To be a man

I’ve self-identified as a feminist since my late teens and have been very vocal about it, sometimes to my own detriment.  Not that I’m some sort of knight in shining armor, I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way despite my best intentions and I can’t claim to be motivated entirely by altruism.  While I am very much interested in equality and women’s issues in their own right, I’ve always been at least as interested in what Feminism could potentially do for men.

If you’re raising your eyebrow incredulously right now you’re not alone. I remember attending a eco-activist conference in my early 20’s. The organizers had set aside a couple hours one afternoon to talk about the intersections of ecology and feminism in a woman-only space and, since they didn’t want the women to feel left out of any of the other discussions, hadn’t scheduled anything for the men. They just didn’t know what to do with us.

When I suggested to the assembled guys that perhaps we should talk about gender issues too they were a bit confused. One person suggested that a bunch of guys talking about feminism would, at best, be inherently sexist mansplaining (though he didn’t use that term since it didn’t exist yet). Another suggested that maybe we could talk about how to be better allies and a third echoed the first by saying he thought our best course there was to let the women lead and tell us what to do. The whole group was genuinely flabbergasted when I suggested that we might talk about our own issues as men from a feminist perspective. Men are inherently privileged by Patriarchy after all, what could we possibly have to deconstruct?

The thing is, it’s not that simple. Masculinity, like femininity, is performance as much as it is biology — perhaps more so. Telling a crying little girl to grow up and be a woman would be nonsensical to most people, but tell a little boy to “suck it up and be a man” and everyone knows what you mean. Being a man (at least for most people in our heteronormative transphobic society) requires being born with a penis, but that’s only the most basic requirement. Manliness carries with it a whole host of values and a strict code of conduct. Men are defined by their strength, first and foremost. That strength can be defined in turn by any number of criteria including but not limited to ability to repress and control emotion, being impervious to pain, and — of course — capacity for violence. It has its own initiation rites, strict rules, and very real penalties for transgressing those boundaries.

Homophobic and transphobic violence are only the most visible of those penalties. The sensitive little boy who would rather read books and uses big words the other boys don’t understand is just as likely to be the victim of constant violence. I know because I was that kid and got beat up on a weekly basis for most of my childhood. The best advice my father could give me was to man up and fight back. I tried. Sometimes, rarely, I won. And then in high school I discovered the weight room and spent the next several years putting on muscle as fast as I could. To win the respect of my peers as a working class man I had to demonstrate my capacity for violence and ability to withstand physical abuse.  My experience was not unique.

Kali Holloway wrote a truly excellent article for the Feminist blog “The body is not an Apology” recently that I would like to quote at length.

The emotionally damaging “masculinization” of boys starts even before boyhood, in infancy. Psychologist Terry Real, in his 1998 book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, highlights numerous studies which find that parents often unconsciously begin projecting a kind of innate “manliness” — and thus, a diminished need for comfort, protection and affection — onto baby boys as young as newborns.

…mothers and fathers imagine inherent sex-related differences between baby girls and boys. Even when researchers controlled for babies’ “weight, length, alertness, and strength,” parents overwhelmingly reported that baby girls were more delicate and “softer” than baby boys; they imagined baby boys to be bigger and generally “stronger.” When a group of 204 adults was shown video of the same baby crying and given differing information about the baby’s sex, they judged the “female” baby to be scared, while the “male” baby was described as “angry.

“it would seem reasonable to assume that a child who is thought to be afraid is held and cuddled more than a child who is thought to be angry.” That theory is bolstered by other studies Real cites, which consistently find that “from the moment of birth, boys are spoken to less than girls, comforted less, nurtured less.” To put it bluntly, we begin emotionally shortchanging boys right out of the gate, at the most vulnerable point in their lives.

…both mothers and fathers emphasized “achievement and competition in their sons,” and taught them to “control their emotions” — another way of saying boys are tacitly instructed to ignore or downplay their emotional needs and wants. Similarly, parents of both sexes are more punitive toward their sons

(emphasis added)

The article goes on at some length and provides what should be deeply disturbing empirical data. Being a man means being emotionally neglected almost from birth. It means being held less, comforted less, punished more and more severely. It is being told to control ones emotions and that even having emotions are a threat to ones identity as a man. It means being deprived of positive touch and subjected to constant violence and threats of violence from peers from childhood on. It is dehumanizing, traumatizing, and leads to significant and measurable reductions in average lifespan. And, of course, all of these things are made more severe by circumstances of class and race.* As a reward for surviving all of that, if one can play the part convincingly, one gains access to a few dubious benefits. Male privilege. Patriarchy. Is it any wonder that men who have bought into this ethos would be so reluctant to let that privilege go?

