Plastic Woman, Cardboard Man, or, Can you have a feminism which doesn’t expect men to change? by @glosswitch

Originally published: 09.04.14

In her masculinity-in-crisis moananthon The End of Men, Hanna Rosin introduces us to two characters: Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man. Their purpose is to help us understand why today’s men are losing out to their female counterparts. It’s not that women are better than men, nor even that this whole “losing out” thing is a myth. It’s because women are adaptable and men aren’t. Lucky women. Poor men.

According to Rosin, Plastic Woman has “throughout the century performed superhuman feats of flexibility” while Cardboard Man “hardly changes at all.” On the face of it, this sounds rather flattering to women. Men just plod along, being man-like, whereas we get to transform ourselves, Mr Benn-like, depending on whatever the circumstances (i.e. men) require. How cool is that? It’s in line with a lot of recent commentary on gender difference, which seeks to celebrate supposedly “feminine” characteristics – flexibility, patience, empathy – at the expense of supposedly “masculine” ones – rationality, stability, individualism. Women are, we are told, the new winners, both in the home and in the newly “feminised” workplace (it’s just unfortunate that those who live with us and those who decide on our salaries haven’t quite cottoned on to this. But never mind, the future’s female – it’s only the present that never is).

Feminists have long suspected that there’s something a bit dodgy about all this. It sounds suspiciously like a reiteration of age-old gender stereotypes – the same ones that have been used to hold us back for centuries – dressed up in new, empowering language. You’re so much better at caring and listening! Therefore you hold the baby while I talk about my problems and don’t give a second thought to yours! Gee, thanks. As Deborah Cameron notes in The Myth of Mars and Venus, when looking at the ways in which sexism has been justified over time, “we should be cautious about drawing the conclusion that ‘they’ were prejudiced, ‘we’ are enlightened. It is always much easier to notice the prejudices of other times and other cultures than it is to examine our own beliefs with a critical eye.” So-called “feminine” characteristics do not need to be explicitly aligned with inferiority in order for them to be used to justify the exploitation of women (indeed, they often weren’t in the past. The muse, the angel in the house, the virtuous maid – none of these are used as direct insults, but we still know that the practical implications of such stereotypes could be deeply harmful to women). It’s not enough to have one’s difference appreciated if said appreciation is being used to reinforce prescriptive ideas about how different one should be. Moreover, the static man/flexible woman paradigm isn’t all that far away from the man as default/woman as other paradigm identified by de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. Women are permitted to bend and reshape themselves in relation to men only because without men, we are believed to be nothing.

People – well, mostly men – have spent a long time attempting to prove that gender difference is innate. Even if they haven’t always used the word gender, what they are seeking to uncover – essential differences in feelings and behaviour, brain sex, proof of “the complementarity of the sexes” – hasn’t changed much since the 1800s. It used to be thought that smaller brain size made women intellectually inferior to men and less capable of rational thought, a belief which was used to exclude women from public spheres of influence and force them to focus on the world of feelings (i.e. unpaid caring work). We don’t think that now (or at least we don’t say it) but, just like the exploitation of unpaid female labour, the desire to prove that minute differences in the brain are directly connected to differences in behaviour hasn’t gone away. It hasn’t been proven that gender is innate and it probably never will be, but this doesn’t really matter, because no one will ever be able to prove in any absolute, definitive sense that gender isn’t innate, either. It’d be like proving God didn’t exist. You know it’s very, very unlikely – you know that the vested interest some people have in believing outweighs any material proof – but still you can’t do it. And that crack in the door will always be wide enough. How can you be sure women aren’t meant to be these flexible, adaptable, nurturing, caring creatures? After all, even if plenty of women tell you that’s not how they feel, maybe they’re just not being rational? And how can you be sure men aren’t incapable of change? After all, even if a man does change – even if he veers from the norm – you can always say he wasn’t a man to begin with. Indeed, doesn’t his ability to change prove it?

And this is the brick wall that feminists find themselves constantly running up against. People say they’re on our side but when push comes to shove, they can’t imagine a world in which men have to budge an inch. We’re still playing with the same stereotypes. So we talk about choice. We talk about ending discrimination. We talk about letting women go to places which previously excluded them. We talk about them taking on roles that previously they couldn’t take on. Always we talk about what women must do, how women must feel, what must happen to women. And we reassure men that this doesn’t mean anything has to change for them. We tell them they won’t lose out. Plastic Woman, Cardboard Man. At no point will a man be expected to mould himself, diminish himself, squeeze himself into the gaps that are created should women actually stop doing all this unpaid labour. At no point will a man be expected to renounce his entitlements and fall into a more passive role. At no point will the man/other paradigm be knocked off balance.

