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Friday, July 3, 2020

The Lipstick Proviso and The New Double Standard

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Karen Lehrman Bloch
Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic; author of The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World (Doubleday) and The Inspired Home: Interiors of Deep Beauty (Harper Design); Editor of International Political Affairs at The Weekly Blitz; and curator of the book and exhibition Passage to Israel (Skyhorse).

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Every day when I pick up my 9-year-old son from school, I face the reality that the #MeToo movement is operating in overcorrection mode. The moment we’re off the school premises, Alexander and his friends offer up a litany of injustices.

What are they griping about? Girls.

“They get away with everything!” “The teachers never criticize them!” “If we even ask the girls to stop annoying us, we immediately get screamed at!” 

I’ve been hearing these gripes for the past couple of years, but this year they’ve gotten far worse. It seems the younger assistant teachers have it in their heads that boys are inherently bad and girls are inherently good. So, even if a girl misbehaves, it must be a boy’s fault. 

This year, the boys started using a new phrase: reverse sexism. (Actually, it first came home as “reverse sex,” and then I figured out what they meant.) 

Ballroom dancing class also started this year. At this age, the boys find the girls icky beyond belief, yet they are hyper intrigued with “sexual relations,” as my son puts it. Forcing them “to have physical contact” would probably be the last thing I would add to the mix.

Not surprisingly, many of the boys flat out don’t want to do it. More than anything, they feel resentful: It’s another way the schools are favoring girls. 

Given where the national conversation is, one might wonder: Is this really a rational way to improve relations between the sexes? Shouldn’t the idea be to teach respect, not instill resentment?

I suppose one could say it’s a positive that we moved from “girls and boys are exactly the same” to “girls are better than boys,” but in reality, it’s far worse. “Better” was an argument used to deny women rights for hundreds of years.

It’s sad that so few women understand the true meaning of feminism. Democratic Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona in 2006 described stay-at home moms as not just unfeminist but as “leeching off their husbands.”

As a stay-at-home mom who has actually studied feminism, I can confidently tell Sinema that early feminists had no issue with stay-at-home moms — but her own condescension about another woman’s choice is what’s unfeminist.

I’m especially happy to be a stay-at-home mom when my son’s masculinity is being dragged through the mud on a daily basis. Part of the reason the boys complain to me is because I’m there to listen to their complaints. If I had a daughter, I would be there to listen to hers.

The irony is that the true definition of feminism could not be more basic: Feminism means freedom. That’s it. Freedom to choose. A century ago, women could not choose. Now, we can.

But those choices may be different from males’ — what I call the lipstick proviso. Women are different from men — not better, different. In democratic societies, these differences stem from biology (not “the patriarchy”) and reside on a bell curve, meaning some women overlap with some men. Because of these innate biological differences, any numerical mandate, like a recent California law regarding female representation on the boards of publicly- held companies, is ridiculous.  

As I write this, I’m on a train to Philadelphia to help my 88-year-old father move to an assisted-living facility. I don’t need to be there; I want to be there. I couldn’t possibly not be there. 

I was never taught that this is what daughters do, just as I was never taught to stay home with my son. And contrary to Sinema’s clueless assertion, going to an office would have been much easier in both cases. Other women make different choices. It’s not for me to judge. 

Indeed, demeaning my choices — or demeaning the masculinity of my son — is not what real feminists do. I get that many women have had bad experiences with men. But it doesn’t help anyone to globalize that bad experience, to condemn all masculinity as toxic, and to raise a generation of resentful boys. 

My dad’s lifelong resilience is part of what I see as the beauty of masculinity. Until women and men fully understand what femininity and masculinity positively bring to the table, we’re not going to fix any problems. In fact, we’re in the process of making them far worse.


Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.

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