The concept of masculinity as a societal construct has been consuming my thoughts recently. Whether we're talking about Mel Gibson's brutal rants, Al Gore's alleged sexual exploits, or any number of recent instances where men fail to act in a responsible fashion, I think it's time men took a long hard look at ourselves. American masculinity has never desired to truly examine itself in any detail. Seemingly obsessed with looking and acting the part, men rarely do the hard work of self-reflection. We are, in many instances, just as reactive and instantly defensive as the people we criticize. Though we feign strength, more than a few have confused true empowerment with a cheap imitation--one which is about as deep as the average beer commercial or men's magazine article.
After much delay, I have finally decided to read Michael Kimmel's book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. My reluctance to pick it up before now was predicated on the fact that masculinity and I are not yet completely at peace with one another. We have a tortured, confused relationship, a contradictory allegiance that on one hand sometimes makes me want to defend the honor of highly irresponsible, often vile men when they are being rightly criticized in Feminist spaces, and one where I find this same conduct deeply reprehensible. My opinions on the subject are strong and pungent, and not apathetic in the least.
As I've made my way through the book, I find myself wishing my own father would read it. Maybe he'd understand the hell that I went through earlier in life. Maybe he'd understand the behavior of my male peers as well, who in all fairness went through their own private, albeit never verbalized time in Hades. He might even be capable of recognizing why I kept my distance from them. Perhaps it'd even give him permission to explore certain parts of his own masculinity currently roped off as forbidden. I know for a fact that he wouldn't, of course, but still I wish.
The book has been a painful read. Much of what Kimmel speaks about cuts right to the bone. I find myself frequently wincing internally as I read, and after particularly intense paragraphs I find I have to set it down and process. The sections which speak about the ways young men have learned to mask their very human emotional responses by adopting defensive poses like cockiness, bravado, and swagger are the most distressing. To me, nothing is as discomforting as seeing another man struggle to conceal his anxieties and his deep seeded fears, regardless of what he's dealing with or how he chooses to do it. My own upbringing is to blame.
Frequent readers may recognize that I talk about my father quite a bit. The reason for this is that I associate him in my mind with a particular version of masculinity that I understood far too well and wanted no part of whatsoever. I was expected to unquestioningly embrace it, to put it on and wear it like a second skin, without the need to examine it first; one was never instructed to check it for rips and tears, to discern whether it was sensible or airtight. I unequivocally refused. My father never understood why, even, ironically enough, as he blocked out his own discomfort while clothing himself in a one-size-fits all garment that, contrary to the advertising, suits absolutely no one.
The motif of father, in all sorts of contexts has surfaced a good bit in recent days, so I find it weighing on my mind heavily. I doubt this is an uncommon experience for many people. My father played a huge role in my life, but I never realized how much until I began to examine long repressed parts of myself. His influence as teacher of how to be a man was pervasive and set the tone for how I felt about myself going forward. In particular, I've been recently contemplating and reclaiming feelings and emotions which were taboo to display openly and publicly. I probably saw Dad cry all of one time in my entire life. It was an eerie experience, and one that left me feeling tremendously out of sorts for a while afterward.
I myself was forcibly conditioned to not shed tears for any reason and for a long time I never did. Thankfully, I have found myself able to cry more easily, and I have eagerly embraced the new freedom to let out my feelings through extremely efficient means. I was always a sensitive kid, and I think of all the energy I expended, all the creative ways I formulated to keeping myself from tearing up. Dialing down one's compassion, in ways just like this are what young men do to seem hyper-masculine and tough. The tragedy of such actions is not lost on me. If they could only channel and direct this energy in ways that build up, rather than obscure or tear down, then many of the problems this attitude creates would not exist. The problems with humanity that I have observed are not that we are unmotivated and driven to succeed, but that we pick the wrong things to edify.
My reading of the text does provide an unexpected result: sympathy. I find myself feeling pity for these young men, which is a huge step for me. They have been thoroughly warped by a culture which does not adequately educate them about how to be self-aware and introspective. If the men who I associate as obnoxious, embarrassing, and borderline criminal are seeking anything in all their cocksure strutting and boorish behavior, they are desperately chasing after a stable means of feeling connected as a part of something larger than themselves. Though they cannot or will not vocalize it, they seek a source of true wisdom and an ability to have faith in something solid all the way through.
A solution is possible, of course. In Quaker terms, we'd call it being "tender". Tenderness is the ability and willingness to be vulnerable for the sake of greater healing, not just within the self, but within the whole. While these young men might individually pursue this if given the chance, collectively they'd rather follow the pack out of the fear of sticking out or seeming less-than-manly in the eyes of other men. Masculinity as currently defined is about blending in to avoid being put in one's place by someone else. It reminds me a bit about the famous description of the British class system. Every man knows his place, and there is always someone there to remind him of it, should he forget.
The largest challenge of all is conquering the very real fear of men who are simply afraid to "go there", paranoid they might emote even the faintest whiff of being unmanly. Tragically, many men drift for years, without a rudder or a compass, adopting one artificial posture after another. Acting otherwise is often associated with effeminacy, anathema to Guy Code, as Kimmel puts it.
Upon reading this book, I've begun to strip away the layers of hostility and bitter condemnation I've built up over the years. It is a complete reversal of sorts for me to see the sort of trolls who send grammatically challenged hate mail or post deliberately provocative invective in comment threads as damaged, confused, and lost. Anyone who presents himself as angry and obnoxious does not exactly inspire easy sympathy in others. I still find it a severe challenge to restructure my own attitudes, based as they are in old hurts and old wounds yet to close. But my faith tells me that if I don't, then true forgiveness can never be achieved, within myself and within the larger world. No one promised that the task was supposed to be easy.
It would take no effort at all for me to fall back into my old ways, eager and willing to lash out at the men we call dude bros, frat boys, lads, or yobs. I have mentioned before that anger comes from a place of pain. From whence this does this feeling of brokenness stems? Here might be one answer. Masculinity is a fragile thing, a flimsy construct that slides by on a steady stream of glossy lies. Its adherents are themselves the walking wounded.
That this entire systemic framework can be brought to its knees by the mere thought of real equality should give us all great comfort. Indeed, this is what keeps me motivated to add my voice to the other eloquent voices whose ultimate goal is the same as my own. And when that moment comes, as I know it will, the true believers in a saccharine unreality will have to go somewhere. They'll have to learn the truth, which, as we are taught, will set us free. So let us keep speaking truth, brothers and sisters, all.