Until she met her fiancé, Alyssa Royse never understood how “girly” a manly man could be.
I like silence. A lot. And calm. As I prepare to get married (again) it is no wonder that this man with whom I am making a life is very quiet. And calm. At 5’ 4”, he’s almost mousey. He is extraordinarily gentle, in most regards. He will drop to his knees at a moment’s notice to play with our daughters, and will stay there for hours, dressing paper dolls and having tea parties. He prepares balanced meals for them, he tidies up the house, always a load of laundry in the process of being folded and neatly put away. He makes sure that everyone in the house—ages ranging from 3 to 80—is free to discuss their feelings, and will facilitate the sorting out of any problem that any of us have, so that there will be peace in our home, and our hearts. He’s working 2 jobs (by choice, he loves them both) and never complains, ever, about anything.
I am marrying June Cleaver.
Every now and then, I watch him step over a pile of my laundry, which will be there for a month before I get around to dealing with it, and I wonder when he’s going to give up on me. (I keep thinking that if I leave it there long enough, eventually, he’ll do it for me. He won’t. But he also won’t give up on me.)
His mother’s life partner was over the other day, while he was at work, and she asked, “where’s Brady Ann?” Brady Ann? What? But that’s “my” inside joke! I have often joked to him that he is the most feminine man I know. It’s funny to us for several reasons, not least of which is that we’ve both made a life based on destroying gender stereotypes, so we mock ourselves when they sneak in. Both of our mothers are ardent feminists who raised us to be as gender-blind as possible. While all people are different, because they are different people, they are all capable of the same range of emotions, and can be as strong, tough, gentle, playful as they choose, if they are given the chance to be.
And if you were to meet Brady, I can guarantee you, “feminine “ would be the last word you would use to describe him. Those two jobs he works? He’s a firefighter and a CrossFit trainer in a gym that he owns. He shaves his head, sports great tattoos, still puts in his piercings now and then and you can see every muscle in his body. He is a “manly man.” Whatever that means.
Which brings me to one of my (many) gender-bias lapses. When I was online dating, I would say to my friends (usually with enough alcohol in me that I didn’t even try to be intelligent) that I wanted a “manly man”. I didn’t know what that meant to me. It didn’t necessarily mean muscley, I’ve never been all that drawn to muscley men. I prefer the really smart ones—as if those two things are mutually exclusive! THEY ARE NOT! But I have a very strong personality, and I have been with too many men who don’t stand up to me. Maybe because they’re trying to be polite or generous, or maybe they just don’t know what to do with a strong woman, I don’t know, but I know it doesn’t work. I wanted a man who knew who he was, could be true to himself, who wouldn’t let me, or a sense of duty, get him into situations he didn’t want to be in. I needed a man who didn’t need me to validate him in order to feel good about himself. I needed a man who didn’t give a damn what others felt about him, and wasn’t caught in some people-pleasing trap of self-denial.
And I needed a man who wanted a woman about whom he could say all the same things.
Now that I think about it, these are the same things I look for in my friends, of all genders. And all relationships. I don’t think of it in terms of gender, but in terms of maturity and stability.
Brady caught me by surprise. When we first met, I told my girlfriends that he was too nice for me. I can see you all roll your collective eyes, fair enough. It’s not that I don’t value kindness and manners, it’s that I am afraid of people who don’t stand up for themselves. That always smacks you in the ass later, and not in the good way.
He was so nice. So kind. So patient. So gentle. My PTSD from past bad relationships was triggered. I could futurize conversations in which he’s yelling at me for something that we did together and I say, “but you said that was okay, you said you wanted to,” and he says, “I only said that because I thought you wanted me to.”
It was my shit, not his. And I knew it.
He was so nice. So kind. So patient. And I found that irresistible, because I felt safe with him. So we went out again. And again. When he finally kissed me (date 3) he asked first, and he listened to my answer. And he may have been gentle when he asked me about it, but he kissed me exactly how I wanted to be kissed: fearlessly, ferociously, with his mouth and his teeth and his heart.
The next time we met up, he came to my house with his daughter, who was asleep in her car seat. He asked if he could kiss me again. When I said yes, he lifted me onto the kitchen counter for a better angle. And this was the first time I saw that perfect balance of manners, respect and raw power. He wanted what he wanted, but didn’t lose sight of my autonomy. Balance. You know what balance is? Safety and sexiness.
His daughter woke up from her nap, and he transformed into a mode I had not yet seen. Pure gentle. She was confused about where she was, he snuggled her in a way that as so pure. I almost disappeared to him, but not quite. His values were firmly in place, he was a father now, and the cool guy kissing the girl he had the hots for would have to wait. The fact that he could resist me was sexy to me. Not because I liked delayed gratification (totally not my thing,) but because I saw that he knew what matters, and could make those choices, even in the heat of passion.
