Perhaps the least understood tenet of feminism is that feminism is for everybody. One of the inevitable byproducts of a culture-based understanding of gender is that our ideas about masculinity and femininity can become reductive, boiled down to stereotypes. We’ve all been exposed to stereotypes in our culture, but most of us are unaware of how they have affected us. Our family, upbringing, and other cultural contexts also shape our biases when it comes to gender.
If you’ve never done so before, or even if you’d like to evaluate your thinking today, I’d encourage you to try an Implicit Association Test. There are many of these tests online and they are set up in such a way that by playing a simple game (sorting words or images), your implicit biases, the hidden associations you make about people, are revealed. Harvard has two gender IATs: one on gender and science, one on gender and family/career. They also have a number of tests on race, disability, etc., but for our purposes, it might be informative for you to look at the gender ones first. (A note: these tests collect study data for the schools that provide them, so you will be asked non-identifying survey questions as well. You can click “OK” to skip these or provide answers.)
While feminism raises many questions about what these definitions and stereotypes do to girls and women, it also examines how boys and men have been affected. At its core, feminism seeks to recognize the dignity of every human being, regardless of gender. In other words, men need feminism, too. So, before we move on, we’re going to look at how Adam has been theologically and sociologically misread.
One of the most popular evangelical books on gender in the last decade have been written by John Eldredge. His books are widely used in churches and study groups, and many of us are familiar with his book on masculinity, Wild at Heart.
Eldredge begins his tome with an analysis of the creation account. He writes,
Eve was created within the lush bounty of Eden’s garden. But Adam, if you’ll remember, was created outside the Garden, in the wilderness. In the record of our beginnings, the second chapter of Genesis makes it clear: Man was born in the outback, from the untamed part of creation. Only afterward is he brought to Eden. And ever since then boys have never been at home indoors, and men have had an insatiable longing to explore.
Having read the Genesis account, we can immediately recognize that Eldredge’s hermeneutic is flawed. The garden of Eden was clearly intended to be Adam and Eve’s perfect home, so much so that the couple were commanded to expand the garden, filling and subduing the whole earth. We do not see Adam brought to the garden, but we do see him brought to Eve, and this is where Eldredge’s interpretation exposes his ideas about gender. Any child who has ever read Peter Rabbit could tell you its author must have been an outdoorswoman, and Beatrix Potter is not the only woman naturalist who ever lived.
Eldredge sets the stage in these early chapters for what will be his ultimate thesis about masculinity: that men are wild and should not be tamed. His exposition on the wildness of men includes what one would expect of such simplistic stereotypes:
You see, even though the desires are there for a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue, even though our boyhood dreams were once filled with those things, we don’t think we’re up to it. Why don’t men play the man?
That’s what you’re here for: Explore, build, conquer—you don’t have to tell a boy to do those things for the simple reason that it is his purpose.
Eldredge builds upon this point chastising “passive men” and arguing for toughness in boys to the extent that he describes the Lord Jesus Himself in those terms when Eldredge talks about coaching his son in how to hit a bully back:
Yes, I know that Jesus told us to turn the other cheek. But we have really misused that verse. You cannot teach a boy to use his strength by stripping him of it. Jesus was able to retaliate, believe me. But he chose not to. And yet we suggest that a boy who is mocked, shamed before his fellows, stripped of all power and dignity should stay in that beaten place because Jesus wants him there? You will emasculate him for life. From that point on all will be passive and fearful.
Applying such a definition would have kept Jesus from the cross, many martyrs from their glory, Gandhi from his salt march, and sit-in protestors from segregated lunch counters. Many passages of Scripture, particularly in the New Testament, advocate for non-retaliation. Aside from the obvious theological errors here, we must ask ourselves, what does this definition of masculinity produce? Does it produce power under control, as Eldredge would advocate, or does it produce a culture of male domination that makes every woman and every “weak” man a potential victim of violence?
In her book, My Brother’s Keeper: What Do (And Don’t) the Social Sciences Teach Us About Masculinity, Mary Stewart Von Leeuwen writes about how these patriarchal stereotypes are learned and internalized in boys:
…psychologist William Pollack calls [this] the “Boy Code.” This is a set of requirements for all who aspire to a contemporary version of the male culture of honor. We saw that in its classical form the culture of honor requires a man to resist challenges from other men, while advancing his own prestige and social ranking by a continuous display of cool-headedness, shrewdness, and verbal and physical dominance. In an article that has become something of a classic in men’s studies, social scientists Robert Brannon and Deborah David have outlined its four imperatives for boys growing up in North America today.
