In college, I briefly dated an ambitious young man who was a recent immigrant from Pakistan. He dressed in flashy clothes, liked to go night clubbing, was polite with women but regarded them as whores (“all Muslim men are misogynist”), and helped newer immigrants than himself but laughed at them behind their backs for being “FOBs”—“fresh off the boat.” His American English was perfect; he adopted an American sounding name, and preferred the company of Americans to fellow expatriates. One evening on our way to the nightclubs, he confessed that his ambition was to own a gas station with an attached convenience store. When I laughed at this, uncertain how to say, “John, are you unaware that you embody every American stereotype of new Pakistani immigrants?” without offending, he went on to explain the business model with undaunted enthusiasm. It’s not the gas you make money on, it’s the stuff you sell inside that has a high profit margin.
For every subset of men, there’s a stereotype, usually pointing out how members of that group have failed to match the ideal of masculine manhood. Myths like “gay men all ‘act gay,’” or that gay men really want to be women, or that bisexual men are indecisive, closeted sluts. That black men are not as smart as white men. That a cage fighter is more fearless—more of a man—than a poet or a figure skater.
Whether he changed his mind about the gas station after seeing Apu on “The Simpsons” or not, John really wanted the things he did. He also had his own ideas about what I was like, as an American woman (seemingly, and at the time), and what other new Pakistani immigrants were like, too. It’s easier to believe stereotypes, and to replace them when they wear out or no longer fit.
@gmpgoodlife That fathers are clueless dolts that can’t possibly take care of their children.
— Dan C. (@dancpharmd) October 20, 2012
In the age of 1950s sitcoms, fathers rarely held a baby. This is being replaced with a modern version of the same message. Men who take care of babies are not alpha.
They must be slackers, losers who couldn’t hack “real” manhood. Think Season 6 of “30 Rock” and Liz Lemon’s 40ish boyfriend who sells his sole possession, a hotdog cart, to help pay for a new nursery in Liz’s apartment. Provided Liz has a baby in Season 7, the eighth should bring him back sporting a Baby Bjorn (and no doubt still the recipient of heaps of scorn from Liz’s mentor, Jack Donaghy.)
Stereotypes keep men from nurturing children, out of fear of being labeled: not just feminine or unmanly, but a dangerous deviant. Replacing the old stereotype that gay men are child molesters, is one that’s just as fear-based and fact-deficient: that those who were abused in childhood, grow up to sexually abuse children. Our stereotypes insist that men are men inherently violent, shaming men for being men, and in particular, men and boys who are victims of violence.
The Good Men Project replaces tired tropes about what men really want or are like, with true stories about real men. Not all of us fit stereotypes, but even those of us who are fit every stereotype, are real, flesh and blood men. Our love is real and strong; our experiences are felt and lived. Even if you can define our style with the shorthand of media images of men, our lives are not just a marketing tactic or a sitcom characterization. My old friend John is a real man with real desires, and so are his “FOB” associates, despite the ways that stereotypes limit the way they see themselves and others. Tom Matlack, who likes beer and loves his wife, is a real man. So is Stuart Heritage, who writes those “what men think” columns for women’s magazines and swears he’s not that “blokey” a bloke. How is it that, despite all our protests, we all know what a stereotypical real man is and how we fall short of the ideal?
“Understanding how the brain handles information provides a different perspective” on stereotypes, says Dr. Andrew Smiler, whose sexuality research focuses on masculinity. “In order to deal with all the information we receive at any given moment, the brain takes shortcuts. Your brain creates these shortcuts by grouping together pieces of information that routinely go together. For example, if you routinely hear ‘boy’ and ‘hormone drive’” and ‘sex crazed,’ then you learn that those things are linked and you expect them to all go together.” But we know how wrong that is. Just because everyone says it, doesn’t mean it’s true. Boys and Men Just Want Sex, Right?
Yet societal fears of men being somehow stripped of their masculinity, as in the recent “End of Men” that wasn’t, never stop frightening us. Cameron Conaway tells us that fighters often begin fighting out of fear. In the 80s, when the very idea of “coming out as gay” was coming out, Kenny Bodanis was just a child, and transfixed with the idea of being graceful and strong, with every eye on him: a male figure skater. Anyone who has bucked stereotypes of what men and boys “ought to” want will understand the camaraderie of those who don’t fit the mold. Rick Belden has learned that he is a highly sensitive person, a minority that includes equal numbers of women and men.
Smiler says, “One of patriarchy’s strategies—and there are many—is to use stereotypes to limit our conceptions of what gender means, as well as our conception of what members of each gender are capable of doing.”
In truth, it’s that fear that we won’t fit in that pressures us into conformity. When the ones who don’t fit are outcast, the very real needs for acceptance and a community can come to outweigh our needs to express our true selves. But remove that pressure, make a place for every variety that appears, and our lives are all richer for it.
The GLBT synagogue I attended in New York City has a motto on their bimah, taken from Psalms: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.” Referring first to King David, it can apply to any of us who was told we were not worthy to be called men, and have proven to ourselves that, quite to the contrary, we knew ourselves well enough to lead.
Image credit: laszlo-photo/Flickr