Let me start off with a modest few lines I wrote earlier this month.
Man is strong, woman is weak.
His strength hides his weakness.
Her weakness conceals her strength.
In discovering his weakness he can acquire a new hidden strength.
In uncovering her strength she can find herself secretly weak.
Power and powerlessness are two dance partners. With each movement one leaves room for the other. Back and forth, they come and go, within oneself and between us both.
Being Mexican-American provides me with two different contrasting concepts and guidelines on how to think of men, women and their interactions. The underlying tensions between them have always been there in retrospect, but having a girlfriend has amplified the impact to the point where I need a more complex understanding that synthesizes those views. When we go out, should I pick up the tab? If we were to get married, should she focus on motherhood while I provide? If we were on the Titanic, should she have the undisputed right to get on one of the boats over me? Both of us wanting to avoid going through a divorce in our lives, wonder, men and women, how do we complement each other from biology to personality, from parenting to religion?
I have been told by Americans that my views are sexist because in reality, being a gentleman the way Mexico has taught me, is really benevolent sexism: my idea of taking care of women implies that they are weak and inferior and need a man to do even the simplest things for her. Simultaneously, Mexican friends of mine have joked that I will never find a woman, because my idea that women can and should be independent stops me from treating them with the respect, care and devotion that women desire and deserve. America tells my gender is mostly socially constructed and that we are equal. Mexico tells me not to confuse equality with identity, or to quote Bono, “we’re one, but we’re not the same”.
Feminine and masculine elements
We all know the opposite characteristics attributed to men and women: emotional vs rational, gentle vs strong, active vs passive, etc. While there is a disagreement of degree, most people would agree that men and women are different by nature. A look at any sexual animal species, even insects, will reveal that over thousands of years, each sex has developed different bodies, different brains, and different roles. Both sides, in their own way serve the purpose of furthering the species.
The needs of species change over time, especially in the case of humanity which is constantly transforming its environment. Thus, evolution follows suit and adapts us to our new needs. However, the evolution of humanity has gone beyond biology into culture. Over thousands of years we have remained quite the same biologically speaking, but culturally, things only a few centuries old make us realize that it is as if our ancestors from back then were very different, and so was their world.
Right until the emergence of civilization, we all know the cliché, female humans would stay and take care of the tribe and children while male humans would go out to hunt for food. It’s basic economics: division of labor and task specialization. It’s hard to argue that this difference between men and women was culturally created, because there was little or no symbolic culture yet or that somehow this was unfair for either party. Eventually we would learn how to use fire, agriculture and raise livestock. This greater security of basic needs brought about stability, extra time and energy which we would direct towards longer-term goals. The greater permanence of our lives, food, homes and relationships gave rise to what we know call culture or civilization. We began to develop more complex ways to understand and express things to reflect our need to plan for the future and to deal with things that went beyond the immediate “food”, “danger”, “sex”. Our use of more powerful language and numbers emerged.
At first, culture probably wasn’t too different. Great stability probably meant more kids to take care of and a permanent house that would now need constant attention. A larger home and family meant a greater need to provide, not to mention providing protection against a new danger: not predators, but other men who might come along, now that they weren’t as busy chasing after food and might want to steal resources or even people. But culture continued to evolve.
Eventually, a time would come when there was enough security that an elite group had secured enough resources to dedicate themselves to leisure. Up to this point, there was no real distinction between performing one’s duty, worshipping the divine to ask for prosperity and other needs, understanding and explaining occurrences. Work, religion, mythology, science, philosophy were all part of the same thing. This elite group’s standing was originally based on physical power. They could force others to take care of their needs. This would free them from most work, giving them much more time to be able to stop and think. These aristocrats could then focus on understanding their reality, not surprisingly, adding content to their mythological explanations which would justify and explain their superior status. Not all of it was negative however, for mythology and magical thinking did have an important role in providing support to the lives of the lower classes as well as being ‘primitive’ forms of what today we call medicine, literature, religion, philosophy, architecture, art and science. These are becoming increasingly abstract ways of dealing with the world. In neuroscience, this means that the frontal cortex and left-hemisphere of the brain were gaining increasing importance.
