's not really the physical implausibility (which is where we started with this, hence my line of argument).

You then proceed to point out that it's hardly unknown in history for women to fight, though their fighting style reflects their relatively small size and lesser strength. So clearly, women do fight at times. And clearly, some have done so creditably when either allowed or forced to. You can point to examples. So can I.

To sum up, female action heroes are unbelievable because real women can't do the things they do in movies. But male action heroes are believable because even though they can't really do those things either, they have performed lesser physical feats that properly demonstrate that heroism is essentially masculine.

Posted by: Cass at June 14, 2012 09:08 PM

That's not the argument I'm making at all. Your argument was that stereotypes are plausible if they point to things we see over and over in the world; and if they don't, they don't make sense to us.

Men like Captain Chontosh are the real examples in the world that make the 'action hero' stereotype plausible. There simply aren't such examples on the other side. Women have fought, yes; but again, here's what he really did:

Within moments there were Iraqis slumped across the machine gun and Chontosh was still advancing, ordering his driver now to take the humvee directly into the Iraqi trench that was attacking his Marines. Over into the battlement the humvee went and out the door Brian Chontosh bailed, carrying an M16 and a Beretta and 228 years of Marine Corps pride.

And he ran down the trench.

With its mortars and riflemen, machineguns and grenadiers.

And he killed them all.

He fought with the M16 until he was out of ammo. Then he fought with the Beretta until it was out of ammo. Then he picked up a dead man's AK47 and fought with that until it was out of ammo. Then he picked up another dead man's AK47 and fought with that until it was out of ammo.

Maybe you've been watching some awesome movies, but it's hard for me to think of this as a 'lesser example.' Put that in a movie, and you've got an action hero. Heck, Audrey Murphy proves the point: all he did was come home and play himself, and he was a movie action hero. He just did the same stuff on screen that he'd really done in Europe.

The stereotype makes sense, according to your argument (1) above, because it's encountered time and again in human history. Per argument (2), I can't think of a single similar example involving a female.

Fighting? Sure. Winning sometimes? Sure. Single-handedly wiping out a trench full of enemies, or dozens of machine gun nests, or dozens of enemies in single combat? It's not just that it's rarer or less common for females: I can't think of even one case of an 'action hero' in the female mode from the whole of history.

So, by your own arguments (1) and (2), and the record of what we do in fact encounter time and again in the world, I'd have to say that this stereotype is essentially masculine.

Posted by: Grim at June 14, 2012 09:58 PM

Which, by the way, gets to what really annoys me about all this: the attempt to defy essential natures in the mythic mode.

Myths should speak to what is most true, not what is less true. They should be about the unifying truths that lie behind the particular facts.

There are ways in which women are wonderful and strong, and deeply admirable. It isn't necessary that they be exactly like men, or capable of being exactly like men if they choose to be, for women to be deserving of respect, love, and honor. Nor is it wise -- for anyone -- to try to make femininity into a kind of hyper masculinity: that kind of myth is going to set people up for disappointment and misery in life.

I know a woman -- a dear friend of mine, but a doctrinaire liberal -- who is working on a Knights of the Round Table young adult book where the knights all get reincarnated. Being a good liberal, she wants some of the knights to come back as girls and some as boys, and some as gay or lesbian and some as straight, and some as black and some as Hispanic, and so forth. None of this is allowed to matter, of course, because all human differences must be accidental rather than essential: the knights carry on just as they had in their old bodies, the physical facts about them being irrelevant to their current lives.

That's the left's mythmaking: there are no essential differences between people. That's why inequality is a clear example of evil, and any difference in practical results must be proof of cheating or theft. That's why the government must level the playing field: we all know that's what's fair.

The truth is, some differences are accidental, but some differences are essential. There is no clearer example of an essential difference between people than the difference between male and female. It affects every physical fact about us, from how we are structured to how we process information; how our brains work; everything.

Because that is true in fact, it should be true in myth. Myths are where we find a way to honor that truth, and find the beauty in it. That is how we come to make a space in which this difference can be respected. If we instead try to use our myths to defy the truth, the lies will lead us to misery.

Posted by: Grim at June 14, 2012 10:09 PM

Ironic typo: Audie Murphy. If it had been "Audrey Murphy," I'd have to retract the statement!

Posted by: Grim at June 14, 2012 10:11 PM

Female action heroes are hardly a common stereotype, Grim. They are the exception rather than the general rule, representing a very small part of the totality of females depicted in art. Yet for some odd reason even that is too much to be borne.

Clearly it is ludicrous (even in fantasy, sci fi, or cartoons) to imagine that a woman - even an exceptional one, as male action heroes clearly are - might do things not typical of most women.

There are ways in which women are wonderful and strong, and deeply admirable. It isn't necessary that they be exactly like men, or capable of being exactly like men if they choose to be, for women to be deserving of respect, love, and honor. Nor is it wise -- for anyone -- to try to make femininity into a kind of hyper masculinity: that kind of myth is going to set people up for disappointment and misery in life.

Good Lord, Grim. How can you possibly represent a minority of portrayals of individual female characters who are clearly not represented as "typical" in any way, shape or fashion as oxymoronically representative of "femininity"? Masculinity and femininity span two spectrums with quite a bit of overlap. Why are you so upset by a few non-representative characters exploring a clearly relevant societal phenomenon - that women now do things few thought they were capable of doing in our grandparents' time?

Women do them routinely these days. I can remember when "experts" swore no man would ever break the 4 minute mile. They were wrong, and there's no real threat to humanity in imagining that day might come.

What does it take away from men to imagine a woman doing things men have been more likely to do throughout history in works of fiction?

Women have been vastly more likely to care for children throughout history, but referring to that reality based stereotype offends the dignity of men? And you don't see me arguing that just because childcare is more typically feminine, that we shouldn't show men can do it too. Whether they want to or not is a separate issue :p

The premise here seems to be that things should be very one way: we must imagine that men can do everything women do (and just as well, durnitall!!!). And notice that I'm not saying that's not possible ... for some individuals. But under no circumstances must we imagine that individual women can do things males have traditionally done (even in fiction) because that is somehow dangerous, ridiculous, or offensive to male pride.

That seems... kind of one sided.

You seem to have missed the entire point of the example. The point was that these men are objecting to negative male stereotypes (though they obviously exist in real life) on the rather dubious basis that "not all men are like that". Well, duh.

But they don't have any problem whatsoever with positive heroic male stereotypes, though quite obviously "not all men are like that", either. They represent the exception rather than the general rule: that's why we honor them as being special and extraordinary.

Posted by: Cass at June 14, 2012 10:34 PM

I missed the point of that example because I don't have any part of their argument; I'm not defending those men or their positions.

I do remain interested in the power of mythology. I take it as being far more powerful than you; and many things that you dismiss as stereotypes strike me as attempts at mythmaking. Mythmaking is really important because the rising generation is much swayed by it, far more than they realize until later in their lives. I certainly was deeply swayed by the myths I encountered as a boy.

So, 'a few' characters, in movies targeted at adults? Got no problem with that. I thought Kill Bill was a lot of fun. It's also hopefully not being watched by anyone whose view of the world is still developing.

But when it's increasingly the norm in movies targeting children and adolescents, I do have a problem with it. That's serious business, because they are receiving these stories as myths. I'm not the first to think that getting myths in accord with truth matters deeply; it was enough for Plato to call for the abandonment of the entire mythic and religious tradition of his society.

Posted by: Grim at June 14, 2012 11:00 PM

Conflating stereotypes in ads and movies with myths is a bit of a stretch. Here is the definition of myth:

myth   [mith]

1.a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.

2.stories or matter of this kind: realm of myth.

3. any invented story, idea, or concept: His account of the event is pure myth.

4. an imaginary or fictitious thing or person.

5.an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution. (Hmmmm.... where have we seen that one recently?)

It strikes me that "myth" is very much a narrative - often based on imagination or outright falsehood - constructed to explain or justify something we don't understand. False narratives, if they're widely believed, distort our perception of reality - that's true.

So you're afraid that if the idea catches hold that women can fight like men or defeat men in battle (even though you say there's zero evidence they can fight like men in real life), it will cause some unspecified harm to society? What form would that harm take and what would the consequences be?

I'm going to be brutally frank here (which I'll probably regret). The current decline of boys and the refusal of many young men to assume adult responsibilities has a serious aspect of sulking and wounded pride to it. I am not ascribing this attitude to you - I am throwing out a possible rational explanation that demonstrates one consequence that might justify your fear of a false myth. Having raised two boys and watched over many of them over the years, there is an aspect to the male nature that wants to be on top and if they can't be #1, they'll take their ball and go home. You see this particularly strongly about the age of 6 in boys - the most assertive and aggressive will typically pitch a fit if they lose a contest or game. They have to learn to lose gracefully and accept that it's not all about them. You also see in in the PUA crowd, who seem to feel entitled to the sexual favors of women more attractive than they are, and use this overweening sense of entitlement to justify behavior that has been considered irresponsible, destructive, and immoral throughout most of human history.

This attitude is something that sports and culture have trained out of men for centuries, often rather brutally and usually at the hands of adult men, who one presumes are well placed to understand what boys need to become successful men. We used to teach boys that they have a place in the pecking order and they can't all be #1. Now we encourage them to think they can all be #1 without really trying and instead of teaching them self discipline and control, we teach them that these virtues are unnatural and unnecessary.

Traditional culture seeks to channel that masculine desire for mastery and the aggression that comes with it into a more positive use, but modern culture sometimes seeks to suppress it entirely (good luck with that!) So one danger consistent with this view would be that if men can't be the ONLY fighters and enjoy that pride of place, they will refuse to fight at all and take the easy path as so many are doing these days. I have come to believe that this natural tendency is why culture has been so hard on boys for centuries: they need the extra goad and the discipline to develop their full potential just as girls need a kindler, gentler hand and extra encouragment or they get discouraged and give up. Girls accept rules more easily but need to be pushed to assert themselves and defend their own rights. Boys assert themselves easily but need to be pushed to accept rules and respect the rights of others.

