A Bathing Beauty Contest for Men

It’s clear that women will continue to pursue the fight against inequality, harassment, and abuse, but it’s not yet clear that men will do their part in transforming gender relationships.  Many of us are readily convinced by the moral argument for equality.  Many comply with formal and informal rules of engagement that have been built slowly and with constant effort and struggle, over the last half century. Some of us even thrill to the feminist march towards freedom.

But mostly men’s sympathies don’t go deep enough.  Beneath the surface, there remains a wish to distance ourselves, a powerful urge to resist and even a rage that we have been put upon.  Take, for instance, the demonization of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi by many of the most liberal men.  Implicitly, the same tendency to demonize is played out in countless households.  When pushed about their hostility to Clinton and Pelosi, men say it’s a generational thing—time for new leadership.   There’s some truth to that claim, but there’s another truth: It is hard for the men to admit or even to have access to how threatened and, subsequently, how furious we are with declining power in our homes, our workplaces, the political arena, and anywhere else that women lay claim to the legitimacy of their positions.

I believe that men need to dig deeper into the psychological foundation of their resistance in order to learn about and acknowledge their more primal fears.  It is only then that we will be able to turn around our own gender politics in the profound and trustworthy way that is necessary for cultural transformation.

There are moments when men do reach that deeper awareness.  Here’s a story about such a time.  As you’ll see, the story hinges on a male bathing beauty contest, which may seem to trivialize such important issues but, because it speaks to the archetypal way that men trivialize women, may bring home the message very clearly.

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The year is 1971.  The story begins with an Alternate Lifestyle Workshop that I had helped organize at a retreat center on Cape Cod.  In those days, many people thought to challenge the primacy the nuclear family which, among other things, held women in their traditional place. It also isolated children with just two adults.. More loving adults would make children more secure and free them from having to fulfill the stifling demands of overly concerned parents. These ‘pioneers’ built communes, formed extended families, nurtured networks of like-minded but unrelated people to share money, shelter, and the responsibilities of child rearing.

The first day was planned as a fair of sorts.  Each of the alternative lifestyle groups had a booth and everyone at the workshop could walk around and ask: “What’s it like to live in something like that?” The discussions were animated, the laughter contagious.  People had come to party as much as to learn.

Not everyone was pleased, though.  As evening neared, three women approached me, looking very serious…or was it angry?  I thought I recognized the oldest of the three. –  Betty Friedan!  The second was Gloria Steinem.  I didn’t recognize the third woman.  Individually and collectively the women were way above my status in life; and I felt the whole Second Wave of feminism rolling in on me.

With little prelude, they said that the workshops were not addressing the most basic alternative life style: women gaining equal power, in families and elsewhere.  “No matter how you reconfigure men, women, and children in communes and the like, there remains a fundamental inequality,” said the third woman, who I think turned out to be Letty Pogrebin, one of the founders of MS Magazine.

Who could argue with their declaration?  Before I had time to contemplate their contention, they made a proposal, which sounded, to my 29 year old ears, a little like a demand.

“We would like to take over this evening’s activities.”

As they continued, I grew embarrassed.  We had neglected gender issues in the workshop design.  I didn’t share my embarrassment.  There was a matter of dignity to retain.  I simply tried to keep my cool and said:  “Sure.”  I also made an executive decision, not to even ask my boss if we could change our agenda.  Wasn’t that the manly thing to do?

“I suppose we’ve been more exotic than realistic,” I said, trying to join the spirit of their proposal.  “What do you have in mind?”

“Leave it to us,” said Betty, who seemed to be in charge.

“I’d appreciate knowing some of what you’re doing,” I countered.  I did have responsibilities, after all.

“Fair enough, “ Betty continued. “We’ll be conducting a series of role plays to help everyone understand the power of male dominance in our society.”

I worried that the image of dominance might seem extreme to workshop participants and make them uncomfortable. I was well acquainted with role play and psychodrama.  They were psychotherapy techniques that helped people release and redirect long suppressed feelings.  But this wasn’t a group therapy meeting and I worried that matters could get out of hand.  Since my boss was nowhere to be found, though, I mostly listened, and then complied.

“I’m with you” I said, trying to sound like a co-conspirator in this revolutionary moment.

After everyone gathered that evening, Betty, Gloria, and Letty walked to the center of the room—they had insisted that there was no need for me to introduce them—to describe the evening.  Instantly, the three women had everyone’s ear.  For a bunch of experimental people, it seemed to me that the participants were very passive.