Although this an oversimplication, the left brain is where more masculine traits are located: abstraction, mathematics, logic, reason, linearity, sequence, analysis. The right hemisphere, more feminine concentrates intuition, holistic thought, non-linearity, art, emotion, randomness and multi-tasking. Western civilization is often perceived within itself as being sexist. If we look at what is often considered the foundation of Western Civilization (legal system, science, technology and more) is Greek philosophy, especially Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Compare these thinkers with the specialized halves of the brain and we can see clearly that they match up with the left hemisphere (i.e. more masculine traits). Although it would seem that their opposition to ‘might is right’ would be progress for women, in reality, this locating of the masculine traits (not physical, but mental/symbolic capacities) as the center, was anything but progress. The removed force from the throne of culture and put reason in its place. They even drove it into the very nature of the universe itself, positing Logos or the cosmic law/reason as the underlying most valuable truth. And from this, the most beautiful and terrible fruits of Western Civilization arise.
Reason, logic, mathematics chop up the universe into patterns, letting us isolate parts of it. The left brain seemed to offer the promise to understand the rational laws of God, our reason being created in his image (or that of his mind). The greatest moments were probably the discovery of Newton’s physics (the emergence of science as we know it) and the Industrial Revolution (the emergence of technology as we know it). The world started seaming less like a mystical, magical, intuitive, living, creative place and more of a machine that was determined by calculations that we could analyze. Any opposition to science and technology was and still is greatly seen as romanticizing the brutal nature of primitive life in the wild and advocating a return to an era of superstition. Non-Western cultures were brutally killed, raped and submitted because they were lower down on the chain of reason. Women, children and animals became inferior creatures for their lesser capacity to grasp the rules of the world. Artists and the spiritual, creativity took a backseat due to their lessened importance. Plato went so far he kicked the poets out of his ideal city and banned laughter and placed an intellectual-rational ‘Platonic’ love as the highest of them all.
It is not that the left hemisphere is inferior to the right hemisphere. A well-balanced brain strongly integrates both halves via the corpus callosum that lies between them. In Western Civilization, however, the left hemisphere has reached oppressive proportions. The left hemisphere has become so important that science seems to have become a religion of its own. Perhaps the greatest diagnosis came from a man who lived even before psychology: Friedrich Nietzsche. He saw the world as an interaction between to opposite forces, which he named Apollo and Dionysus after the Greek gods. Apollo included the stoic, reason, thought, order, restraint, the male, hierarchy, science, systems and civilization. Dionysus, the hedonistic, emotion, feeling, chaos, excess, the female, equality, art, spontaneity, and nature. Notice how left-brained Apollo is and how right-brained Dionysus. He went on to analyze how the world had become so unbalanced because of the dominance of Apollo and predicted the arrival of nihilism. He considered nihilism a time when everything that guided us would be lost, meaning and truth would be gone and we would be reduced to a life without direction or purpose. Today reason has destroyed the power of narratives that used to guide us, be it religion, nationalism, ideology. Reason denied any alternative attempts to explain the world and to live it. Having torn down everything in its path it tried to position itself as the center. It declared the eternal left-brained triumph over the primitiveness of the right brain. Once again the privileging of the masculine. Hegel, Marx, Hitler and the imperialism of Europe and the United States saw the world as the unfolding and unavoidable progress of the reason, wiping out anything that fell behind or got in its path. The catastrophic state after World War II and the failure of the communist utopias blew apart the blind faith in reason. The nihilism Nietzsche had predicted finally came. The left-brain had sent the right brain away and now that it had fallen from the top of its pride, civilization was left with no faith in faith and barely any faith in reason.
Deprived of any guiding theories or worldviews, we no longer cared for or really believed in any religion or any cause greater than ourselves. Life became about utilizing science and power for our own personal enjoyment. We no longer believe in any grand truths. We are left in an existential vacuum which we avoid recognizing is there. We have placed our own personal mortal lives at the center of everything. And here is where feminism came along. Women, came to want their own lives to be the center too. There was no longer any reason to put up with the role society had given her. Society at this point has placed her in a secondary and inferior role because she couldn’t reason like man. But she no longer believed in society anymore. The collapse of the masculine reason gave her motives to no longer put up with this tyranny. Progressively she gained more and increasingly similar rights to the ones the Enlightenment had given man. Notice how left-brained the enlightenment was! She gained the right to vote and freedoms her ancestors would never have even dreamt of. Basically, she gained the right to exercise her left brain.