First, there must be no sissy stuff. Any display of behavior or emotion associated with the feminine may become an occasion for shaming or even physical abuse, unless a boy is lucky enough to be raised in a subculture where adults—and especially men—model such emotions and don’t punish boys for doing so. Empathy is feminine, so a boy like [study subject] Gary, though he feels conflicted about it, does not stand up for a friend who is being mocked and abused…
…the second imperative of the Boy Code: he must learn to become a sturdy oak—that is, stable, stoical, and self-reliant. If he can’t always be on top of the heap, he should at least “take it like a man” when adversity comes his way… It also helps explain why Christianity is so often stereotyped as an unmanly endeavor: to the extent that it calls on men to admit that they are not self-sufficient but need the grace of God and the support of other believers, Christian faith and lifestyle challenge the sturdy oak image.
Closely related to that image is the third imperative. A boy must learn…to be a big wheel—to cultivate success and status and provoke envy and admiration in others…Lastly, in its extreme form the imperative to become a big wheel becomes, in David and Brannon’s words, the mandate to give ’em hell. Violence performed by other than legally mandated persons is, of course, officially condemned in Western society. At the same time, it is modeled incessantly in the media and often encouraged in boys with a wink and a nod.
This wink and nod often takes the form of the catch-all excuse, “boys will be boys” when a boy (or man) demonstrates a lack of self-control or commits an open act of destruction or violence. Writer for the Huffington Post Soraya Chemaly describes a scene in which children playing together models the preschool version of this trope:
For months, every morning when my daughter was in preschool, I watched her construct an elaborate castle out of blocks, colorful plastic discs, bits of rope, ribbons and feathers, only to have the same little boy gleefully destroy it within seconds of its completion.
It was obvious that this little guy got massive joy out of doing this. The first time, my daughter just stared in amazement and I tried to help her rebuild. Second time: sadness. Third time: The Injustice! “Why did he do that again?” Fourth time: Royally Pissed Girl wanted to know why his parent didn’t stop him. And what about me? Fifth time: She was ready with some ideas about stopping him.
During the course of this socialization exercise, we tried several strategies and his parents engaged in conversation with us, but mostly me. One or the other of them would occasionally, always after the fact, smile and apologize as they whisked him away. Figuring out what they would say next became a fun game:
“You know! Boys will be boys!”
“He’s just going through a phase!”
“He’s such a boy! He LOVES destroying things!”
“Oh my god! Girls and boys are SO different!”
“He. Just. Can’t. Help himself!”
Many women have similar experiences from childhood: whether it’s a boy looking up dresses at the monkey bars or roughhousing long past another kid told them to stop.
Feminists point out these same phrases follow boys into manhood. Boys and men aren’t given the basic human dignity that says they have self-control. Men have the capacity to live in peace with other people, to build up and not destroy, yet most of our cultural messages outside (and sadly, inside) the church encourage the opposite identity. Instead of seeing a positive representation of masculinity as expressed in any human person, we see these destructive expectations imposed upon men exclusively and playing themselves out in any number of ways: violence against women (and the systemic injustices that prevent them from living in safety or their attackers from being adequately prosecuted), the bullying of men that “don’t fit the masculinity mold,” and male alienation and isolation, to name a few problems.
Essentially, men and women both suffer under patriarchy.
Several decades ago, as 1960’s feminism took off and the “women’s liberation movement” gained growing popular awareness and support, a complementary wave developed among men. Discussions about masculinity and its culturally-confined assumptions sprang up around conversations on women’s equality. Van Leeuwen writes in her book:
The men’s liberation movement was supportive of feminism, and being heavily populated by social scientists, it regarded much of the masculine ideal as a damaging social construction, not a biological or metaphysical given…profeminist men who wrote the first textbooks of the men’s movement, claimed that masculinity was a set of limitations imposed on men, just as femininity was a set of limitations imposed on men, and that its effects, even if different, were equally damaging. Thus the Berkeley Men’s Center Manifesto of 1973 challenged restrictive masculine roles and urged men to ‘take back our full humanity. We no longer want to strain and compete to live up to an impossible, oppressive masculine image—strong, silent, cool, handsome, unemotional, successful, master of women, leader of men, wealthy, brilliant, athletic…We are oppressed by conditioning which makes us only half-human.
When we examine Adam as a prototype for manhood and masculinity in general, we are tempted to allow our cultural assumptions of masculinity be our primary hermeneutic for understanding him. When we look at this first man, we must not forget he was first human, and as an individual, no more a map for navigating gender than any individual man could be. As we did with Eve, we can identify certain elements of Adam’s story that inform our understanding of the human story, but we are hard-pressed to make generalizations about every man based upon what we see in this one account. What we can safely say is that the creation story demonstrates God’s intent that men and women were made to coexist and work together for their good and God’s glory. Reading more into who came first, who said what to the snake, and flat-out making things up about the text do not help us gain wisdom and insight into what God wants for men and women. It’s as if God wants us to read the rest of the book before fully making up our minds, if He even wants us to pin this mystery down at all.
As we continue to look at cultural, historical, and Scriptural contexts to understand the nature of gender, let’s be attentive to ways that stereotypes inform our own interpretations, and identify moments where social order based upon patriarchy causes godly men and women to stumble. And let’s all get excited about this documentary coming this year from the people who brought us Miss Representation.