The Powerlessness and the Passion : Sexist Oppression Works Both Ways, Author Claims

Sexism is discounting the female experience of powerlessness; the new sexism is discounting the male experience of powerlessness.

In the past quarter-century we exposed biases against other races and called it racism, and we exposed biases against women and called it sexism. Biases against men we call humor.

Human beings have always had the need to find an enemy. As black pride diluted racism, and as women raised consciousness, men became the new enemy. We claimed men’s egos were fragile and yet attacked men as if they were invulnerable.


By the mid-'80s a New Sexism formula had emerged for getting a book on “relationships” onto the New York Times best-seller list. Women had to look wonderful, as in “Women Who Love Too Much” or “Smart Women: Foolish Choices”; or men had to look like the problem, as in “The Peter Pan Syndrome,” “The Wendy Dilemma,” “Smart Women: Foolish Choices”; or at best, men were peripheral, as in “Men Are Just Desserts.”

While every one of these was a New York Times best-seller, books whose titles ignored the New Sexism formula, like “Mirror, Mirror,” failed miserably. And books with reverse titles, like “Smart Men: Foolish Choices,” do not exist. Why?

The Perfect Complement

“Smart Women: Foolish Choices” implies that women are the smart ones, it’s just that they make bad choices, and since almost any man a woman can think of can fit into one of the “bad choice” categories, it is not the woman who is the problem--it is the man. The book becomes the perfect complement to her horoscope; in a horoscope a woman can find herself in almost any of the descriptions, all of which are about 90% positive; in “Foolish Choices” she can find a description for any man with whom she is having a problem, about 90% negative.

The reverse title, “Smart Men: Foolish Choices,” would immediately be seen as a self-righteous and sexist put-down of women. No book with a title like that has made the New York Times best-seller list in the ‘70s or ‘80s.

In the mid-'80s books that criticize men for not committing to women, like Barbara Ehrenreich’s “The Hearts of Men: The American Dream and the Flight from Commitment” and Dan Kiley’s “The Peter Pan Syndrome,” have appealed to both academics and lay persons.

Imagine how reverse titles would have been received: “The Hearts of Women: The American Dream and Women’s Flight from Earning a Living.” “Peter Pan” was discussed in the ‘80s as a man who had never committed and, therefore, never grown up--that is, he failed to fulfill the female primary fantasy of “better homes and gardens.”

What would an equivalent “self-improvement” ad look like if it criticized women for not fulfilling the male primary fantasy of being a woman who desired him sexually?

We were led to believe that “The Wendy Dilemma” was the balance to “The Peter Pan Syndrome"--that it confronted women. But it was, actually, the continuation of the attack on men, with the focus on how a woman can stop being victim to an immature, self-centered boy-child.

The subtitle (“When Women Stop Mothering Their Men”) and the promotional copy (“Do you have to tiptoe around his temper, apologize to others for his behavior, take on his neglected responsibilities at home . . . a drama in which you get stuck with the worst end of the deal?”) reflect the emphasis. The woman is portrayed as putting on his slippers. Nowhere in the promotion is the man viewed sympathetically. His dilemmas remain misunderstood.

“In this light, the practice of calling men “wormboys,” a current national craze, becomes understandable. In the Washington City Paper’s article titled “Wormboys,” Deborah Laake describes wormboys as men who shrink from marriage and even hesitate to ask a woman for dinner because that implies more commitment than a drink.

Again, the insult toward men is a clear reaction to being rejected rather than being asked out.

A woman doesn’t get as much help from name-calling as she would from an article encouraging her to be truly equal by calling a man herself and paying for his dinner rather than complaining that he is too cheap to buy her dinner; or an article encouraging her not to label as “fear of commitment” what may be his desire to avoid another one-sided paying situation.

If real equality and intimacy are avoided via such objectification, and hopes for intimacy are repeatedly dashed, then new relationships start through a filter of suspicion and mistrust.

Whenever we cannot handle rejection, we turn it into something less serious, into an object. As men do with sexual rejection by turning sex into a game and calling it scoring. Games are less serious. So why not turn men into turkeys, and if they still seem too serious as a main course, treat them as just desserts!

The accusations about men giving “lines” are so frequent, cartoons in the subject practically repeat themselves.

In these cartoons, the men obviously want the women, and yet the women are still rejecting the men. Why? Because each man is treating the woman in a way that indicates to the women he wants her for his fantasy but not for hers.

A woman who gets treated this way feels powerless; after all, she needs a man--somehow, somewhere--but damn it if she is going to be treated like a piece of meat. She’d rather have self-respect than that.

To himself, a man’s lines feel like the lines of a salesperson. As a salesperson, he feels in the powerless position. It is the person in the power position who can do the put-down. (“I don’t remember your product’s name, but the claim is familiar.”) The more attractive the woman, the more likely she is to not even give him the time of day.