However, biologically, women are inclined to develop the right brain over the left brain. Her strengths are not the same as man’s. This is why despite years of fighting for women’s rights, the progress obtained seems to be follow the law of diminishing returns. It is here that I would like to introduce the Jungian archetypes of the anima and the animus.
“The whole nature of man presupposes woman, both physically and spiritually. His system is tuned into woman from the start, just as it is prepared for a quite definite world where there is water, light, air, salt, carbohydrates etc.”
Jung declares that the anima is the female side that lives within men. The animus, is the male side that lives within women. In his theory of psychological development an individual must develop and acquire part of the opposite sex with in him or her. Men must develop a sensitive side and women must develop a strong side, while maintaining the characteristics of their own sex. In this way they incorporate part of the nature of the other sex, creating not only an internal balance, but also a balance in their relationships. Take a romantic couple. If the man has an understanding and appreciation for the feminine side of his life and the woman of the masculine side of her life their unity and communication becomes much more powerful. It is as if they had part of the other within themselves and part of themselves was inside their partner.
In Jungian terms, I believe that our Western preference for the male side has left men as men and driven women to aspire to become more masculine than is necessary. I believe the first stages of feminism allowed women to develop their animus, but as the masculine bias continues at heart of society, women have neglected the feminine side themselves. Men on the other hand have also been driven to be masculine, at the price of not being encouraged or capable to develop their feminine side, their anima. In the circle of yin and yang above, both halves have a disproportionate amount of white and not enough black.
I claim that, in a paradoxical way, feminism by not going far enough, went too far. It has reached the point where it has become obsessed about masculinizing women to the point where everybody seems masculine. I propose that a new radical feminism or even a men’s movement would seek to restore that feminine element to society, both in men and women, restoring the balance.
I have a few words I would like to share from feminist Rosie Boycott.
“Because today, while we all applaud a woman who enters a man’s world and succeeds, no such plaudits are afforded to the man who strays too far into the world traditionally thought of as female.”
“What has actually happened, it seems to me, is that society, far from being feminised, has in fact been made more masculine, as both men and women fight to claim the ground that was once the preserve of men – that of high-flying, well-paid careers and glamorous lifestyles.”
“In part, I think, this is the fault of a government which, unlike its equivalent in Scandinavian countries, has never made childcare a priority.
But it is also a product of a society which values financial status over and above the more mundane requirements of providing happy and stable homes in which children can be nurtured.”
While it may seem trivial or perhaps an interesting point on personal growth, it goes far beyond that. The cultural consequences go far beyond that. The neglect of the feminine, nurturing, motherly element in our society has great implications. Without touching upon ethics, the rates of abortion are absurd. Society has driven women to the point where being a mother is secondary to her financial goals. Divorce rates are ridiculously high, affecting all members of the family. Children go without a stable and united home, men lose the most important woman in their lives and take a strong toll on the relationship with their children while women lose the most important man in their lives. Noted feminist Betty Friedan, no fan of marriage, come out to say that that making “no-fault divorce” a legal option was probably a mistake because of the disproportionately negative impact it has on the woman.
Where is the concern of feminism for the feminine element in society?
The importance of being a mother has been so downplayed that even many women have bought into it. Perhaps a long time ago, being a mother meant there was less one could do for the baby. If a mother could feed a child and make sure he survived past a certain age that was probably already an accomplishment.
As our society has reached the point where more and more of us can reach higher levels of development, the role of motherhood, if anything, has become more important than ever. The role a mother plays in the development of a healthy life for a child is much greater than usually recognized. One needn’t believe in psychoanalysis to recognize the difference a healthy childhood has compared to a less healthy one. Even during pregnancy, the mother’s state, biologically, emotionally and socially has long term effects on the child because it is crucial stage in his life. Hormonal levels can influence the child’s personality for the rest of his life, for better or for worse. After birth this continues to occur, albeit less directly, through the mother’s milk. The mother’s health still influences what hormones are passed onto him as well as the defenses that are passed on influence the strength of the immune system he will have. The amount of skin to skin touch that a baby has can affect his stress (cortisol) and confidence levels for decades. Not to mention the fact that a calmer baby usually means calmer parents. It’s a positive cycle. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed ‘attachment theory’. In it they classified infant’s relationships with their mothers in to different types. Over decades, this theory has been studied in its long term impact. The less healthy attachments styles were found to correlate with increased risk for a variety of mental illnesses and suicide.
