Yesterday in an airport and on a flight home (from Miami), I read Pinched: How The Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It by Don Peck (from the Atlantic). I can't recommend the book highly enough; I hope to write more about it in the future. Sufficed it to say, I believe it's the most important book written on the US and its ongoing economic downturn.
One of the themes of the book is the way in which the Great Recession/depression and its anemic recovery have caused diverging paths for men and women, particularly in the blue-collar or working class (lower-middle class/working poor) world.
A very generic and short version is that women are fairing much better than men--though plenty of women are still hurting (particularly single mothers). I think this has some great relevance for Dark Side of the Womb Week, so first some context from Peck and then application to our current theme.
"Women are fast becoming the essential breadwinners and authority figures in many working-class families--a historic role reversal that is fundamentally changing the nature of marriage, sex, and parenthood. Working-class men, meanwhile, are losing their careers, their families, and their way. A large, white underlcass, predominantly male is forming--along with a new politics of grievance."
Later on Peck describes the research of Harvard professor Kathryn Edin:
"Edin's research in low-income communities shows, for instance, that most working women whose partner stayed home to watch the kids--while very happy with the quality of child care their children's father provided--were dissatisfied with the relationship overall. 'These relationships were often filled with conflict,' Edin told me. Even today, she says, men's identities are far more defined by their work than women's, and both men and women become extremely uncomfortable when men's work goes away (Peck, p.128, my emphasis).
Peck gets this quotation from Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia: "if men can't make a contribution financially, they don't have much to offer (p.129)."
I once heard a moving presentation by Beams' author Vanessa Fisher on what she called the 'male gaze.' As I understood it, the male gaze was the physical and symbolic look of men to women as sexual objects. And this look Vanessa argued had been internalized by women (or at least by many many women). This gaze was like an alien voice/identity that had infected women and negatively affected their self-image and the way they treated other women.
In light of Peck's discussion of many men's failures in the informational, de-industrialized economy, I'd like to suggest a parallel--the 'female gaze.' The female gaze is the gaze that women give towards men which is based on their ability to make money. Every man is aware that they are valued (or disvalued) by women depending on how much money they make or are perceived to be able to make. [Of course here I'm talking about the heterosexual world]. Just as women have internalized the male gaze and it's now part of their being, men have internalized women's gaze. It affects our self-esteem and it radically shapes how we treat other men (again in a largely negative fashion I would say).
Put bluntly, men's currency is actual money, women's currency is their bodies. Both reduce humans (of whatever sex) to purchases.
This is a hard subject to discuss for a number of reasons. Two biggies that come to mind:
1. It would seem to be griping about women's empowerment (which it need not be--and Peck's book is really solid on this point).
2. As Peck notes it's often caught up with the politics of resentment--blame is unfairly applied to various nebulous "others": e.g. immigrants, foreigners, women, minorities, etc. In the US this is particularly the case and it makes any discussion of male struggles sound like white man complaining about how they don't run the world anymore. Or in the language of South Park, "They took our jobs."
But if we could extricate the problem of male economic and social dislocation from the politics of grievance, then I think we would enter a really important discussion. As Tim Walker detailed previously and exquisitely on Beams, men are often unable to talk about, in some cases even feel, their pain. To connect that numbness to the female gaze, I think a big part of it is that men have this sense (from the gaze) that they are simply a bank account. Bank accounts don't have feelings and they certainly don't talk or connect into pain.
When men know they are not valued, then they feel shame. They have a really hard time admitting to themselves and to anyone else that they feel shame--generally they will either drink or use drugs or in the worst cases become violent. But whatever pattern of self-destruction they follow, they will increasingly withdraw from relations. We men isolate ourslves (the so-called "man cave"). And this is what is occurring in our day--men are withdrawing from social and economic (as well as marital and familial) relations. They are then perceived as failures, cowards, or weaklings for doing so which only furthers the cycle of isolation.
If women are empowered--as Vanessa suggested rightly--by owning this voice of the male gaze within them and then moving beyond it, then men need to own the female gaze and how they too have made it a part of themselves. And then seek to move beyond it, while honoring its truth--that it's good for men to be productive members of society and to be enmeshed in human relations, thereby having a stake in social welfare. But to define men's worth solely as how much money they make, is to dessicate the male soul.
Update I: As a postscript, I want say that one way to enter into this inquiry is I think not to shame ourselves greatly for our gazes in relation to each other. There are biological reasons for their occurrence that have been selected for. The various gazes make reproductive sense. But they are deeply conditioned and have negative effects on all of us and we need to grow beyond them. But this won't happen if it turns into a pissing contest about whose been hurt more or blame games.