When the news broke — or, more specifically, when the paparazzi broke the news — that actress Kristen Stewart had cheated on her longtime boyfriend, Twilight co-star Rob Pattinson, many in the media pointed to her total failure as a “role model to women.” Good girls, the argument seemed to go — or, at least, girls lucky enough to land a “good” guy — owe it not just to their partner but also to society as a whole not to mess it up. Men, on the other hand — well, cheating might not win them any points, but it’s something that men do. It’s that same old double standard that has plagued women for years: girls are sluts, guys are studs. Think about it: When’s the last time you saw an adulterous male celebrity being publicly chastised for being a terrible role model to young boys? Exactly.
At the same time, when a 16-year-old gymnast cries on international TV during the Olympics, she’s criticized for being “too emotional”, “too girlie”. The implication here is that she’s weak. So what’s the lesson? It’s certainly not about women “toughening up” or that women should act like women only when society deems it appropriate. Women should be celebrated for expressing very real and understandable disappointment in an age-and situation-appropriate way. And the media should stop feeling the need to compare every female action to its male counterpart.
It’s hard to do. In part, that’s because every so often, some study comes out that seems to naturally want to pit women against men. When research reveals that women are getting more freedoms, more job offers, more money, more lovers, the inevitable and entirely predictable conclusion is that — for better or for worse, often in equal measure — women are becoming more like men. That can mean women are out-earning male colleagues, waiting to have babies, not “settling” for marriage, or the ones more likely to initiate an affair or a split.
Gender equality is not for women to “overtake” men or actually be men. Women are women, and men are men. And the evidence of women acting in ways that might not be considered traditionally female — or evidence that they are — has nothing to do with male versus female. Instead, what’s happening is that women are getting more choices and more confidence to make those choices. What’s happening is the decline of expectations, long and slow though it may be.
Two recent studies reported that women are getting less traditional about relationships, while men are getting more so and that marriage is at an all-time low. Some pundits point to modern women too busy climbing professional ladders to put similar effort to their relationships — the subtext: The end of marriage is all women’s fault. But the argument that women are opting out of marriage because they no longer need men is largely flawed.
Earlier an Atlantic piece about the 30-something author’s refusal to “settle” pegged the decline in marriage to a sort of feminist victory. Women, the author pointed out, are more educated, successful, and financially self-sufficient than ever before; men, on the other hand, are going in the opposite direction. As a result, women don’t need men — not for security, fulfillment, or even babies — and especially not socially inferior men.
But marriage hasn’t been about needing men — or needing “better” men — for decades. What’s really happening is that women these days have more opportunities than ever before, plain and simple. Women aren’t opting out of marriage out of some new masculine evolution. They’re opting out because they can, or they want to.
Are men more like women and women more like men? Not really. What’s changing is society; finally, slowly, getting out of the way of women’s ability to live the life they want not the one others expect. As Alike, a brave 17-year-old African-American teenager embracing her identity as a lesbian said to her father in the movie Pariah, “I’m not running, I’m making a choice.”
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