A Man and His "Purse"
Or: How Having Lots of Guy Friends Made Me a Better Feminist.
One of my best guy friends just got back from a month-long trip to Europe. It was his first time out of the country, and he had a great time traveling around in Germany and Italy. We met up for coffee after he got back, and I listened happily as he recounted the bliss of renting a house in the Tuscan countryside and baking different types of bread each morning.
He’s not a very sentimental person and so only bought a couple of souvenirs and took very few pictures (to which I reply: How in the world do you go to Europe for a month and only take 30 pictures?). David proudly showed off one of his purchases from a shop in Florence: a small, blue, leather shoulder bag that is perfect for carrying his notebooks and other writing materials (he’s a writer like myself, though in a different genre).
I’ll be honest: it looks like a purse. It’s a “European shoulder bag,” but in the US, it’s easily mistaken for a purse. The scene reminds me a bit of the Friends episode when Joey begins carrying around what he calls a bag but what all his friends identify as a “man-purse,” or “murse.” Joey protests this designation, to humorous effect.
David tells me that he asked the shop-owner multiple times, “Now, you’re sure this is a bag for men?” because he definitely did not want to look like he was carrying a purse around. And frankly, it doesn't really look like that when he has it. He has enough of a sense of style that he can pull of the “European shoulder bag” look quite well, even if it did turn out that the bag was originally meant to be marketed to a lady. What struck me about this conversation, however, was his insistence that the bag be “manly,” that its inherent purpose be masculine – otherwise, he reasons, he would be somehow less manly by virtue of having this object with him.
This is a distinct pressure I’ve noticed in a lot of my guy friends – the idea that they must maintain this distinction between masculine and feminine, even if the thing in question is neither inherently feminine nor masculine (bags don’t have a gender, after all, just a tendency toward being carried by one gender or another, and even that depends on culture…a lot of my Japanese students carried “murses.”). And oftentimes this distinction can have a negative effect.
Many of my guy friends have spoken of feeling that they are not good enough as men, and I’ve seen them pour hours and hours into exercising not because it’s healthy but because they feel they need muscles to be perceived as manly. Many refuse to wear certain articles of clothing (like scarves) and when asked about movies, it often takes a lot of needling to get them to admit that they actually liked 10 Things I Hate About You (though I don’t know anyone who actively disliked that movie) and it’s usually followed with a caveat along the lines of “but I like Bond movies as well. I’m still a man.”
This behavior extends to how they treat the women in their lives. When another guy friend and I were hanging out in New York City, walking on the crowded streets the day after Christmas, I noticed he was doing several protective gestures around me, such as walking on the street side of the sidewalk, putting his hand on my back to help keep us together when we got into crowds, and holding the umbrella. While a lot of this is just polite, I can’t help but look back on it and wonder if the treatment would have been at all similar if I was a male friend instead of female.
And he is far from the only one who exhibits this behavior. In college, I liked to go for walks with friends late at night – my personality falls somewhere in the middle between extrovert and introvert, so as much as I love spending time with big groups of friends, I also value one on one time greatly. Frequently on these walks, my guy friends would take precautions to protect me – walking on the street side of the sidewalk, not going down certain dark streets, sometimes dictating the direction of the walk so that we could stay in ‘safe’ areas close to the college and so on. While I didn’t particularly mind these measures, I also didn’t think they were particularly necessary. To be honest (and apologetic toward my guy friends), most of them probably couldn’t protect both of us should we get jumped or attacked. I mean, most of them are more Xander than Buffy (nerd reference nerd reference!).
When I was on my semester abroad in Oxford, England, one of my favorite moments from the time came when my friends Charley (a guy), Casey (a girl), and I were walking back to our house after a night at a ska club. It was about 1AM, and the walk back from the club to the area where our house is required us to go around the massive University Parks section of town, a route that would have added about 20 minutes onto the walk. During the day, we would have passed through the kissing gate (not what you think - see picture) to cut through the park as a shortcut. As it was night, though, it would be illegal to be in the park after sunset.
Charley, being tired and a bit of a daredevil, found a weak spot in the fence around the park and suggested that we climb over and cut through (something university students do all the time). The consequences would be probably just a small fine if we were caught, and the opportunity to have a story of “I broke the law in a foreign country” was just too big to pass up. All three of us made it successfully over the fence, and walked in near silence along the path by the river to the exit nearest our house. After a few minutes of quiet so that we could escape notice of the police, Charley said one of the most honest things I think a man has ever said to me: “Uh, girls, just so you know, if a homeless guy comes out of here and attacks us…um, just run into the river, because I can’t protect you.”
I chuckled at his honesty, amused by the idea of simultaneously admitting that he probably had a “duty” to “protect” us women and that he likely wouldn’t be able to. His honesty was refreshing, and it paints a great picture (indeed, this moment has been one of my favorite stories to tell year after year).
And that, in a sense, is what feminism is about. Not only are we making sure that men and women are treated equally by the law and by society, but we work to remove the pressure that men have to fit into narrowly defined and harmful gender roles. For my friend David to worry about whether or not his utilitarian bag makes him less manly, for numerous friends to feel the need to take on a “protector” role for the women in their lives, for the men who feel the need to bulk up so they can be more “masculine” (even though their natural body shape tends toward waifish), feminism can be a freeing concept. Not only does it allow women to be women in all our multitudinous and varied states – tomboys, girly girls, make up or no, skirts or no, big boobs or flat chested, mechanics or stay at home moms, whatever – but it allows the same thing for men, too. Men who are effeminate, men who have big muscles or men who have trouble lifting a box of books, men who like fashion and men who prefer dirt under their fingernails, men who could beat up a would-be mugger with their bare hands (though violence, I would stress, is never an option) or men who would shriek and say “Here, have my wallet just don’t hurt me." For all of these different types of men, Feminism says: "Fine, be you."
Rather than saying “men are men and women are women,” Feminism says “you are you, and that’s what matters.” And isn’t that a respectable movement to get behind?
*Disclaimer: In telling these stories, I do not mean to imply that any of my friends are inherently or consciously sexist. The protective behavior of my guy friends likely, I recognize, stems just as much from their "duty" as men as it does from their feelings that I am a sister to them and thus worthy of their protection. I am merely using these stories and my perception of them to illustrate and contrast examples of how the men in my life feel the need to protect me, partly because they are men.