The predominance of the masculine element occurs on such a deep cultural level, at the very core, where our brain structure is developed that we become blind to the bias. Slavoj Zizek has said that “an ideology is really ‘holding us’ only when we do not feel any opposition between it and reality – that is, when the ideology succeeds in determining the mode of our everyday experience of reality itself.” We are like fish who are so immersed in water that we never notice it’s there.
The masculine bias has even grown roots in the most abstract ways we perceive the world. Our brain drives us to neglect the power of intuition, randomness, creativity, and non-linearity. The very metaphysical concepts and the language we use are tainted with this bias. Derrida calls this ‘phallogocentrism’ (phallus + logos+ centrism). It is my opinion that feminism has reached the point where it has adopted phallogocentrism for its own use. It has joined, not defeated masculine bias. Now women seek to “penetrate the workplace”, to “break the glass ceiling”, instead of rejecting the male-oriented world with a more balanced vision where women can have a place in the traditional sphere of men and vice-versa.
Let me use an analogy from soccer, the sport I love. On the one hand you have the defenders and the goal keeper, on the other, the attackers. The attackers get most of the glory, their achievements are cause for great celebration. The defender’s role is just as important. If a team scores a whole lot of goals but receives a similar amount of goals, then in the end it doesn’t make much of a difference. What needs to take place is the re-appreciation of not receiving a goal. It has the exact same value as scoring one. The roles of defenders and attackers are not identical, but they are equal. The problem is that in reducing the importance and the glamor of one the other feels neglected. How can it surprise us if women or defenders want to play less of their role and join the masculine or attacking team? What we have is a desertion of the former position for the latter, and while we are scoring more goals, so are we receiving them, perhaps to the point where we are losing. We do have more independence and financial prosperity than ever thanks to the goal scoring masculinity, but we are so emotionally and socially impoverished due to the lack of defensive femininity that no amount of success and prestige makes up for it. After reaching a certain income level, studies show that no increase in wealth makes a difference on one’s happiness. Look back at Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Feeding yourself when hungry will increase your well-being, but when accomplished, you must move on to the next needs or watch as shoving food down your mouth starts to have a negative effect on your wellbeing.
Think about how we talk. Doing things, is what supposedly matters. Our concern with achievement stems from here. Contrast this with the Eastern and more feminine focus on being. Their focus is not on verbs, not on doing, but on being, on having awareness, consciousness. Think about the way Western society talks about sex. Forgive me for the language, but it is the man, the phallus, which fucks the woman. It is the man who does. It is the women that is done. It is no wonder there is such a strong culture of violent sex and pornography in Western sexuality and an objectification of women because we have an unbalanced obsession, with activeness, with doing. The very word ´passivity´ has a negative connotation. We could easily give passivity in a positive light: seeing passivity as prudence, as a wise and patient use of energy and being. I like the Derridean use of the word ‘invaginates’ because it takes the vagina, the receiving object and gives it a sort of priority. It the recipient that welcomes the external object, covers it, surrounds it, is the host, gives it a place to be.
We needn’t focus exclusively on intercourse. Take a mother and a father. The father is the one who does things for the child (from the moment the child is conceived it is the father that provides the activeness, he gives his seed, he provides for the child) while the mother plays an equally important role: it is a passive one. Her work is patient, long term, embracing. During sex, it is the man’s job to achieve, to come. He does. She takes it, giving him the space, the time, the place for him to do so. They both give themselves to each other. She is the patient, warm, nurturing and reassuring necessary element for him to do his job. For her there is no spectacular moment when she has accomplished. It is all a continuum, a long term project of her. She doesn’t just provide and is done. She gives the man the place to provide and then continues to embrace his gift, and give a place for growth for the new life. The man continues to do, for his job comes at specific moments where he must do, he is discrete, he is a staccato, a beat that takes places at key times. For the next nine months however, her emphasis is not on the doing, but rather on being the home for the new child, during wake and sleep. This is true passivity. Passivity is not impotence, it is a patient and warm direction of one´s energy and one´s being. She is legato, a smooth flow of notes without breaks.
