Thursday, July 29, 2010

Empty seats on Titanic's lifeboats, and what this tells us about gender relations

I stumbled upon an old newspaper article written shortly after Titanic sank in 1912 that hits on a truth so simple, yet so true, that it explains much about gender relations even today.  The article was a defense of J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the company that owned Titanic, who famously survived the disaster but was widely accused of cowardice because he took a seat in a lifeboat that, many believed, could have gone to a woman. 

No one has ever confused Mr. Ismay with another person who refused to give up her seat on a less expensive form of transportation, Rosa Parks, but one could ask the same question about both: should someone be deprived of their seat -- on a bus, a train, a roller coaster, or even a lifeboat -- simply because of their birth class?  I think not, yet Mr. Ismay is widely regarded as a coward while Ms. Parks is properly lionized -- because men belong to the one birth class expected to sacrifice themselves for the other. Even today.

But I digress. The article talked about the "armchair hero" who would sooner sit in judgment of the men who did not lose their lives than applaud the contributions of those who did, and it offered a plausible explanation for why some of the lifeboats on the ship were not filled:

Ever ponder why more progressives, especially progressive men, who are otherwise concerned with the plight of the downtrodden do not join our fight? It's because the "armchair hero" is very much alive and well, thank you very much. He's transformed himself a little, to be sure. He's no longer just a chivalrous presence; he's also assumed the garb of feminism and he's taken on a patina of political correctness. But otherwise, nothing much has changed since Titanic sank. The armchair hero still dictates what is socially acceptable.

Now, almost 100 years after Titanic, the armchair hero has concocted a new "crisis" that he uses as a yardstick to judge men's actions. He insists that women, and girls, need to be rescued from the scourge of rape just as women and children on Titanic needed to be rescued from the icy grip of the briny deep.

No matter how many men and boys are drowning from rape lies, and no matter how many empty seats there are in the lifeboats, the armchair hero makes it clear that you simply can't be a hero if you rescue men and boys.

Then, as now, the armchair hero is not appeased by the appalling death-roll of men. He asks for more.