Here's the thing, though. If it is really as ludicrous as you suppose that some small minority of women could ever do something that you personally can't identify a precedent for in history, one might think it would become obvious pretty fast that the myth didn't hold up to reality.

Worst case, we have a war and just as many women fight as men and the women prove incapable - let us down - or many are killed. So we lose a war (again, hardly unprecedented) or we lose many women's lives.

That's hardly something that hasn't happened before to men. Tens of thousands of men have been killed in a single day of combat and wars are lost all the time.

It seems to me that what really bothers you about this is that you want to be able to say "only men do this", even when it comes to fiction that includes magic, wizards, talking animals, wildly improbably stunts and feats of arms with no counterpart in the real world. None of these patent untruths are harmful though, because they don't invade men's exclusive claim to be the fighters?

That's not a position I'd care to defend.

Posted by: Cass at June 15, 2012 07:08 AM

One more thought: I have consistently opposed admitting women to the combat arms and allowing women in combat. I have maintained that although some minority of women can do the job, that is not true of the majority.

You have argued against that position. How is that consistent with your position here?

Posted by: Cass at June 15, 2012 07:11 AM

Per argument (2), I can't think of a single similar example involving a female.

Which is funny, because when you started to tell the tale of CPT Chontosh, I thought the story was about SGT Hester. Because her Silver Star citation read very similarly to his Navy Cross.

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/17/national/17medal.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leigh_Ann_Hester

Posted by: MikeD at June 15, 2012 10:47 AM

The recent spate of Superwoman figures is something I take to be a kind of psychic revenge. The thrill in seeing a slight female kick ass on the bad guys is like the pleasure in a Jack the Giant Killer story, or David and Goliath: the underdog turns the tables. The arrogant bad guy fatally underestimates his foe. It's a storyline with an ancient appeal. The newness is in seeing the female as an underdog whom we'd like to see triumph for a change, and for some other reason than that her rack mesmerizes her male foes. Hollywood capitalizes on that wish as they do on every other wish that might sell tickets. It's scarcely the basest wish they've been known to exploit.

As for the bumbling dad meme, I see that as revenge for a long tradition of men denigrating the icky parts of child-rearing as beneath their dignity. It should have been obvious that some day, someone would turn that attitude around and suggest that it's not an easy job, and that some men who shirk it are simply incompetent in an area they were traditionally unwilling to admit was genuinely admirable or valuable. Is it overblown and exaggerated in popular culture? Well, yeah. That's how popular fiction works. We're not talking Henry James here.

Joss Whedon says in interviews that he finds an enduring appeal in the ironic set-up where a young, slight woman walks into an alley filled with strong, vicious foes -- and only the woman walks back out. It's an ironic fantasy, not a self-defense seminar. I'd be sorry to think that an ordinary women would be led to over-estimate her ability to avoid serious injury or death in a serious physical battle with a strong, ruthless man. But, like Cassandra, I'm very glad that we're seeing fewer Hollywood scenes in which the little woman stands by aghast saying "eek" instead of picking up a 2x4 and lending a little help to her beleaguered guy. Or even better, pulling our her weapon and shooting the bad guy in the head. (In a really old Hollywood movie, this would lead automatically to her man's regretfully divorcing her, just as he would have to do if her career took off and she started making more money than he.)

I doubt it's possible to understand the appeal of this kind of turning-the-tables narrative unless you've spent most of your life irritably watching women portrayed in popular fiction as background figures or rewards instead of as agents in their own lives, or, at best, as sexual provocateurs (provocateuses?).

Posted by: Texan99 at June 15, 2012 10:59 AM

Cass:

My argument has been from the good of the military: that there are roles that women can serve that men can't serve, even in combat situations. USMC "Female Engagement Teams" provide a service in Afghanistan that no male team could provide. Similarly, a female doctor or medic in a medical or Civil Affairs unit could provide services to women and children in need of medical care; male doctors or medics were a problem.

I don't support women in purpose-designed combat units like infantry, armor, cavalry or artillery; and to some degree it is because you have convinced me not to support them. The physical demands on these units, coupled with the differential rates of injury due to body structure, make it unacceptable; I have come to agree with that.

So even now I was joining in the discussion at BLACKFIVE against the idea of opening Ranger school to women. There's no 'good of the force' argument for it; there are three possible modes for implementation, and they all lead to bad results.

The best mode is mode (1) in that list, but even that poses unacceptably high costs to the force. It takes women who may be excellent officers, and exposes them to extremely high rates of injury, which means the force either loses them permanently or ends up having to pay for a lengthy recoup while losing them temporarily. In the private sector, such a choice might be acceptable ("So long as she knows the risks, let her try; if she gets injured, we'll let her go and she'll rely on her privately-purchased insurance, so she'll bear the costs.") In the military, that's not true because the costs of training her are borne by the military; as are the costs of any injury.

Here, too, I think we have to be realistic. And here -- by the way -- is a specified harm. If you are 23, coming out of college and into the Army, you're still young enough that the mythology means a lot to you. If you've grown up wanting to be the Female Action Heroes you've seen on screen, you're going to want to join the Rangers. You'll be right there pushing for it.

But that push is bad for the force, and even under the best model it will be quite bad for almost all the women who take that road. Under the worst model for implementation, the Army could lose the Ranger school -- it would still exist in name, but no longer as the thing it is today. That would be a very high cost, to support a bit of false mythmaking.

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 11:14 AM

They have to learn to lose gracefully and accept that it's not all about them.

Not to get too nit-picky, but these are two separate things. The first is no, they don't. Losing is an absolutely appalling, the winner is going to rape your mother, your sister, and your daughter while making you watch kind of thing--that blows up to the losing nation, at best, ceases to exist, or at worst, has its population enslaved. "Lose gracefully" is only a social thing, of dubious value.

The second, true to a large extent. But sometimes the better needs to take charge of the team.

We used to teach boys that they have a place in the pecking order and they can't all be #1. Now we encourage them to think they can all be #1 without really trying....

Especially that last part. However, I was taught, in those bygone years, rather more: we can't all be #1 today. But this never was an excuse for not constantly trying to be #1. That "But...." also has been lost today.

I have maintained that although some minority of women can do the [military] job, that is not true of the majority.
You have argued against that position.

Forgive an old man's memory, but I think I've argued against that position; Grim has been on your side. Or am I misremembering a discussion about women in a headquarters?

In a really old Hollywood movie, this would lead automatically to her man's regretfully divorcing her....

Or to a Quaker lady abandoning her principles (as the belief was portrayed) to save her man by shooting his back-shooting assailant in the back.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 15, 2012 11:21 AM

Mike:

Thank you. I don't believe I've read that before.

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 11:22 AM

If you are 23, coming out of college and into the Army, you're still young enough that the mythology means a lot to you....

I think you may be projecting here; although the USAF certainly is a different culture than the Army. I had, at 23 and just going onto active duty--and have now--no myths that mean anything to me. And neither did the women who served with me, whether as peers or subordinates (sad to say, the USAF still was sufficiently sexist then that I never encountered a higher ranking officer except as a REMF or a medicine woman.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 15, 2012 11:27 AM

We've actually had this discussion before, Mr. Hines.

A lot of people feel like they've dispensed with myth, and are living in a world of fact and history and science. That's mostly because people don't understand how myths work. They think myths mean something like 'stories about Athena and Odysseus,' or at a stretch, 'stories about John Wayne.'

There's a space for mythic archetypes in the brain that gets filled one way or the other. It's got to be filled because the mind needs it to operate. If you reread the parts of the discussion cited re: Betsey Ross, you'll see what I'm getting at here.

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 12:22 PM

We've actually had this discussion before....

Indeed we have. And while true myths have value, they're not at all dispositive. They're nice to have stories.

They indicate a model. But like all models, they only approximate reality; they can only suggest things. Where I said we need both historical and mythical truths, I should have said we need history more--even if--especially--that changes as we learn more of it.

It's that they start living by the myths told by someone else.

By whose myth am I living?

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 15, 2012 12:31 PM

At this age, by your own. But you can identify some of the mythic forms at work by answering certain kinds of questions. For example:

1) Who are the two or three people you view as true heroes, and why?

2) Explain why America's founding makes it different from other nations?

3) Explain the source of morality in the world?I.e., where does it come from, and why is it binding?

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 12:41 PM

I submit that at any age I lived by no myths. I'm the kid who got the TV kit for drawing Tom Terrific's path out of his trouble on the TV screen and then occasionally withheld the drawing to see what would happen to Tom.

1) No one. There are no heroes; only men and women who did their duty, sometimes in extremely extreme circumstances. These make good role models, though.

2) Two things: their first-in-the-world actual implementation of the concepts of individual liberties and obligations and the role of government, in subordination to the people, in creating/protecting an environment that fosters those. Second, their invention of a republican form of government to execute same.

3) Our Creator, Who endowed us with.... They're plainly not binding, else we'd need no social compact to help us live by them.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 15, 2012 01:34 PM

If you don't consider (3) to be a myth, you're just using the term differently than I am. Religious forms are mythic by nature: they fill that space that explains origins and gives rise to meaning.

That suggests to me that what we have here is a mere semantic dispute over the meaning of the word "myth."

The idea that there are no heroes is a mythic structure just the same as the idea that "X is a clear example of a hero." This is for the same reason that atheism proves to have a religious (and therefore a mythical) structure: the question is about what it means that the universe came to be the way that it did. The answer "nothing" is just another answer, and it informs the meaning with which you endow the universe (i.e., that it has no meaning at all; or no meaning beyond what we decide to give it -- a very old position, which Protagoras gave to Socrates as "man, and not a god, is the measure of all things").

