A Sign of Feminism’s Demise: The High Five

I was reading the newspaper in a café recently when a woman merrily marched through the door and, spotting an acquaintance, sat down next to him.  Grinning broadly, she announced, “I got it!”

“It” was her dream job, she explained within earshot, the sum of her ambitions.  “I got it!” she repeated with barely contained excitement.  And then it happened.  As if carefully choreographed, two hands, one his, one hers, shot upwards simultaneously in sweeping arc and met halfway with a thunderous clap, thus executing that universally recognized celebratory gesture: the high five.

It wasn’t always so.

The high five, now a celebratory fixture, is a relatively recent phenomenon.  The Bible does not record Judas “giving some skin” to his priestly co-conspirators after betraying Jesus, nor was Toscanini known to jubilantly high five his wind  section following rousing performances.  The gesture, in fact, is just decades old—dating to October 2, 1977, to be precise.

On that day, Los Angeles Dodger Dusty Baker hit a clutch home run.  While making his way towards the dugout after rounding the bases, Baker crossed paths with a teammate waiting to bat next.  “His hand was up in the air [in celebration], and he was arching it way back,” Baker recalled.  “So I reached up and hit his hand.  It seemed like the right thing to do.”

Voila, the high five, or what Jerry’s character on Seinfeld called “the lowest form of primate ritual,” was born—or supposedly, as its exact provenance is disputed.

What does this have to do with feminism?

Once limited to male athletes, both men and women from all walks of life now exchange high fives.  The convergence around this manifestation of “bro culture” bonhomie says much about gender roles.

Bro culture, for the uninitiated, is the über-macho and boorish disposition typically, though not exclusively, cultivated in those temples of testosterone, college fraternities.  Think Animal House or Porky’s.

All-male environments tend toward the basest impulses of the gender, and frats are bubbling caldrons of lowest common denominator maleness.  Devil-may-care raucousness, binge drinking, sexism, and other exaggerated enactments of “masculinity” are bro culture staples.  Such male primitivism, at first thought, would seem highly inhospitable to women.

And in many ways it is.  Yet bro culture does offer a path for female acceptance, provided women adopt alpha-male cultural signposts.  In other words, women can become “one of the guys” by effectively becoming one of the guys.

As one female undergraduate at Princeton observed in The Atlantic, “There is no pressure for a girl to be a girl” at eating clubs, or co-ed fraternities.  On the contrary: girls should aspire to be guy-like.

That female undergrads exceed government-recommended limits on alcohol consumption more than their men classmates, according to one Harvard study, bears out bro culture’s impact, as do sorority hazing rituals that mimic those at fraternities.

None of this might matter that much were it limited to the campus quad, but bro culture is pervasive in a far more important male-dominated domain: the corporate workplace.

While women have broken many glass ceilings, in the professional world, as on campus, gender “equality” often requires women’s acquiescence to a degrading bargain that figuratively makes them men (in the worst sense).

Consider Elissa Shevinsky.  Shevinsky, a 35-year-old computer engineer and senior high-tech executive, had successfully climbed the greasy corporate pole in Silicon Valley, though at a cost.

Shevinsky told The New York Times she “enjoyed being ‘one of the bros’—throwing back whiskey and rubbing shoulders with MIT graduates.  And if that sometimes meant fake-laughing as her [male] colleagues cracked jokes about porn, so be it.”

Why put up with it?  Because Shevinsky loved her work.  “That’s why I didn’t care about feminism,” she observed.  “I just wanted to build stuff.”

Think about that.  Achieving the feminist goal of equitable labor market access necessitated that Shevinsky swallow sexism.  Such was the price of workplace acceptance, one that Shevinsky ultimately could not countenance.

Which brings me back to the high five.

It is impossible to say for sure, of course, but the woman in the café may well have owed her professional success, as do many female corporate high-fliers, to adapting her persona in an artificial and degrading way.  Her exchanging with her male companion that totem of bro culture, the high five, signaled as much.  She was one of “us” and therefore no threat.

Such compromises, it could be argued, are justified as long as they ultimately serve the cause of gender equality, and given that women still make 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man in a equivalent job, many more may be necessary.

But I wonder.

Acceptance conditioned on submitting to a culture of perverse machismo is likely to never yield true equality.  Far from it.  Which is why bro culture is so insidious.  Only when women have the freedom to behave as they please—stereotypically female or stereotypically male or whatever—will true gender equality be achievable.

This may not come to pass anytime soon, but it will come to pass.  And when it does it will truly merit a high five.

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