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COLUMN: I'll Make A (Hu)man Out Of You

Published: Sunday, February 17, 2013

Updated: Sunday, February 17, 2013 23:02

A few weeks ago, I was skimming through my Facebook news feed when I came across a link shared by one of my female friends. The link led to a blog post written by Jessica Valenti, a self-described feminist author who points out that the structures of “media, sexism, misogyny” are encouraging men to objectify women. In her discussion, Valenti asks her male relatives to change their ways and strongly declares, “So think of this as your chance to make a decision about what kind of man you’re going to be.”

And that was when I could no longer stomach any more of Valenti’s feminism with its witty “sense of humor.”
It’s not that I don’t approve of feminism—on the contrary, I’m an avid supporter of equal rights and opportunities for everyone, regardless of one’s gender. It’s the gender titles and roles that are constantly advertised that I find deeply irritating. Valenti wants her male relatives to be a certain kind of “man,” but what really is a man? 
Grappling with the same question, India seems to provide an answer. After the horrific gang-rape scandal and subsequent outrage that have made international headlines, India has been putting its best effort into reforming societal attitudes towards gender. The Times of India has even begun to publish advertisements in its newspapers that blatantly ask men, “What is the definition of manhood?” A few lines down the advertisement states, “The true test of your manhood is how you treat a woman … If you do not respect a woman you are only half a man.”   
Statements like this are only a part of the greater problem in our society. There is a strong sentiment nowadays to categorize everything based on gender. Masculinities and femininities are emphasized in nearly every form of media and have become ingrained in mainstream culture. Just take a look at Disney’s Mulan as an example: as an over-the-top Disney fanatic, even I’m shocked at how much people adore the iconic song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” Isn’t the song just perpetuating the traditional definition of masculinity in a film that, at the same time, is attempting to break conventional female roles?
So I suppose the main question really does go back to The Times of India advertisement: what makes a man? Is it being macho and as “swift as the coursing river,” as  Mulan tells us? Someone who is totally ripped and objectified, like the model in the scandalous Calvin Klein underwear commercial aired during the Super Bowl? 
Similarly, what is a real woman? Is it the prim and proper virgin? Or is it the super thin and attractive model who’s able to seductively walk down the runway? 
The complicated yet rigid constructs of gender prove to be infuriating in even one of my English classes this semester focusing on fairy tales. When discussing the theme of rape in “Little Red Riding Hood,” the old idea was reiterated that in today’s society, men are expected to go “get some” while women who are “asking for it” aren’t women at all—they’re sluts instead. As was indirectly concluded, a “real” man would be one who is able to control his impulses, right?
The aforementioned problems with Valenti’s blog post, The Times of India advertisement, Mulan, and even the discussion in my English class are that they all place an emphasis on gender and what it means to be a “real” man or woman. It’s as if there is some sort of essential “man-ness” and “woman-ness” that must be sought out and discovered, but such ideologies only further promote gender insecurity and divisions instead of fostering confidence and unity. There will always be comments like “A real man would have …” or “Women should …” but such declarations miss the entire point. It’s not about being a real man or a real woman—it’s about being a real human.
Somehow, true humanity has given way and devolved into the stereotypical entities of masculinity and femininity. Rather than emphasizing manhood and womanhood, we should stress the importance of humanhood. The answer isn’t to tell boys to be “real men” and girls to be “real women”—on the contrary, the solution lies in telling them they should strive to become genuine human beings, individuals capable of emoting, practicing morality, and doing good deeds. 
Valenti wants her male relatives to become a certain “kind of man,” while India claims it is possible for some to be “half a man” as well. Rape, abuse, and violence are terrible things, but the ability to differentiate between good and bad and abstain from such disgusting acts doesn’t make anyone a good man or woman—it makes them a good human being. 
We can all be massive supporters of equal rights and feminists, but we shouldn’t forget the bigger picture. So maybe, instead of striving to become men and women for others, let’s just start by becoming humans for others first.

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