The Subliminal Sexism Both Men and Women Are Still Listening To


Photo Credit: Bigstock (Anetlanda)

Sexism often hides in plain sight.

Sometimes it even hides in our most romantic music.

At the beginning of the summer, I heard a great new summertime anthem, so I decided to stream the entire album. I was pleasantly surprised by its mixture of carefree rock and thoughtful love songs. Then, in a duet, I heard these lyrics:

Her: What if I fall?

Him: I won’t let you fall.

Her: What if I cry?

Him: I’ll never let you cry.

Her: And if I get scared?

Him: I’ll hold you tighter. When they try to get to you, baby, I’ll be the fighter.

During the first chorus, I thought, Well, that’s sweet. Good for that imaginary couple. But sometime during the second verse, I found myself getting angry. By the third chorus, I wanted to hear a very different response from him. Something like, “Don’t worry, I fall too, so let’s fall together.” Or, “Go ahead and cry; I’ll cry with you.” Or, “I’m scared too, so let’s hold each other and fight for something that looks less like Tarzan and Jane and little more like true intimacy.”

Then the next song came on, and it went like this:

Break on me, shatter like glass, come apart in my hands, take as long as it takes. Girl, break on me. Put your head on my chest. Let me help you forget. When your heart needs to break, just break on me.

By that point, I was beside myself, but I tried to be patient. I waited for a lyric like, “And then someday, baby, I’ll break on you, too.” But of course, it wasn’t coming.

Why was I so fired up, you ask?

Because sexism dressed up as romance drives me a little crazy. It drives me crazy, in part, because I have a daughter, and I want her to know she doesn’t need to rely upon a man to protect her, because she has a strength all her own. I want her to know she no longer lives in a world where she has to go limp to find love. I want her to know she doesn’t have to be dependent to be adored. 

And it drives me crazy because I’m a couples therapist and, if I had to point to one dynamic still wreaking havoc amongst couples, it’s the subliminally sexist message that men are supposed to be strong and women are supposed to borrow from the strength of their man. This sexist idea has destroyed relationships for generations, and too few of us are talking about it.

Let’s talk about it.

When we encourage this idea that the sexes have roles, and the resilient, independent roles belong to men while the rickety, dependent roles belong to women, we rob women of the masculine energy each one of them possesses in their androgynous soul. Perhaps worse, we cheapen their feminine energy, robbing it of its true strength, which is the power to show all of us how to join each other, love each other, and be one with one another, as equals.

At the same time, when a man thinks he has to be unerringly strong—a rock for everyone around him—he is never given permission to feel or express the softer stuff within him. He never gets to be honest about his doubts, fears, insecurities, and loneliness. Instead, he gets to be ashamed of them. Instead, he puts his chin out, holds his hand out, and keeps lifting everyone else up. And then we blame him for not knowing how to be truly vulnerable.

And that sucks.

Admittedly, I didn’t hear the rest of the album.

Because I was thinking about a tiny kitchen in a tiny townhouse, many years ago. My wife and I had been dating for almost a year at the time. I’m a hypochondriac, and for most of that year, I’d been obsessing about a possible ailment. In the silence of my inner world, the fear had been growing to a crescendo. I thought I might burst with it.

So, finally, on an ordinary afternoon, I confessed it to her. Softly. Sloppily. I didn’t look like a rock. I looked more like a puddle.

My wife-to-be looked at me and told me it was going to be alright. She said we’d schedule a doctor appointment and make sure I was okay. I’m pretty sure that was the moment I decided I wanted to marry her. Because she let me be weak and she loved me anyway.

You see, every man is sometimes strong as a rock and sometimes sloppy as a puddle, and every woman is sometimes strong as a rock and sometimes sloppy as a puddle.

And there’s nothing truly romantic about pretending otherwise.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

36 thoughts on “The Subliminal Sexism Both Men and Women Are Still Listening To

  1. Dear Kelly, thank your for this post…
    I also cannot quite stand these messages…which actually are not quite subliminal…they are quite literal…
    I am a feminist (equal rights – parity rights), but I have also been guilty of not being supportive of some men… Not because I thought they should be a rock, but because it angered me that women’s feelings and vulnerabilities are generally treated poorly and dismissed and that when men are vulnerable, women are supposed to treat them kindly. Of course, one mistake does not justify the other and I had it terribly wrong. I am happy that your blog is raising awareness in this matter.
    But even when we say that female energy is like this (nurturing, supportive), masculine energy (being a rock, being tough), we are endorsing a sexist ideology, because these aspects of human beings are not linked to the sex they have , but to culturally designed gender roles. Every human has it’s tough, rock solid side and a soft and nurturing one. It’s just that women and men have been for centuries trained to play these roles… But these are not gender characteristics, they are human ones and we would all be better off if we developed both and respected both in everyone we meet! Thank you for doing your part!

