Looking at superheroes of all kinds, from Clark to Clint or James, it seems that the kind of iconic male role models that men (and women) are most impressed by have one thing in common: they stay “cool” under all circumstances. In fact, they display an almost pathological lack of fear, or of any other emotion for that matter—except maybe a capacity for sudden detached violence and a sexual desire that flips on at a moment’s notice with an attractive woman under any circumstance.
Of course, it’s easy for these characters to feel fearless in their fictional worlds, where they can achieve impossible feats of endurance; where one bullet from their gun kills twenty men, but twenty men firing at them always miss, etc. Maybe one of the reasons we are so drawn to them is that they represent an ideal of feeling safe in the world; free of the fear that almost all of us carry around at some level, probably inherited from when we were vulnerable and hairless mammals on a dangerous planet. Perhaps also because we all remember at some level, the fear and vulnerability of being a small baby and the frightening experiences which are a part of growing up.
Under the mask of “coolness,” most men feel some level of anxiety in relation to other men, (perhaps rooted in an evolution-driven fear that our partner might choose another male to impregnate them, which would mean the “death” of our genes) and more especially to women. Perhaps this is because we need a woman’s love and approval at a deep level and they have the power to reject us. Getting emotionally close evokes old fears of abandonment that we’ve had since we were dependent on our mother’s love for survival. Women can question our virility, or make us feel, or even be impotent and these primal fears will still be close to the surface, even in the “macho” men who succeed in disguising them.
And what else, other than a male fear of female sexuality, can explain a practice as barbaric as FGM, which involves the physical mutilation of a girl’s genitals and the removal of her potential to experience sexual pleasure; or the tradition of honor killings which encourages a father to murder his daughter if she has followed her own feelings in a choice of marriage partner rather than sticking to her culturally prescribed role. In our own culture, a male fear of women reveals itself in some men’s controlling behavior towards their partners—from small daily acts of aggression and manipulation to the the tragedy (for perpetrators as well as for victims) of domestic violence and sexual abuse
I think this may also help explain the root of why some men are sexually attracted to children. I accept that possibly, some men are neurologically predisposed to become pedophiles, but others simply don’t have the courage to have a real and equal sexual relationship with a women and so resort to abusing the most vulnerable, with an apparent indifference to the terrible harm their selfish actions cause the very people men should be seeking to protect.
One possible reason for the difficulty that many men have feeling safe with intimacy is that we were all “abandoned” at some point (at the inevitable stage of weaning) by our mothers—our first true love! How we coped with that had partly to do with whether our father was there to provide male caring to balance the loss of that craved female affection. If he was absent (as was often the case), we developed an overdependence on our mother’s attention as a source of well being, while at the same time needing to separate ourselves from her as a part of defining ourselves as male. This early ambivalence can shape our future intimate relationships with women until we become aware enough of it to change.
In order to be more at ease, happy and fulfilled, men need to find a balance between the male and female elements in themselves (the “animus” and “anima” in Jung’s terminology.) In men, the animus will naturally predominate for a combination of biological and conditioned reasons, and vice versa in women. What also seems clear is that when a man has no relationship with the feminine part inside himself, he’ll project it onto a partner and then need to reclaim and “own” it in her, as a way to try to fill that gap in himself.
This can explain why men can become so jealous and controlling in relationships, and have such an ambivalent relationship with their sexuality—wanting closeness, but also at some level afraid of being overwhelmed by it or of losing their “freedom,” substituting the safety of purely physical intimacy for the risks of a deeper emotional connection. Yet being “cool,” not having strong feelings, or trying to control that part of our lives, cannot make men happy. On the contrary, it’s a sad, unnecessary (and potentially crazy-making) limiting of men’s potential to live balanced and fulfilling lives.
I suspect that it was as a result of men’s deep seated fear of “the feminine” that the Patriarchy and other evolved as a way to keep women “in their place.” and to make them safe. So, an essential first step in building a more loving and sane society will be for more men to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from, and unconsciously propagate, gender inequality. Then we can refuse to collude, and begin to move with pride from being half men/half boys, full of fear and contradictions, loving and hating women at the same time, to becoming full men who are able to extend care and collaboration to the women that, at some level, we deeply love and need.
As a result we will no longer have a society in which men and women see each other as enemies, rather as the excellent allies and friends, companions and lovers that we all have the capacity to be. And as more men support women in their efforts to gain full equality and to have the freedom to safely be themselves, rather than fit into a box of social acceptability, we will become better able to experience and celebrate the joy and excitement that comes from having a true connection with the power of sex and love—in our partners and in ourselves.
In this way, offering support to women in their striving for greater freedom, equality and respect will also be the best thing we can do for ourselves!
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Photo credit: Getty Images