Joanna Schroeder tries to figure out what makes describing male goodness so challenging, and discovers it’s because there’s just so much of it.
This post is tagged “No Hostility” tag. Comments will be moderated, and any violations of our commenting policy will be deleted.
It’s not that I haven’t tried to write about my favorite aspects of manhood. I knew instantly that I had something to say, as I absolutely love men, masculinity, and things that are “manly”. My list of favorite man-traits contains most of the same things that Neely Steinberg’s does: your bodies, your strength, your fatherhood, your directness.
I even wrote an email to Lisa Hickey explaining what I wanted to write: “short, fast-paced vignettes about the good men who have been so crucial in my life”. She thought that sounded great.
When I went to write the piece, however, I kept finding myself stuck. I could write about my father and stepfather; the way they parented me into becoming a strong-minded, independent woman. I could write about how my brother taught me to be the type of feminist I am, how he never let me excuse my own bad behavior by calling myself a bitch.
I could write about Professor Eric Schocket. When I was 19, the only way I knew how to relate to men I admired was to flirt (didn’t hurt that he was a cute young guy), and Dr. Schocket never returned my flirtations. In doing that, he taught me that I was a brain before I was a beauty, and he left room for me to develop academically without the flutters of a crush.
I could write about my husband, who loves me despite me being a giant ball of fire. I am easy to fall in love with, but I am hard to stay in love with. Somehow he’s done it for eight years. That takes strength.
What about my best guy friends? These men have guided me through life with honesty, strength, and compassion. They never let me sell myself short. They never judged. Along with my new best-GMP-guys Marcus Williams and Justin Cascio, they often hold me to a higher standard than I hold myself.
But when I went to write the piece with that framework, nothing came out right. No matter what I wrote, it was all about me and what they gave me. These dynamic men sound like tools to my happiness, stepping stones to my fulfillment. And that’s not what I am trying to say.
I want to say that I admire them for so much more: Eli for being an amazing teacher and mentor, for being an independent thinker who cannot be bullied into anything. I respect Bob for being brave enough to come out as a gay man in our conservative hometown, and also for getting and staying sober.
In high school, I admired Braden for being cultured and unique in a place where that wasn’t exactly encouraged. I am in awe of Tim for training for and racing crazy long-distance open-water races, all while proudly announcing his love of “BH Nine-r” and Byzantine Art. Matt blows my mind by being an outstanding father to his daughter and an amazing influence on his students of all ages… I could go on and on about all of them.
It’s just that when we tell a story, when we start a narrative, it almost always originates with “me”. That’s the lens through which we human beings view the world. I don’t know how to frame masculinity without including my femininity. And I don’t want anything to diminish the masculinity I’m talking about.
And so I tried to tell the story of just one exceptional man, my former boss Robert Bryson—a hulking giant of a dude who wore huge clunky silver jewelry like a pirate, who loved James Bond and his sexy wife and his huge dog and his big-ass truck. Robert was a man, fully and unapologetically.
For us young women who worked for him, he was Big Daddy; he changed our flat tires, he told us what was wrong with our “weak-ass” boyfriends (he was usually right), and he hired a self-defense guy to teach us how to handle armed robberies and kidnappings. He called me “Stems” because, and I quote, “she has some damn sexy legs.”
If you’d described Robert to the “me” I was before I knew him—a feisty feminist who wouldn’t let anyone look at her cross-eyed—I would’ve said he sounded terrible! Sexist pig! But he was, in fact, wonderful. He believed in our strength and deeply respected femininity. We were grateful for that hulking exemplar of masculinity… even when he was mad at us for breaking the computer system (again) and yelling at us from the office, “Damn women!”
Once, when I was having a problem with a stalker member of the paparazzo who threatened to ass-rape me (yes, true story), Robert marched down Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, me cowering behind him, and found the guy. Robert grabbed him and put him against a wall, saying, “If you ever go near her again, I will put a bullet in your head and dump you in the dumpster behind my store. And I know no one’s gonna be looking for you.”
This story has a crazy ending, and I wrote it all in the original piece, but when I re-read it, I realized even that story is deeply faulted in explaining what is good about masculinity. The story of Robert and the stalker paparazzo was an important part of my personal history—and Robert certainly was “masculine”—but that story also makes men sound like sex-crazed brutes. Either you are the brute who abuses women, or you’re the brute who defends them. And of course that just isn’t true.
What I’ve found is that masculinity, what’s good about it, cannot be defined in words or in stories. It can’t be explained with examples or theory. It can’t be validated with evidence or anecdotes. Masculinity, manhood, and men come in such a plethora of different forms of goodness that it is actually impossible for me to write a piece about what is good about masculinity.
Oh, wait, I guess I just did.
RIP Big Daddy. The world is much too tame without you.
—Photo courtesy of the Bryson family