    • I’m incredibly GRATEFUL for your reflection, Tsultrim. You’re right, that the language in which the description of these traits is embedded can be sexist itself. Thanks for seeing through that limitation and into the spirit of the post! And keep the comments coming, this was so helpful!

  2. thank you. I have 4 biological daughters and one son… ( now 3 more girls 🙂 ) and my son grew up in a very Estrogen household. haha. He is such a strong man… not because he throws his weight around, but because he sometimes cries at movies, feels the pain of the universe and has a sympathetic ear to others…. and boy was it hard for him growing up at times…. hiding who he was. I will pass this along to him. ( now grown up on his own) IF we are ever to have peace on this planet… we need to nurture both species that it is O.K. to be hurting inside and showing it outside. I like your lyrics and think you may just have a hit song on your hands. 🙂 You may be onto something the music industry needs. I do not think I would have thought of this in songs before you brought this up so now, I know I will think before I sing along the next time a “romantic” song hits my fancy.

    • Joan, kudos to you for raising a son who was allowed to feel his feelings. Still, I know, it must have been hard for him to go out into the world where most people weren’t so tolerant. Please extend to him my encouragement. Keep being who he is, and he will eventually find his people.

      • My son has read the comments and I know is happy to youi ” you have his back:” and so do many other women and men.. hugs….:-)

  3. Thank you Kelly! I love my Wednesdays mornings… I am so looking forward to finding the link to your post in my email.
    I think there is a lot we need to learn, no doubts… but at times, I think that all the changes we want to see in the world and the roles are not too “grown up” yet, some of them happened only 40-50 years ago, which for the humanity, is nothing. Sometimes I think how different my generation is from the one of those who acted as my parents, and the difference is already huge, and we are 40 years apart…

    We all men and women need to learn to speak more from the emotions than from the brain (and here is Miss Right Brain talking!), then we would all realize that there are many more things we have in common (human beings) from where we can build something common too, and then provide what makes us different to bring the diversity that hormones and gender bring. I have the feeling that at times we forget we are all human beings, with the same “elements”, and what makes us different is the biology.

    I hope we can all find those things in each of us that we celebrate when for example we buy a book… then the cover describes a male author as “a sensible heart with an exquisite soul”… or a woman as “a brave heart with a courageous soul”… (“May you never doubt the gifts you bring” J O´D)

    • And I always looking forward to hearing your thoughts, Cris! In this case, I’m especially grateful for the reminder of how very recently (in the scope of human history) we’ve just become aware of these issues. That perspective is a graceful one. Thank you!

  4. Love this 🙂

    I’m not married, nor have I dated for years, but it’s really encouraging to read things like this. Trust is built through acts of love.

    I’ve spent the last few years learning how to be more vulnerable with others in my horrible and enlightening journey through social anxiety. It has only solidified my perspective that our relationships only grow closer when we let go a bit, turn into puddles, and in turn, trade a small bit of intimacy with one another. It results in love and healing, and it creates an unbreakable confidence.

    Thanks for this!

    • Dude! What a testimony to the growth you’ve undergone that you would share some of your story in such a public form. I admire your vulnerability, Andy. Thank you for sharing yourself with us.

  5. What a fantastic post. I love this part especially: “Perhaps worse, we cheapen their feminine energy, robbing it of its
    true strength, which is the power to show all of us how to join each
    other, love each other, and be one with one another, as equals.
    At the same time, when a man thinks he has to be unerringly strong—a
    rock for everyone around him—he is never given permission to feel or
    express the softer stuff within him.”

  6. I like it when you’re feisty.
    And you’re so right: sexism isn’t romantic, it isn’t sexy, and it is terrible for intimacy. We need each other vulnerable and strong, showing our weaknesses and seeing them embraced by loving and open-eyed partners. These aren’t men’s needs or women’s needs; they are human needs.
    And here’s hoping you find some more awesome and empowering music for your playlist.

  7. thank you for writing this insightful post. I’m guilt of falling into the trap of sexism with my husband of forty years. We dated and married at the beginning of the sexual revolution. I remember my mother instructing me on what to expect in marriage and it was a far cry from what my marriage has become. We are partners in life and love now and I hope there is less sexism in our relationship than when we started. Thank you for reminding me of the exquisite qualities that attracted me to my husband; his honesty, caring for others and ability to let me join him on his journey as a man. Great post as usual Kelly!

    • Patricia, it hadn’t occurred to me until you shared your story here, but that’s a beautiful vision for marriage: a place where two people get to be more and more fully human. Please give my best to your husband!

