Most people do a decent job of being empathetic. When a friend has a string of bad luck, we offer a listening ear. If a cat is stuck in a tree, someone calls for help. When an old woman has nowhere to sit on the bus, we offer her our seat.
Our empathy also extends beyond our individual lives, into the realm of collective efforts. Peacekeeping forces risk their lives protecting people they have never met before. Environmental organizations spend time and money protecting animals and our whole biosphere. Many people volunteer for charities.
In fact, the argument can be made that our empathetic embrace is wider than ever before, including people all over the world, as well as many animals. The reason for this is not necessarily that we have more open hearts than our ancestors, but that we are aware of more situations that trigger our willingness to care or even offer our help.
As it turns out, empathy is not only emotional but also cognitive. You have see and understand the problems and challenges that other people face, in order to feel empathy for them. This means that increasing levels of education and a more connected world, translate into a wider empathetic embrace.
In particular, more sophisticated analyses of social issues have led to increased empathy for a range of groups in society. We are now aware of the specific challenges that can be connected to race, class, gender and sexual orientation. This awareness has not led to any kind of final resolution of the issues these groups face, but it has led to a level of recognition, which in itself can be invaluable.
In the field of gender politics, the progress in awareness has been almost exclusively connected to the struggles and daily lives of women. We have been taught about domestic violence, rape, impossible standards of beauty, discrimination in the workplace and the challenge of combining motherhood with a career. As a consequence, men have been given the information and tools needed to feel empathy for women.
Perhaps more importantly, women have received the recognition and validation they deserve. The sacrifices they have made, and still make, within the female gender role no longer go unnoticed. There is a cultural awareness of the fact that womanhood comes with specific challenges, and women know that this awareness is out there.
For men, the situation is quite different. The cultural zeitgeist for the past few decades has been that men get the good deal in life, and women the rough deal. So why have any specific empathy for men and the male gender role?
Women quite simply haven’t been given the information and tools needed to feel empathy for men. Obviously, women can and do feel empathy for men on an individual level. But women haven’t been taught about men’s issues or the specific challenges of the male gender role.
The gender discourse of the past few decades has not been focused on male disposability, custody battles where men lose their children, or suicide and homelessness where men dominate the statistics. Most people do not know that men are also the victims of domestic violence, and we rarely address the fact that overall men are more exposed to violence than women.
How can women—or for that matter, men—feel empathy for men and the male gender role, if this kind of information is not readily available in the public discourse? They cannot, and this lack of empathy is evident in popular culture.
In movies and TV series men can be slapped, kicked in the groin or even raped—as part of a funny sequence. If the genders were reversed, the genre would no longer be comedy. In sitcoms, men and fathers are regularly portrayed as clueless chumps who barely know how to tie their own shoelaces. Portraying women in this way would lead to accusations of misogyny.
Obviously, this kind of imbalance does neither gender any good. Women are deprived of the perspectives and knowledge needed to understand men on a deeper level. They may also feel a growing resentment over what they perceive as one-sided societal structures that primarily hurt women. The world does seem very unfair if you are only taught about the hardships that women face.
Men, on the other hand, may feel a diffuse sense of shame for being the “bad” gender. Since you are not automatically included in the empathetic embrace, you constantly have to prove that you are a good man, worthy of acceptance and respect. Some men may shut down emotionally, choosing not to open up in a world that seems to have limited interest in their inner lives.
So how can we move forward? I can only see one solution, however counter-intuitive it may seem to everyone who has been shaped by our current culture: We need to talk about men and the lives of men. Only by leveling the playing field in the gender discourse, can women and men have a deeper understanding of the male gender role.
What are the specific challenges that men face? How do we want men to be portrayed in popular culture? How can we become more sensitive to men’s needs?
The day that we start including men’s issues in conversations about gender—in schools, universities, the media and in politics—is the day that our empathetic embrace finally expands to include men and the male gender role.