Even “regular guys” aren’t two-dimensional stereotypes, says Tom Matlack.
Back in 2009, when I founded the Good Men Project, I hadn’t ever really thought much about the reductionist view of manhood. I didn’t spend much time considering gender, per se. I merely knew that I was struggling and a lot of guys I knew were struggling, too. My goals had nothing to do with feminism, men’s rights, or Bud Light commercials. I was living in my own world where I thought perhaps men had something important to share.
Four years ago, Eliot Spitzer, Charlie Sheen, and Tiger Woods were all highly-regarded men. Hanna Rosin had yet to write her Atlantic cover story. And I was a burned out finance guy getting desperate phone calls from other burned out finance guys when the thought occurred to me — that if we were struggling — how were the guys on the ground in Iraq, the guys getting laid off in Detroit, and the guys locked up in prison managing? What must they be going through?
My guiding principle was to find men who had little in common on the outside and see if I could discover what was common on the inside. I thought that their stories might inspire others, and would at least inform my own sense of what it means to be a good man.
Having backed my way into a much broader discussion of masculinity than I ever intended, my eyes were opened both to the profound diversity of stories from individual men I met, and to the ways in which men as a group are misunderstood.
I have two sons and a daughter. I have been divorced once. My current marriage is a happy one that has lasted a decade. I pour my heart and soul into being a dad and a husband. And I would tell anyone who will listen that I have a much easier time understanding my sons than I do my wife or daughter.
That doesn’t mean I love the women in my life any less. I adore them. But to me the women in my life are “complex” in the sense that they speak an emotional language which is still, after all these years of trying, less than obvious to me. I can understand my boys in an instant, in ways that take conscious efforts to achieve with my daughter.
Complex doesn’t mean better or worse. I believe in equality between the sexes. But that doesn’t mean we are the same.
As much as I have tried over the last four years to stick to first person narrative to speak the truth about manhood (if such a thing exists), I have gotten sucked into the broader discussion about men and gender.
At first I was honestly baffled by the idea that men can be summed up by our desire to drink, fuck and swear (not that I don’t have a strong interest in all three). Although I’ve described men as simple, because I understand other men more easily than I do women, this distillation of men struck me as not just wrong, but offensive. Having heard so many men spill their guts, this image of men just didn’t square with the yearning and internal turmoil I have witnessed. Over time, this image made me angry.
One of my friends has a neurological problem whereby his vision is roughly equivalent to being on a constant acid trip. The condition was caused by a freak brain tumor when he was a kid. The tumor was removed, but the condition is degenerative. He also suffers from acute obsessive-compulsive disorder and alcoholism. (He’s been sober for over a decade.)
To meet him you would probably never guess any of that is going on. He’s a good-looking guy in his thirties, loud and gregarious with an infectious laugh. He has a good job, beautiful wife, and two kids. He lives to play golf, watch football, and listen to rap.
But I know better. There’s the guy that the world might dismiss as some kind of skin deep moron and there is the guy with a soul as deep as any I have encountered, striving to overcome a heap of problems not of his own making. He doesn’t necessarily want to go on the “Today” show to talk about it but if you ask him he will tell you how hard—how complicated—his effort to be a good man is.
Every guy I know has his own version of this story. The difference between the stereotype and my friend is like the difference between a two dimensional line drawing of a man and the three dimensional flesh and blood and guts of a real, individual man. Not even close.
But I can’t speak for any other guy. When I watch a commercial or read another in the endless stream of mischaracterizations of manhood—as sexed-crazed dogs or slackers or just stupid—I certainly get upset because of all the men I know and have interviewed. But I also get offended on a personal level.
What do all these portrayals say about my struggles and successes as a father and husband? About my passion for seeking out men’s stories? About, in the end, my commitment to telling the deepest truth I can about myself and in so doing, inspiring others to face themselves?
I realize that there is a strong corollary to what I am so outraged about on behalf of women. Endless tits and ass certainly do not leave any real women feeling understood. And while I agree and sympathize with the fight against sexist stereotypes of women, that isn’t my topic here. What I am talking about is a similar corroding impact of male stereotypes on men’s souls.
One can certainly ask where all these messages about manhood came from and who keeps them going. Is it we men ourselves who control the media?
This question brings me back to my wrong-headed belief that the women in my family are more complicated than the guys. I am quite certain that the women don’t feel that way. Their emotional language is familiar to them, as men are to me.
The lack of ability to understand men’s emotions has come to be represented by a vast dumbing down of the male stereotype to beer, boobs, and football. We all look like Charlie Sheen if you squint.
Perhaps this is in part caused by what I see as men’s more profound separation from their emotional lives, both internal and external. I once spoke on a panel with Michael Thompson, the author of Raising Cain, and he said if you want to talk to a boy about something important don’t ask him directly. Offer to throw a ball with him. It is in the doing that the inside will pour out.
With most guys it takes patience and context to get to the real story. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. That’s the very reason I founded The Good Men Project and we continue to work so hard at making it easy for men to let it all pour out.
One of the arguments I hear a lot regarding why men should not have more of voice when it comes to matters of gender has to do with historic privilege. It’s men who have had the power and have used it to objectify women and commit acts of violence along racial lines. We can’t know what it is like to be on the receiving end of that power play and therefore our job is to listen, not speak.
As we have demonstrated again and again we are committed to talking about race, sexual orientation and how men can be good husbands and fathers in partnership with women. We want to talk about the sex trade and what true intimacy looks like. But the idea that we as men should be silent because of a historic gender role is as far away from my going out to find individual men’s stories as I can imagine. It misses the entire point and casts me and us as guilty by association even if we abundantly agree with a view of history in which gender and race and religion have been used in horrific ways.
I am a rich white heterosexual man. Does that mean I’m an idiot? Does that mean I have no feelings? Does that mean I have no story that’s worth telling?
My pain is no less authentic than anyone else’s. The courage it takes for me to dig deep and share the most intimate details of my journey is no less daunting.
I’m a guy who works hard, builds things, adores his wife and kids, and wakes up every day ready to do it all some more. I’m also sober, divorced, and a collector of men’s stories. Call me simple, I don’t mind; or call me complex: that’s okay, too.
Just don’t call me two-dimensional.
Image credit: istolethetv/Flickr