I find myself on the horns of a dilemma with respect to the burgeoning list of men, now including Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who have, to put it bluntly (but in printable terms) screwed up royally, and to the women who, in virtually every case, have borne the burden of silence far too long.
My dilemma is not whether the women are to be, or not to be, believed; in my mind, they are totally credible and deserve much credit for unloading their emotional burdens on their victimizers’ doorsteps. I am not a conspiracy theorist: The Earth is a sphere; Oswald shot Kennedy; the Big Bang is a thing; the Moon landings happened; Obama is an American by birth; and women have been (and continue to be) groped, raped, abused, and put down and silenced by men of high, middle, and low status. This is not a media creation; men have to own it.
My dilemma is that I am a man in my late 60s who grew up in a culture that elevated, celebrated, and exploited female objectification in music, film, magazines, and in daily life—both in the workplace and in the home. I was lucky to have a strong, moral, and self-confident mother, and a sensitive, moral, and conscience-driven father. But those “right-thinking” attributes did not serve as shields against the music I listened to, the movies I saw, or the magazines I read.
Pop music of my pre-teen and teen years, the 50s and 60s, filled as it often was with teenage angst, longing, betrayal, and dreams of bliss (Since I Don’t Have You, The Great Pretender, Bye Bye Love, Johnny Angel), also highlighted girls and women who were either sexually aggressive (Great Balls of Fire, Gloria [Shadows of Night version]), sadly pliable (It’s My Party, Leader of the Pack), cheating (The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Delilah, Ruby), or even predatory (Neil Diamond’s Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon), with lyrics like these:
Girl, you'll be a woman soon Please come take my hand Girl, you'll be a woman soon Soon you'll need a man…
The thesis about that era’s influence on kids like me is well-presented in at least 3,600 books (Amazon search for “History of Rock and Roll”) and millions of columns, but the bottom line is the music was not always kind in its treatment of girls and women, and no one cared to question it. It was just fun, it was just music. Right?
The movies that objectified girls and women during that same period are simply too numerous to list, but from the Beach Blanket and Gidget series to the James Bond movies, to something as silly as One Million Years BC or as overtly sexual (and insipid) as Barbarella, there was an accepted atmosphere of highly-charged sexuality aimed unashamedly at strengthening the male-centric view of women as a gender to be manipulated.
Enter Playboy and the weedy-mat of much lower-life men’s magazines that plugged into the still-being-wired brains of young boys in the 50s and 60s. I admit to “reading” Playboy’s gate-folds and photo spreads, and I was also exposed to the most salacious breed of bottom-feeding magazines that I cannot even mention here (my father had no part in that, to his credit—I managed to find them all on my own). The girls and women featured in these publications became the hoped-for-but-ultimately-unattainable models of women adorning my pubescent, post-pubescent, and early-teen years.
As for society’s expectations of women, mothers (at least in my sphere), were all supposed to be Donna Reed by day, and…well…Sophia Loren by night: pearls, heels, kitchens and compliant vs. smoky, steamy, sexual…and compliant.
There were millions and millions of boys all across the country, Baby-Boomer males just like me. Millions. And we all got older (though not all of us grew up), with faulty wiring informing us of what we thought we should expect from the women who would move through our lives. For many of us—I like to think the majority of my peers, but I could be sadly mistaken—we were able to grow beyond the unreasonable gender-biased expectations that nurtured our youth. But the vestigial tails of those cruel expectations still linger on the rear-ends of too many men.
It is a good thing we are beginning to see those remnant appendages exposed for what they are—inept, hurtful, and illegal moral and ethical attitudes that had no place yesterday, and have no place in today’s world. The women who are coming forward have within their power the ability to excise those ancient and inglorious vestigial remains. And I don’t mind lending a hand in that operation.
But I don’t always know when to cut and when to stay the hand of criticism. I can’t, for example, press the knife to Al Franken’s inappropriate behavior as deeply as I would gladly press it through Harvey Weinstein’s horrid tail. I know too many men of Franken’s age and background who were jackasses in high school and college (and in the halls of Congress where I once worked), who are today capable of sincere humility and apology, and who are, in many other respects, champions for women.
How do I reconcile this…this dilemma? Hate the sin, forgive some of the the sinners? Are Franken’s apologies and his self-flagellating actions sufficiently exculpatory to redeem him in the long run? I don’t know. I hope so, because I do think there has to be some gray in this discussion—some margin for retreat, enlightenment, and subsequent reconciliation.
Fathers and mothers who do know better, must begin imprinting the rules of behavior, respect, and decency toward women before their sons’ wiring goes awry and follows leads and channels made by poor examples and ersatz role models. There is simply no one better to apply a corrective than a dedicated parent. Their window of opportunity may be narrow, but a vote to litigate, censure, or expel comes far too late for too many women.