When Yankee Candle introduced a scent called “Riding Mower” recently, as part of a line of products it calls “Man Candles,” it was evidence that, despite our nation’s strides toward gender neutrality, there persists an impermeable divide. Call it a grass ceiling.
In three waves of feminism, women have punched through glass only to be pushed back down by thick blades of Centipede and Bermuda. We may suture wounds or design rockets at work, but at home, we look out on a 1950s tableau: A man is there, mowing the lawn.
This is why Yankee Candle's "Riding Mower," with a scent evocative of freshly cut grass, is shrewdly marketed in the weeks before Father's Day with no feminist outcry. Lawns, like grills and nose-hair clippers, go largely unchallenged in the purview of man. "Are men necessary?" Maureen Dowd asked, and the answer is absolutely — if we've no landscapers.
I remember when John Roberts was nominated to the Supreme Court. Reporters pronounced him a man of the people because he was regularly spotted "mowing his own lawn!" in the manicured suburbs of D.C. But it was just the grass ceiling again.
Where was the able-bodied Jane in all this? Why didn't Mrs. Roberts cut her own grass?
Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield answered in his book called "Manliness": "Women still do the cooking; men mow the lawns."
Of course, some women cut grass, and you can see us pushing our self-propelled Snappers ably on any given Saturday. But this isn't because Title IX freed us to mow, but because so many of us are living alone. Twenty percent of homeowners are single women now, and if we wait for the lawn fairy to show up and mow while we sleep, dandelions will advance menacingly into the kitchen.
At the home of the nuclear family next door, however, the grass is often kept tidy by the man of the house. He may mow while his wife trains for an Ironman or sits at the computer trying to sell her Facebook shares, but there he is, the family's lawn ranger, marching back and forth, studying lines with the intensity of a geometry major. Afterwards, he'll fire up the grill, or perhaps drive the family for ice cream. These are the last permissible acts of sexism: mowing, grilling, and piloting the family car with the wife in the passenger seat. These are allowable offenses, the soft sexism that's still okay, even in a nation that too easily bristles. They are tender bones thrown to comfort men we love.
These small acts of manliness — testosterone shots if you will — are important to prevent the collapse of the collective male ego. Already weakened by decades of feminism, it grows gauzier each year, as more and more things that used to be the stuff of men are mass-produced in pink hues. Sure, you can buy a hammer and wrench decorated in daisies, but at what emotional cost to your brother? The John Deere tractor has yet to be feminized, and should not be, out of simple compassion.
"Men still hold to, and seem to insist on, the difference between men and women," Mansfield contends, "and they want to apply it to matters outside sex, to home, if not work. This is their manliness still operating in a society that has no legitimate place for it."
Oh, but there is a legitimate place still: the lawn, where waits the splendor of the grass. Of all domestic chores, lawn mowing is the most pleasurable and fulfilling, the only one with a fragrance worthy of candles. No one inhales rapturously over a wick of freshly cleaned toilet.
In fact, maybe the feminists were wrong. Perhaps men are our intellectual superiors. After all, they're the ones doing the "chore" that deposits them in the sun, breathing the fresh air and enjoying the admiration of neighbors while the odious dusting and vacuuming take place inside, unadmired in stale air. Sisyphus rolled his rock, yes, but at least he did it outside. Are lawns necessary? Absolutely.
Jennifer Graham is a writer in Hopkinton.