MRA types often talk about how feminism is just women demanding special privileges and blaming men for everything, to which feminists rightly respond that they only want equality. The thing is, men are not born in our society, they are constructed.  So from the perspective of someone who has internalized the programming, feminism means women expecting to be treated like men without having to go through the initiation rites boy have to survive to become men.** Women are thus perceived as wanting to cut to the front of the line and get into the club without paying dues first.   This will not change until the definition of masculinity is changed.   Deconstructing patriarchal definitions of masculinity is thus an essential element of the struggle for gender equality.

Even men and women who are sympathetic to the feminist cause often inadvertently make things worse by attempting to redefine what a “real man” is instead of pointing out that the entire social construction of being a “real man” is ludicrous. At this point the ideal of the caring nurturing “new man” is well established, I’m sure you can recite the list of requirements as easily as I could. But virtually all of those things are framed in reference to how we treat women, not how we treat ourselves and each other. Worse, they’ve been piled on top of the pre-existing list of requirements with which they conflict, making the task of being a “real man” that much more impossible. Failure to achieve this impossible task is emasculating. How can we act surprised that so many people respond with resentment and misogyny? They make the same mistake that Valerie Solanas made — they look at the problems with the way their gender is constructed and immediately blame the opposite sex as a whole. This is unproductive and, frankly, stupid. Misogyny and misandry are two sides of the same trap. Popular feminism has been less than helpful here by failing or refusing to acknowledge the cost men pay as the price of patriarchy (despite the very real efforts of some feminist academics) and many feminist women are genuinely dumbfounded as to where the resentment is coming from — often framing it as a function of male privilege. They’re not wrong, but they’re missing the underlying issue because in a real way it’s not their issue.

To put it simply, this culture’s conception of masculinity is toxic and it is killing us. That includes both rape culture and our cultural acceptance of violence as a rite of passage among young men. It includes the way we treat our sons, our fathers, and ourselves. It includes the absurd notion that masculinity is something you have to earn and conform to and not something which can and should be defined by each individual man. And it includes a whole fabric of assumptions and expectations about how the world works and what masculine and feminine even are.  It’s time to seriously stop and consider what would a better, healthier, more positive masculinity look like?  We desperately need to start over, but to do so we are going to have to do something incredibly difficult, something we’ve all been taught our entire lives that we are not allowed to do: we’re going to have to admit that we’ve been hurt and ask for help.

We need a new dialogue, men talking to men about our own issues and helping each other be better instead of putting each other down for not being good enough. I don’t know what that movement should be called. Probably not feminism because feminism is and should remain a female-oriented space. While my experience as a feminist man / male ally*** has been invaluable, the shape of the movement I would like to see is much more oriented around men talking to other men. I’ll leave what to call it up to other writers for now, all I know is that it desperately needs to exist.

If what I’ve said has struck a chord, please comment below and share this post. Better yet, get your guy friends together in a safe space and talk it through. It doesn’t matter whether it’s accompanied by beer and pizza or scented candles and meditation, but do it. Start a new dialogue. We don’t have to get it perfect right out of the gate — making mistakes is ok. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes in my phrasing and that this post is not perfect, but the fear of imperfection is not a good enough reason to keep silent. What’s important is that we actually do have this conversation instead of putting it off any further. We are worth fighting for. Our sons are worth fighting for. Women cannot complete the necessary change on their own. We have nothing to lose but fear and everything to gain by helping them.

* This one sentence should be a book, probably several books in fact. As a white man I don’t feel qualified to write them. But it’s worth pointing out that black men are often constructed as hyper-masculine and are thus especially subject to all of the harms I have listed and receive fewer of the benefits. I don’t think it’s possible to deconstruct racism in any real way without taking these intersections into account.  And, of course, structural violence against working-class men is still violence and men make up a huge majority  of people killed on the job in the USA.

** It’s worth pointing out that many do not survive it — the FBI statistics show that 77.4% of murder victims are male. While women and girls are more likely to talk about suicide, boys and men are more likely to actually do it — in fact men are nearly four times as likely to kill themselves. And while white men are still the group most likely to kill themselves, suicide rates among black men and boys have been on the rise in recent decades.

*** The fact is, feminism is of necessity a female-dominated movement and men’s place in that movement has always been disputed. Frederick Douglass acknowledged this point eloquently back in 1888. Some women maintain that men cannot be feminists at all and would prefer we leave them alone entirely. This attitude just reinforces my point that we need our own spaces to deal with our own issues. What right do we have to tell women what they should be doing to liberate themselves when we have so much unfinished work of our own? How can we even be allies when we lack any organization or identity of our own? At best we are camp followers. A genuine men’s movement, on the other hand, could actually make the term “feminist ally” meaningful.