The following is Laura Cogan’s Letter from the Editor in our new 35th Anniversary Issue. You can purchase a copy of the new issue from our Shop page.
This year marks the centennial of women’s suffrage, and while it remains a source of national shame and outrage that we came by this expansion of voting rights so disgracefully late, it will nevertheless be natural for many to take the anniversary as a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come. But the passage of time has (or should have) also shifted our perspective and broadened our lens, so that what now stands in stark relief as we survey the landscape is how much work we have yet to do.
Some of this work, as Lauren Markham discusses in her essay, regards protecting and expanding voting rights, which are far from secure for so many marginalized communities. It’s clear this essential, foundational aspect of our shared project of democracy requires ceaseless vigilance.
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Less obvious, but hardly less essential, is the need to clarify and improve how we think about gender. This means advocating for the rights of women, but also bringing greater scrutiny to bear on how we frame both masculinity and femininity, and on how we raise, discuss, portray, punish, and support men, and what assumptions we perpetuate about masculinity.
Regressive depictions of masculinity abound in popular culture lately. Several of 2019’s most celebrated movies make remarkably regressive portraits of masculinity their central motif: isolated white men whose interior lives appear inscrutable even to themselves, untethered by intimacy of any kind, violent, resentful. How we tell ourselves the story of who we are often reveals more than we intend, and judging by the stories told in popular culture, this country is both desperate for an overdue reckoning regarding its toxic narratives of who and how men should be, and violently resisting that push for change.
When male is the default gender, the experiences of all of us who do not identify as male are blatantly marginalized. But such privileging of one idealized archetype of gender also, more subtly, pins men into a corner, allowing absurd expectations of masculinity (which benefit neither men nor women) to persist largely unexamined and uncritiqued. Increasingly, studies suggest that even men who successfully perform cultural expectations of masculinity (stoicism, bravado, athleticism) and adhere to such social norms pay a substantial internal price. And when their mental and emotional health is most at stake, men are less likely to ask for help than they might be in a culture that allowed such expressions of vulnerability from them. That this internal damage can all too often spill out and take its greatest toll on men’s closest relationships should be no surprise.
The quest for equality requires constantly refocusing our vision to understand what we’ve left out, and to see what, despite our best intentions, we’ve been blind to before. Advancing workplace protections and pay equity for women is part of the equation. Demanding consequences for abuse of women is part of the equation. Recognizing that an insistence on a binary notion of gender is at best reductive and unrealistic, and at worst cruel, is part of the equation. And dismantling centuries of assumptions about what and how boys and men should be—this is surely part of the equation, too.
Amid our larger cultural, political morass, how heartening to read the stories, essays, and poems gathered here, many of which approach issues around the social construction of gender—its damaging clichés, its diminishing reductiveness, its outrageous injustices—with nuance and tenderness, and yes, with anger, but always with humanity and from unexpected angles. This is, I think, exactly what we hope for in reading literature: to broaden our perspective, sharpen our vision, and deepen our empathy and sense of connection with other humans, living different lives from our own.
Which brings me to another anniversary of note: 2020 is our thirty-fifth anniversary in print—a milestone we’re delighted to celebrate with everyone who has shared in this endeavor with us, from contributors who’ve trusted us with their work, and donors who’ve trusted us with their gifts, to each and every reader who has trusted us with their time. Thank you.
Here’s to the progress we’ve made, and to doing better, and more, in the next thirty-five—and one hundred—years.
Don’t forget: this week only, you can purchase a copy of the new issue and receive free shipping using the code 35FORYOU during checkout.