That melted me. Dirty pool, for sure.
I have always believed that our ideas about gender are pretty ridiculous. The feminist movement has done a fantastic job of illustrating that women can be tough, strong, leaders, smart and change the world. Although it’s not always been smooth, for the most part, we embraced a changing definition of “feminine” with the word “and” rather than “or.” Women can be sexy and strong. Smart and silly. Cute and inspirational. Tough and sensitive. A scene in a movie in which a woman in lingerie was fixing a sink while crying because things were falling apart doesn’t raise an eyebrow. Of course she can be all those things.
It wasn’t until Brady and I really merged our lives that I realized how far from true that is for men. Because I realized how different he was from any man I had ever known.
Our culture has divvied up personality characteristics between men and women, with precious few allowed to overlap without calling into question one’s gender identity.
Manly men are described with words like: strong, tough, brave, aggressive, lusty, confident, virile, daring, fearless, firm, messy, secure, heroic and countless other words like that.
Feminine women, conversely, are described with words like: delicate, demure, emotional, soft, tender, patient, sensitive, tidy, respectful, thoughtful, insecure and countless similar words that compile to make the “weaker” and “gentler” sex.
Women who don’t conform get labeled things like “tomboy”, but they’re still women, and there’s not much of a value judgment in there.
Men who don’t conform don’t fare so well. It is an insult to be a “girlie man” or a “pussy.” For that matter, your sexual orientation can get called into question. Neatly dressed men who are gentle are often called “f-gs.” I’m not sure what bothers me more about that, the fact that “f-g” is a pejorative or that assumptions are made about sexuality at all.
In addition to this subjective divide of adjectives, is an equally baffling list of emotions that men and women supposedly don’t all have. Women are afraid, men are not. Women get heart-broken, men do not. Men are driven by sexuality, women are not.
It’s all bollocks. We are ALL capable of ALL of those things, and many more. Sure, we all have more of some and less of the others, but it is natural and normal to be and feel all of those things. And for those things to change over time, contextually, as we do.
But where do we see that modeled for men? Where do we see examples of strong men who are also emotional and afraid? Where do we see lusty men who are also respectful and thoughtful? Where do we see heroic men who are also sensitive, and even insecure at times?
Even Peter Parker isn’t allowed to be both heroic and insecure. Peter Parker is insecure. Spiderman is heroic. We have so fractured our idealized version of a Manly Man that we can’t even fictionalize a complete man, we turn them into a half-man half-monster creature and call them a superhero.
As I say that, I realize that I am preparing to marry a Superhero. A man so manly that he doesn’t need a cape and tights. (Though so comfortable with himself that he’d totally rock that look, with a wig and a tutu, in public, if it made one of our daughters happy.)
I don’t know if he was always like this. I know that as a teenager at 5’4” and barely 110 pounds, obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons and one of only a few white kids in urban Chicago schools, it’s hard for me to imagine that he wasn’t that pencil-necked geeky kid, to a fairly large degree. I know he has a wildly theatrical flair and likes to dance like it’s nobody’s business, not exactly “butch”. Yes, he has spent his entire adult life either diving into forest fires or house fires, or pulling people out of car wrecks and that sort of thing, but he also dances, reads novels while drinking herbal tea and drives a beat up old car because it still works, so why wouldn’t he? I don’t think he has always been what one would call “manly”. And that’s precisely what makes him so solid, emotionally speaking.
But if you spend time with him, despite how he looks on the outside, he is tender, sensitive, calm, tidy, emotional, patient, thoughtful. He is, truly, the most feminine man I know.
I, on the other hand, am aggressive, slobbish, impatient and relatively intolerant of people’s irrational emotions, and into weight-lifting. Did I mention slobbish? I am a fairly masculine woman. (Though I ADORE lacey things and manicures.)
Which doesn’t cause me to question his gender, or mine. But rather, to even further dismiss the use of those words as descriptors of a gender.
It’s ridiculous that we believe so strongly in the gender roles that we have constructed that we actually believe our ideas are facts. We could just easily decide that the opposite “facts” about masculinity and femininity are true: that women are the strong tough ones, and men are the emotional crazy ones.
Not only is it not a fact, it’s not useful. It’s harmful to tell men they can’t be afraid and sensitive. Imagine the uproar if someone were to tell a class of girls that they can’t be strong and brave! We need to stop telling people that they are allowed some emotions and character traits, but not others, because those belong to “other” people.
We need to ditch the whole gender-binary nomenclature altogether. And just say, “We are all human. We are all capable of all things. And we will all be happier when we accept that, and each other, for who we are.” It is as simple, and complex, as that.
Photos courtesy of the author