23 February 2008

Happy Men's Day!

Today, February 23rd, is Protectors of the Homeland Day. As you can tell from the name, this was originally a military holiday. Like a Russian Veterans’ Day, but inclusive of anyone who’s served in the military in either wartime or peacetime.

The day still has a military flavor; most of the cards you can buy for it are decorated with tanks, airplanes, or the orange-and-black striped ribbon of the Order of St. George. But because the Russian military has mandatory service, every man is technically either a past or a future Protector of the Homeland, so the holiday has become a celebration of all men.

However, for the past few decades, there’s been a dark shadow of corruption, disorder, hazing scandals, and widespread suicide among recruits looming over the Russian military. Many guys who can get out of service do so, either by staying in college and grad school until they're too old to serve or by bribing a doctor to give them a medical excuse. So there are a lot of men for whom the holiday’s rhetoric of military glory is completely inapplicable. These men aren’t excluded from the holiday, though; partly, I think, based on the assumption that Russia’s men will unite to protect her when need be. Nonetheless, it has reduced the holiday to a day of saying, "Thank you for being male!" to all the men in your life.

(Note: I have no idea whether women who serve are included in the celebration, or whether it’s truly become the masculine counterpart to International Women’s Day, a major Russian holiday, in the popular consciousness.) (Another note: that link is to a mail-order bride site, but it's still work-safe, and the Women's Day explanation is quite funny/Russian.)

The whole idea of this holiday as a "Men’s Day" kind of offends me. I’m not in the camp that believes that men have it markedly easier than women, but I do think that it’s silly to have holidays celebrating gender norms for either men or women. (So Women’s Day offends me, too, but less so, because there’s chocolate involved. Never underestimate the placating power of chocolate.) Really, "thank you for being (fe)male" largely means, "thank you for the ways in which you conform to society’s expectations for your gender." Especially after spending time in Russia, where I’m a foreigner and therefore very conscious of society’s expectations for gender performance, I don’t find that to be a good thing to thank someone for. Serving in the military? Yes. Being a mother or a father? Yes. Being "masculine" or "feminine"? Not so much.

There’s probably nothing I can say about Russian femininity that hasn’t already been said; it’s easy to think that men have it easier, but I’ve been surprised to hear several male American acquaintances express the same kind of frustration and alienation from Russian men that I, with my unpomaded lips, flat shoes, and unmarried-and-happy attitude, often feel from Russian women. Young Russian men are supposed to be "muzhiki", a word that sort of translates as "dude" or "tough guy", and that usually means a lot of drinking, no real show of feelings, indifference toward academic pursuits, objectification of women (a fellow Fulbrighter's students confronted him to ask if he was gay, partly because he doesn't flirt with his female students in class; he isn't gay, just American), and reckless disregard for both the law and safety.

Besides making it hard for American guys to make friends here, I'm sure this is a contributing factor to alarmingly high male unemployment, alcoholism, and suicide rates in Russia. Why celebrate the social forces that lead to such terrible problems? Why celebrate the ones that make women feel that beauty is their most important attribute, or that staying with a husband who beats them is better than having no husband?

(I'm sure there are readers who are saying, "But gender isn't entirely socially constructed! There are important innate behavioral differences between men and women!" I acknowledge that, but I don't think that's really what's being glorified on these holidays, and even if it were, I can't think of a convincing reason to do so.)

I'm not about to lead a crusade against the holiday – in the end, it's just a holiday – but I am saying I think this is all worth thinking about. To avoid ending on a sad note, I'd like to raise a toast to all the men in my life – my dad and brothers and grandfathers and uncles, my friends and students and coworkers, and you, dear (male) reader: not for being macho tough guys, but for being your wonderful selves.

(And for protecting the homeland, naturally.)

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