The Subliminal Sexism Both Men and Women Are Still Listening To

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.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.