For many men the rapidly shifting landscape of gender roles and expectations can feel like a minefield. Here couple's counsellor and insideMAN reader, Jennie Cummings-Knight, reflects both on the conflicted feelings she has about the new gender order and the mixed messages some women seem to be sending men.
In January of this year, I both witnessed and played a part in what was perhaps a typical incident of male confusion with regard to how to behave towards women in 21st century Britain.
I was on the station platform at Norwich after a football match, when the train came in after a long wait and a points’ failure. All the football supporters got on in a body, and I was left on the platform with one foot in the doorway. I asked the tightly-packed fans to let me on and they replied “there is no room”, so I called out to my husband who, already on the train, had not realised that I was still on the platform, and he pulled me on to the train through the crowd.
I was very annoyed at having nearly been stranded on the platform for the evening and I said in a loud voice, “I see the days of ladies first have long gone past!” Suddenly there was a sheepish shift in attitude from the (mostly male) crowd of supporters. They looked around and found me a small jump seat to sit on.
It seemed that I had effectively reminded them of the manners of a bygone age and they had responded by instinct to a phrase that 30 years ago, everyone knew off by heart. It was an interesting moment!
Simpler times, clearer rules?
There was a time when men in the UK knew how society expected them to behave around women that they had personal relationships with -- the rules were much clearer: They were supposed to be providers - to protect, to be good earners.
Men did not need to be good looking but they needed to be fit, active and in gainful employment. There was a tacit understanding that they probably knew more about sexual matters than most women and this was welcomed as long as the sexual experimentation stayed in the past once a commitment to a woman was made.
Women were considered to be the “weaker vessel”, and as objectionable as this is to contemporary sensibilities, they were nonetheless treated with a particular kind of care and respect, (in the majority of cases).
Women liked to be admired and noticed, but not usually for their successful careers, but more for their companionship, and their ability to provide a nurturing home environment and it did not hurt if their good looks were a factor too.
Things have changed... or have they?
Women apparently liked the fantasy of being “swept off their feet” by the confident and successful male -- as long as he brought home a good wage and did not “play the field” that was pretty much all that was required. Children were welcomed as built-in likely by-products of the relationship, and a woman would be expected to look after the home and take the major share of responsibility in child care.
Now things have changed - or have they?
Women say they want to be equal with men – we say we want to be treated as strong and independent people - we no longer “need” the old fashioned “knight in shining armour” image - but is this true in your experience?
I personally remember the days of being “looked after” by men - (when they were viewed as emotionally tougher, physically stronger, and responsible for shouldering the main financial burden of the homestead) - with nostalgia.
Women say that they want to be admired for what they can achieve - not for how they look. But that’s not true for me, and therefore I suspect not for all women either. Yes, I want to be admired for what I can achieve, but that does not mean that how I look no longer matters. Far from it!
We women have also often complained that men take advantage of positions of power - but do we make the same mistakes?
We want equal status in the workplace, but we like to run things the way we want in the home.
We complain that women are under-represented in high prestige jobs, but we stay quiet about the fact that it’s mostly men who do the most dangerous (e.g. tasks in the forces) dirty, (refuse collecting, for example) and low status (farm labourers, brick layers, etc.) jobs.
With regard to sexual advances, I have seen a certain hypocrisy at work, where men are increasingly accused of inappropriate behaviour, but where women think it’s OK to behave in exactly the same way themselves, and yet there tends to be a very different reaction than if a man were to accuse a woman of doing the same -- the result for him would far more likely to be ridicule.
I saw a young lady one evening (it all happens at the train station, it seems!) offer her train ticket to the guard by sticking it in her cleavage and asking him to take it from there. He did so, but he was at risk (in my view) in this response because she could have accused him of being inappropriate later.
How is a man supposed to navigate his way through the complex maze of what women say they want, and what they appear to really want?
Let me know your thoughts!
By Jennie Cummings-Knight
Photo: Colin Kinner/Flickr