In his bestselling book, and soon to be movie, Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man, Steve Harvey offers women advice on “how to be a girl,” something he believes is a lost art. Many of his suggestions, including cooking for your man and not lifting heavy items, are typical of the reductive thinking permeating incessant modern discussions about black male-female relationships. Women are to be dependent, submissive, chaste yet sexually available, and focused on “womanly things” like nurturing, child-rearing and cooking. Above all, a good woman must “let a man be a man”–that is independent, a natural leader in all things, emotionally distant, sexually voracious and prone to stray. We are told, the fate of the race and black women’s happiness depends on both men and women acting out these roles. But treating traditional gender roles as gospel is more damaging to the black community than helpful. There is no one way to be a man or a woman.

This isn’t a treatise against men and women who like to kick it old school. Do you. But it is dangerous to hold up regressive ideas of femininity and masculinity as the way it should be. Too many of our ideas of gender roles are based on the sexist hierarchy entrenched in the majority white culture, long before black men were recognized as fully men and black women as women. Narrow views of gender do a disservice to both black men and women, curtailing their freedom to be their authentic selves and exacerbating already serious problems in the black community.

Harvey and many other advice-givers traffic in the notion that black men are simple and largely the same. Those claims make me angry every time I hear them. I am angry because that idea sells short every wonderful black man I know–my husband, my brother, my nephews, my father, my grandfathers–all good men, who are as complex and varied as any other human being. None can be summed up in with cartoonish descriptions of manhood.

When it comes to relationships, men are also varied in what they want and need, as are women.

There are old-school brothers who believe in ruling the roost and there are more modern types who prefer egalitarian relationships. I married a man that wants to be my partner not my leader. I have another married friend that believes in “husband as head.” We both have happy marriages that work for us. Which is the point, really. Women who wish to marry aren’t in search of just any man, but one that fits their unique needs. Advice that encourages women to bend themselves to fit men, with men defined as some monolithic group, is as useless as it is sexist.

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