An antiquated idea of how we should grow up is that we should all aspire to be “gentlemen” and “ladies,” even from a very young age. “Gentlemen” open doors for women and take care of them, and “ladies” guard the appearance of their virtue through a series of complicated social rules like crossing your ankles, keeping your knees together, wearing a dress, not showing too much skin, and never really getting dirty or exerting yourself. Despite the fact that it’s 2016, these definitions persist, remaining largely unchanged for the past sixty years. And, instead of letting them die, our society insists on bringing them back.
Take Raymond Nelson of Memminger Elementary in South Carolina. This past year, he decided to create a “Gentleman’s Club” whose motto is “Look good, feel good, do good.” The point of this club is to provide boys with a good male role model, to learn politeness, improve how they treat women, and encourage them to dress well, all of which sounds mostly fine. It’s a bit problematic to encourage boys to join “gentlemen’s clubs” (which, as we all know, is just a pseudonym for a strip club), but, hey, kids need role models.
The problem starts when you bring it to Kentucky and the club’s motto morphs from self-improvement to “SWAG – She Wants a Gentleman.” Then it gets decidedly creepier.
That’s what’s happened in Danville at the Bate Middle School. There they’ve created the “Anchored Men’s Club,” which tries to help boys be gentlemen, avoid drugs, choose better friends, and get the girl. Young student athletes from a local college periodically come by to mentor the boys, and they speak with entrepreneurs, businessmen, coaches, and the like. Most of the focus is on self-improvement, but what I do see the boys learning about women and relationships is worrying. Here’s why:
- Not all boys will be exclusively attracted to women, which will exclude bisexual, pansexual, gay, or genderqueer boys, who need male role models just as much as heterosexual boys do. In Danville, they probably need role models and self-confidence even more since they’ll find themselves ostracized by their peers and their community.
- The notion that “behind every strong man is a strong woman” is antiquated. Men achieve what they do through a complicated support network that does not require or necessarily benefit from having a wife or committed partner. On the contrary, a partner can slow down an ambitious person, especially if their domestic goals are not in line. Women are also not supporting cast in a man’s life. We have our own goals and ambitions and for many of us, that does not involve solely supporting our husbands.
- The club is engaging in subtle slut-shaming or differentiating between the “right” kind of woman and the “wrong” kind of woman (fast, loose, doesn’t want a gentleman). This encourages boys to cast judgment on women and to associate sex, which is natural, with perversion and loose morals. While I don’t encourage 13-year-olds to have sex, I do think it’s important to tell them that sex can feel good, can help relationships, can make you feel better about yourself, and absolutely does not diminish you as a person. It’s also not necessary to tell 13-year-olds to save themselves for marriage or that they should only get into one physically intimate relationship in their life. Sex is not the be-all, end-all and neither waiting nor experimenting is truly that important.
- It’s contributing to the assumption that “nice guys get the girl.” Getting into a relationship with someone is not predicated on completing a series of actions: 1) Open the door for them, 2) Compliment them, and 3) Have a healthy, monogamous relationship. A woman will not necessarily have a relationship with a man who opens the door for her or walks on the street-side. More likely, they will have a relationship with someone who interests them, excites them, and treats them well. Many people are not interested in the blandly polite yet oddly predatory “gentleman” who expects to be continually rewarded for good behavior. It’s often creepy.
Honestly, if the club wanted to do a unit on how to treat women and be attractive to a potential mate, they should invite women to speak. They should learn to ask girls what they like and dislike instead of having a male-centric discussion group. Oddly enough, the experts on what women like and want are not men.
Finally, where is the analogous club for girls? Who is teaching girls how to have a firm handshake and dress for success? Who is organizing Skype conversations for female doctors, lawyers, and business owners? Who is teaching girls self-esteem and self-care? If the point of these clubs is truly to teach boys how to succeed in life, how to be more confident and self-assured, to give them role models, and to help keep them out of trouble, then why isn’t there one for girls? Do their futures not matter?
Now, you might think I just want to poo-poo all over this idea. You might even think that my status as a feminist means I hate men and boys and want them to fail in life. That’s absolutely not true and, in fact, it’s my desire to see men and boys succeed that makes me worry about these clubs. I think boys need after-school activities. I think they need good role models. I think they need to learn to make good choices and become responsible, mature adults. But there is no need for “Nice Guys” who only act well to get a girl. There is no need to class confidence and ambition as a male-only characteristic. There is no need to stigmatize a natural and enjoyable part of life. And with only a few minor corrections, these clubs can be what boys truly need. I’m just pointing out where the problems are.
* Image taken from http://www.firstcovers.com/user/1916890/s.w.a.g=+she+wants+a+gentleman.html