Take a look at the ancients or many of the Easterners and you will notice they place a prominent place for the feminine, nurturing, passive element. There are many goddesses in Greek and Hindu spirituality. Some worship Gaia and the Earth as a mother. And yet others don´t anthropomorphize the divine, but leave a great role to the feminine. Yin and yang, masculine and feminine, are considered equally important elements that need to be balanced in Taoism. Buddhism focuses less on reason, less on doing, less on achieving and more on being, on cultivating passivity, on having consciousness, with its fruits of contentment, patience, calmness, wisdom, on believing and knowing with intuition rather than brute force analysis and reasoning of the world and one’s life. This is right brained, feminine development. This is a powerful living alternative or complement to our obsession with left-brained, logico-mathematical reason, an inert and spiritless view, a scientifically and technologically biased world, where reducing everything to atoms has driven away any conception of soul or creation, reducing us to creatures who are isolated from everything and from everyone who must focus on their own material and hedonistic satisfaction before our expiration date comes around. We need more of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Prudence.
It would be unfair not to grant any recognition the successes of Western Civilization. The prosperity, safety we take for granted has received great contributions from it, despite treating women, children and animals, i.e. the feminine, as less capable of ‘leaving the cave’. Beyond this material success however, the effects become very ambiguous. The loss of spirit, the disconnection, the fullness of life that has been lost, the ‘disenchantment’ of the world has roots in this unbalanced vision. And yet the left-brained science has started to reach some dead ends within its very own game. Perhaps we are on the brink of what Kuhn would call a ‘paradigm shift’. In mathematics, linearity and determinism is being complemented by fields such as complexity and chaos theory. The methods of objective, linear, classical physics cannot solve problems in the field of quantum mechanics, which requires an incorporation of randomness, subjectivity, consciousness and non-linearity. Medicine has recognized the importance of the mental, emotional and spiritual well-being on the body. Neuroscience has come to appreciate the role of creativity and the non-deterministic rewiring of the brain via consciousness and intentionality. Ecology has come to see the environment as an interconnected system in which every part influences each other (just like the body strives for homeostasis, so does Earth act almost like a self-regulating organism). It is as if the development of a feminine, right-brained understanding of the world revealed more layers of the Universe which cannot be understood with exclusively male mental tools.
If you still don’t think Western feminism is biased or even limited, then think about how the Eastern world see’s our treatment of women and how it mirrors our understanding of their treatment. Women, forced to wear burkas is, according to us, treating women as possessions. And yet, they claim that we are the one´s who treat women as possessions and objects, because, while we claim to be giving them freedom (especially of the sexual sort), we reduce them to objects on our TV´s, in our music, in business, and in our lives.
Abraham Lincoln said that “You can’t make a weak man strong by making a strong man weak”. I say that you can’t make women strong without making men strong. Both genders need to become stronger, both passively and actively, both in a masculine way and in a feminine way. The average man would rather stick to his safe role, rather than risk the thought crossing his head or the mouth of others that if he develops or expresses his sensitive side then he must be really different from all the other macho men (i.e. that he is “faggot”). Breaking away from the norm is painful, as the early feminists knew all too well.
Let us return to language for a little bit. It is perhaps important to keep McLuhan’s famous phrase in mind: “The medium is the message”: the words and language we use aren’t objective and neutral tools, they are inheritances with a massive cultural, historical, maybe even neurological hidden baggage which continue to influence the way we think and see the world. Look at what Derrida says: “every discourse, even a poetic or oracular sentence, carries with it a system of rules for producing analogous things and thus an outline of methodology.”
Perhaps if language became less about doing and more about being, and communication became more about understanding and dialoging than about instructing, our world would be in greater harmony. That is, the way we relate to others must become less about our individual results and more about uniting us without abolishing our differences. From the clash between matter and spirit, to the wars between nations, the reinsertion of the feminine element would make the world a better place. I celebrate the integration and upholding of masculine characteristics by feminists, but I call for an opposite and complementary movement. A spirit in which man can appreciate, and up to a point, incorporate feminine characteristics, a world in which both genders cherish their different strengths and give due importance to the other.
We must not give up because the problem seems too large. The struggle takes place everywhere, constantly. Any small, local contribution can help lessen vicious cycles or strengthen positive ones. The world will not change from one day to the next. But we can create a domino effect with little changes. If a butterfly can flap its wings leading to a chain of events that can create a storm, if one woman refusing to sit at the back of the bus led to the strengthening of a nation-wide movement, then every grain of sand each one of us can add to the solution of the world’s problems will produce greater change than we realize, to making this a better place for ourselves and for those we love.
So… should I pay for the date? That is something for my girlfriend and I to dialogue and reflect upon. I invite you to do the same with the way you live gender roles.