To paraphrase and modernize the once unassailable Dr. Freud, “Really, what do men want?”
The death of Hugh Hefner last week, long after his sex-is-all Playboy empire both liberated and scandalized American society, is a useful reminder that while some boys live forever in the locker room of their adolescence, others adapt very nicely, thank you, to the inevitability of growing up. In 2004, when I interviewed Hefner for the 50th anniversary of the magazine (yes, he was wearing his trademark black pajamas), he described his mantra as “the play and pleasure of life,” including the once-radical notion that “nice girls liked sex.” That benign definition — plus a genuine, if convenient, commitment to more pressing women’s rights, including reproductive choice — theoretically justified squeezing women into bosom-popping costumes to slake boorish male fantasies, a fabulously successful formula that seemed to delineate the limits of men’s desires. Along, of course, with the centerfolds: gauzy, airbrushed nudes stapled into each issue of the magazine, starting with Marilyn Monroe in issue No. 1.
That, he decreed, at a time of civic prudery, was what men wanted.
Today, the parties and the Playmates feel like dusty relics of a simpler time, as Hef, with his constant coterie of ever-younger females at age 93, generated more amusement than devotion.
Men, it turns out, wanted something more. Not always better.
For some, unfortunately, sexual freedom has led some to a much darker need. I’m talking about the vulgar, vocal minority recently grabbing for attention — from the ones chanting “Lock Her Up” while wearing T-shirts that treat female bodies like a frat-boy’s anatomy lesson, to the titans of technology, where sexual harassment and sex discrimination have tried to halt the inevitable influx of women into top jobs.
And now come the whiners, a handful of Silicon Valley guys saying this diversity thing has gone too far, whimpering about a “witch hunt” and trying to portray the movement for gender equity as a life-threatening assault on their own fragile egos. One self-described male separatist, according to The New York Times, tossed out fresh bait when he asked online, “Ever work for a woman? Roll up your sleeves and share your horror story.”
Mothers of the world, unite.
If this feeble backlash brings on a case of whiplash, consider the source. For one thing, with their rubbish now made safe again by the me-first occupant of the Oval Office — an alpha-male wannabe who mistakes bullying for leadership — they exaggerate their importance and plop themselves at the center of an issue way beyond their grasp. In fact, many actual targets of the Salem, Massachusetts witch hunts were simply guilty of being outspoken females, as intolerable to today’s techies as they were to Puritanical, church-going colonists. And their fates back then — burning, drowning, death — were final. A touch more dire than sharing one’s cubicle with someone of the opposite sex.
So they’re full of themselves and ignorant of history. One wonders whether The Times story hyped a minor blip into an emerging trend.
More to the point, their testosterone-fueled tantrum is out of sync with the — I’ll say it again — inevitable progression of equal rights. What these men clearly want is to preserve the privilege of gender primacy, an outdated droit de delusion whose steady disappearance sends a chill through such nerdy, insecure souls. Their blather reveals an astounding ignorance of what real men believe.
Memo to misogynists: We’ve got way better role models with far saner outlooks. So let’s give them the respect they deserve.
Start with financier Ward Melville, who said more than two centuries ago, “No man has a right to set himself upon a pinnacle… Who has said to him that he is by nature the superior and the governor of his mate?”
That radical sentiment was recently unearthed by author and journalism professor Brooke Kroeger for her new book, The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote. The contribution of these “gents” to the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment was extraordinary. Unlike earlier men who confidently joined the 19th-century campaign for woman’s right to vote — bold souls like freed slave Frederick Douglass, railroad magnate Leland Stanford, Michigan Sen. Thomas Palmer — their 20th century successors formed their own Men’s League to promote the cause.
“There’s been nothing like it before or since,” Kroeger told me this week. “These were the captains of industry and society. Melville created Thom McAn Shoes. Frank Vanderlip was president of the institution now called Citibank.” Rabbi Stephen Wise founded the Manhattan synagogue now bearing his name. Suffragists all, and they willing took orders from the women, tailoring their message to the females in charge. Then, these “men who dared to espouse a despised cause,” according to suffrage president Carrie Chapman Catt, did what only men could do: “They testified in Congress with a voice that might be listened to,” Kroeger said. “They orated to other men with a voice that might be listened to.”
They also marched in a series of suffrage parades during the 19-teens, enduring hoots, jeers, catcalls and rude whistles from bystanders clearly threatened by such un-virile behavior. Eighty-nine brave men faced taunts like, “Hold up your skirts, girls!” and “Here’s your handkerchief, Lizzie!”
Happily for history, the ridicule only galvanized their commitment. “These were not small men,” Brooke Kroeger explained. “They all had been “converted by their mothers, sisters, wives or lovers — or all four!”
As we used to say in the 1970s, the best feminists are men with daughters.
It may not have quite worked out with that way with Ivanka and Tiffany’s dad, but several decades of supremely enlightened men have greatly expanded the suffragents’ legacy — growing ranks of sensible and sensitive fellows who realize that so-called women’s issues are men’s issues, too, because we’re all flying on this planet together.
First among equals: actor/producer/writer/thinker Alan Alda, whose support for everything from the Equal Rights Amendment to reproductive choice has led him to call himself, proudly, “an honorary woman.”
Other modern heroes include Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose participation in the UN-sponsored HeforShe includes a commitment to “men shutting down some of those negative conversations that we get in locker rooms, in ‘bro culture.’” Trudeau credits his conversion to actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose half-million-view self-outing as a feminist on YouTube explains, “It just means that your gender doesn’t define who you are; you can be whoever, whatever you want to be.”
The list goes on, in a century where young dads no longer say they are babysitting when staying home with their children; where journalists regularly use “she” instead of “he” to define a generic character. Where tennis ace Andy Murray reminds a gushing reporter that the Williams sisters won more Olympic medals than he did. Where a senior judge in Brooklyn issues a rule to give young female lawyers a chance to perform.
Where, with luck, the US Marines will one day stop putting down male trainees as “ladies.”
OK, I’m dreaming too big. But we’re getting there. Subversive? Sure. But sometimes, turning things upside down is the only way to make this mix we call society work.
For the record, Sigmund Freud voiced his actual bewilderment this way: “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'”
Since the father of psychoanalysis never did get us right, here’s the answer: Everything. That is, everything we can earn, learn or accomplish as human beings with equal rights and responsibilities. Nothing more, nothing less. Works for men, too, if they’d only stop their kvetching.