But consider again your answer to (2). I asked about (2) because it's the origin story, not for the universe, but for the nation. You've got some clear ideas about meaning and value, something that makes America unique and special.

Over at National Review, there was recently a debate arising from the Queen's jubilee. Several of the British writers came under attack from American republicans (small-r); and they posited what I think was an interesting defense. To whit, they argued that it was proper for a Briton of conservative leanings to be a monarchist for exactly the same reasons that it was proper for an American of conservative bent to be a republican. The reasons, that is, are really reasons: but they are built on something else that underlies the place where reason begins to do its work.

If I had been raised in Britain, in a Tory family, I am fairly sure that I would have some strongly pro-monarchist ideas. Having been raised here, as a Southern Democrat, I have some strongly democratic (small-d) ideas. But a lot of these ideas are based on myths: the reasons are based on a vision of what it means to have a good and just society. It means a society in which people are free not just politically but actually, because as much as possible they own their own business or farm and work for themselves. It means a society in which relationships are thus largely voluntary, beyond certain duties necessary to maintain that space and that common good.

I'm convinced of the reasons that go with those arguments; but I also recognize that they are based on a foundation. There are heroes associated with it: Jefferson and James Jackson and others. There's an origin story. And there's a duty to preserve and defend, which is a mythic duty.

If I'd been born to that Tory family, I'd have a whole different set of principles. But I'd have them for the same reasons. It's the mythic foundation that is doing the work.

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 02:00 PM

By the way, this underlines another case of essential versus accidental attributes.

You can imagine me having been born to the Tory family, and having monarchist principles. The person I am essentially, in that environment, would naturally gravitate to that set of principles.

But you probably can't imagine me being born here, and agreeing to a project to transform America along centralized, socialist lines. My essential nature isn't compatible with it. No set of arguments could convince me.

We'd like to say that our rational principles are essential, but it's really that pre-rational direction that is essential to who we are.

That's why the question of mythmaking strikes me as so important. The principles you end up with -- that's an accident. The myths, and your relationship to them, is what is essential to the kind of person are, and the principles you finally come to have.

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 02:29 PM

I'd be sorry to think that an ordinary women would be led to over-estimate her ability to avoid serious injury or death in a serious physical battle with a strong, ruthless man.

I'd be sorry to think the same thing of a young man, that he might be led to believe that because his action-movie heroes can do so, he himself can confront larger opponents, multiple opponents, or armed opponents, and walk away unscathed. (Go here for a somewhat related anecdote about what happens when a young man who thinks that his knowledge of taekwondo makes him invincible attempts to confront a knife-wielding maniac. It ain't pretty.) At the end of the day, I think most people know that what we see on screen isn't real and know better than to try and attempt stuff like that in real life. I'm a fan of the Mythbusters and I think they do a real service in showing their viewers how stunts are accomplished and what would happen in the real world if someone tried these things.

My husband's a fan of superhero movies, and so with him I've been to see quite a lot of them. All I can say is, I'm rather tired of going to movie after movie where male characters are the heroes and save the world while the female characters are incidental, cardboard love interests or fan service, and do nothing of note. Examples that spring to mind include Natalie Portman in "Thor"--her presence was so minimal that I don't even remember her character's name, and I think it's rather telling that they left her out of the Avengers movie; Nu!Uhura, Spock's mother, and the disgrace that was Kirk's mother in the Star Trek reboot (for heaven's sake, woman, your husband is on a suicide run--can you stop whining to him over the com link for five seconds and try to realize that this is *not about you?*), and don't even get me started on "X-Men: First Class" (I mentally checked out of that movie when Emma Frost was tied to the bed and tortured while in stripper gear and right after having sex with the Soviet colonel). Heck, at least in "Captain America" the MI6 female officer love interest was granted a scene of quiet strength and dignity when she was communicating with Cap on *his* suicide run--it reminded me of the final radio communication between Rob Hall and his wife during the 1996 Everest disaster.) Black Widow in "Avengers" was a breath of fresh air. She may not have been the hero or the main character (would have been nice, but I don't expect it), but at least she *was* a character, had her own arc, and wasn't gratuitously sexualized or shoved into the "love interest" role. And let's hear it for Pepper Potts, btw--sure, she's Tony Stark's love interest, but at least she has believable chemistry with him and feels like a real person with a real personality.

Posted by: colagirl at June 15, 2012 03:00 PM

In no particular order, just writing from stream of consciousness (which makes me of (poor) Joyce-ian proportions, but does not make me Joyce):

You read the NR debate; I didn't. But from the outside looking in, it occurs to me that another reason for the republican argument is simply the nature of conservatism/liberalism and their evolution. The 18th century liberal was most decidedly anti-monarchist--because he was pro-individual liberty, while today's (proper) conservative is simply the child of that 18th century liberal, now working to preserve what was then radical change--those individual liberty principles. Just so, with the monarchist/18th century conservative and today's big government liberal.

As an aside, I see the monarchist more as fascist-corporatist than socialist, but that's perhaps for another thread.

You tend to conflate mythic with myth. Things can be mythic without being myths, just as things can look like apples without being apples. Thus there's a duty to preserve and defend, which is a mythic duty...., which is only of mythic proportions, it is not a myth: it is a result that flows wholly logically from the First Principles of our endowment. So it is with our nation's founding: the things I identified flow wholly logically from our endowment. This is a chain of logic begun, roughly (for our times) by Hobbes, and evolved by Locke and Rousseau, and given concrete existence by our Founders.

The principles you end up with -- that's an accident.

Only First Principles might be accidents. Everything else flows from them through pure logic, informed by facts--which might alter the logic and the derived principles. Or even the First Principles, in which case they were never First in the...first place.

There are heroes associated with [the nation's founding myth]: Jefferson and James Jackson and others.

But these are not heroes; they're only men and women who did their duty, albeit under circumstances of varying degrees of threat.

Finally, at the level of generality at which you're using myth, everything is a myth, and so the meaning of myth adds little of value.

Finally, Protagoras' remark was a purely utilitarian one (with no judgmental value imputed to that characterization). Whether God exists or does not, man is all we have with which to measure the universe: nothingness and infinity are poor yardsticks.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 15, 2012 03:17 PM

I hear what you are saying, colagirl, Tex, Cass. You hated the old movies as much as I hate the new movies. (And I really, really hate superhero movies. Of the ones you list, I've only seen Avengers, in service to the plea of a certain boy who has a birthday this week; what a horrible waste of time and money that was.)

Now it's possible that there's just no solution for this except that we all go see different movies. I'd like to think, though, that there's a better way of doing things. Maybe we can write stories in which females can be heroic characters without being defined in by a masculine archetype. Maybe there's a way to be heroic that's essentially feminine.

I think there is, actually: there are a lot of female heroes in history. There's no reason we can't tell that kind of story. Or so it seems to me.

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 03:22 PM

...roughly (for our times) by Hobbes, and evolved by Locke....

And Algernon Sydney, who seemed to have informed much of Locke's Treatises, and also by example taught Locke sufficient circumspection in his writing to keep his head.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 15, 2012 03:24 PM

Black Widow in "Avengers" was a breath of fresh air. She may not have been the hero or the main character (would have been nice, but I don't expect it), but at least she *was* a character, had her own arc, and wasn't gratuitously sexualized or shoved into the "love interest" role.

...and...

The thrill in seeing a slight female kick ass on the bad guys is like the pleasure in a Jack the Giant Killer story, or David and Goliath: the underdog turns the tables. The arrogant bad guy fatally underestimates his foe. It's a storyline with an ancient appeal. The newness is in seeing the female as an underdog whom we'd like to see triumph for a change, and for some other reason than that her rack mesmerizes her male foes....

I doubt it's possible to understand the appeal of this kind of turning-the-tables narrative unless you've spent most of your life irritably watching women portrayed in popular fiction as background figures or rewards instead of as agents in their own lives, or, at best, as sexual provocateurs (provocateuses?).

I've said this to my husband a time or two. I know I've mentioned that he was never able to see this until he got away from popular culture for a year courtesy of an all expense paid trip to Afghanistan. On his return, he looked at TV/movies through fresh eyes and *finally* saw what has bothered me for years before the numbness and acceptance returned.

I'm reminded in an amused sort of way of the group of male (and sadly, some female) conservative bloggers who have great fun with Offend a Feminist Day, each trying to outdo the other in parroting gratuitously offensive things that offend not just feminists but many conservative women I've spoken with too. Women who don't agree with radical feminism, but don't appreciate disrespect and shouldn't have to tolerate it from their peers.

Of course it's totally funny when they do it, but when Hollywood mocks or demeans men, somehow all the humor goes out of it :p

I'm not upset enough at any of this to create a petition or demand a commercial be taken off the air. Men's and women's foibles are funny, it is part of human nature to note and even make light of tensions between the sexes.

What I've never been able to wrap my mind around is why I can understand why many of these negative male stereotypes would be offensive to men and even possibly do some harm to the culture, but I don't see men recognizing the vast number of negative female stereotypes we've lived with all our lives. Instead they object when females are - for the first time I can remember - actually portrayed as people who might just be able to accomplish something that doesn't require a uterus.

Saying that women are capable of other things doesn't denigrate motherhood, or even suggest that their lives are wasted if being a wife/mother is "all they ever do". It's a simple recognition of a fact.

Are some of the newer female archetypes in the making exaggerated? Sure, but so is the whole male mythic hero genre. Ridiculously so, IMNSHO, almost to the point of caricature and severe eye rolling. But for whatever reason, that is legitimate and "true", while imagining a woman in that lofty place is harmful and wrong/bad.

I've been proud to take a supporting role most of my life in service to my husband and family, but sometimes I could wish for some recognition that that's not all women are capable of. We have brains and souls and dreams, just like anyone else. Just as men have been conditioned to push the boundaries, we have have conditioned to limit ourselves and curtail our ambitions. That is changing, and a great many conservatives think that's a BAD thing. Well, I don't. I think it's an opportunity for the human race to grow. Sure, we'll grapple with new problems but that's what always happens along with changes.

