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Wednesday, November 24, 1999

You wouldn't talk that way about a woman, would you?
Warren Farrell wants to know why the 'silent sex' gets such short shrift
Donna Laframboise
National Post

Carlo Allegri, National Post
The author of Women Can't Hear What Men Don't Say believes society and the media espouse a casually brutal view of men.

He's heard I'm feeling under the weather, so Warren Farrell meets me for lunch bearing gifts -- a sample of herbal tea, a packet of vitamin-enriched effervescent powder and some throat lozenges. It's the sort of thoughtful, nurturing gesture one might expect of a kindly aunt rather than a bearded heterosexual male in the midst of a gruelling book tour. It also suggests he practises what he preaches.

Farrell's book, Women Can't Hear What Men Don't Say, is about men defying society's narrow definitions of acceptable male behaviour -- something he knows is risky. Just as the first women to wear trousers, ride bicycles or study medicine were considered "unfeminine" and thus unattractive to the opposite sex, men who don't subscribe to stereotypical male behaviour often have trouble getting dates.

Farrell, the male equivalent of a feminist pioneer, has two main goals: to persuade men to speak up about the realities of their lives; and to convince women to love men for who they really are.

Calling males the "silent sex," Farrell fills his book with examples of how "virtually everything conspires against men expressing their feelings." He documents how a battered husband who writes to Dear Abby, or a divorced father robbed of meaningful relationships with his children, typically has his experience dismissed with "women have it worse" or "stop whining" responses on the part of government, the media and even friends and relatives.

Says one man, "I work in a factory. The work is low-pay and repetitive. The women often say they're being exploited. When they do, everyone agrees. But once I suggested I was being exploited and was told I should get off my butt and get something better."

From their earliest years, says Farrell, males learn they'll be admired and respected only for what they accomplish; no one cares about how they feel. While news stories about challenging situations faced by women personalize the anxiety and encourage readers to empathize with the women's suffering, male difficulties get presented, says Farrell, as cold statistics.

In Farrell's words, we "read of him coming home drunk and hitting his wife, but not of the disappointed dreams that led him to disappear into a bottle; we read the drama of her depression, but only the fact of his." Missing from our newspapers and television screens, says Farrell, are the long feature stories about "his thoughts of suicide [men take their own lives four times as often as women]; or his personal story of what he feels like if he can't tuck enough money away for his children's education after the mortgage, insurance and orthodontist bills are paid; or what he feels like wanting to make love with his wife but not wanting to be a bother."

In brief, says Farrell, "men's lives count only to the degree they are heroes who perform for us or save us, or villains who disturb our peace. Women's lives count more for their own sake -- a woman's pain is every talk show."

Unfortunately, this isn't the half of it. Farrell's book discusses (and often reproduces) dozens of ads, news clippings and greeting cards to support another point: Hostility toward males and routine disparagement of them can be found in the most mainstream of venues.

It's hard to imagine Diet Coke running a television ad showing a man punching out three women before drinking his soft drink, but the reverse is a real ad. So is another, which, in Farrell's words, "features a woman getting out of her car, dumping a man's belongings in the dirt, stamping on them as he watches, getting back into the car, drinking a Diet Coke and driving off."

Women's underwear ads insist there's a better selection of lingerie than of men. An ad by Lady Foot Locker features a woman declaring that while she likes men, she trusts women. Post-it notes announce there are only two things wrong with men: "Everything they say and everything they do."

While a greeting card company would attract a storm of controversy if it issued card upon card comparing women to rats and dogs, and declaring them inferior to cats, the reverse is common.

Cards discussed by Farrell also portray men as morons: "Grow your own dope -- plant a man." One card features a young girl in conversation with her mother. When the child asks: "Is sex really the only thing on men's minds?" she's told: "Men don't have minds, honey."

Then there are the truly sick varieties. Sold by American Greeting and advertised in fold-out ads in Newsweek and Life, a Thelma and Louise card has a cover that reads: "Men are always whining about how we're suffocating them." Inside, it says: "Personally, I think if you can hear them whining, you're not pressing hard enough on the pillow."

In another instance, when a child wonders why men die sooner than women (by an average of six years), her mother tells her: "Well dear, no one knows. But we think it's a pretty good system."

"Laughing at our foibles is healthy," says Farrell, "as long as it's an equal opportunity sport." Yet it's difficult to imagine a greeting card "joking" about violence against women or rejoicing in premature female deaths.

Farrell's examination of the greeting card industry -- which he accuses of profiting from and fuelling disharmony between the sexes -- reveals another surprise. Although we all believe men have a harder time apologizing than women, the marketing departments of greeting card companies have discovered something quite different. Only men buy cards that apologize to the opposite sex.

"Hallmark has found a market only among men to send cards saying they are stupid," says Farrell. Indeed, the industry seems to have stumbled upon something "no one else is willing to admit: Men refuse to buy cards putting women down, but are willing to buy cards asking for forgiveness and blaming themselves; women do buy cards putting men down, but are unwilling to buy cards asking for forgiveness and blaming themselves."

In Farrell's view, housework is yet another men's issue. While he says it's unlikely there'd be a male-oriented greeting card about women that reads: "Oh, sure they're fun for a while, but you get tired of paying for them!", his book reproduces a real one about men that says: "Oh, sure they're fun for a while, but you get tired of cleaning up after them!"

In fact, he argues persuasively that study after study, including a recent well-publicized one by the United Nations, contain profoundly skewed data with respect to how much men contribute around the house. His book lists 54 kinds of traditionally male tasks -- snow shovelling, cleaning out the garage, car maintenance, re-lighting the furnace -- that rarely get recognized in the housework studies.

In the words of one man quoted by Farrell, "There's nothing magical about unclogging a toilet; not much upper-body strength is required. But you'd better believe that only I get called on to do it ... And I'm the only one in the house who can empty a mousetrap ... I can't believe I'm rare. I'm not the perfect husband, and my wife assures me that I'm no treasure."

Which is exactly Farrell's point. Spending time attempting to prove that men are doing more around the house than we've been led to believe may seem petty. But the fact of the matter is that feminist scholars have made careers for themselves convincing everyone the opposite is the case. When these beliefs go unchallenged, they have the potential to poison real people's relationships.

"The headlines doubtless contribute to millions of women feeling angry at men as they're washing the dishes," says Farrell. "Which adds to the man bashing, which adds to marital conflict, sometimes tipping the scales of already fragile marriages into divorce."

Within the pages of Women Can't Hear What Men Don't Say are suggestions of ways to improve communication between the sexes, and to defuse the current tension. Everyone, Farrell assures us, will benefit from a more balanced, realistic and charitable view of males than the one now in vogue.

"The degree to which we help our daughters resist the temptation to feel entitled to a prince," says Farrell, "is the degree to which they will feel less angry when the prince they marry is half prince and half frog -- a bit like themselves."

Warren Farrell can be contacted via

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