Michelle Obama is taking some heat for recent remarks she made on gender, but I'm struggling to muster outrage given the sheer incoherence of what she actually said.
At an Obama Foundation event on Wednesday, the former first lady rambled perplexingly about masculinity and how young boys are socialized to understand it. “It’s like the problem in the world today is we love our boys and we raise our girls. We raise them to be strong, and sometimes we take care not to hurt men. And I think we pay for that a little bit," she said.
...What? That sounds vaguely progressive, but stops just short of making any sense.
"It's powerful to have strong men, but what does that strength mean?" Obama continued, riffing on her own cryptic question. "Does it mean respect? Does it mean responsibility? Does it mean compassion? Or are we protecting our men too much, so they feel a little entitled? And, you know, a little self-righteous sometimes..."
"That's kind of on us, too, as women and mothers, as we nurture men and push girls to be perfect," she added.
That last sentence in particular is interesting, because Obama is approaching a point feminists often shy away from. Society does push girls, but it's often at the expense of boys who aren't adequately nurtured. Far from being coddled, however, as they advance through schools, their distinct needs are neglected and their natural masculine instincts are sometimes suppressed. Obama seems to believe girls are pushed towards perfection while boys are allowed to run wild, their "toxic masculinity" enabled by unthinkingly protective parents and excused as a strength.
It's hard to disagree with Obama when she concedes "it's powerful to have strong men," but in a world where basic gender differences are treated as social constructs and schools have been tailored to cater more to girls, the problem is really that we don't help boys tap into that power. Instead, we refer to strong masculinity as "toxic" and try to train men to "unlearn" it. Obama seems to believe boys should be taught to embrace respect and responsibility and compassion as hallmarks of their masculine strength; I happen to agree, but she attributes this lapse to society "protecting our men too much, so they feel a little entitled" and "a little self-righteous."
We "pay for" "tak[ing] care not to hurt men?" We coddle men to the point where they believe their masculine strength entails a sense of entitlement and self-righteousness?
Maybe the real question we should be asking is, how much less could society coddle boys if it tried? Or does Obama believe parents are too attentive to boys, but also not attentive enough?
Feminists could distill her strange perspective into a simpler take, that society privileges men by letting their toxic masculinity fester, unchecked by the same forces that police femininity. But that's simply not what she said.
I can at least appreciate Obama's ostensible impulse to acknowledge the importance of recognizing sex differences, and I'm happy to hear fresh perspectives on masculinity that diverge from my own. But this was some half-baked pontification that sounded more like it was culled straight from dubious self-help blogs than expressed by a former first lady.