I sometimes wonder how we can rail on about radical Islam and the way it treats women and, out of the other side of our mouths, wail and gnash our teeth about women having the freedom to make mistakes? It makes me question all this talk of freedom and individualism and wonder how much we really mean any of it?

Posted by: Cass at June 15, 2012 03:33 PM

Mr. Hines:

You tend to conflate mythic with myth. Things can be mythic without being myths, just as things can look like apples without being apples.

It's not conflation, but an organic relationship. The relationship between myth and mythic isn't analogous to the relationship "apples" and "things that look like apples." It's analogous to the relationship "apples" and "apple trees."

The duty to defend is mythic; it produces myths, as apple trees produce apples, because when people live it out in a particularly striking way they become legends.

But these are not heroes; they're only men and women who did their duty...

They are both. That was the point about myths and history from the old discussion. A factual account of history and a true myth can be the same thing. It depends on what function it is performing. If we are trying to decide what happened, it's history. If we are looking to it for inspiration to guide us in shaping our own lives, it's myth.

Only First Principles might be accidents. Everything else flows from them through pure logic, informed by facts[.]

I must say that I think you are being highly optimistic about human nature. Most people wouldn't know pure logic if it bit them on the behind.

Actually, having studied symbolic logic with some analytic philosophers, this may even be a good thing. The only thing that's a worse guide to morality than a superhero movie is pure logic!

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 04:49 PM

What I've never been able to wrap my mind around is why I can understand why many of these negative male stereotypes would be offensive to men...but I don't see men recognizing the vast number of negative female stereotypes we've lived with all our lives.

Umm, because women are closet conservatives, and men are closet liberals?

Eric Hines

*Diving behind the couch(*

Posted by: E Hines at June 15, 2012 04:56 PM

Cass:

The problem I have with this particular mode isn't that it shows women accomplishing things, or having ambitions, or being intelligent or capable or smart.

If being a hero means being an action hero -- if that's what our mythmaking says that a hero is -- then women can't be heroes. You're buying off on a concept that is poison in the long run. If this is how we define the heroic in our myths, either no or very-close-to-no women will ever be heroes.

That's unsatisfying to me. The one argument I've never made about it is the one you keep raising against me: that men 'find it insulting' or 'gnash their teeth.' The people who ought to find it insulting are women. I hear you saying 'I like that we can now imagine women being heroes too.' Well, yes; but you've accepted a standard that will exclude women from heroism in practical fact.

The closest thing I've seen to a portrayal of a female hero I found sastifying -- I say close because she's really an anti-hero, but with many heroic qualities -- is Gemma Teller from the TV show "Sons of Anarchy." There's a lot about that show that I find disappointing (I mentioned the other day the episode where, in one sequence, they defend their property emphatically; and in the next scene, are proclaiming how great it would be to be anarchists liberated from concepts like property.) But the portrayal of the female lead is very strong.

That's the kind of thing I'd like to see more of. Not superheroes -- male or female. Heroes.

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 05:03 PM

If we are trying to decide what happened, it's history. If we are looking to it for inspiration to guide us in shaping our own lives, it's myth.

So, if I read a factual, detailed accounting of [the defense of the Alamo] to understand the doings there, it's a history, but if I happen to derive inspiration--or read it for the purpose of deriving inspiration--from that accounting, it's a myth? That makes no sense to me.

I must say that I think you are being highly optimistic about human nature.

I am highly optimistic about human nature. It's how I can be, simultaneously, awed by how far we've come, socially, politically, technologically in the 8,000 years, or so, since we figured out how to grow grass and herd animals on purpose and utterly appalled that this is all the progress we've made socially, politically, technologically in those 8,000 years.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 15, 2012 05:10 PM

Yes, I can see that the concept doesn't make sense to you. That's why I think the word "myth" just means something different to you than it does to me.

Here's Tolkien on it:

[C.S.] Lewis recently wrote a most interesting essay (if published I don’t know) showing of what great value the ‘story-value’ was, as mental nourishment—of the whole Chr. story (NT especially). It was a defence of that kind of attitude which we tend to sneer at: the fainthearted that loses faith, but clings at least to the beauty of ‘the story’ as having some permanent value. His point was that they do still in that way get some nourishment and are not cut off wholly from the sap of life: for the beauty of the story while not necessarily a guarantee of its truth is a concomitant of it, and a fidelis is meant to draw nourishment from the beauty as well as the truth. (From letter ‘96 To Christopher Tolkien’, 109)

The beauty of the story of the Alamo, to use your example, is not opposed to its truth: it is a concomitant of the truth. The two things arise together, that is: because it is a true story of brave men standing against a superior force in a noble cause, it is beautiful.

Insofar as you are pondering the truth of the facts, your brain is doing history. When you are being inspired to shape your life by the beauty, though, that's your brain in the mythic mode.

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 05:23 PM

Or to put it another way, relevant here: if a thing is not true, it is less beautiful. Truth and beauty are finally, fundamentally joined. What I want from myth is truth and beauty. That is the kind of myth that, as Tolkien put it, provides us with nourishment.

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 05:48 PM

If being a hero means being an action hero -- if that's what our mythmaking says that a hero is -- then women can't be heroes. You're buying off on a concept that is poison in the long run. If this is how we define the heroic in our myths, either no or very-close-to-no women will ever be heroes.

Being a hero isn't limited to being an action hero. You may wish to so limit it but there's a long tradition of heroic types that aren't action heroes. But even if heroism were limited to action heroism, who cares how many women become heroes? That's not for you or me to decide. It's for them to attempt, and succeed or fail.

I honestly don't understand your apparent need to tell other people how their dreams and aspirations should be limited to suit your world view, Grim. I mentioned the 4 minute mile a while back. For years experts said that was a barrier human beings would never break...

...until suddenly, one person broke it. Another soon followed. We are limited as much by our own sense of what is possible or permissible as we are by our physical limitations.

Brian Chontosh (who I have written about, by the way) did what he did with a gun. He didn't bludgeon all those enemy soldiers to death with his bare hands. So there's really no reason (your unsupported arguments to the contrary) that a woman couldn't do what he did. Maybe someday a woman will. Maybe women already have and we just don't know about it. I have no problem conceding that men are more likely to do any/all of these things, but the hard fact of it is that women are boxing these days and doing other things I can't imagine wanting to do personally.

And that's just fine with me. You can try to wish that away or make arguments as to why they are "impossible" - moot arguments, since these things will either happen or not regardless of your or my opinion - but you ought to be able to explain (which you still have not done) why women shouldn't want - or be allowed to - make their own choices, regardless of whether you approve of them or not.

I doubt you would accept me telling you how to live your life, what you should aspire to, or what you are capable of. So it passes all understanding (and not in a good way) to see you suggesting that I or any other woman should accept what you would not tolerate for an instant.

Merely asserting your vision does not establish the truth of it.

Posted by: Cass at June 15, 2012 06:04 PM

I haven't said anything was impossible, Cass: in fact, I included the possibility that there might be some individual exceptions. I haven't argued that action heros are the only kind of heroes: in fact, I've been arguing directly against the view that we should define heroism in that way.

I haven't made any of these arguments you're charging me with: not that people should limit their vision, or that men are or should be insulted. You're fighting somebody with great passion, but it's not me.

What I'm talking about is myth and truth and beauty, and finding a way to honor women's true heroism without requiring them to be 'more like men.'

What I'm talking about is the health, the nourishment, that our youth can take from having such a vision presented: rather than presenting them with a model that is -- not impossible! -- but outside what is going to be natural for most people who ought to have visions of heroism toward which they can really strive.

There's nothing in what I've said that is about hurting or taking things away from anyone. What I want is to find something better.

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 06:16 PM

When you are being inspired to shape your life by the beauty, though, that's your brain in the mythic mode.

Sounds like you're saying a person can be inspired only by "heroic" tales--mere plebeian facts cannot inspire.

With this I disagree. Facts are far more inspiring to me, anyway, than stories--which is all a myth is (and which may lie at the heart of our two ideas of what myth is)--because these are actual things.

In particular, I'm just as inspired by the factual history of the Alamo that includes one or two or three of those men being captured and executed (if the newly developed information pans out) as I am by the earlier version of the history where every man died in his tracks, resisting to the last. That, if the new information is confirmed, becomes mere myth. And a very grand story, full of lessons to be learned, but mere myth, nonetheless.

Indeed, the updated history would carry another important lesson, unavailable to the myth: the often utter futility and waste of surrender.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 15, 2012 06:20 PM

Yes, that's the heart of the difference, Mr. Hines.

Since you are tracking your personal philosophy to Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau, you should probably reconsider another figure crucial to that tradition: David Hume. He was standing in opposition to the position you want to occupy, which is that you can be inspired by facts to moral actions.

This is the companion to Occam's Razor: Hume's Guillotine. Let me know what you think of it; it's a hard problem, and although my own answer is in opposition to Hume, the question he's raising (which is actually close to the objection Cass was raising in her last post) is a serious one.

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 06:28 PM

Why don't you let women decide how to be women, Grim?

You are assuming that when women aspire or contemplate a thing you think they should not want, or is somehow unnatural for them, they are doing it from a desire to be more like men or some kind of rejection of their essential nature (which you do not define for them).

But you can't know that any more than I know why on earth some young women want to box. The idea is utterly foreign to me, but it's their life and their dream. They are not harming anyone, and if they fail they won't be the first to do so. We're not so fragile as all that.

What I'm talking about is the health, the nourishment, that our youth can take from having such a vision presented: rather than presenting them with a model that is -- not impossible! -- but outside what is going to be natural for most people who ought to have visions of heroism toward which they can really strive.

I have pointed out over and over and over again that the male action hero is waaaay outside what is natural for most people. It can still be inspiring, though.

