Her upbringing taught Lara that Manly Men weren’t kind and helpful, but her life taught her that they are.
It seems like there are a lot of mixed, and outright negative, messages regarding “stereotypical men.” You don’t have to look farther than the television in your living room to confirm the negative messages flooding society about men. What’s a stereotypical man? Broad shouldered, bald-headed, likes to lift heavy objects, watch football, and ogle women, preferably while drinking beer. If a man fits that description, media would have us believe that he’s also an insensitive oaf, probably loud, and most likely sexist, right? That’d the rhetoric I grew up with, at any rate.
This reasoning would have us believe that if a stereotypical man’s man – you know the type, the ones who subscribe to Sports Illustrated and drool over the swimsuit issue – is willing to listen to a pretty girl’s problems, it’s because they are trying to get them in bed, or at least look down their shirt. Men like that can never be friends with the opposite sex, don’t fool yourself. That’s be the rhetoric I grew up with, at any rate.
I’ll admit it, I grew up with a pretty intensely anti-male brand of feminism. Not all feminist women feel that way, but back in the late 1970’s and 80’s my mother’s circle of lesbian-feminist friends didn’t have a lot of good things to say about stereotypical men. Although they could occasionally make exceptions for members of the art community and gay men, they had a strong bias against anyone that would watch football on a Sunday afternoon, and don’t even get me started on their thoughts about cheerleaders.
In retrospect, I realize that they did not represent the larger feminist world. And certainly not the feminism that I think matters today, and can help bridge gender divides, rather than making them worse. But it was what I grew up with, and it shaped how I saw men, whether I was aware of it or not.
My first husband was a big burly manly man, and I think I was partially drawn to him out of rebellion. I was going to prove my mother and her friends wrong; show them that were kind, strong men who liked to lift heavy objects and work up a sweat. Men who had big shoulders and big necks and big voices that could be sensitive and sweet, too. Except that marriage didn’t work out so well for me. In spite of my intentions to prove them wrong, in the end I would up proving them right.
I remind myself regularly that this was just him. Not men in general, just him. Sometimes it’s hard not to universalize a specific experience.
Fast-forward a decade or so: I changed jobs, changed states, changed relationship statuses. Everybody grew up. Everybody joined Facebook. Many of us used Facebook to over-share and wear our emotions on our sleeves, or at least I did. Status updates were posted like messages in bottles; vague, cryptic, often stolen snippets from popular songs.
Is there anyone there? Help me, please. I am drowning in being me. See me, tell me I matter.
Messages in bottles don’t always wash up on the proper shore, even on the expansive beach of the Internet. Sometimes people see them and step over them, not knowing how important they are. Sometimes people only see how pretty the glass bottle is. Every now and then, though, someone pulls the cork, removes your message, and reads it.
One day I was home alone in the living room. I had divorced my second husband and was now a single parent to two boys under the age of four. I had returned to the workforce after being a stay at home mom for several years, and I was often overwhelmed. I was pursuing my next relationship with the ambition and fervor of a med student, and I was failing and flailing in emotion. I was so alone. I need someone to call me, I posted.
Someone did. That person was Mike.
Mike was someone I knew back in Junior High, and had reconnected with on Facebook in that impersonal friending that doesn’t require any real communication. I remembered him clearly from when we were both twelve and thirteen.
Mike wasn’t a popular kid. I didn’t know him very well back then, but we sometimes sat at the same table at lunch because I was a geeky kid, too. I wore big glasses and had braces and made the unfortunate decision to trim my own hair with disastrous results. In the circles of Junior High School inferno, we lived in the same ring. I can’t recall us ever having a long or involved conversation, but our social proximity and our mutual banishment to the nerd table, implies we must have. He was someone I’d nod to in the hall as we changed classes.
I heard the names they called him; typical slurs, same as they called me. I never picked on him, but I never stood up for him either. At the time that seemed OK, though, because I had no social power either. We all knew that standing up for each other made it worse for all of us. All we could do is make eye contact and give a half-smile of understanding. Yes, that popular kid is a dick. Yes, I know we both have value even though we aren’t cool.
That was all we could do for each other back then.
I lost track of him after junior high. I changed schools four times, eventually returning to the same school at which I started. I didn’t reconnect with most of my old friends, and went home for lunch everyday, avoiding the popularity inferno of the cafeteria. It’s not that I thought I was better than they were; I just had different problems by then, and didn’t feel most kids would understand.
Through Facebook I could see that Mike had grown up, too, with a wife and kids, a bald-head and a goatee. He was an attractive manly man who occasionally “liked” a picture of a pinup girl and commented a lot about his favorite football team. If you were to Google “stereotypical man,” his picture could easily have come up in the search results. He looked like someone who lifted heavy objects for fun.
I was surprised when he offered to call me, but that day I needed someone, anyone to care, so I gladly messaged him with my phone number. We talked for about a half an hour. We didn’t say anything big or important; we just talked about life’s disappointments and compared notes on where we had been, where we wound up, and where we hoped to be.
He never said anything flirty or inappropriate. He never said it was weird that I asked for a random phone call, or that it was weird that he was the one calling, even though we had not spoken in over twenty years. We just talked, and then we hung up, and we never talked on the phone again.
Somehow, after that, I was okay again. He had no magic words, no great solution. He was just solid and strong and present, when all I needed was someone, anyone, at that exact moment to care. I wasn’t so alone in my living room anymore, and he asked for nothing in return. No sexual innuendo, no hints about meeting up, or continued texting. He was just a stand up guy in the way of my grandfather’s generation.
The kind of guy that does what needs to be done, without expecting anything in return; the kind of guy media would have us believe doesn’t exist anymore. Or isn’t “manly.”
I would like someday to meet his wife and kids. I would like to thank his wife for trusting her husband enough to know he is the kind of guy that would help out a girl in need without worrying that he would go astray. That gave me, a twice-divorced woman, faith in men and faith in relationships when I was on the verge of losing both.
Manly men can be sensitive, too. They can be caring and kind and expect nothing in return. Even if they look like they can lift a Volkswagen Beetle over their heads; even if they like football and pretty girls. Turns out, men are as individual and different as women are. Some of them might be the misogynistic pigs I was warned about, but there are plenty of good ones out there, too.