Pedicures for Men and Ice Cream for Toddlers: Thoughts on Stereotypes

The discussion about stereotypes comes after the dialogue.  I just wanted to show how a random conversation got me thinking about stereotypes:

 I was sitting alone in McDonald’s this morning, catching up on the news with my e-reader (for which I needed the internet), when from a neighboring table I heard a woman say, “Honey, you’re not supposed to be sad.  It’s a treat.”  I looked over and saw a woman with short, curly grey hair holding a small plastic spoon to the mouth of a two year-old boy.  He had blond hair that dangled down to his blue eyes.  A tear traced down his cheek. The boy turned to me and raised his eyebrows, as if wondering where I had come from.

“I’m trying to get him to eat ice cream,” the woman said, “but he’s having none of it.”

“Has he eaten ice cream before?” I asked.

“I’m not sure.  I’m his grandmother.  I’m trying to ruin his appetite before I give him back to his parents.”  She smiled.  “That’s what grandparents are for.”

“You’ve got that right,” said a woman at another table.  She laughed, and added, “And we love them for it.”  This woman sat across from a boy who looked to be around twelve years old and who had the broad shoulders of a middle-school linebacker who would likely fill out to become a giant in just a few years.

The grandmother coaxed two spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream into her grandson’s mouth.  He raised his hand to the plastic spoon and helped his grandmother guide it toward him.  Now he smiled.

“I’m taking my son to get a pedicure with me,” said the woman with the twelve year-old.  “We get them together.”

I wasn’t sure if she was joking or serious, so I said nothing.

“More men are doing that nowadays,” said the grandmother as she raised another spoonful of ice cream to her grandson’s mouth.

“It’s true,” said the mother.  “His friends on the football team tease him, but he tells them they don’t know what they’re missing.”

“I know a few guys who get pedicures, or at least manicures,” I said.

“You should try it,” said the mother.

“She’s right,” added the grandmother.  “It’s relaxing.”

I do know men who have gotten manicures and pedicures, but sitting in McDonald’s, contemplating whether or not I would seek out either of these services myself, I didn’t know how to respond.  We all confront moments when we’re asked to lift something from an old category and place it into a new one.  I think of getting a pedicure as something women do, but for most of human history no one got pedicures, so why not men, now?  Because it’s not “manly,” but manliness is another quality that we define differently over time.  A lot of men file their nails and style their hair.  Does that make them unmanly?

This whole conversation just got me thinking about the power gender stereotypes exert on our lives, how they influence who we become, what we do, and what we think we’re capable of doing.  A study was conducted several years ago in which two groups of college students took a math test.  To one group the proctor read the standard instructions for most standardized tests.  Think SAT or GRE.  To the other group the same proctor explained that men and women typically perform equally well on the test they were about to take.

In the first group, the men outperformed the women.  In the second group, the men and women performed equally well.  What’s the difference?  The hypothesis (pretty well borne out) is that women in the first group went into the test with deeply internalized stereotypes about the supposed superiority of men in all things mathematical.  Anxiety springing from the stereotype itself impaired performance.  Women in the second group were told that the stereotype was false, thereby alleviating their anxiety and removing it as an inhibiting factor in their performance on the test.

These kinds of studies have proliferated over the years.  Many of them tackle racial stereotypes and reveal them to be as harmful and distorting as gender stereotypes (which seems pretty obvious).  I’m sure I summed up some combination of various studies here, but the general point remains: stereotypes affect us in ways we’re not always aware of, and the worst stereotypes have a way of sneakily contributing to the result they predict.

Encounters with Drifters and Prisoners: Thoughts on Manhood

Late one afternoon I was sitting on the curb of Rio Grande Street, near the University of Texas at Austin, waiting for the Number 12 bus to collect me and convey me home.  It was spring, and the purple Texas mountain laurels planted throughout UT’s grounds perfumed the air.  I had just left a Latin American Lit class and was still drunk on discussions of time, infinity, and identity.  A man sat next to me, not a foot away, and asked me for $5.  He told me he was homeless, had recently endured some kind of surgery on his right knee, and pointed to the scar to prove it.  I gave him the money, though it wasn’t mine to give since my parents, loans, and a small scholarship were paying my way through school.  I couldn’t help myself, though.  I’ve always found it difficult to say no to people. 

Once I had given him the $5, he remained seated beside me on the curb.  Everything about him sagged toward the ground.  His body spread over the pavement, his eyes drooped, the corners of his mouth pointed downward as if they were attached to the ground by strings.  Even his words tumbled downward from his lips when he spoke. 

This man told me about an ex-wife and kids whom he never saw and couldn’t support.  He exhorted me to appreciate the quality education I was receiving and to use it to do good things.  Maybe he was lonely.  Maybe he could tell that I was lonely and he derived purpose and satisfaction from keeping me company.  Maybe a man like him, alone, homeless, in his fifties, with bad knees and a broken body, regains some of his youth when he is in the company of the young, to whom men like him are often invisible.  They amble down alley-ways; they sleep in doorways and beneath bridges.  Some of them while away their days in public libraries. Others lie on the green lawns of university campuses and divert foot traffic by their presence.  Do we see them?  Yes.  Do we talk to them?  Do we know them?  No, and so they are invisible in the way plastic bags and newspapers blowing down the street are invisible.  We know they’re there, yet we know nothing of where they come from or where they’re going, of who set them adrift and who forgot about them.

I’ve had so many encounters like this one.  Once, a man with long red hair and a thick moustache, carrying a guitar and wearing bell-bottom jeans cornered me at the back of the bus (again, the Number 12) and mumbled something about what Austin used to be like in the 80s.  I heard him say something about how back then the police didn’t harass people, and you could sleep where you liked, but in all I understood maybe a quarter of what he said to me over the roar of the bus and the wind howling through the opened windows.  I tried my best to listen, but eventually the man grew angry and told me I hadn’t heard a word he had said and that I must not care. 

On two occasions I talked to just-released prisoners, once while I waited for a Greyhound in Fresno, California, and once on that same Number 12 bus in Austin that so reliably served up interesting conversations.  I remember their joy over finally getting out of prison, their eagerness to get things right this time, to see families in Montana or to pursue a talent for art they had only discovered while they were locked up.  What joy could be more real than that of a man who has served his sentence and has just regained his freedom? 

If they could have seen their own faces, naked with the wonder and hope of children, they may have recoiled from themselves and the unmanliness they beheld.  But they could not see what I saw.  They didn’t know that tears glistened in their eyes.  They didn’t know that they giggled like little boys who had stumbled upon some squirmy creature for the first time and were taken with the novelty of their discovery.  They were lost in themselves, lost in the world that was new to them again, forgetful of the manliness society told them they had to project from a young age.  There’s something wonderful about watching a grown man return to himself, seeing him shake off the costume of masculinity and toughness in which he usually clothes himself, and listening to him as he expresses the complex mixture of hope, confusion, and fear that our culture tells us to suppress.