Thursday, July 29, 2010

The tyranny of masculinity—stop trying to be a man; start trying to be yourself

Men who display in an obvious way the typical characteristics associated with masculinity are silly, if not immature and childish.  This is about being overly competitive, aggressive, dangerous, violent, insensitive, abusive, selfish, unemotional, hyperrational, or ambitious.  It is true that many of these traits are culturally determined— especially reinforced in the media—but our culture places far too much emphasis on the roles people are supposed to play based on their race, religion, and gender.  If everyone just followed their hearts, kept it real, and didn’t do or be what others told them to do or be, the world would be a better place. 

Men, in general—not all men—can be criticized for being too addicted to cultural definitions of masculinity and for lacking a critical perspective about those definitions. 

A lot of men like sports, cars, motorcycles, beautiful women, sex, guns, gambling, tinkering and fixing, and electronic gadgets.  These interests do not concern me in this essay.  I think some of them are hardwired.  My wife and I have had children of both sexes, and if you watch their natural inclinations—whether nurtured in one direction or the other—males and females are naturally, comfortably, and, I dare say, automatically drawn to different things. 

The problem with the hard-wiring, higher levels of testosterone, and Y chromosome arguments often used to support the trite aphorism that “boys will be boys” (or “men will be men”) is that they offer a handy excuse for not doing the psychological and spiritual hard work that genuine growth and change require, especially when that change and growth contradicts socialization and cultural values.

From where did the current stereotypical view of the male gender come?  The wide variety of masculine ideals of numerous past cultures have all but vanished.  Whether hunter-gatherer, farmer, or craftsman, premodern men were steeped in family, land, community, and religion.  The traditional masculine traits were generativity, stewardship generosity, teaching, husbandry, honor, and even adventure.  All of these have been virtually ignored and replaced by ideals that have been supplied by the media.  Author and media expert Jerry Mander reminds us that, “we evolve into the images we carry in our minds.  We become what we see.” 

An obvious question, however, is why should men addicted to the cultural definitions of masculinity even consider changing?  It is because many of the traits associated with men or socialized into men are just plain stupid—as are, I might add, many of the traits of the conventional female gender role. For example, it is stupid not to ask for directions when lost, to show reluctance to go to a doctor, to thrive on violence, to work such long hours that one does not know his children, or to refuse to become relationally competent. 

What we need to confront are the outdated beliefs that men are impregnable, that risking life and limb is okay, that avoiding medical check-ups, diets, and keep-fit regimes is praiseworthy, that a man’s job is done if he “brings home the bacon,” and that families don’t need them (fathers) as much as mothers. Men need to be reassured that the traditional women’s traits that include being nurturing, selfless, overtly sensitive, passive, emotional, and intuitive are important characteristics—just as important as the traditionally more “macho” characteristics—and that to nurture, encourage, and reveal these “feminine” traits is likely to yield a stronger, more well-rounded, acceptable, and complete human being. 

Women should expect men to be a mixture of many qualities, even though some of those qualities may be polar opposites of each other.  Sure they can retain the old qualities of masculinity such as being strong, aggressive, hard, tough, big, and powerful, but they should also possess the feminine qualities such as being compassionate, soft, sweet, gentle, and caring.  What’s wrong with this combination of traits being the standard?  

Men should be free to express a full range of emotions and creative urges.  In this way they become both more humane and more sane. 

Here is the point: it is very likely that men, on average, have more innate aggressiveness than do most women.  But both men and women will be more tolerant of aggression and competitiveness in a culture that values these traits over gentleness and friendliness. 

The problem is figuring out what techniques or practices would likely encourage such a change?  Men, unfortunately, are the only ones who can do much of the work.  For women to coach men in this undertaking would be both arrogant and inappropriate.  If women can simply supply some of the challenge, a little encouragement, and a great deal of emotional support, of course, that will help.  As with every significant cultural revolution, this tectonic cultural plate shift would happen only because of deep internal, psychological, moral, and spiritual changes, individual by individual. 

One suggestion might be additionally helpful.  Just as women studies and women’s groups worked so well for women, men studies and men’s groups should work for men.  What is needed on college campuses across the nation are three closely interrelated, but distinctive, disciplines: men studies, women studies, and gender studies.  It is only through such a development that we are likely to find something close to freedom from the prison of gender roles. 

It is true that most men feel pressured to act masculine.  Why can’t men, instead, emulate people like the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Gandhi—men who were both gentle and competent?  These are male culture heroes and icons of highly accomplished masculinity.  Why is it that most men hold as heroes athletes, lawyers, businessmen, and generals?  The answer is: because we live in a speedy, competitive, hyper-masculine culture—a culture that focuses upon and idealizes the most problematic aspects of the male gender role.  If I could give men just one message, it would be: Stop trying to be a man; start trying to be yourself.  If that includes elements that are considered feminine, so be it.  


At the website, the essay is entitled “Manhood on the Mat: The Problem is Not that Pro Wrestling Makes Boys Violent. The Real Lesson of the Wildly Popular Pseudo-Sport is More Insidious,” and written by Jackson Katz and Sut Jhally, suggests that the hyper-masculine pro-wrestling subculture promotes bullying, taunting, and other negative male features.  “It is a lesson that resonates all too clearly in our schools: A recent survey of 6,000 children in grades 4 to 6 found that about 1 in 10 said they were bullied one or more times a week, and 1 in 5 admitted to being bullies themselves. And we know from the 1990s' series of school shootings that, all too often, guns become the great equalizer for boys who have been bullied, ridiculed, and verbally taunted.”  This essay was first published in The Boston Globe on February 13, 2000, in the Sunday, Third Edition Focus Section; Pg. E1. 

At the Gender Blender Blog, there is an excellent essay entitled, “Violent Masculinity as a Cultural Ideal: Both Men and Women are Victims,” in which students (problably Women’s Studies students at Tufts University) talk about the various effects of violent masculinity.  It is an interesting and provocative essay. 


Copyright July, 2010, by And Then Some Publishing, LLC.

1 comment:

  1. I find your arguments to be ridiculous. Let's take it outside and settle it like men.


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