You haven't managed to name the harm you fear (unless you want to protect people from naively believing exaggeration action hero fantasies apply to real life, in which case you ought to find the male action hero figure just as harmful as it is just as unrealistic).

Posted by: Cass at June 15, 2012 06:34 PM

I did name one, Cass: scroll to "Ranger school". I've named quite a few over the several debates we've had; I don't think you're really hearing anything I'm saying.

I've taught several women to box, or do jujitsu; and several more to shoot and carry guns for self defense. I never told them they shouldn't do it. I never tried to decide 'how they should be women. '

And you've forgotten how severely you used to argue against my position that it was only for women to decide what was right for women. That was one of the arguments you won with me, long ago. You may even remember your counterargument: that if men refuse to try to engage with and correct women who are wrong, it's another way of not taking women seriously. 'How can you do business,' you asked me, 'with a woman if women can't be corrected by you when they're wrong? You'd just have to refuse: you could only do business with her husband, because he was the only one you could hold to account for the agreement.'

So, you know, I listened to you. You were right. Now I engage these questions, because you taught me that I have to.

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 06:48 PM

Also, if a woman who decides to box is not harming anyone? Send her to me. She needs a better trainer. :)

Posted by: Grim at June 15, 2012 06:59 PM

Let me know what you think of it

But this is "just" the general GUT problem: how do we get from the mysticism of multidimensional quantum physics where a thing simultaneously occupies multiple, mutually exclusive, states until we go look it, to the observed cosmos; how do we tie gravity into the physical universe; how do we get from God to the physical world and back--and how do we connect facts with moral imperative.

Of course this presupposes that such unifications are possible, but I can set that one aside by asserting I subscribe to the possibility. And I tacitly assert that the connection between fact and moral is bidirectional.

I will, indeed, dig into this.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 15, 2012 08:05 PM

Maybe we can write stories in which females can be heroic characters without being defined in by a masculine archetype. Maybe there's a way to be heroic that's essentially feminine.

This reminds me of that old Buddy Holley biopic with Gary Busey. Holley's father objects to his playing that "jungle music." Holley replies, "Well, now, how can it be jungle music if I wrote it?"

I'm a female. Whatever is essential to my nature is, by definition, feminine, regardless of what a man thinks of it.

Cassandra has often argued that women can do wrong, and that men, like all human beings, are entitled to call them on it. To say otherwise is to treat women as incompetent children. But to identify moral acts as right or wrong is a far cry from passing judgment on whether women are acceptably feminine.

Heroes are people who do the right thing against great odds and at great risk or cost to themselves. The odds, risks, and costs will vary not only with the danger but with the natural strengths and skills possessed by the human. A tall man is not a greater hero than a short man because he can strike higher in the air. He may well be a more effective combatant in that situation, but that's not the same thing at all. The short man may be a greater hero because he's fighting at a greater disadvantage, yet refuses to give up. A woman who bears a child at great risk to her own life is a heroine. The fact that a man by definition can never face the same challenge does not disqualify him from heroism.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 16, 2012 10:37 AM

T99:

I agree with everything you just said. Especially this:

Whatever is essential to my nature is, by definition, feminine, regardless of what a man thinks of it.

Getting at essential natures is what mythology is all about.

Posted by: Grim at June 16, 2012 11:40 AM

Pardon me. There is one exception to my agreement, which is this:

But to identify moral acts as right or wrong is a far cry from passing judgment on whether women are acceptably feminine.

I'm not sure that's true. At least in the reverse case, it is often true that whether a man is "acceptably masculine" is tied up tightly with whether he is morally straight or not. A guy who doesn't keep his word, for example, isn't just morally wrong: he's also failing one of the tests of manhood.

There's no obvious reason that femininity shouldn't be tied up with morality in much the same way. In fact, I think you have proven otherwise yourself. You said that everything that is essential to your nature is feminine. Not everything you do is essential to your nature, but one thing that plainly is essential is moral behavior. Thus, moral behavior in women is a part of the question of whether they are acceptably feminine, in just the same way that moral behavior in a man is a part of the question of whether they are acceptably masculine.

Posted by: Grim at June 16, 2012 12:02 PM

Whatever is essential to my nature is something that by definition cannot be un-feminine, but not everything that is essential to my nature is exclusively feminine. Men and women share a lot more basic nature than that. Word-keeping, for instance, is no more crucial to a man's masculinity than it is to a woman's femininity (isn't she at least supposed to be sexually faithful? -- even more so than the "masculine" man). Word-keeping is something that keeps a good human being from becoming a bad one, not a man from becoming a woman.

I can't think of any moral choices that hinge on gender, except to the extent that all moral choices are informed by what we are capable of doing. So a tall man has a moral duty to complete a task that he is tall enough to accomplish, for instance, just as a woman has a moral duty to maintain a safe womb by not drinking in excess during her pregnancy.

What a horrible idea of femininity it would be if the ability to keep one's word were irrelevant to it -- and yet it's essential to manhood? That's not a world view I can understand at all. Being feminine is more than just possessing the attributes that might fulfill a man's wishes. Imagine the awful definition of masculinity you could get if you consulted only what many women seem to look for in a man.

I agree that not everything we do is essential to our natures. Many modern conventional attributes of masculinity and femininity are superficial social constructs, not outgrowths of essential nature.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 16, 2012 01:47 PM

Right. Moral behavior is one of the things that falls at the core of what is essentially human: and, since humans are male or female, it must therefore inform the essential nature of masculinity and femininity.

Thus, I mean to say, it seems to me that critiquing someone's masculinity or femininity isn't that far removed from critiquing their morality: in fact, it's often the same thing. To say that someone who behaves unfaithfully is 'not much of a man' is a fair critique, and we have a strong interest in being able to make such criticisms: it's proper both for women to criticize men in this way, and for men to criticize men in this way.

As a society we are much touchier about criticizing women's femininity -- especially when men do it -- but I think that it's fair on the same terms. Both men and women have the same interest in upholding a notion of femininity that is built around the perfection of essential nature, including especially moral nature. Our partners are women, after all -- and not just our business partners, as Cassandra mentioned.

For a long time I wasn't willing to engage it, precisely because it seemed to make people so mad; and (although Cassandra's experience with me may seem to be a counterexample) I don't like to make women mad. I generally like women, and therefore I want them to be happy. But I have been convinced that it is necessary to take the issue seriously, and discuss it.

Now, I do want to raise an objection to your analogy to 'tallness' (which you've made in both recent posts). Tallness isn't part of your essential nature; tallness is an accident. It has consequences -- if I were a foot shorter I'd have had a very difficult life, and if I were a foot taller I'd have had an easier one. But tallness, like hair color, is part of your accidental nature. If you should shrink (as we do with age), it won't change who you are.

But not only people have essential natures: things have them as well. It is the essential nature of a table that you can set things on it; if you made a table that was sloped so that everything fell off, it wouldn't really be a table at all.

Your example of pregnancy is a good example of a kind of heroism that is essentially feminine. That men cannot express that kind of heroism does not mean that there isn't a heroism they can express; it just means that this particular expression is essentially feminine. There are other kinds of heroism that are not essentially masculine or feminine; but they may be accidentally so.

By the same token, roles have essential natures. Being a drag queen is (to say the least) not essential to masculinity. However, masculinity is essential to being a drag queen. Thus, the role -- oddly enough! -- proves to be essentially masculine, even though it has nothing to do with the essential nature of men that is the defining quality of masculinity.

I think the 'Black Widow' character, for example, is accidentally feminine even though the actress is essentially feminine. The character could be rebooted as male, in the same way that Green Lantern was rebooted as gay; the essential nature of the character is being a Russian spy with vast martial arts abilities. (Wonder Woman, by contrast, is essentially feminine: the character is built around femininity.)

Posted by: Grim at June 16, 2012 02:16 PM

I agree tallness is not essential to one's nature the way gender is; I mentioned it because it sheds light on what our duties are (as do all abilities), and therefore on what would constitute a heroic performance in light of circumstances. On the other hand, whether an individual is tall or short is no more a genetic accident than whether he/she is male or female. It's how the dice fall when the parents' genes combine. Height is a more superficial characteristic than gender, but not one that is either more or less subject to the laws of probability in conception.

I get the impression that you view our essential humanity as 100% divided into masculine and feminine. I see it differently. I think we are all human, with many traits held in common between men and women and many others that stem from our gender. So I wouldn't conclude, from the fact that morality is an essential part of being human, that any moral criticism is inherently a criticism of gender. Self-awareness is an essential part of being human, but I'd be surprised if anyone could make a case for its being particularly masculine or feminine, or for the lack of self-awareness as being more damaging to one gender than to another.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 16, 2012 07:37 PM

Self-awareness is an essential part of being human, but I'd be surprised if anyone could make a case for its being particularly masculine or feminine...

I think this article that we looked at some time ago makes a strong case for just that, actually: not only for self-awareness, but for all forms of awareness. In a real way, men and women live in different worlds. What we are aware of, and how we process it, is quite different.

If that is the case, then this is one case when our diversity really is a strength: at least, it is if we can communicate the difference to each other. If we can, we are able to gain a broader picture than either of us would have had alone. (Unhappily, often it seems like we can't.)

...any moral criticism is inherently a criticism of gender.

No, I don't agree. "Gender" pertains to those nonessential aspects you mentioned. It's not part of your essential nature whether you prefer to wear skirts or pants, high-heels or sneakers; therefore, femininity can't be a question of those issues, because they are nonessential. Gender relates to those things, which are not very interesting.

If I question your morality, though, I am questioning your worth as a woman. If I question a man's, I am questioning his worth as a man. That seems inescapable.

An aside: do you see the problem, from an artistic or mythic perspective, with having a character who is accidentally male or female? The problem is that sex is an essential characteristic for real people, but is often an accidental characteristic in certain imaginary or fictional characters. That's bad art: it fails to reflect the truth, and loses therefore the concomitant beauty. A good character, in myth or literature, should be essentially like a real person. That is why Shakespeare's characters are better than, say, Marvel comics'.