It’s a magic trick, akin to those economic theories whereby one can continue cutting taxes for the rich while constantly increasing one’s own tax revenue. Don’t worry, people at the top. That group known as “the others” will sort it out amongst themselves. Everyone buys into it. All those lefty men who wouldn’t dream of applying such theories to actual economics think it can be done with gender. Because remember, women are flexible. Women are other. Women are magic. Any problems? It’ll be because they’ve just not been flexible enough.

Most of the current feminist backlash is based on this idea of that one cannot expect men to change; indeed, to do so is presented as a form of bigotry, a denial of a man’s true self. You can see this in the way terms such as SWERF (sex worker exclusionary radical feminist) and TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) are used. When women challenge two key tenets of patriarchy – the idea that men have a right of access to women’s bodies, and the idea that masculinity and hence male dominance are “natural” – they are dismissed with one-syllable slurs. Call a woman a bigot rather than explain why she cannot question your own immovable definition of man as sexually entitled and uniquely permitted to resist all variations in other males, using violence if necessary. Man is man; woman is whatever man is not. Deal with it, bitch.

In a Guardian panel discussing sex work legislation, the sex worker and campaigner Laura Lee argues that “prostitution cannot be eradicated”:

There has never been a society without those who sell sex and nor will there be. Once you’ve accepted that, your priorities should change.

Well, yeah. If you conclude that a man’s “right” to pay for sex cannot ever be questioned, your priorities will change. As they will if you conclude that men cannot ever wear dresses and little boys cannot ever play with dolls. Or if you conclude that all men watch porn – they just do – and that’s that. You’ll have to find a feminism that is porn-inclusive, men’s-right-to-buy-sex-inclusive, protective-of-the-one-true-masculinity-inclusive. Indeed, some people even think they’ve found such a feminism (they even have the nerve to call it intersectional, clearly not having a clue what intersectional means). The underlying principle of this calls-itself-intersectional-but-absolutely-isn’t feminism is never ask a man to change. Just work around him. Like you always have done. Like all women always have done. So it’s the same old shit, different name. But what do you care? You’re Plastic Woman, right?

Meanwhile there are feminists who do want actual change, for everyone. But since the very idea of challenging gender norms is now positioned as bigotry, it really isn’t easy. We live in an age where telling children that they do not need to change their bodies to “match” their inner feelings – telling children they’re just fine as they are – is presented as a form of “conversion therapy” akin to those used in the past to “treat” gay men and lesbians. Acceptance of difference is sold to us as the new rejection of difference. Adult men – self-styled liberal adult men – would rather see children castrate themselves than let go of the idea that “maleness” is some unchangeable, monolithic structure against which everything else must be defined as “other.” They’d rather see teenage girls slice off their breasts than create a world in which people with female bodies are permitted to occupy space as freely as men. They’d rather see little boys drugged and operated on than help them understand that people with male bodies can be just as decorative, just as fluffy, just as passive, just as penetrable as women are supposed to be. They’d rather anything – any amount of short-term suffering and long-term physical pain – be wrought on young people than allow all human characteristics – all feelings, all needs, all desires, all responsibilities – to flow freely between all humans. Because that would change what it means to be a man and it would change what women are in relation to men.

If one takes the lingo of the day to its logical conclusion, feminism itself could end up classed as a “conversion therapy.” After all, it involves telling men that they are not always who they think they are: not dominant, not superior, not entitled to other people’s bodies or identities, not granted free rein to perceive themselves as “whatever women are not” – or to tell women what this “not being men” constitutes. Feminism dares to tell men “your freedom to be who you think you ‘really’ are ends at the point at which it impinges on my freedom to be treated like a human being.” And men do not like this. Hence their embrace of the current trend for seeing one’s stated identity as sacred and insisting that anyone who questions this is guilty of “violence.” Men know – or they’d be profoundly unobservant not to know – that a woman does not grow up to expect the same luxury of having her inner life recognised by others. She must wait around to see what isn’t being categorised as “male” at any given time then accept that as what she “is.” Adaptable. Flexible. Plastic. She must change to suit the whims of others. Then she must listen while others tell her what a privilege this adaptability is.

“You can’t change a man,” women are endlessly told, as this is one of life’s great truths. It might be said to encourage a woman to stay in an abusive relationship, or to leave, penniless. Or it might be said as a way of justifying wife work, sex work, violent porn, rape. But unless we believe men are capable of change, there is no hope. Are we really reaching a stage of “adaptability” whereby if all else fails, we’re meant to slice off our own breasts in order to fit in? And if that doesn’t work, what then? Either we want real change or we don’t. And men are not made of cardboard.


Victoria Smith  Humourless Mummy, Cuddly Feminist [@glosswitch]