They began by describing a broad feminist agenda – fair enough, and nothing that these progressive individuals hadn’t heard before,  It was also mercifully brief.  Then they announced that they would be facilitating a series of activities that, in small ways, promoted that agenda, and launched into their program.  The first activity was an old fashioned Sadie Hawkins dance.  That was fun and made no one very nervous. Indeed, many women, and men too, seemed delighted by what some later said reminded them of elementary school.

The second exercise intensified matters.  The crowd was divided into groups of five for discussion of several key topics.  In each group, a woman was put in charge of leading the conversation, following prompts on note cards that had been distributed to her. The men were instructed simply to fall in with their group leaders’ “program” — no questions asked. The themes under discussion were framed as a series of questions, each of which proposed solutions to the longstanding dominance of men in all aspects of life: What if only women were now allowed to managed household finances?  What if women were responsible for initiating sex? What if, for the next 25 years, only women were allowed to run for political office? The discussion that followed produced some, but no unbearable, friction and some timid objections from the men.  I could sense the tension rising in the room, but we were still operating on a rational level and the feelings were manageable.

The next exercise had women lead the men through a series of callisthenic exercises.  “Do this!”  “Do that!”  “Jump!”  “Fall down!”  This activity went on for a while.  The idea was for men to experience grinding, repetitive powerlessness.  Discussion followed as the atmosphere heated up.

The final exercise was a male bathing beauty contest. The women in charge began by building a platform on which they would stand.  They wanted to be high above the male contestants.  Then they ordered the men to strip down to their underwear.  “Yes, everything but that one item off!”  At this point, all but a few of the men hesitated.  Some initially refused and stepped to the side, saying they hadn’t agreed to this when they had signed up for the retreat.  It seemed exploitative.  They didn’t like being pushed around.  Others slinked off; these guys were quiet and slightly embarrassed, disappearing into themselves. But in the end, all the men complied, many expressing to me later that it would have been even more cowardly to refuse.

I too considered staying out; I told myself that as one of the retreat organizers, I should. You never knew when my services—and a level head—might be required.  I didn’t announce this, I just stood to the side.  “Uh Uh,” said Gloria Steinem.  “Everyone participates.  You’re not exempt from social conditioning and you’re not exempt from learning.”  I couldn’t argue the point and joined in, despite my misgivings.

Each man was required to take the long walk from the beginning of the line towards and past the podium, where the women stood in judgment.  Some of their judgment was kind:  “Nice legs… good shoulders” and so forth.  Most of the comments were less kind.  “Ugh, what a hairy body… skinny ass… sunken chest… You need to get some exercise in… Is that the best you’ve got?”  Over time, the commentary grew cruder, louder, and more boisterous.  The women were having fun.  Each of us walked that long runway by ourselves.  We were lonely and frightened and angry—without a legitimate target for our anger.

The judges didn’t just hoot and holler.  They also rated each of us, from 10, which is the best, to 1, which is dismal.  As you might imagine, none of the men rated anything above about a 3, maybe a 4.  There were no passing grades.

That was hard.  But it was at least as hard when Betty Friedan announced that the men would have to talk openly about their feelings.  “What did it feel like to walk by us and be evaluated?  What did you think of your grades?  Do you know that this is how you treat us, more or less, every day?”  As we men spoke, the tone became more like confessing to crimes than confiding our insecurities.

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The workshop cracked the shell of civility.  That evening the men didn’t seem to need long lectures about inequality and its impact.  They felt it and, for a moment, they couldn’t run away. What they did with those lessons, I don’t know.  Time would tell and I’m sorry that I didn’t, with the perspective of time, have the opportunity to ask.

But now, more than 45 years later, I can distill a few lessons.  I think we could be alert to moments like this—they do arise—and take advantage of them. At such times, we can talk at a depth not always attainable in regular conversation.

In addition, we men can tell stories about times when the shell was broken and our feelings made available.  Maybe we can talk among small gatherings of just men, maybe we can dare to talk among men and women.  At such times, we can ask one another:  “How did you, how could you, how might you respond to these and other challenges to your manhood?” We can ask ourselves to skip our declarations of agreement and alliance with the feminist agenda.  What’s underneath the agreement?  How hard has it been to fall in with it, and how far do you still have to go to come to terms with it?  We need to speed our way.

 

 

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