  8. It always comes down to belovedness. Because I am loved, at the core of my being, no matter if I choose the rocky road or it chooses me, it is well with my soul. Hope resides in the depths of my being, where the lover of my soul says, you are beautiful, you are mine and I am with you. When a child hears this, is called this with life speaking words and unconditional love, they believe it. Male and female celebrate their own uniqueness of belonging in creation, created to be exactly fully weak and strong, gifted in ways, needy in others, seeking a healthy, humble, secure place in this great big world of possibility. I learned this from my mother, who navigated her sorrows, suffering and joy walking with Jesus. I’m teaching it to our eight.
    Is this also what you mean? I think we agree. Wholeness and vulnerability are sweet results of a marriage based in belovedness. Thank you for writing Kelly! 🙂

  9. As an uber strong woman, I say “bravo” to your message. It’s so exhausting pretending to “fall into someone” when I known dang well I am able to stand on my own two feet. #tiredofpretending

  10. Dear Kelly,
    Wow! Love this post and I applaud you for bringing something up that is not usually discussed, but needs to be talked about so much more. I love that you are willing to “take the bull by the horns” on some issues that many would rather avoid, but you bring them out because they are so needed. Thank you again!

      • The students read Dorothy Sayers “Are Women Human’ (written 1938) before they read your article. Lamented how the old messages remain so tenacious. But still hopeful that new narratives are possible. Oh, I miss my running buddy immensely!

  11. Having been blessed with one of each, I wholeheartedly LOVE that you decided to get feisty and address this topic today! My kids are older now (19 and 16), but when they were young, this meme (?) I saw online a while back was exactly how things rolled in our house:

    For every girl who is tired of acting weak when she is strong, there is a boy tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable.

    For every boy who is burdened with the constant expectation of knowing everything, there is a girl tired of people not trusting her intelligence.

    For every girl who is tired of being called over-sensitive, there is a boy who fears to be gentle, to weep.

    For every boy for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity, there is a girl who is called unfeminine when she competes.

    For every girl who throws out her E-Z-Bake oven, there is a boy who wishes to find one.

    For every boy struggling not to let advertising dictate his desires, there is a girl facing the ad industry’s attacks on her self esteem.

    For every girl who takes a step toward her liberation, there is a boy who finds the way to freedom a little easier.

    It seemed my kids were not going to fit into the culturally assigned gender roles. My daughter played tackle football and my son wanted to be a chef and was a big fan of the Nintendo game Cooking Mama (he would’ve had an E-Z Bake oven if I remembered there was such a thing)!

    However, as they got older, they morphed into their expected roles. It makes me sad—mostly for my son’s sake b/c he was once a wonderfully sensitive boy but I see how our culture has shaped him into believing he can’t “express the softer stuff within him” as you say. Likewise, my daughter gradually became aware of how playing tackle football was not the norm, and by 3rd grade she was done. Beyond my unconditional acceptance of who they are, I feel lost to the subliminal powers of sexism.

    But I do appreciate you here in your corner of the world, bringing this issue to light. Thanks for this post!

    • I LOVE this meme, thank you for sharing, Barb! And for what it’s worthy, generally the first half of life is for forgetting who we are, and the second half, well-lived, is for remembering. Here’s to a great second half for your little ones.

  12. Dr Kelly, I am a father of two young men. My oldest son and his wife have a daughter, 18 months old. Not having a daughter puts us in an unbalanced position as we did not have to think so much about your topic with boys. With a grand daughter we must. Your blog this week hit home. Thanks for taking the time to write this important message. Eye opener.

  13. Just getting to read this (busy is sooo over-rated :). I LOVE this post and I must admit that my husband’s softer side is my favorite side! Let it flow and let it show is my motto! Not to mention, we are raising 2 daughters and are trying to instill these ideas in them. They don’t need a man to complete them or lift them up, they can do all of that and remain complete by themselves. They can seek a life partner to share all of life, happiness, sadness, disappointments, joys and EVERYTHING in between with support caring and mutual love.

  14. Thank you for sharing your little bit of craziness with us, Terry. As a strong, fiercely independent female, I tended to identify too much with the male gender role, not liking what i saw of the female one offerred when i was a child. They both have their emotional liabilities, as i have sadly experienced over the years. In contrast, i have noticed I still harbor a Sleeping Beauty who wishes to be rescued by a strong and mythical Prince. Holy Crap, that conditioning runs so deep. And it is introduced so early, before we have cognitive defenses against it!

  15. Thank you so much for this. It gives me hope that one day, it may be understood that men are people too. It has really been hard being “the man” never showing weakness, feeling ashamed about my fears.

  16. Yes, yes, yes! Yet another one knocked out of the ball park.

    I can’t say more than that without a long winded ramble. I will say simply – Thank you Kelly. Another great post, Doc. 🙂

  17. My wife is my rock, my pillow (for crying & moments of sleep), my leader and my follower, my strength, my weakness, my frustration, and most assuredly my joy. I still believe in divinely appointed roles for men and women and thought I’d share that with the following link:

    We all deserve a fair chance to be ourselves and to have every blessing afforded by the richest possible relationships in strong family units. We don’t all get to have everything but we each can choose to play our part in full and act in faith to find the missing pieces that are part of the beautiful mess of life.

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