“What Makes a Real Man? What Makes a Real Woman?” [Femininity Project]

by Little Miss Attila on January 22, 2010

In the mistaken belief that I am an actual woman, rather than a 17-year-old male stuck in a clumsy, train-loving, gun-crazy middle-aged female body, Cassandra has asked me to respond to a few questions from time to time on the subject of sex and gender. This is my rather inauspicious, sleep-deprived opening volley. To everyone’s chagrin, I assume . . . more will follow, when we’re in the mood.

There is a long, thoughtful answer to Cass’s first set of questions. The short answer, however, is that the terms “real man” and “real woman” are very often used as putdowns to keep other people (same sex, and opposite-sex) behaving in ways that make us comfortable. In my mind, for instance, it is utterly, utterly dirty pool for a woman to tell a guy that he should “be a man.” What she means is, “do as I say, not as I do.” Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she’s abusing the notion of complementary sex roles to shame the man into behaving as she wants: it is usually a grotesque form of manipulation.

There is a medium-term answer, which is that to anyone who has lived with someone of the opposite sex in a romantic context for more than about three years or so, a “real [whatever]” will share fundamental traits with that cohabitant. This is ofen so even if past wives and husbands did not have that quality: the new archetype tends to lodge itself in one’s consciousness in a way that is difficult to get around. He or she is, contrary to what one conceptualizes intellectually, the epitome of a “real [whatever].” (Any previous spouses were false, or misguided, [place gender here].)

For instance, have you ever noticed that archetypical women are either terribly practical, or terribly impractical? That’s because either disassorted mating or stark necessity will lead the woman to either be or become the complement to the man in that regard: if he is an absent-minded professorial type, she’ll be the manager. If he’s more grounded in the day-to-day routines, she’ll provide an emotional playground, or nurturance, or comic relief, or flights of fancy. (She, likewise, will have an equivalent effect on his process of “pick ’em, provoke ’em, or “project ’em.” Both dancers affect the dance. And once the dance has begun, it takes on a life of its own.)

And I do believe, at the very same time, both seemingly contradictory versions of reality that Cassandra posited: 1) men and women have different strengths, and 2) each and every adult is called to be, first and foremost, a grownup—irrespective of gender.

Women tend toward detail, toward the micro rather than the macro. Women tend to be maddeningly thorough.

Also, heterosexual men who grew up with sisters tend to have (all other things being equal, which they never are) an easier time adapting to relationships, because they are less likely to see women as slightly/exceedingly alien. They are less vulnerable to the temptation of drawing chicks in their lives in slightly cartoonish terms. The sister, or sisters, serve as a hedge against making wives or girlfriends into one’s own personal archtypes, or a least keeps them from being “locked in” to the same degree.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

I R A Darth Aggie January 22, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I’ll provisionally agree with you about guys with sisters. As an only child, my mother didn’t count as a “woman”, nor did those women teachers, until I was significantly older.

I was actually nonplussed when my mother told me some naughty jokes in the last 10 or so years. It doesn’t happen often, mind you, but still. That’s my mother! she shouldn’t be doing that!!


Cassandra January 22, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Both dancers affect the dance. And once the dance has begun, it takes on a life of its own.

Oh boy. I love, love, love this. It sums up, so succinctly, an idea I have over and over when reading the omnipresent “(*&^%!!!! Women suck and every problem we face these days is due to the perfidy of Woman” crap that has become so popular on the right.

Nonsense. Neither men nor women are powerless – our actions and reactions both contribute to whatever the current state of affairs may be.

I do believe that societal mores are like a pendulum. Currently we are out of balance (at the extreme of the “in favor of women” part of the arc). But let’s be honest here – I grew up during the extreme end of the “in favor of men” arc and there were problems with that, too.

I see many signs that portend a move away from our current extreme back to a more centered approach as the excesses of gender feminism drive the dangers of living on the edge home to us. There’s a parallel here – it took Obama’s nuttiness to drive certain lessons home to the American people. Sometimes when you see “what you wished for” made flesh, you realize how dumb it was.


Gordon January 22, 2010 at 5:43 pm

I had no sisters, and no female cousins who lived close enough to be more than distant. I was the youngest person among all of the relatives I knew growing up. My family was not very emotionally demonstrative, so family dynamics go right over my head.

I watch brothers and sisters interact–I really watch–because to me it’s an alien world. Raising a boy and a girl didn’t cure it.

I sometimes see a mom in a store with three young boys. I wonder if she had brothers when she grew up, or if she only had sisters, or no siblings. I wonder if she experiences the same lack of comprehension that I felt when she watches those three noisy, rambunctious creatures.

Of course, she’s the mom, and has the grace of hormones to bridge the gap with love. Yes, men have some of that, but it’s like chocolate. Women have an entirely different, and far more complex reaction to it.


Little Miss Attila January 22, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Gordon: It’s possible that growing up as part of a brother-sister pair gave each of us an edge. Of course, Whatshisface was a controlling, stingy, superior, annoying jerk. And I was an irresponsible whackadoodle who read too much but was fairly adorable.

Still. I think the “complementary set effect” made inroads on “the unplumbed, salt, estranging sea” (that second phrase is Matthew Arnold’s, in case you were wondering).

They do say that in terms of overall development, only kids have an edge inasmuch as they can end up with the advantages of eldest siblings, plus the advantages of youngest and middles.

Cassandra: I stole/adapted the phrase from William Butler Yeats, but it was a concept that was very much on my mind when we were in couples counseling, 8-9 years ago: it seemed like the behavior patterns were behind the wheel sometimes, and we were just passengers. And when we were also blindly acting out scenarios from our quirky childhoods rather than dealing with each other as we were, hilarity ensued. [Or, um, not. 😉 ]


Little Miss Attila January 23, 2010 at 6:55 am

Oops. I softened my evaluation of myself, without doing the same for my brother. Suffice it to say that he is True North, one of the best men on the planet. Someday, I may even tell him that, if I can think of a way to do so without getting mushy.


Cassandra January 23, 2010 at 7:41 am

It has struck me as I’ve grown older that just having a brother/husband/lover of the male persuasion (joke!) isn’t enough to ensure one understands all men.

I’ve had so many guys say to me, when I appear puzzled at some male behavior, “But you should “get” this – you raised 2 boys and are married to a Marine”. And my sons and husband have many things in common.

Yet they are three very different human beings. They don’t display a lot of stereotypical male behaviors/attitudes. Being online has been a real education for me b/c I see guys saying and doing things that I haven’t experienced in real life – not from my boyfriends when I was younger, not my Dad, not my brother, not any man in my family or of my acquaintance. I do think living with men has helped me appreciate the ways in which men view the world, and that they’re different from the ways women tend to view the world.

But I’ve never seen masculinity as some sort of monolith. I still think that at the end of the day, it’s *this* man or *this* woman we need to understand. The generalities can be helpful there, but they’re no substitute for paying attention to *this* person, if that makes any sense?


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