Sometimes I feel like height, physical height, is the elephant in the room when it comes to hegemonic masculinity. Everyone knows it’s a giant friggin’ deal, but nobody wants to talk about it, because, as the inimitable Greta Christina pointed out, what the hell are you supposed to do about it?
There’s a perception, an incredibly pervasive and unspoken one, that tall men are manlier than short men in all meaningful or measurable ways. I personally don’t like to think about this for the same reason white folks don’t like to think about Native American history, but I probably should.
Let me be clear: I’m six foot two. I’m the same height as Batman and Captain America, and if those two don’t say masculine ideal to you, I don’t know what does. I’m very, very lucky in that regard, and to some extent I know it. People take me seriously, people defer to me, I fill out a suit nicely. It’s pretty sweet… I think. I have very little experience of anything else. When I was thirteen, my bones ached horribly for most of a year as I went through a fast and agonizing growth spurt, and when I went back to school for eighth grade, nobody picked on me any more because I was six feet tall in junior high.
Thing is, I’m only about one standard deviation out from the mean, so every so often I meet guys taller than me. And man, I hate those guys. I can’t help it, it’s this visceral reaction; I meet a guy taller than me and he’s got two strikes against him immediately. Most of the time he turns out to be a perfectly nice person, of course, but I have to overcome this initial dislike and distrust, because how dare that bastard be taller than me.
This is my way of saying I can’t imagine how pissed off I’d be all the time if I were five foot six. People make jokes about “short man syndrome” and Napoleon complexes, and there’s something to that, I suppose (I have met Harlan Ellison), but I think it dismissively waves off a pretty serious issue.
Look: Men in our culture are supposed to be active; we are those who act, we are defined by our actions. That applies to our attitude toward achieving masculinity, as well. It’s supposed to be something one does… one performs, perhaps. To weak to appear manly? Toughen up! Too vacillating to appear manly? Man up! Too fat to appear manly? Tone up! Too short to appear manly? Um. Tall… up? I guess?
Seriously, what the fuck do you do when the genetic dice shake out and you’re not tall? I mean, apart from harboring lifelong feelings of inadequacy and resentment. I met a five-foot-five fella once who, within two minutes of meeting me and apropos of nothing, was telling me all about how short people make the best martial artists and a short person could probably kick any tall person’s ass. Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t strike me as a really healthy long-term solution. Then again, that’s easy for me to say from up here, isn’t it? There are, of course, horrible medical interventions and the old standby of putting lifts in your shoes (Legendary screenwriter William Goldman swears blind that many diminutive male stars have lifts for their socks), but I suspect these would just end up underlining the problem.
The fact is, for most men in our culture, masculinity is intrinsically tied up with the notion of competition. Guys: how many conversations have you had with other men that were basically about trying to prove who had the bigger metaphorical dick? Who’s stronger, who’s smarter, who can drink more, who knows more Star Trek trivia… my favorite was a guy who frantically tried to prove his superiority over me in the crucial matter of laptop battery life. But as long as one guy in the conversation is looking down and the other one’s looking up, there’s a form of competition that can’t be argued with or finagled. The taller guy is assumed to be more successful, more attractive to women, whatever measure of manliness you like, no matter how good the shorter guy’s laptop is.
This isn’t entirely unfounded, either. Tall guys get hired and promoted easier, folk wisdom holds that we’re more likely to win a Presidential election and some data indicates that old bit about women only digging tall dudes may be true. (I am, as ever, skeptical of monolithic pronouncements about “what women want”, but here my personal experience supports the theory for a change. I am tall, ladies seem to like me.)
Some might say that this isn’t as gendered as I’m making it out, that tall women also get lots of breaks. I’m not sure that’s true. A lot of the tall women I know wish they were short, so they could feel more dainty and feminine, just as many of the short women I know wish they were tall so they could feel more powerful and impressive. I don’t know any tall guys who wish they were short, and I know a bunch of tall guys. (Bastards.)
This is one of those areas that’s obviously grotesquely unfair and harmful, but it’s so deeply ingrained that I haven’t the foggiest fuck of a notion what to do about it. Promote bad posture among the tall? Encourage Tom Cruise to come out of the closet about being a leprechaun? Elect Dukakis next time? Just the fact that those sound like jokes (and okay, the leprechaun bit was a joke, but c’mon, it’s Tom Cruise) speaks to how deeply this notion is ingrained. I’m not sure this idea can be disentangled from our minds, but I figure talking about it has to be a start.