Posted by: Grim at June 16, 2012 09:18 PM

If I ask, what is most essential about what makes us human, it's always possible to take each possible answer and assert that it is a different subjective experience for men and women, and therefore they have nothing human in common -- as if every human trait from intelligence to piety to honesty to musical talent must come in an exclusive male or female version with no overlap. I think that flies in the face of many things that men and women obviously have in common: the ability to reason, the duty to do the right thing, the thirst for meaning, fear, desire, generosity, curiosity, the drive to excel. You can find trends in many of these traits that show distinctions between men and women as a group, particularly if you limit your research to a particular era, but it's the same sort of thing as finding a trend in which Asians have higher IQs than Caucasians. It's a statistical drift that doesn't mean that intelligence is an essential part of Asians and only a peripheral (or even absent) characteristic of Caucasians, only that you tend, on average, to find more of it in Asians. It doesn't make all Asians geniuses and all Caucasians morons. It doesn't even mean that there's a special "Asian intelligence" that can be distinguished from a "Caucasian intelligence."

As far as fictional characters go who are "accidentally" male or female in the sense that the author assigned their sex arbitrarily, it's a rule of fiction generally that arbitrary traits in characters make for bad art. We've all read stories in which a character is made to be a cop or a teacher, or a resident of Texas or New York, but the author is too clumsy or incurious to make us see how that trait works itself out in an individual. With bad artists like that, you get characters who are pushed around like chess pieces and never do anything inherently believable. It takes openminded observation of real people to get out of the trap. The art is equally clumsy whether the trait has no effect on the character's life, or the trait is a mechanical driver that pushes the character into a ironclad stereotype.

The trick is to see what's in front of us, not what we insist must be there. Uniform ideals make excellent guides to our own behavior, but they are terrible guides to finding out what the people around us are really like. It makes for bad human relations just as it makes for bad art. It's possible to project so strongly you lose the ability to receive.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 17, 2012 09:39 AM

...think that flies in the face of many things that men and women obviously have in common: the ability to reasonthink that flies in the face of many things that men and women obviously have in common: the ability to reason...

Reason is the other usual candidate for the essential nature of humanity. I tend to reject that for two reasons, one of which is that a person who loses the ability to reason (e.g., is in a coma) should not therefore lose the consideration as human.

But the main reason I don't reject it is one you already know, because you participated in the discussion. I think that horses and other higher animals must share the same order of reason with us; and therefore, reason cannot be the essential nature of humanity. Humanity must have another; and it seems to me that the most essential thing to us is our moral duty. Even more than our DNA, what makes you a person and not just an animal is your ability to comprehend a moral order and live by it.

"Asian intelligence" that can be distinguished from a "Caucasian intelligence."

I tend to think of ethnicity/race as an accident, but there are those -- like Joseph W. -- who take it to be essential. Although it's often culturally significant (like height), I'm not sure it changes who you are in any essential way.

However:

...it's always possible to take each possible answer and assert that it is a different subjective experience for men and women, and therefore they have nothing human in common -- as if every human trait from intelligence to piety to honesty to musical talent must come in an exclusive male or female version with no overlap. I think that flies in the face of many things that men and women obviously have in common...

I agree with Nicholas of Cusa on this point. He argued for a generally Platonic model, in which we participate in various forms. However, he said, it must be the case that each individual person has a form that is unique to them. Thus, you participate not only in the forms of animal, human, woman (as Plato himself might have said), but also the form of being you personally. There is an essence to you that is unique.

That leaves us with an answer to the problem you're raising. On the one hand, it really is the case that there's no overlap between us: there is a way in which you are essentially you and can never be me, and vice versa. On the other hand, I participate in the forms of animal, human, man and myself as well; and thus there is another sense in which there is overlap.

It's not a problem that there should be uncrossable distances between people: in fact, it's a good thing that there are. We don't want people to all think alike, because then we'd lose that strength that comes from having different perspectives on the same reality. Likewise, think of the horrors that have been wrought by people who decided to stop thinking for themselves as individuals, and join movements with ideologies that did their thinking for them. (This is Hannah Arendt's point). Furthermore, it is the source of your unique dignity that you have a perspective -- a seat with a unique view on reality that no one else can have -- that is yours alone. Only you get to see that particular part of it, and only you can tell us about it.

So, yes, there is a sense in which male and female do not overlap and are entirely separate. There is a further sense in which you are entirely separate from every other person who has ever lived, or who ever will. That's not a bad thing, though. I take it to be a very good thing.

Posted by: Grim at June 17, 2012 10:27 AM

I take men and women to be essentially different, without overlap, in exactly the sense that every individual is different from every other individual, without overlap. By that standard, there is an unbridgeable difference also between as Asian and a Caucasian, a tall man and a short one, a brunette and a blonde, or simply between any two people selected at random.

The question is whether there is something beyond the individual difference that can be ascribed to membership in a larger category. Broad, average differences between categories, certainly. Unbridgeable divides cutting across the entirety of human nature, which are attributable specifically to that category, unproven. I am not like any other woman. Nevertheless, I share characteristics with other women. I share other characteristics with both women and men. There is a tree trunk, and there are branches. I don't exist exclusively out on the end of the branches; part of my essential nature is in the trunk, too.

It doesn't have to be all one way or the other. We can be different in some ways and alike in others.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 17, 2012 11:05 AM

I think we are close to agreement, but you're tipping a little more toward the other end of the problem posed by my friend the liberal writer. She wants all differences to be accidents, of no real meaning; you want them all to be equally essential ("By that standard, there is an unbridgeable difference also between as Asian and a Caucasian, a tall man and a short one, a brunette and a blonde, or simply between any two people selected at random").

There is an unbridgeable, essential difference between any two people, in that they are each themselves and cannot be the other. But there are other differences that are essential, and others still that are accidental.

I take race to be accidental and sex to be essential in part from empirical evidence. For example, one of the military units I spent time advising in Iraq was heavily black, and so for a long time I spent every day all day surrounded by black men. In all that time, there was never a misunderstanding between us; we got along wonderfully well, which always helps, but in addition we could just see things in more or less the same way. They had a different cultural upbringing, a different set of assumptions, and to some degree a different language, but none of those things gave rise to misunderstandings.

On the other hand, the person I am closest to in the world -- and the one I have spent the longest time with, both in terms of actual minutes and in terms of length of relationship -- is my wife. She and I have misunderstandings all the time. We have a common history, shared experience, and have talked enough over many years to have a shared language: she knows how I use words, and what I mean by them.

Nevertheless, misunderstandings abound! We get by and are very happy with each other, but there we are. Her experience of the world and mine are simply different enough that we live in effectively different worlds. Except we don't, of course; and part of why I value her is that she helps me see a part of it to which I am naturally blind.

Posted by: Grim at June 17, 2012 06:11 PM

So many targets.

I thought of SGT Leigh Ann Hester, too.

I think the first female action character I became aware of was Honey West, the first on TV was Emma Peel, the first in comics was Modesty Blaze. Honey and Modesty have male sidekicks, Emma seems to be the hero in some, sidekick in others.

Heroism is a matter of will, not muscle.

Combat effectiveness ... the mind is the weapon. Most women do not train in any form of combat -- which I think is a forced error in our culture -- so they greatly handicap themselves. I feel a little bit sorry, in advance, for any mugger who takes on my T'ai Chi Ch'uan instructor (not the only art she teaches.) She might end the conflict by running away screaming, but I doubt her assailants would be pursuing her.

Myth ... is what we believe and teach.

Posted by: htom at June 17, 2012 09:16 PM

Oh, and I thought The Avengers was hilarious. It's a film of a comic book!

Posted by: htom at June 17, 2012 09:18 PM

Obviously a lot of people liked it! I'm out of order with the culture, to be sure. I just don't like that kind of film.

I feel a little bit sorry, in advance, for any mugger who takes on my T'ai Chi Ch'uan instructor (not the only art she teaches.)

I think that my wife would have a hard time shifting into the mental combat mode, under pressure, although she has trained for it; but if they made the mistake of letting her get there, I don't doubt that she would kill as many people as necessary to protect herself, or her family. I would certainly not hesitate to let her watch my back once she was in the right mental place.

But the point was never that women can't fight. The point was that we make a mistake if we define heroism in terms of defeating massive numbers of enemies. If the thing that feminism gets is female superheroes, or action heroes, it gets the right to pretend that women can be heroes too: but a world in which there are no (or very few) actual female heroes.

If instead we define heroism in other terms -- not in terms of will or muscle, but in terms of doing the right thing in spite of the danger -- then women can be seen as heroic as they are. Not just pretend heroes, and not just in the movies. We can see them for the real heroes that they often are.

Even the ones who won't fight at all. My mother is utterly opposed to violence. She's also steadfast, honest to the point of bluntness, a hard worker, and absolutely unwilling to endure a lie from anyone regardless of the consequences. She expresses all this in the manner of a Southern lady.

If we define heroism solely in terms of killing or hurting people, she's not heroic. But she really is.

Posted by: Grim at June 17, 2012 09:37 PM

No, no, I don't think all differences are trivial. I think that they fall along a spectrum rather than all being categorizable into either "hardly worth acknowledging" and "fundamental right down to the core of our being, so that there is practically no common ground." Most of them are in between. I think gender is far more important than race. I also think I have much more in common with a conscious man than a brain-dead woman, even though both retain their essential humanity, as you noted.

We're not using the word "accidental" in the same way. I think that whether a difference is essential has very little to do with whether you can ascribe its origin to the laws of probability affecting the material universe. You can ascribe all genetic traits to the laws of probability. Nevertheless, some are more important than others, so the "accidental" character of each one is not a helpful distinction. Sex is not more important than race because one is accidental and one is not. We need a better tool for evaluation.

