Harris O’Malley insists that our understanding of masculinity today is a bubbling stew of misunderstandings, ignorance and anxieties.
There are few cliches that I hate more than the “Men are From Mars/Women Are From Venus” line. It’s an insult to both genders, turning 50% of the human race into an exotic “other”, telling everybody that one side is so disparate and estranged from their counterpart that we may as well be entirely different species altogether. It’s an attitude I find unnecessarily divisive, encouraging both sides to have a confrontational and antagonistic relationship with the opposite sex when the majority of our differences are matters of socialization and culture rather than a side-effect of having different plumbing.
A few months back I wrote about how men’s misconceptions about women are a hinderance to relationships – whether social or sexual. Today, I want to talk about understanding men. Considering that we live in a patriarchy, it’s easy to say that male society is the default and thus we have a pretty good grasp about what being male is all about. However, there is a lot hiding under the surface that directly colors what it means to be a male in modern society – a bubbling stew of misunderstandings, ignorance and anxieties that even men don’t always realize is there… and when we do see it, we’re afraid to say anything about it.
We Don’t Know What We’re Doing…and That Scares The Hell Out of Us
I’ve talked many times about the supposed “Masculinity Crisis” – the idea that men today are somehow becoming less “manly”, forgoing the “masculine” traditions of days of yore when men grew epic beards, chased down bears, chopped down trees with their bare hands and conquered frontiers with nothing more than an axe, a gun and some old-fashioned manly know-how.
There was a path, a code that men followed, with the milestones of masculine adulthood clearly marked out: We got an education, found a career, got married, fathered a couple of children and reigned as the patriarch like our fathers did for generations before us. Men were the kings of society, women knew their place and children respected their elders.
Then everything changed. Men woke up and, in the words of Betty Friedan, there were no more bears to kill.
The social construct that said that men were the breadwinners and paterfamilias was upended as women sought – and won – increasing levels of civil equality. The role of unquestioned male dominance was coming to an end…and the traditional path of masculinity was eroding away. The entrenched gender roles – man as leader, women as subject – have been increasingly upended, and the new roles are still being developed.
Men have been so used to old-fashioned, muscular masculinity being the dominant paradigm that when it started to change, we’ve feel lost and insecure. All of the old paths that led us through the world have become overgrown and now we’re having to blaze new trails. As a result: a vast number of men feel like they’re flailing about, trying to find something, anything, that might serve as a guidepost – something that can provide a new definition of what it means to be a man.
This is no small reason as to why so many men try finding refuge in hypermasculinity. It’s a clearly defined ethos that tells men who might otherwise be feeling disenfranchised, emasculated or powerless that the key to achieving power (and with it, respect and – critically – value) is found in physical aggression, dominance and sexual conquest. Most “men’s movements” out there, whether it’s the Promise Keepers, the Pick-Up Artist community 0r the Men’s Rights blogs and forums, all reach back towards a past, trying to bring back a time of easy answers and male power. Men glamorize old-fashioned men’s men in popular culture, like Don Draper or Roger Sterling, never stopping to recognize that these role models are fundamentally broken on the inside.
Part of the problem is that there are very few role-models for modern masculinity. The “sensitive, modern man” is stereotyped as a whiney, effeminate ((which is to say: gay)) and powerless shell of a man who despairs of ever having been born a man in the first place. Pop-culture seems to revel in equating modern men with hyperdeveloped man-babies who never grow into maturity, or self-absorbed dudebros who only concern themselves with booze, partying and fucking as many women as possible. Both are shown as appealing but also as lacking some ineffable quality – a feeling that this can’t last forever and at some point it’s going to all come to a screeching halt.
This is no small part of the appeal of actors like Ryan Gosling – he’s unquestionably masculine but also not bound up in the old-fashioned definition of gender roles and sexuality, he respects women as equals and understands the struggle they have gone through. But he’s a rare beast in the media right now and was more or less thrust into the role by the “Feminist Ryan Gosling” meme.
Until we develop more, men are going to continue feeling lost and confused.
We Don’t Recognize Our Own Emotional Needs
Just as women are socialized to be deferential and passive, men are socialized to disassociate from our emotions. We’re taught from an early age that to be emotionally expressive is to be, frankly, faggy. “Boys don’t cry”, “crybaby”, “wimp”, “wuss”… these are all ways that boys are shamed into denying that we feel pain or sorrow or fear. It’s a mark of being feminine and weak – weepy and whiney emasculated messes; whereas “real” men have steely reserve and remain in control at all times. The only acceptable emotions to display are anger and determination. We are only allowed to display grief under very specific circumstances: when our fathers or our dogs die (because dogs are suitably manly animals) or viewings of “Brian’s Song”.
