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Love in a Time of Feminism

by Conor Friedersdorf

Kay S. Hymowitz writes that "the dating and mating scene is in chaos. SYMs of the postfeminist era are moving around in a Babel of miscues, cross-purposes, and half-conscious, contradictory female expectations that are alternately proudly egalitarian and coyly traditional." For example, "The cultural muddle is at its greatest when the dinner check arrives. The question of who grabs it is a subject of endless discussion on the hundreds of Internet dating sites."

The horror! If only all women approached dating in exactly the same way, their every behavior conforming to a rigid society-wide consensus. But wait. I have my own preferences about the social norms that go along with dating. What if the rigid norms adopted for the sake of consistency didn't happen to align with them? It's almost as if women and men benefit from a more dynamic dating scene where people conducting themselves basically as they see fit search out other people who share the same preferences. "Does dinner and a movie sound like an awful first date to you too? Great, let's get a drink and revel at living during an era when protocol doesn't dictate that we experience that hell -- never mind walking down country lanes with our respective families following 10 paces behind us -- every time we want to meet someone new!" 

One thread running through Ms. Hymowitz's piece is that confusion in the dating and mating world is due in part to feminism. That is a subject that the blogosphere isn't very good at discussing in measured tones (though there are exceptions). What I expect is that one kind of very angry person will argue that obviously feminism has RUINED EVERYTHING, whereas another kind of angry person will reply that how DARE you say that feminism has had ANY bad consequences. (If you aren't the kind of writer who routinely uses all caps I am not talking about you.) 

What a pleasure to instead see a response by Will Wilkinson, whose intelligence and clarity I just marvel at sometimes. He writes:

...the phenomenon Hymowitz describes is real enough. Rapid social change inevitably makes it harder to coordinate expectations. If it is a change worth having, then the pains of adjustment are worth it. Period. That doesn’t mean those pains are unimportant. Guys do suffer uncertainty about whether or not to open doors or pick up checks. It really can be frustrating for the sensitive guy to find out he’d be more generally attractive if he learned to be a bit more of a dick.

But annoyances and disappointments suffered in the process of realizing fundamental conditions of a decent society don’t call into question the desirability of those conditions. All this vexation is a very, very small price to pay for equality. For men, it is a very, very small price to pay for the opportunity to share a life with a peer, a full partner, rather than with a woman limited by convention and straitened opportunity to a more circumscribed and subordinate role in life. Sexual equality has created the possibility of greater exactness and complementarity in matching women to men. That is, in my book, a huge gain to men. But equality does raise expectations for love and marriage. The prospect of finding a true partner, rather than someone to satisfactorily perform the generic role of husband or wife, leaves many of us single and searching for a good long time. But this isn’t about delaying adulthood, it’s about meeting higher standards for what marriage and family should be.

Mr. Wilkinson goes on to write that the City Journal piece "gives too small a part to resentment at the loss of male privilege." I'd be interested in engaging that point, but I must confess that I don't quite know what he means when he uses the shorthand "male privilege," a term thrown around a lot in these kinds of conversations, but that I suspect to be so vague that it muddles rather than clarifies what it is any particular writer means by it. (In the post collegiate residential programming era the rhetorical scene is in chaos!)

Before concluding I want to note how awesome I find it that the same blog post can contain a passage like the excerpt quoted above, which expresses my own intuitions better than I thought to do, and that also contains a passage like the one I'm about to quote, which is quite foreign to my own experience:

Without even knowing what or why it was, I was heavily influenced by gay culture, which provided me, and many other straight young men, a wide variety of templates for manhood that are at once unmistakably masculine, playfully ironic, aesthetic, emotionally open, and happily sexual. You can be manly and care about shoes!!! I’ll confess that I used to periodically regret my heterosexuality because there seemed to be greater scope for constructing a distinctive and satisfying male identity within gay culture. I think that’s telling. And the virulent homophobia that remains in most American dude subcultures has cut most young men off from the possibility of modeling their manhood after any of the delightful variety of types available to the homophile. And that really doesn’t leave them with much to work with. Most Americans these days seem happy enough to see women succeed as high-achieving go-getters. And who doesn’t love Tim Gunn? But most of us have not yet given up on oppressively restrictive, strongly normative conceptions of hetero masculinity. That, I submit, is what stands in the way of a real, um … renaissance for men.

My take on all that is the subject for another post.