A new front in the war (of the sexes)

Posted: Mar 20, 2003 12:00 AM

American culture is undergoing a sex change. Or make that sex changes, plural. The sexual revolution that liberated women from kitchen sinks and broom closets has revived the sleeping male chauvinist, and just when we thought it was safe to go back into the bedroom, here come new psychological crises of sexual identity.

It's a fashionable cliché to say men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but this is a metaphor that requires a double think as we watch children saying goodbye to both mommy and daddy as they pack up rifles and gas masks and depart for the Middle East and war. We've got the first husband-and-wife battalion commanders, both colonels, who have left behind a 14-year old-daughter in the care of a friend while they're leading men and women into the maw of Mercury. Venus takes a holiday.

Women make up 15 percent of active duty soldiers (up from 11 percent in the Gulf war) and they'll fly F-18s, launch tomahawk missiles, and serve in front-line intelligence units. They're not eligible yet for the infantry or for driving a tank. Six percent of male soldiers have a military spouse; 41 percent of female soldiers do, which leads Time magazine to conclude that the "Army trains its soldiers for both war and love." That's a stretch. Cupid's bow and arrow in the era of smart bombs is an anachronism.

A young woman volunteer in the Army writes from a training camp in Missouri about the rigidity of the "no fraternization" rule: "The drill sergeants keep males and females completely separated during basic training and when it's necessary to be in the same room together men are on one side, females on the other, with their backs facing each other."

You don't hear much about how the male soldiers feel about their distaff partners, but back on the home front men are reverting to big-time piggery as women invade traditional male turf. You can hear the snorts, grunts and oinks throughout the pop culture.

"Thirty years after the feminist revolution, if you look at the rap videos on MTV or BET," writes David Brooks in Atlantic magazine, "you find that 'ho' and 'bitch' are just about the nicest words used to describe young women."

Several best-selling books by men level broadsides at the man who wants to be a "nice guy." (Not one but two books are entitled "No More Mr. Nice Guy.") Nice guy in this vernacular is Mr. Wussie, who checks his manliness at the door and will do anything to avoid argument or conflict.

The evolution of the nice guy hit a snag as women began to take on the role of aggressor in love and war. When young college women started to "hook up" without looking back, the nice guy found himself wondering if (begin ital) she would call the next day.

The paradox in the needs and desires in current perceptions were captured, albeit unwittingly, in the HBO film "Normal." It's about a man, "happily" married for 25 years, who decides to undergo surgery to become a woman. Despite the pain this will cause his wife, adult son and teenage daughter, the father's surgery is played out as a biological necessity, as though he has no choice. Those around him must then adapt to his narcissistic pursuit of sensual pleasure, which destroys the paternal protection he once provided.

It's a sign of the times that such serious abrogation of the paternal role is treated with sit-com frivolity. The daughter jokes that Dad wears the same size bra cup that she does. Mom helps Dad find dresses that will look good on his changing figure. "You've got to work with what you've got," she tells him, caressing his shoulders.

If feminists wanted men and women to be interchangeable, it hasn't worked out that way. Feminism was ushered in by elite, college-educated women who wanted professional careers. They've pretty much succeeded. Women at the lower end of the social order have a more difficult time of it. They're the ones who pay the price of resurgent male chauvinism as reflected in rap music.

Sept. 11 brought back a heroic and noble view of cops and firemen (for a while we didn't even call them firepersons) and rescue workers who saved lives in the rubble of the Twin Towers. Tragedy cast the president in a defining role, the commander-in-chief directing retribution against evildoers. Now we're moving into the extension of that war, separating the men from the boys, the women from the girls. Challenging times.