Even now, men can’t express affection for their male friends without suitable ironic detachment from being “bros”. The “manly” hug between brothers or friends isn’t just a straight embrace. The handshake leading into the arm across the chest maintains a level of separation and the back-pounding reinforces that there has to be a level of play-violence as well, lest someone mistake this for a more romantic moment.
This estrangement from our feelings manifests itself in almost all of “typical” male behavior. Men stereotypically fear commitment and intimacy because we’re taught from childhood not to feel comfortable with it. We all feel the desire for love, a personal connection and emotional intimacy, but we’re frequently shamed for expressing it in any “unapproved” ways… or even for having it at all.
Expressions of doubt and confusion are portrayed as weakness and men aren’t supposed to be “weak”, so we can’t ask for help in how to process these feelings or what to do about them. Easier, then, to wall off those pesky emotions and push them aside. It’s part of why men stereotypically value sex over love; love makes us anxious and uncomfortable, but sex can be unemotional, physical intimacy without emotional connection – and thus, without stress.
It’s easier for us to objectify women – to see them as objects for our sexual pleasure rather than as people, and having to interact with them on an emotional level (and thus avoiding the stress of dealing with our emotions). We reduce women to numbers and arbitrary values (the infamous “1-10″ scale of rating women) because we can treat them like we’re trying to rack up the high-score in Galaga, insulating ourselves from those pesky feels. It becomes sex for sex’s sake, a way of finding validation because so much of old-fashioned masculine value is based around the number of people you can convince to have sex with you.
Because we spend so much time disconnected from our feelings, we don’t recognize our emotional needs for what they are, and we end up overcompensating in other ways. The resentment, anger and fear that so many MRAs direct at women is frequently a case of projection, externalizing one’s own pain and placing the blame on others rather than dealing with it oneself. Insistence that women only value “high” status or money or the nebulous value of “alpha male” is frequently a reflection of the feeling of a lack in one’s own life.
Others fall at the opposite end of the spectrum and become excessively needy; by not being able process their emotions in a healthy and productive way, they overcompensate and become TOO attached. Just as the hate-filled misogynist is trying to fill the hole in his life by blaming women for causing it, the needy guy is seeking validation and emotional fulfillment without being able to understand what it is he really needs or how to go about finding it.
Once again, there are very few examples of men who are in touch with their emotional needs to whom others can look for inspiration. Consider the way that romance is portrayed in television and movies. The only people who are seen as being willing to admit weakness or a desire for affection are… well, portrayed as kind of wussy or clownish. Joseph Gordon-Levitt can get goofy and twitterpated and anxious over Zoey Deschanel, but George Clooney never admits to feeling lonely or insecure or unsure of himself whether he’s around Jennifer Lopez or Julia Roberts or any of his other leading ladies. Real men, we are told, never admit to emotional vulnerability or to feeling anything other than 100% self-assured. Ted Mosby has to bumble his way towards the eponymous “mother”, but Jack Bauer just glides through his relationships without fear or doubt, a man’s man to the core.
And yet, even as men are taught that being in touch with one’s emotional needs is a weakness or “womanly”, being willing to own them and to embrace vulnerability is one of the greatest demonstrations of true inner confidence you can find.
We Feel Like We’re Being Cheated
If it sounds like I’m spending a lot of time complaining about the way masculinity is portrayed in pop culture… well, that’s where you’re right.
In this day and age, popular culture, especially movies and television, are some of the biggest influences on how young men understand what masculinity is supposed to be. Because men are socialized from an early age that we shouldn’t admit to not knowing how to approach women, what relationships are supposed to be like, or how to get better at dating, we are left to find our own teachers… and the media is often our source of information.
Movies and television teach us that we should all want the hottest woman1 , that being good at dating and sex is instinctive rather than a skill, and that the ability to navigate relationships is a matter of intuition rather than experiences built over time.
As a result, many of us have an outlandish and absurd idea of what it takes to find and maintain a relationship – that it’s meant to be simple and straightforward and having to struggle is a sign that there’s something wrong with you as a person. Then, as we’re floundering around, trying to make our way through the darkened maze that is interpersonal relationships, we see those for whom it all seems to come so effortlessly… and we get angry. We’re stumbling around like drunken fools and this person gets what we want with such ease that it’s almost offensive.
