Maryland Legislators Ponder Crazy, Mixed-up, Modern Man," read the headline in a recent Washington Post, and if ever there was a headline that underlined the continuing disparate treatment of the sexes, that was it.
It doesn't take a newsroom veteran to guess what the reaction would have been had the headline read: "Maryland Legislators Ponder Crazy, Mixed-up, Modern Woman." Crazy, mixed-up modern woman would have been dialing the paper in protest before the second sip of morning coffee, and the first words sputtered would have been "sexist stereotypes."
The story was about a bill before the Maryland legislature to set up a task force on "contemporary manhood." Predictably, the bill was promptly labeled "the wimp bill," and it had a tough time getting a sponsor. But it got a committee hearing last week, and witnesses argued that men were victims of stereotypes that encourage violent and irresponsible behavior. The upshot is that far more men than women die violently and young, end up in jail, and commit murder. Men are suffering "a sense of personal isolation" because they don't measure up to the stereotypes, said one of the bill's backers, "and they think they're the only ones feeling it."
Said another backer: "Whatever value the traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity had no longer fit in modern life. They're unfair, unjust and impossible to live up to. We've started to recognize that for women, and we're here to call attention to the fact that it's the same for men."
Maryland, like many other states, has a commission on the status of women, they argued, so why not have one on the status of men?
Well, why not?
Commissions on the status of women originated in the '60s when a recognition began to take hold in enlightened, or at least politically motivated quarters, that women were getting the very short end of the stick economically. The Equal Pay Act of 1963, for example, was a principal recommendation of President Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women, which was a model for state commissions that went on to explore and make recommendations on a host of other issues. These included divorce and property settlement laws, child-care needs, sexual bias in state legal codes, and so forth.
Men, who still earn nearly twice as much as women, clearly are not in need of commissions to improve their economic lot in life or their treatment under the law. But there might be a very real service performed by a commission that could explore and perhaps answer a whole range of questions about "contemporary manhood," some more serious, certainly, than others.
Why, for starters, won't many contemporary men pay child support?
Why are some of them self-centered, temperamental, insecure, and just plain difficult to live with? (This question arises out of a series of recent conversations with female friends who have come to the above conclusions based on experience; no doubt their husbands are asking the same questions about women.)
Why do contemporary men beat their wives? Perhaps this has been going on for centuries and we're simply hearing more about it now. But in any case, why do they do it? How can it be stopped? Why are some of them molesting children and raping women?
Why, given the move of women out of the home and into the work force, won't they do more to help around the house?
Why are some men workaholics? (This may be related to their behavior around the house: it's a lot more gratifying to go to the office on Saturday than it is to clean the house.)
Why are they unwilling to go to doctors when they are sick and to ask for directions when they are lost?
Why are we forever hearing about contemporary man being a "wimp?" Has contemporary woman neutered American manhood?
Some of these burning questions might find answers in the very problem of stereotypes that enlightened women have been railing against for nearly two decades. Whoever saw the Marlboro Man ask the way to the next ranch? But stereotypes, as women soon found out, are usually shorthand terms for deeper attitudinal problems about what men want from women and women want from men, and life wants from all of us.
Perhaps state task forces are not the proper forum for these matters, but it might not be a bad place to start. Real men, of course, know what manhood is, so they would stay away from task force hearings in droves. Only a "wimp" would go to a hearing on "contemporary manhood."
But I bet a lot of contemporary women would. We all might learn something.