By Michael Boucher
Spiritus Christi, January 28, 2018
The year was 1968. Almost five hundred women from the feminist and civil rights movements had gathered outside of Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey to protest the Miss America pageant. The organizers of the protest were opposed to the objectification and mistreatment of women and saw the Miss America pageant as an embodiment of so much that was wrong in our culture. But they also saw the pageant being linked to other major social ills like racism (no woman of color had been allowed to participate), war (the Miss America winner would go ‘visit the troops’ in Vietnam) and materialism (because of all of the products that women were encouraged to buy to be ‘beautiful’). So they literally crowned a live sheep Miss America to represent how women were being treated like livestock, threw objects of female oppression – like girdles, curlers and tweezers – into trash cans (no bras were burned, for the record, but women got blamed for it anyway!), they sang songs, and even secretly made their way into the actual Miss America pageant and unfurled a banner from the balcony that read “Freedom for Women”. Their actions caused quite a stir to say the least.
Fast forward to 2017. We see a Women’s March in Washington, DC that drew about 500,000 people (it was the largest single day protest in U.S. history) and Time magazine has as its Person of the Year the “Silence Breakers” – representing the people, mostly women, who came forward with their stories of sexual harassment and assault that have fueled a worldwide movement and conversation (some of those women being from the U of R). Time said that, “This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight. But it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries.” These silence breakers are carrying on work started long ago, and the new hashtag #timesup gives warning that more reckoning is required to make things right.
In the first reading today we hear Moses say that, ‘A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin’. I can think of nothing more prophetic than what is happening through these #metoo and #timesup movements, and women are speaking with the same authority we hear Jesus speak with in our gospel. Prophets are rising – from our own kin – to say we’ve got to get our relationships right because they are out of order. And the stories that we are hearing – over 1.7 million tweets and more than 12 million Facebook posts – do not even begin to account for, as Oprah said in her recent Golden Globe speech – “all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue.”
The famous Jewish rabbi and activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said that the job of the prophet was to be about the, “ceaseless shattering of indifference.” And I think we’re in one of those moments.
The almost daily headlines that have been emerging speak to what many call a “toxic masculinity” that permeates this culture and so many other cultures. It is a masculinity that idealizes strength, anger, violence, stoicism, competition, force and coercion. It is a masculinity that targets people who do not fit the dominant stereotype and harasses and assaults people of many different sexes, genders and gender expressions, including those who identify as women, femme, trans or gender queer. And this form of masculinity lies at the heart of so many of the problems that we face in our world today.
It must be resisted. And it can be changed.
Lest you hear me wrong, I am not saying that all men are bad. This not male-bashing and I’m not being some liberal snowflake. There are many, many “good” men in this world and in our community. But this is about masculinity and how it gets lived out in the world. And if I must name a designated audience for my words today, it is men. And it is straight men who identify as men. And it’s probably really for straight, white men who hold power in some form or another (and if you are a straight, white male you hold power in one form or another). I’d ask the rest of you to just hang in there with me while I have a little chat with the guys…
Now we know that boys and girls start off remarkably similar. This is not meant to say that we’re all the same, but psychologists tell us that if you gave the same tests to girls and boys, the responses would overlap by 90% — indicating that the sexes have much more in common than not. And well known child researcher Dr. Judy Chu concludes that what we think of as typical “boy” behavior isn’t necessarily natural to boys. It is something they learn to act out. Boys aren’t stoic or always aggressive or hierarchical; they aren’t bad at forming relationships or unable to express themselves. They pick up all these traits of by adapting to a culture that expects and demands that they do so.
There’s an amazing poet on Instagram named Nayyirah Waheed who speaks to a desire for a different masculinity in one of her poems when she says
i want more ‘men’ with flowers falling from their skin. more water in their eyes.
more tremble in their bodies. more women in their hearts than on their hands.
more softness in their height. more honesty in their voice.
more wonder. more humility in their feet.
Honestly I think many of us want this – including men – and we’re not destined to live out a toxic masculinity. But it’s going to take some serious work to undermine it. Part of the struggle, I think is for many men to even SEE that this form of masculinity is working in the world around them.
Psychologist Michael Kimmel says that a first step is making gender visible to most men – especially straight men (because gay, queer and trans men kind of already see it). He says that men don’t tend to see that they are the recipients of greatest affirmative action program in the history of the world – it’s called the history of the world!