It becomes symbolic of the unfairness of it all: we feel as though we are somehow being denied access to the things that we’re supposed to have. That we aren’t given a fair chance at acquiring it, not when we have to fight for every inch of progress while that those others have what seems to us to be an unfair advantage. It’s part of what leads to the fatalistic belief that only men who have/are “X” get women, where “X” = some value of “Not Me”. This is how we try to explain to ourselves why we feel as though we have been conspired against, deliberately left out in the cold when others have everything we’re taught to want.
Of course, this is in no small part due to the fact that, once again, we aren’t allowed to show weakness to others. We see those hyper-successful men and make unwarranted assumptions about them, attributing their success to compositional fallacies and popular stereotypes rather than to the possibility that their success has come from effort and experience over the years. We are judging ourselves and finding ourselves wanting because our measuring stick is another person’s highlight reel that we compare to our own unedited footage. Interestingly, that anger and resentment is often directed against women, as though they have somehow rigged the game against us; they become the face of the unfairness of it all, rather than a culture that insists we should be hungry for steak while denying us the information about where to purchase one and how to prepare it once we have it.
Speaking of which:
We Don’t Realize How Much The Culture Hurts Us Too
I want to preface this by saying that this isn’t an attempt to win the Oppression Olympics. Reasonable people can agree that male privilege exists and that women are at a profound disadvantage in society. The problem is that all too often, men have a knee-jerk response to anything vaguely feminist – usually to the level of “nuh-uh!” or “Men have it worse, women are totally in control of everything.” and that feminism is bad and scary for guys.
Most guys haven’t processed what feminism is or what feminist goals actually are. Many buy into the myth that feminism is all about switching a patriarchal society for a matriarchal one, rather than acknowledging the truth that feminism is about equality and the eradication of ossified and malignant attitudes and beliefs about sex and gender. The problem is: most guys don’t recognize that we’re negatively affected by the culture as it currently stands as well. The old definition of “masculinity” is a restrictive, narrow one that punishes men for daring to step outside of it.
Many of the issues in this article stem from the issue of gender policing, the way that society enforces the dictates of masculine behavior. Men are heterosexual because being homosexual is to be taking the female role, giving up the dominant position of the penetrator and instead becoming the submissive role of the penetrated. Men are not allowed to show emotion, not supposed to pursue nurturing or caring roles, or other forms of “women’s work”.
In fact, many of the most common complaints that MRAs offer as “proof” that women have it better than men are cases where the patriarchal culture is hurting them as well. Why does child custody in divorce cases often default to the female parent? Because of the cultural expectations that men aren’t nurturers or care-givers. Why are men victims of physical violence? Because men are taught that aggression and violent behavior is part of being a man. Those so-called “hypergamous” women mostly exist in caste-based cultures where women aren’t allowed to have equal earning power to men. Men do all of the fighting and dying in wars because men don’t want women in the military at all, never mind active combat roles.
The current culture – whether you want to call it rape culture or the patriarchy – also affects men sexually. Why don’t women approach men more in dating contexts? Because so few men are comfortable with gender roles being reversed; when women make the first move, many men often either a) assume that she has far more interest than she actually does or b) flips out about her. The current cultural system actively discourages women from pursuing casual sex; not only does it deny that women’s sexual interest exists, it devalues women for active sexual expression. Women are castigated for wanting to control their reproduction when eliminating the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy is part of what spurred the Sexual Revolution of the 70′s.
Our current culture encourages a system of antagonistic sexual relations, where sex is a commodity and any woman who “sells” it too cheaply or too frequently is a lesser person. Because we live in a culture where rape is tacitly condoned – where a woman can be drunk to the point of unconsciousness, violated by several men on camera and then blamed for her own assault, to use several recent cases – women are far less likely to pursue sex for pleasure’s sake to the same degree that men do.
If more men were to stop and realize what our cultural system says about us, we would be insulted. To be a man means being a base creature who is at the mercy of his most animalistic instincts. Men, we are taught, are brutish, stupid and violent, are incapable of deeper intimacy or caring, and only want a very narrow range of physical or emotional characteristics in their partners; we can’t appreciate women who are large, older, muscular, aggressive, flat-chested, pear-shaped or more sexually experienced. To be a man in this view is not even to be human – we’re neanderthals at best.
We deserve better than this… but we haven’t fully begun to recognize that we’re holding ourselves back. It’s this misunderstanding and ignorance that ultimately underscore so much of male culture in this day and age. And once we begin to understand it, to work to change it…
…men can finally be so much more.
- and let’s be fair: the media is still very heteronormative; it’s only recently that they were willing to admit that gays and lesbians existed as actual characters instead of collections of stereotypes and tropes [↩]
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