When Men Were Men and Women Were . . .

As I predicted to myself, I’m catching heat for my banal generalization that “men need women to be women and women need men to be men…” Julian and Amber each have a go. Perhaps the claim is less mysterious if more specific. I’m saying that, in general, men prefer women who are more typically feminine and women prefer men who are more typically masculine. Yes. Wow. Femininity and masculinity have both natural and cultural components. Its tricky sorting out which is which. In any case, there’s nothing normative about statistical trends of either “natural” or “cultural” preferences.

My obscure point, in reference to the Kipnis article, is that the blank slate view, which was hegemonic in the humanities and social sciences until the rise of sociobiology, at best entirely fails to help us understand ourselves by assuming that sexual preference and sexual identity is entirely cultural, and at worst causes a lot of grief by causing people to bang their heads pointlessly against an unbending reality.

I find that I have been, quite perversely, made to feel guilty by blank slate ideology for having preferences for women who are, in many ways, traditionally feminine, and for preferring certain traditional gender roles. Indeed, I feel like I have been, in some ways, ideologically estranged from components of my masculinity by my tentative attitude toward my own preferences. I had been made to assume that they were cultural, elective, and possibly wrong. It’s quite strange that one can feel positively transgressive by acquiescing to nearly universal preferences. Now, I am eager for others to pioneer new modes of living, and to surprise us by revealing with their lives well-lived that norms we thought were deep were in fact shallow. But I am personally risk averse and want to maximize my chances for deep satisfaction as a human and a mammal, and I think the best bet is living largely within the old mode. In any case, that’s what my gut tells me. I think this is what most people’s guts tell them. And, yes, this is also how oppression perpetuates itself. So I vow to do my utmost to root out the genuinely harmful. But I will not ruin my life speculating about injustice.

The point regarding Kipnis, then, is that I have every intention of maintaining my preferences for women who are beautiful, feminine, and who desire to be mothers, and I am not about to be sorry for it. And I do not believe I am alone. And so, yes, if feminism as an ideology requires that men do not have these preferences and that women do not tend to wish to satisfy them, then feminism is in trouble.

Now, I also intend to maintain my preference for extremely intelligent and ambitious women. Julian writes, ” . . . neither Will nor I would find interesting or attractive someone who fit some kind of 1950s archetype of femininity . . .,” but I think I would, insofar as intelligence and ambition are allowed. June Cleaver as Secretary of State? Yes, please.

The universal aspect of femininity that Kipnis I think was lamenting was women’s propensity to go through pains to make themselves attractive to men. I am, of course, against stuffing girls like foie gras geese. So whether or not we can approve of a particular cultural instance of the tendency to ornament and improve one’s appearance according to the prevailing cultural norm depends on the nature of the prevailing cultural norm. But objecting to the tendency as such is futile. I, for one, am an advocate of lipstick, pearls, and tight sweaters, whether they appear in 1955 or 2005. Sue me.

I was also NOT saying that if you are a women and you find you prefer to be a bit more mannish than typical, or you’re a man and find that you cry at Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, or whatever, then there’s something wrong with you. Nor was I saying that guys who like butch girls or girls who like femme guys are in any sense wrong. If the prevailing gender norms get you down, then by all means, buck the norms. Find your own way. And if the elective norms are harmful, then fight them. But don’t get surprised when you find most people defending norms that are norms precisely because of the pattern of revealed preferences across the culture. Think of us as witless sheep, if it makes you feel better.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center