How many men does it take to screw in a light bulb? ONE……He just holds it up there and waits for the world to revolve around him. Many men have been raised with some level of entitlement – so much so that when others are finally sharing in the opportunities that we’ve enjoyed, it can feel like we’re losing something.
What is also hard is that men tend to have greater levels of confidence in their abilities than is actually the case. We can tend to think we’re smarter, more skilled or perceptive than we are and thus do not seek out feedback or consultation. And men in almost every organization tend to view their organization as being better for women than the women in that organization actually rate it.
So what do we (meaning men) need to do?
We must keep centering the perspective and experience of women, women of color and the LGBTQ community and de-centering the experiences, thoughts, and perspective of men. We know that the more privilege you have in terms of race, class, gender ability, etc. the less likely you are to center the perspective of anyone else UNLESS you actively work at it. I know for me even having Alicia Garza (one of the BLM cofounders) on my Twitterfeed or following Everyday Feminism on Facebook are small steps that help me get a new perspective on the world.
Step out of the spotlight and make sure that other people get in it. Along these lines, we need a serious revaluing of the often invisible “care work” and “emotional labor” that has traditionally been the realm of women. Our world can’t function without it, yet it is rarely mentioned by men and often taken for granted.
Give credit to women for their ideas, projects and leadership and work to make sure that they are successful. Tweet – Nicole – My friends coined a word: hepeated. For when a woman suggests an idea and it’s ignored, but then a guy says same thing and everyone loves it. And speaking of giving credit, I want to thank Lydia, Lynne, Kate, Barb and Liz for reading my homily and offering feedback because I am realizing more and more how much of my thinking has been shaped and distorted by patriarchy.
Listen to the experiences of women, take seriously their concerns and support them in designing solutions that address their concerns.
Defer decision making to our peers/colleagues who are women or at least collaborate on decisions. On that note, Science magazine back in 2010 published a study about groups and what makes a group function better and with higher collective intelligence. One of their key findings was that the more women there are in a group, the higher the group’s collective intelligence. Given our current structures of socialization, women tend to be much better at cooperation and reading group emotion – thus making teams function better. It’s not that men can’t do these things, it’s just that a lot of us have not had much practice.
We also know that countries around the world that are the most gender equal score highest on the happiness scale. And we know from research that the presence of women in groups leads to an increased sense of psychological safety, increased group confidence, greater group experimentation, and better group efficiency. I mean men, we need to step up our game if we’re going to bring something meaningful to the equation! Even climate scientists say that if we want to reverse climate change, women’s equality and leadership is an essential element.
So men – in our families and whatever circles we move in – must keep doing at least two things. First keep making room for women and girls. Keep asking who is making decisions, whose voice is being heard, who is leading and how can we decenter ourselves and center someone else. Second, we need to pay attention to how we raise and socialize our children. We need to keep challenging the stereotypes and provide a chance for our children to live into a new legacy of gender equality and diverse gender expression. Two great documentaries that I would highly recommend (and are streaming on Netflix) are Miss-Representation and The Mask You Live In both by filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom. They each explore and challenge the gender stereotypes that dominate so much of our culture.
But personal changes won’t be enough. We need to keep asking how we will join with others to undermine power systems and structures that accept and normalize sexist and violent behavior by men. And, for men, undermining those systems means stepping back, listening to, supporting, and standing behind/beside women and others ALREADY leading the work. And when we show up, it might be better to ask, “How can I help? Vs. Step aside, ladies, we’ll take it from here…”
Back in 1998 when Spiritus was just forming, our family was at a Good Friday service with our boy/girl twins. My daughter saw Rev. Mary on the altar and she leaned over and said to us, “I think I want to be a priest someday.” We were in tears. But just as importantly, my son saw a woman on the altar and knew that this was the rightful place of women as well. No doubt this experience has shaped our whole family for the better.
In January 2017, the musical artist Lorde issued a tweet (and this was before all the doo-doo hit the fan): “These old men in power have a storm coming, the likes of which they cannot comprehend.”
We hear in today’s Psalm, “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” We are hearing God’s voice in the prophetic words which are spoken with authority by women all around us today. Will we truly listen this time?