Women's Magazines and 'Boutique Equality'
by Garth Wood
Associate Editor, Balance on the Web

I frequently read women's magazines simply to get a feel for what their editorial staff deems the issues of the day, week, month or whatever.  For those of you who don't read such efforts, you're missing a decidedly weird treat.  Most of what's available on the shelves today is a somewhat schizoid mixture of traditional chivalry, romance, New Age, pop psychology, feminism (various flavours), and sexist misandry.  And that's just in one single magazine.  Put all of the opinions and editorial stances of all the magazines together, and you would be forgiven if, as an alien visiting this planet, you came to the conclusion that there were far more than two sexes, some of which deserved endless hostility for their various flaws and failings, and others of which no woman could live without.

What's going on here?  Partly, I suspect, it's due to the traditional stance of magazines which publish articles solicited from third parties.  You know what I'm talking about -- even Balance has such a stance.  It's neatly summed up in the disclaimer "We encourage contributions from various viewpoints, but their inclusion in this Web site should not be construed as editorial support for any particular viewpoint."  We do this for a simple reason -- we don't necessarily agree with everything written in articles submitted to us, but we still think the article's worth our time to publish.  It might be a reasoned, rational contribution to the issues, or an emotional diatribe from the pen (or keyboard) of some recently-wounded combatant in our ever-wearying gender wars.  I'm sure the situation's much the same for our big sisters, the women's magazines.  Besides, as their employees might be willing to reveal after a few drinks, it makes for great copy and sells like crazy.  Nothing like a little mud-slinging to pump up circulation and conveniently affirm their readers' prejudices.

That being said, I ran across two articles recently to which I had quite differing reactions.

The first was an op-ed piece in Edmonton Woman (Vol. 4, No. 7), a local newspaper-like broadsheet distributed free to a number of businesses and retail outlets in the downtown core (and perhaps other areas, for all I know).  Entitled "Yesterday's women's struggles reflected in today's" (p. 6) and written by Martha Dobbin, the article attempts to give an ever-so-brief overview of the genesis of the women's movement in Canada, and draws parallels between how feminists were treated back then and how they're treated now.  I was struck by the gratuitous snipes at males throughout the piece, but the one statement she made, supposedly to explain why feminists were still being "abused" by their "opponents," really set me thinking: "Women have fought for gender equality -- and there is the burr under the saddle."

"...the burr under the saddle."  What an evocative phrase!  It spoke a lot of truth to me, a male, but probably not the "truth" Ms. Dobbin ever intended.  You see, if you've ever ridden a horse, you know that the burr under the saddle doesn't bother the rider, that is, the one who's in control.  It bothers the horse -- the one who's being controlled.  The horse may be strong and swift, but ultimately, it is not in control of its own destiny.  Most men feel the same way: bludgeoned and demeaned for perceived wrongs most of them never committed and never dreamed of committing, made to feel criminal simply by dint of Y-chromosone and penis, yet held to old-fashioned (and, for women, quite convenient) standards of responsibility for the provisioning of the needs of women and children, men do indeed feel "the burr under the saddle."  That burr has nothing to do with women seeking equality (something which many men have helped with, by the way): it has to do with men's perception that there is precious little reciprocity in the "equality" that women seek.  Privileges without responsibilities are largely meaningless, yet many men perceive that "what women want" boils down to the phrase "all the privileges which men have enjoyed without any of the responsibilities men have been burdened with."  This is nothing more than "boutique equality," selecting the convenient and even fun things men can do while rejecting the ugly, tedious or just plain wearisome things men must do.  Boutique equality is insulting to men.  It's insulting to women who have taken on the traditional responsibilities of the male, God bless 'em.  It ought to be insulting to every thinking feminist.  Perhaps next time Ms. Dobbin puts pen to paper and offers her views on why some "feminists" meet with hostility, she would do well to reflect on this.

The other article, published in Modern Woman magazine (Sept. 1996, p. 4) and entitled "In Touch," gave me much more reason to hope that finally some women were "getting it," and were even trying to help other women "get it."  Penned by Charlotte Empey, the editor of Modern Woman, the article discussed women's reluctance to allow men to show their feelings.  Ms. Empey noted that, while women liked men who showed empathy and compassion, there were strict limits to just how far women wanted men to reveal themselves.  Too much emotion, too much vulnerability, and suddenly women were abandoning their sensitive males and seeking some great hulking brute who shut up, stood up and got the job done.  As Ms. Empey so rightfully stated, "[Women] pay lip service to the notion of caring, sharing sensitive men who feel secure enough in their masculinity to express the full range of emotions, but the message we send says something else.  Feel free to cry when you're sad or happy, but don't turn on the waterworks when you're angry or frustrated -- or worse, afraid -- because I'm not secure enough in your masculinity to accept it.  In other words, we'll applaud men crying, but only in situations we feel are appropriate.  We reserve the right to say when."

She goes on to point out that such an attitude by women is unfair, both to men and to women, because it locks both sexes into rigid gender roles, denies each sex's full humanity and may even contribute to specific emotional and physical health problems peculiar to each sex.  I'm certainly no medical expert, but this makes sense.  To Ms. Empey I say, "Hear, hear!"  This is a refreshing change from the two-faced attitude toward the male -- and the female! -- of the species that seems to predominate in women's mags, and I for one wish Ms. Empey a long and glorious career pointing out such foibles to her sisters.  The idea of allowing men and women full expression of their feelings is the polar opposite of 'boutique equality' -- it allows both sexes the privileges of each, and gives both sexes the opportunity to shoulder the responsibilities traditionally assigned to their opposite number.

Here's to both sexes achieving their full humanity.  And pass the hankies, will ya?

Garth Wood is the Internet coordinator for Balance on the Web and a long-time supporter of equal privileges and responsibilities for both sexes.