Reviews > Culture

The androgynous zone

Culture | From "chick flicks" to Olympics coverage, American culture is becoming more and more feminized

Issue: "Honest Abe Rosenthal," March 14, 1998

Although this may still be "a man's world," women are winning the battle of the sexes when it comes to the culture.

Sports have always been a prime interest of men, but television coverage of the Winter Olympics, following the pattern set by the summer games, targeted women. Not only did figure skating beat up hockey in the ratings, but the coverage skewed away from the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat to "human-interest stories" about the athletes' lives, families, and the obstacles they had to overcome. The networks described their approach as appealing more to women. (Watch for this same approach to be used in the upcoming seasons of baseball and football, as networks try to find a way to make money from the budget-busting contracts they signed with professional sports leagues.)

Throughout the popular culture, female consumers are calling the shots. Movie studios have realized that the so-called "chick flicks"-films about love and relationships-are where the real money is. That Titanic has become the top-grossing film of all time probably has less to do with its expensive special effects than its love story, the triangle used over and over again in romance novels of a young woman who has to choose between a safe, socially approved suitor and a wild, socially rebellious, and usually doomed lover. (Guess which one always gets chosen.) Rock music has shifted from the testosterone-fired heavy metal to a new generation of talented female rockers. Even the country music industry is now favoring ballads, sensitive-guy crooners, and songs about the triumph of women in divorce proceedings (as in Garth Brooks's "She's Gonna Make It, But He Never Will").

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The feminization of popular culture is in many ways healthy. Character-driven movies and songs about relationships have to be a moral advance over the macho, values-free sex and violence that had been the vogue. But something akin to feminization is taking place in nearly every realm of American society, constituting a profound cultural shift whose consequences may be problematic.

Businesses are abandoning their hierarchical structures and rugged individualism (hallmarks supposedly of the male mind) in favor of collaborative management and relationship-building (which is, we are told, how women prefer to work). Schools that once (to counter the stereotypes, when women were most in charge) stressed discipline and achievement now have become places of "nurturing" and self-esteem building. Even the military has become preoccupied with "sensitivity training."

In the realm of government, both parties have become obsessed with "the politics of caring." The shameless courting of "soccer moms" reached its low point in the last Republican convention, as supposedly tough-minded conservatives tried to get in touch with their feminine side, to the embarrassment of much of the voting public.

Even the church has become feminized. Forceful doctrinal preaching and aggressive proselytizing have largely given way to good feelings and relationship building. Even the "men's movement" seems wholly derivative of the women's movement. Douglas Wilson has observed how Promise Keepers has men abandoning the typical pattern of male friendships-based on the camaraderie of common interests and giving each other a hard time-in favor of the same sort of intimate, self-disclosing relationships that characterize friendships among women.

The feminization of the culture-which I am reporting as a fact, not a value judgment-is, to use the feminist distinction, a matter of gender (behavior), not sex (biology). In President Clinton's cabinet, the Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, publishes poetry in which he weeps about running over a deer (which may explain the boldness of Saddam Hussein). The women in the cabinet, however-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the trigger-happy Attorney General Janet Reno-are the toughest hombres of them all, not to mention the president's steely-minded protector, Hillary Clinton. The fact is, about the only people today practicing the ostensibly masculinist arts of hardball politics and the aggressive use of power are feminists.

This is not role reversal, but sensibility reversal. Men still occupy the positions of power, but they are acting more like women were always supposed to. Women are changing the workplace and the entertainment industry, but they are having to fill the gender vacuum by also acting like men.

Where this new cultural androgyny matters the most is in the family, where children of all economic classes are growing up with neither discipline nor nurturing. Both maleness and femaleness are essential to a culture because children need both a father figure and a mother figure. Children-and for that matter, grownups-need to feel both protected and cared for. In a healthy culture, like a healthy family, the two sexes should neither try to dominate nor drive each other out; rather, they should complement each other. Otherwise, the whole culture will have the struggles of a single-parent family.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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