By looking at examples in which both sexes give lines we can tell when both sexes are feeling powerless. The men in the cartoons are giving lines prior to sex. The power begins to switch after sex, and the lines start to become hers: “I don’t usually do this.”

The closer we come to commitment, the more likely a woman who fears not getting a man to commit may give a line like, “No woman will ever be able to love you the way I do.” Both are giving lines when they fear not getting their primary fantasy.

Their lines are promises designed to tap into the other’s real needs. When we give lines, we promise what we perceive as the other person’s real needs.

When a woman says, “No woman will ever be able to love you the way I do,” she is unwittingly recognizing how much a man commits in order to get love.

An outgrowth of male line-giving is male bragging, the equivalent of female makeup. Both are attempts to present a bit more than a person has. Both male lines and female makeup are compensations for feelings of powerlessness.

Although studies of women “making it” in the work world show the extraordinary dependence on and generosity of male mentors, among the hundreds of cartoons reviewed in women’s magazines there were no women playfully putting themselves down for this dependence or giving a man credit for his mentoring.

Instead, the most common cartoon theme shows a woman putting down her husband as being unwilling to give her a penny for her thoughts, while “Now I’m being paid a fortune for them.”

Ironically, the woman is giving her husband the power of depriving her of her identity as a thinking person. One cartoon in New Woman (September, 1984) pictures a woman reporting her husband to the police for stealing her identity.

In another a woman is telling her friend she’s decided to run for Congress because “I’ve discovered it pays better to be a public servant than my husband’s servant.” Imagine a man saying to another man “I’ve discovered it pays better to be a public servant than to be my wife’s servant.”

The cartoon unwittingly reveals a woman’s three-option socialization: income from husband, income from work, or some combination.

The anger in the cartoon comes from her husband’s inability to pay her enough. A man would never ever feel angry were his wife unable to give him enough income so he could have the option of not working.

In this cartoon, as in all the others, there is no hint of preparation for the job, nor of gratitude. She does not say, “My husband supported me for 10 years while I completed my law degree, ran for state assembly, lost the first time for state Senate, and now he’s willing to postpone having a child until I run for Congress.” There is no picture of her husband on her desk. He didn’t, after all, pay her enough to stay at home.

Neither this cartoon nor any of the hundreds of others I reviewed dealt with disappointed fantasies--as in a second scene, six months later: “My husband is bailing me out of a hundred-thousand-dollar debt for that run for Congress. And believe it or not, his finances are being questioned by the IRS.”

There is no portrayal in this or in any other women’s magazine cartoon of a woman sweating it out in the primaries.

Are these just cartoons, not reflections of real attitudes? Think of the American presidential primaries. Since the beginning of the women’s movement, not one white woman sweated out the primaries for a major party nomination.

For the 1984 Democratic nomination eight men killed each other off. The survivor appointed a woman as the vice-presidential candidate. When Geraldine Ferraro was questioned about her husband’s withholding his records from scrutiny, she responded, “If you live with an Italian man, you know how they are!”

Mario Cuomo objected to her comment--because it referred derogatorily to Italians, not because it was derogatory toward men. Had Mondale or Reagan ever said, “If you live with an Italian woman, you know how they are,” the comment would have been seen as both an ethnic slur and a sexist slur. Mondale or Reagan would have suffered. A cartoon is not very distant from reality.

Underneath, though, the cartoon hurts women as much as men. The underlying message to a woman is that she cannot have intimacy with a man and career goals.

Women and men are both slaves and second-class citizens in different ways. Just as the traditional woman can be seen as a slave in a man’s house, so the traditional man can be seen as a slave in a woman’s house.

We could portray the woman as a slave master, assigning the role of tilling the field and earning the income to the man, who would then bring it back so she could spend it as she wished to run the plantation. In this version, like the slave or the worker bee, the man brings back his earnings to the queen bee. And like the worker bee, he dies off sooner in the process.

Women are the only “minority” group to be born into the upper class as frequently as men. The only minority group whose “unpaid labor” enables them to buy $50 billion worth of cosmetics each year; whose members have time to read more romance novels and watch more television than men during every time category; whose members earn one-third what white men earn and outspend them for all personal items combined.

Women are the only minority group to systematically grow up having a class of workers (called fathers) in the field working for them; they are the only minority group that is a majority.

Does this mean women have more power than men? No. It does mean the sexes, unlike the classes, have approximately equal numbers of people born into privileged and oppressive conditions. It is in the interest of both sexes to hear the other sex’s experience of powerlessness.

From “Why Men Are the Way They Are” by Warren Farrell Ph.D. Copyright 1986 by Warren Farrell. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, McGraw Hill Book Company.