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The Limitless Potential of Men to Transform Manhood

In many cultures, a strong preference, or even a mandate, for male babies — leading some women to have sex-selective abortions — has resulted in a huge gender gap. The United Nations Population Fund estimates the deficit of women to be about 117 million worldwide:

“This distorted demographic masculinization, which has serious social and economic implications, is not a natural phenomenon, but is achieved through a deliberate elimination of girls.”

It’s a devastating reality and one that deserves much more public attention, policy strategy, and cultural entrepreneurship. The moral implications, not to mention the long-term consequences in places like China and India, are harrowing. The root of this preference is old and deeply driven by economic and sociological circumstances. In so many parts of the world, it’s simply more profitable and respectable to have a boy.
And yet, context is everything.

In this part of the world, particularly among middle- and upper-middle-class fathers-to-be, I’ve noticed a fascinating trend: they seem to disproportionately desire having a girl instead of a boy.

I’m not the United Nations Population Fund. I’m an informal, untrained pollster of one, but I also happen to be an acute observer of social reality. And I’ve got a hunch: I think that young, upwardly mobile men in this country have a tremendous amount of ambivalence about masculinity itself, and one place that this largely unspoken ambivalence is showing up is in their preference for female children.

I took to Facebook to test my hunch, and these are the kinds of responses I got:

“I wanted a girl mainly because I felt it was harder to be a boy in today’s society. If I have a boy I will embrace the challenge of raising a boy who can be strong but doesn’t always have to be strong, who can learn the power of vulnerability even as male culture tries to make him see it as weakness. But, frankly, I hope that when I have a second child, it’ll be another girl.”

“I think my partner was slightly afraid of his ability to raise a non-violent, un-entitled son in our society. He felt better equipped to co-parent a strong, confident daughter.”

“My husband had zero experience being around little boys and as others have suggested was afraid of failing a boy in terms of modeling healthy masculinity. He felt more at ease with the idea of raising a strong yet tender daughter. And the trust that she would look up to him.”

“To put it simply, at the base of all of my worries is the fear that sweet little David will grow up to repeat his father’s cruelest — and most gendered — mistakes.”

Image by Vox Efx/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

My own husband, John, preferred a girl, not once, but twice over (and got ‘em!). When I asked him to articulate why, he initially said, “I find girls to be calmer, gentler, and kinder.”

But when I asked him to dig deeper, he set his laptop down, looked up as if searching the ceiling for answers, and after a few moments said, “I haven’t felt like I fit into a lot of the social norms around masculinity, in terms of the kinds of things that are held up as important to men — certain types of sports, the kind of stoic and general discomfort with being vulnerable with other people, especially with other men.”

Indeed, as Niobe Way and Brené Brown have argued quite effectively, boys aren’t born less vulnerable; we socialize it out of them. Which makes me wonder: why wouldn’t that lead you to be motivated to raise a boy who doesn’t have to subscribe to all that?

“Overcoming those things feels really impossible,” John replies. “I’m much more interested in the challenge of helping a girl or young woman transcend sexist conditions. It feels more possible and more important, in some ways.”

Fatherhood is changing, which is part of the picture here. These young men are deeply thoughtful about their role in supporting their children to form healthy gender identities, which is unprecedented and promising in so many ways. Even more fascinating to me is what these young men’s pessimism about the transformative possibilities for masculinity mean about the larger societal moment (again, within a particular demographic context).

Image by Rawle C. Jackman/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

Feminism has succeeded, I would argue, in changing the way most Americans understand what is normal, healthy, and possible for girls. That doesn’t mean there aren’t huge areas of concern about how girls and women continue to be affected by sexism, both internally and externally — just check out Peggy Orenstein’s new book Girls & Sex for a chilling example.

We have largely failed at creating a widespread sense of efficacy among American men that their liberation is not only important, but also possible. As Andrew Reiner, who teaches a course on masculinity at Towson University, recently wrote in The New York Times:

“Despite the emergence of the metrosexual and an increase in stay-at-home dads, tough-guy stereotypes die hard.”

Cultural shifts of such foundational nature require captivating models. For women over the last few decades, they’ve been Gloria Steinem, Crystal Lee Sutton (on whose life and activism the film Norma Rae is based), Anita Hill, Ellen Degeneres, Lisa Leslie, and even fictional figures like Murphy Brown.

These models serve as symbols of what’s possible, widening the landscape of potential styles, behaviors, professions, ways of communicating and relating. The widening leads to critical mass; suddenly, the symbols themselves become less necessary. The critical mass leads, shockingly fast, to amnesia. Tell a teenage girl today that her grandmother probably wasn’t allowed to dribble a basketball more than three times before passing it off and they’ll look at you dumbfounded.

Who are the captivating models for healthy masculinity? If anything, it seems like there’s a preponderance of anti-models — dudes desperately clinging to an old way of life as they feel the tectonic plates of sex shifting underneath their Allen Edmonds wingtip shoes. Guys may express a wider range of emotions and interests privately, but it still feels like there is a dearth of public demonstration. When men do express an interest in defying sexism out loud, it’s usually framed around defending women, not transforming themselves.

Maybe it’s a matter of missing language. What does “healthy masculinity” even mean? Do we need new words to crystallize the emotional range that guys crave? Women have “empowerment,” as overused and commodified as it’s become. What do men have?

Maybe it’s a matter of collectivizing on a grassroots level. Women had consciousness-raising groups, and still tend to gather and process far more often. Is it time for men to come together in living rooms and beer gardens and dorms and take a good, hard collective look at themselves?

I don’t know. I only know that women can’t convince men that it’s possible to change the culture they suffer within. That would be taking too much responsibility, which is our common pitfall. I’m thrilled that my husband, and so many other new fathers, are keen to raise girls that know they are valued and have limitless potential. My hope is that they also come to believe in the limitlessness of their own potential to change manhood.

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