Some traits are more fundamental to character and identity than others. But even the most fundamental differences between human beings leave a lot of room for shared essential traits. I think even you can imagine a group of men you'd have a harder time connecting with than you have with your wife -- they just wouldn't be a group of men who happen to share your vocation and your philosophy.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 18, 2012 08:42 AM

True, but I can also imagine a lot of women I'd have a harder time connecting with than my wife: in fact, she's the best case scenario for women, whereas the men were men I didn't know and with whom I had some obvious differences (although also, as you point out, some marked similarities).

I think a lot of the confusion in this debate has to do with language. Mr. Hines and I sorted out the difference on mythology some time ago; at least, we sorted out that we weren't using the word in the same sense.

In the case of "essential" and "accidental," I've been using them throughout in their old Aristotelian senses. Aristotle's system is pretty simple: everything that exists is either a thing or an attribute of a thing. Of attributes, some could be otherwise without changing the nature of the thing: for example, you could paint your table purpose, and the change would make no difference to what it was.

Some of these accidental things can be pretty important! If a man lost a hand or a leg, he doesn't cease to be the same man essentially -- even though it's a big loss.

The attributes that cannot be lost without changing the nature of the thing are essential. It is essential to a chair that it has the attribute of 'being able to be sat upon.' If it should break so that no one could sit on it anymore, its nature would have changed.

We're also using the word "gender" differently. I take "gender" to be the nonessential things that glom around the idea of what it means to be male or female. I take the essential things to belong to sex (which can be expressed as "femininity" or "masculinity" as we were doing before). Gender -- I think this is how the word is usually employed -- has to do with socially constructed roles. Sex has to do with the essential qualities. I think gender is not very important, but that sex is probably the single most marked and significant biological difference between people.

Posted by: Grim at June 18, 2012 10:13 AM

...the point was never that women can't fight. The point was that we make a mistake if we define heroism in terms of defeating massive numbers of enemies. If the thing that feminism gets is female superheroes, or action heroes, it gets the right to pretend that women can be heroes too: but a world in which there are no (or very few) actual female heroes.

Who is doing that, though? The presence of one type of hero doesn't preclude the existence of others. It's simply one "flavor", and various flavors may be more or less popular in culture or art during different times or in different genres.

Posted by: Cass at June 18, 2012 10:39 AM

On a more prosaic note, do we really want to police or limit "the right to pretend", and if so on what basis would we do so?

Why the concern over feminists (who, last time I checked, are not the ones making these movies) getting to pretend things that aren't "real" enough? Isn't that part of the point of pretending?

In what other venues should we be concerned about what people pretend? (porn? child porn made with computer generated images? video games? movies? books?). I can't think of a single historical instance where people have journeyed to the center of the earth either, yet generations of humans have enjoyed reading pretend stories about such exploits in a world were few (or no) actual journeys of that type exist.

If women were able to fight and (with guns, as men do these days) defeat many opponents, would they cease to be women? What essential characteristic of femininity would be lost?

Posted by: Cass at June 18, 2012 11:09 AM

What essential characteristic of femininity would be lost?

Umm, motherhood. At least according to a fellow junior officer in my SOS class all those years ago. At the time, women were just being allowed into missile silos as missile officers. Much of the hue and cry centered on the BS of "How dare you let that hussy into a hole alone with my husband!?" However, this officer's objection was that women are the mothers of humanity, and he objected to them playing a role in the destruction of humanity.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 18, 2012 11:32 AM

Not feminists, feminism. What feminism seems to have accomplished in terms of rethinking what you were calling 'outdated gender stereotypes' is that now female characters in children's movies are portrayed as action heroes. The point I was trying to make is that this is something of a pyrrhic victory: it 'shows women as capable,' but only insofar as they act in stereotypically male ways.

Maybe the source of some of the confusion -- I'm guessing from the way you phrased your question -- is over whose attribute the 'essential masculinity' happens to be. It's the attribute of the type of role ('action hero'), not the person. Things as well as people have attributes; the other example of a role that was essentially masculine on offer is 'being a drag queen.' It's not that it's a role that has much to do with what is essentially masculine -- in fact, a man who does it is intentionally losing a lot of the qualities associated with masculinity -- but that the role itself is based around the idea of masculinity.

Could a woman be a drag queen? Yes, but only if she first convinced you that she was a man; and then convinced you that she was a man dressing as a woman. So yeah, it could be done; but the role is nevertheless essentially masculine.

So nobody's saying -- certainly I'm not saying -- that women shouldn't fight or can't fight. What I'm saying is that the lesson being taught isn't the right lesson. If the right to be taken seriously and respected is built around essentially masculine roles -- even if women can sometimes perform those roles -- you're losing more than you're winning.

Every time this model is reinforced, we're teaching children the lesson that only traditionally male roles are really worthy of respect. (A good example of this lesson having been fully learned? This article against Ann Romney, which baldly asserts that nobody who doesn't earn their living outside the home is worthy of respect; in fact, it asserts they aren't "adults" at all. That's a great lesson to teach about how we think of mothers who choose to raise their children full time.)

The lesson for the boys is that girls who can hang with them in shooting guns or bows, or swordfighting, or going to Ranger school -- those are girls to be taken seriously. The ones who are "girly"? They're nobody.

(I put aside the danger of teaching boys that it's OK to physically fight with girls, the opposite lesson being one that I have strongly reinforced as a father. Domestic violence has claimed over 11,000 American women since 2001, which is more than the total number of Americans lost in both the wars we've been fighting since then. This is a pretty serious issue too, but it's to the side; still, for what it's worth, I believe that we have a strong interest as a society in reinforcing a clear norm against men using violence against women. That has to start with a norm against boys using violence against girls.)

Posted by: Grim at June 18, 2012 11:48 AM

In what other venues should we be concerned about what people pretend? [P]orn?

What do you mean by 'concerned with'? If you mean legal controls, I'm not proposing that. If you mean developing principles to critique 'what people pretend,' i.e. art and literature, I'd say we ought to be concerned with all of it. Art, in its various forms, either is or is not connected to the true and the beautiful; and it's of interest to us, as Tolkien says.

We just discussed a critical system for porn the other day, for example, based around the principle of a scale from what nourishes (as Chaucer's erotica), down the scale to that which harms an actual individual person. That seems like a useful exercise.

Actually, this kind of movie seems to have an analogue on that scale, now that I think about it. To the degree that a movie is just playful fun for adults that doesn't affect society (like Kill Bill), it's somewhere to the good end of the scale: not Chaucer! But like the playful erotica between partners.

If T99 is right that these movies are about a kind of 'sweet mental revenge,' then they fall about the middle of the scale: about where that book on BDSM did. If it's about dealing with a psychological upset that comes from day to day life, then it's about getting by while doing your duty; a minor good, but not a great good.

If on the other hand it's actively causing harm by encouraging children to view 'girly' things as inferior, or encouraging the breakdown of the norm against boys using violence on girls, then it's more to the negative end of the scale. Strong criticism is warranted.

Posted by: Grim at June 18, 2012 12:52 PM

Eric, I can't quite go along with the argument that women shouldn't be engaged in violence because it's inconsistent with motherhood. Is fighting inconsistent with fatherhood? What has raising one's own children got to do with physically opposing one's dangerous enemies, for either mothers or fathers? If I object that men are the fathers of humanity, and therefore I object to their playing a role in the destruction of humanity, should any man forswear violence in obedience to my notions of fatherhood? If serving in a nuclear army is inconsistent with contributing to the conception and raising of the next generation, then neither men nor women should agree to have anything to do with it.

Any woman who doesn't think she can be a good mother while engaging in too violent a profession will have to make a choice. Outsiders need not apply for control of that choice.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 18, 2012 01:06 PM

If the right to be taken seriously and respected is built around essentially masculine roles -- even if women can sometimes perform those roles -- you're losing more than you're winning.

Grim, the formulation that showing girls/women fighting and defeating men in battle somehow necessarily teaches that only traditional male behavior is valuable is one that doesn't logically follow.

If I show a man caring lovingly for a small child, that doesn't teach that more traditional male pursuits (sports, competition, war) are no longer worthy of respect or emulation.

You just can't get there from here.

If I likewise show women successfully fighting (and even defeating) men, it doesn't logically follow that motherhood is no longer a worthy avocation. There are other movies about mothers; they're just not *this* kind of movie (nor do action film fans generally want to see that sort of thing, any more than rom-com or chick flick viewers want to see exploding trucks or women - or men, for that matter! - engaged in hand to hand combat).

Posted by: Cass at June 18, 2012 01:11 PM

Eric, I can't quite go along with the argument that women shouldn't be engaged in violence because it's inconsistent with motherhood. Is fighting inconsistent with fatherhood? What has raising one's own children got to do with physically opposing one's dangerous enemies, for either mothers or fathers?

I think perhaps Eric posted that tongue in cheek, though it remains a good question. Whatever happened to the stereotype of mothers being willing to fight to the death to defend their young?

Posted by: Cass at June 18, 2012 01:13 PM

What feminism seems to have accomplished in terms of rethinking what you were calling 'outdated gender stereotypes' is that now female characters in children's movies are portrayed as action heroes. The point I was trying to make is that this is something of a pyrrhic victory: it 'shows women as capable,' but only insofar as they act in stereotypically male ways.

No, it doesn't. It just shows women asserting themselves or exercising power in ONE way. That doesn't mean there are no others.

Posted by: Cass at June 18, 2012 01:15 PM

Grim, is it really a current problem that boys are being led to consider girly things inferior? When in the history of human culture did most people (and virtually all males) not view girly things as inferior? (Good enough for girls, but humiliating for boys -- the exact opposite of girls encroaching on male prerogatives, which is uppity.)

What's more, why would boys be more likely to look down on girly stuff just because some girls elected to participate in things that boys historically have enjoyed and monopolized? Why wouldn't the boys just find the few girls who liked girly things all the more attractive, and their unique girly pursuits all the more enticing or admirable? That is, other than in the context of a culture that never thought much of those exclusively girly pursuits in the first place. (Whatever they are; are we talking about tea parties? Barbie dolls?)

