The iconic picture of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauding US President Donald Trump during his State of the Union address quickly launched thousands of highly entertaining memes online.
For many, the exquisitely nuanced image of Pelosi clapping with her arms outstretched encapsulates the power dynamic between the two in ways that words could not.
After all, only around two weeks ago, a high-profile showdown between Pelosi and Trump culminated in a win for the former, when the government reopened without Trump getting the money he wanted for his border wall.
Amid the plethora of commentary on the relationship between the two, an article in The New York Times strikes me as particularly relevant in the wider context of modern gender dynamics.
Barbara Res, a former executive vice-president of the Trump Organisation, says: “Dealing with anyone with power equal to his is a first for him – at least in his mind. He has the perception that he is the most powerful person in the world, and then he comes up against somebody who thinks they have as much power as he or as much control as he, and that’s a shock to him. And it’s complicated by the fact that she is a woman.”
Michael D’Antonio, the author of The Truth About Trump, explains: “I think that he’s caught between his respect for Pelosi and his anger at her resistance. “He gets very frustrated when he can’t close a sale. And I think that he’s perplexed about how to get what he wants here because he respects Pelosi.”
Trump’s mixed feelings of respect and frustration epitomise men’s perplexity in the era of female empowerment. The gender roles in traditional patriarchal societies were built on millenniums of steely codependence – marriage was an expedient human resources arrangement in which men brought home the bacon and women raised children.
Men’s unchallenged role as the family’s main financial provider earned them many privileges, including a gender-based power differential that they took for granted.
Today, when women no longer rely on men to provide food and shelter, it is not surprising that men are confused about what their roles are, where the source of their power lies and how they should relate to women who have become their equals in terms of economic prowess and resourcefulness.
Though the old system was power-biased, it had the virtue of being clear. Explicit rules meant people knew what was expected of them.
As the old norms governing traditional gender roles become obsolete and, in many cases, prove to be counterproductive, and people remain puzzled about what the new rules and roles are, heterosexual relationships face many challenges.
Many men tell me stories of watching their dads go to work at dawn and come home at dusk; they recall fathers who didn’t say more than two words at the dinner table except when there were problems to solve, lessons to teach or punishment to be doled out.
Lots of men internalise that old model of masculinity and interpret it to mean they have to be breadwinners and problem solvers.
In their minds, that’s how a man earns his place at home and in society. A male friend once mansplained to me about how to return goods to a store.
I quietly sat there waiting for him to finish, then asked, with curiosity, “I have five degrees and a professional job. What makes you think I need help with returning items to a store?”
Many women nowadays earn their own salaries and solve their own problems, and therefore don’t need men for their survival needs, but the old system mainly prepared men to respond to those very needs, which in fact originated in ancient times.
We clearly have a demand and supply mismatch. No wonder Trump and other men are bewildered. “I am doing exactly what my dad did and what men were socialised to do.
What is the problem here?” they ask.
Their troubles don’t stop there. When I listen to what women are dissatisfied about in their marriages, it often boils down to “he doesn’t listen”, “he doesn’t communicate”, “he isn’t romantic” and “he doesn’t show affection”.
What these women want is for men to know how to communicate and connect in a relationship, a repertoire of emotional know-how that men have not been taught is important, or simply not taught at all.
What makes matters worse is that, in many cases, these skills contradict the traditional code of masculinity. Men were socialised to be strong and tough, and to not express their feelings and needs, because doing so would be considered “sissy”.
In other words, men have been socialised to provide in ways that no longer meet the primary needs of modern women – which are less about survival than emotional satisfaction.
Sadly, there is a parallel mismatch in our education system in preparing children to become successful adults. To succeed in the 21st century, emotional intelligence is as basic as arithmetic, and increasingly more important as our economic system evolves from being product-oriented to service-oriented.
However, schools don’t really teach emotional skills; sex education in most schools hasn’t progressed beyond sterile anatomy and Victorian prudery.
There is no curriculum on how to be good partners, parents or co-workers. And when our children grow up to be adults, get married, become parents themselves and join the workforce, they are very much left to their own devices to fend for themselves.