What do you suppose would happen if boys started doing girly things? Would girls start to view traditionally male activities as more inferior than they already were inclined to do? What would it matter if they did?

I hear you about how you use the word "gender." I acknowledge it when you're speaking, and understand what you mean. I use it to use pretty much the same thing you mean by "sex," as a shorthand for "the distinction between male and female," whether I'm referring to essential differences or superficial fashion.

Posted by: Texan99 at June 18, 2012 01:25 PM

...I can't quite go along with the argument that women shouldn't be engaged in violence because it's inconsistent with motherhood.

You're preaching to the choir, Ma'am. There were about about a dozen of us in that class, including two women. The women were second down this man's throat; he was alone in the view.

Eric posted that tongue in cheek....

Unfortunately, it wasn't tongue in cheek--this man actually believed that. He was very uncomfortable in our SOS class, with two women in it--one of whom had very obviously just given birth.

...mothers being willing to fight to the death to defend their young....

But, but--animals do that. Women are humans.

Cue Bill the Cat.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 18, 2012 01:29 PM

I remember a fellow I knew in college who was very taken with my roommate. He used to lecture us both about how the role of women was to maintain a serene cultural oasis in the home while the man went out in the world and got dirty. But then, he never really found himself in the working world, and to this day can't stay married, while my roommate became a doctor and has raised two sons with her husband of 30 years.

Even at the time, the 70s, it was a very jarring philosophy to hear. I thought people talked like that only in old movies; I wasn't used to having men advise me what women should confine themselves to. Not that I wouldn't have been happy for him if he'd found the woman of his dreams, but he seemed to spend all his time courting women who were studying to be professionals in the same college he attended. Cognitive dissonance. It's a terrible thing to be drawn, as a moth to a flame, to just the kind of mate who shares absolutely no part of your views about what makes an ideal member of your mate's gender (that's sex, to you, Grim).

Posted by: Texan99 at June 18, 2012 02:01 PM

I must have been raised wrong.


No, I wasn't.


If someone is better than I am at X, then I can learn -- or at least attempt to learn -- from them how to be better at X, whether X is archery, gum paste flower making, or almost anything else in the line of human endeavors. There are some things I'll never be able to do (giving birth to a human child the first that comes to mind) but these are few and everyone has some of them.


The concept of Hero has become corrupted in our society. It is not killing more that makes you heroic -- it might make you only a mass murderer. Reaching back in to comic book history, in one branch of the Iron Man tales, Pepper Potts becomes a superhero ("Rescue" IIRC), with her own Iron Man like suit, but it has no weapons. Well, no offensive armaments. I thought that was silly. But then, it was a comic book.


Posted by: htom at June 18, 2012 02:12 PM

Tex,

...(that's sex, to you, Grim).

I think that's actually gender to me. He's talking about a social role he wants women to fill, rather than arguing about the nature of woman as such. (Mr. Hines' fellow officer is making a sex-based argument, though: that there is something about the feminine that is or ought to be essentially incompatible with nuclear war. That strikes me as wrong, even mythically; there are many examples of death goddesses in mythology, and very often they are the 'other aspect' of the fertility goddess.)

When you say that boys disdain things that girls do, my experience differs from yours. Although to some degree we have the same experience here: when you post about the more 'girly' things you are interested in at Grim's Hall, like needlepoint, the response is never disdain for such things. It's always -- I think it's fair to say -- respect for craftsmanship and the hard work you are investing in them. Of course, those are men and women and not boys and girls who are reading the Hall; but my son is always curious about his mother's artwork, and his grandmother's. Neither his father nor his grandfather have an artistic bone in their body. Nevertheless, the fact that women are the ones doing the art doesn't make him less interested in art, not at all.

Cass,

I have a feeling that you and I aren't getting each other's points for some reason. Your counterarguments suggest that you don't see any value in the position you think I'm arguing, which seems odd to me because many of the things I believe here are things I learned to believe from talking with you; and the arguments you are raising often don't seem to me to be attacks on the position I think that I'm trying to advocate. It's possible that I've done a terrible job explaining what I mean, but it may also be that there is some underlying assumption(s) that differ between us, leading us to wildly different interpretations of what is being said here.

Since this is about the fourth time we've gone around on this subject, and we've been going around this time for several days, I propose we take a break and try again later.

This Brave movie is coming out soon; after we've had a chance to see it, it might provide us with the insight we need to understand where our assumptions differ. What do you say to shaking hands for now, and reconvening once we've had a chance to see the movie?

Posted by: Grim at June 18, 2012 03:37 PM

...at Grim's Hall, like needlepoint, the response is never disdain for such things.

But that's a highly select audience, Grim. I've known many men who would look at T99's needlepoint and take one of several positions, for instance:

1) neat artwork
2) neat engineering work; how do you do that
3) OK....

and 4) with respect to any or all three: me do that? That's women's work, it would be unmanly for me to do that.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 18, 2012 04:06 PM

Mr. Hines' fellow officer is making a sex-based argument, though: that there is something about the feminine that is or ought to be essentially incompatible with nuclear war. That strikes me as wrong, even mythically; there are many examples of death goddesses in mythology....

He was making no distinction--whether there might be one logically or not--between the proper role for a woman and the essential nature of the gender. Moreover, the goddess argument would have been lost on him: those weren't Christian, and so they would have been wholly irrelevant.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at June 18, 2012 04:11 PM

When you say that boys disdain things that girls do, my experience differs from yours. Although to some degree we have the same experience here: when you post about the more 'girly' things you are interested in at Grim's Hall, like needlepoint, the response is never disdain for such things.

That's true, but then I think what T99 is referring to is that many if not most boys/men are fine with seeing a women do needlepoint. But they disdain a man who does needlepoint: he is doing something "womanly" (and lesser, and unmanly). Even men who I don't think of as sexist have this attitude - it is shameful or unmanly for men do anything traditionally associated with women. Something like woman cooties, catching.

When I was in JHS there was this huge black guy (football player, very tough) at the summer camp I attended. He liked to knit. The only reason he got away with it was that he was so big the other guys were scared to make fun of him. A small guy would have been mocked within an inch of his life.

Your counterarguments suggest that you don't see any value in the position you think I'm arguing, which seems odd to me because many of the things I believe here are things I learned to believe from talking with you; and the arguments you are raising often don't seem to me to be attacks on the position I think that I'm trying to advocate.

Well, it's definitely true that I still don't understand the position you're trying to advocate :)

You seem to be saying that if people fantasize or pretend that [even some minority of] women can do things they haven't historically done in real life, that is harmful. Specifically, you have argued that watching women succeed at traditionally masculine pursuits somehow precludes people from admiring women for succeeding at more traditionally feminine tasks.

I don't see that, logically. It might be true because people can be irrational, but I don't see why admiring a female boxer (for instance) should erode my respect for a woman who chooses to be a good mother or an expert knitter. They are completely different questions.

Embedded in this line of reasoning seems to be the assumption that traditionally male pursuits are more admirable in and of themselves, so that if women are seen to be good at them, our more "natural/traditional" talents will seem poor by comparison, yet I have no particular admiration for men who fight a lot. If they fight well and for a good cause, great. But I don't see that as any more glorious or praiseworthy than a lot of other things a man (or woman) might do with his or her life. I don't see physical courage as better than moral courage, for instance. In fact, I tend to admire the latter more than the former.

But that's a traditionally female mindset, I admit!

Posted by: Cass at June 18, 2012 04:14 PM

Oops - hit post too soon.

I am enjoying the conversation but if it's growing old for you I'm perfectly happy to defer it.

Either way, I should hate to hang the larger issue on a single cartoon that may or may not even make sense (though it would certainly give us a concrete example to discuss).

Posted by: Cass at June 18, 2012 04:19 PM

Specifically, you have argued that watching women succeed at traditionally masculine pursuits somehow precludes people from admiring women for succeeding at more traditionally feminine tasks.

Right, that's the problem I'm having. I don't think I've said that. :)

Watching a woman succeed at something challenging is not harmful, and doesn't preclude anything. When we're talking about actual people who want to undertake actual activities, I'm right there encouraging women to try whatever they want. There is a very limited, specific exception for certain military activities from a 'good of the force' perspective only: and only because military prowess is what creates and maintains the space in which all this liberty exists. It's a unique exception -- I don't apply it even to police forces, say -- and even there, I think I am more willing for women to serve in a larger number of roles than you have ordinarily advocated.

What I'm talking about -- all I'm talking about -- is the construction of myths. I think there's a danger that we, in our myths that we craft that target children, are creating equality simply by writing female characters exactly the way we used to write male characters. In doing so, we seem to be holding up physical prowess and combat-oriented heroism as the only road to being the hero of this kind of myth. Just as you say, that leaves out a lot that we might more rightly value: and which many girls may more likely value. We're leaving them out, and we're teaching the boys not to value them if they aren't the fighting kind of girls. (Not that I don't like fighting kinds of girls; I married one! But I like other kinds too, and our myths should be constructed to value them if they are good people.)

I take your point that this is only one kind of movie, but it's the kind that kids are most focused on, and where mythmaking is most likely to affect them. (That and holiday movies, which are another subject much in need of criticism; from what I've seen, the newer holiday films are less about the meaning of Christmas and more about elves skydiving in formation.)

Anyway, I don't wish to beleaguer you by saying the same thing over and over. I think the last time we had a misunderstanding like this, it turned out that you were thinking a lot about some columns by James Taranto that were similar in a few points to an argument I was making, but that was very much different in form and focus from the argument I was really making. I hadn't been aware that he was a party to the conversation, and I just couldn't figure out why you kept responding to me as if I were arguing in that way! :)

Posted by: Grim at June 18, 2012 05:01 PM

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