Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What It Means to Be a Man

I liked this blog posting by Gracewatcher at Tell It Like It Is. He seems to present a real and sensitive understanding of how our culture defines and distorts masculinity.

What it means to be a man

It's hard to be a man; hard to live up to the demands that come with the dominant conception of masculinity, of the tough guy. So, guys, I have an idea -- maybe it's time we stop trying. Maybe this masculinity thing is a bad deal, not just for women but for us. We need to get rid of the whole idea of masculinity. It's time to abandon the claim that there are certain psychological or social traits that inherently come with being biologically male. If we can get past that, we have a chance to create a better world for men and women. That dominant conception of masculinity in U.S. culture is easily summarized: Men are assumed to be naturally competitive and aggressive, and being a real man is therefore marked by the struggle for control, conquest and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants and takes it. Men who don't measure up are wimps, sissies, fags, girls. The worst insult one man can hurl at another -- whether it's boys on the playground or CEOs in the boardroom -- is the accusation that a man is like a woman. Although the culture acknowledges that men can in some situations have traits traditionally associated with women (caring, compassion, tenderness), in the end it is men's strength-expressed-as-toughness that defines us and must trump any female-like softness. Those aspects of masculinity must prevail for a man to be a "real man." That's not to suggest, of course, that every man adopts that view of masculinity. But it is endorsed in key institutions and activities -- most notably in business, the military and athletics -- and is reinforced through the mass media. It is particularly expressed in the way men -- straight and gay alike -- talk about sexuality and act sexually. And our culture's male heroes reflect those characteristics: They most often are men who take charge rather than seek consensus, seize power rather than look for ways to share it and are willing to be violent to achieve their goals. That view of masculinity is dangerous for women. It leads men to seek to control "their" women and define their own pleasure in that control, which leads to epidemic levels of rape and battery. But this view of masculinity is toxic for men as well.

If masculinity is defined as conquest, it means that men will always struggle with each other for dominance. In a system premised on hierarchy and power, there can be only one king of the hill. Every other man must in some way be subordinated to the king, and the king has to always be nervous about who is coming up that hill to get him. A friend who once worked on Wall Street -- one of the preeminent sites of masculine competition -- described coming to work as like walking into a knife fight when all the good spots along the wall were taken. Masculinity like this is life lived as endless competition and threat. No one man created this system, and perhaps none of us, if given a choice, would choose it. But we live our lives in that system, and it deforms men, narrowing our emotional range and depth. It keeps us from the rich connections with others -- not just with women and children, but other men -- that make life meaningful but require vulnerability.
Go read the whole post.


Booster said...

Interesting post, it’s the first time I’ve read a position seeking to dissolve the masculine identity itself as opposed to redefining it in some new way. To have a better understanding of anything, it’s useful to change one’s perspective. From that point, I think the mental exercise of releasing our notions around what characterizes masculinity is worthwhile. It offers a chance to pause and reflect on our assumptions. Males are adopting characteristics more typically associated with the feminine: nurturing children, connecting to relationships, cooperating with co-workers, etc. I often feel the temptation to redefine these characteristics into new forms masculinity such as being a “Warrior of the Heart”, etc. Gracewatcher argues that instead of redefining these traits in some masculine identity we should not associate them to any gender at all. In other words, instead of trying to call a purse a “bro bag”, let’s just call them all “bags” and leave it there. But so much sexual energy is built into the polarized dynamics of masculine vs. feminine that a gender neutral world simply doesn’t sound appealing. Feels a bit too much like oatmeal, which may be good for breakfast but isn’t the flavor of passion that’d I’d choose. My ultimate joy is a woman’s ultimate surrender to me. Since I know that a woman’s surrender is dependent on the degree of trust she has, I find myself highly motivated to be very trustworthy. In this way, thru connection and relating, the positive and supportive elements of the masculine energy emerge, welcomed eagerly by the feminine. Where the pitfalls emerge is when we fail to discern the difference between a male and masculine aspects and a female and feminine aspects. We all possess degrees of masculine and feminine “energy”, emotionally mature individuals can recognize and utilize both without shame. So one may ask, if we have both forms of energy anyway what’s the point in distinguishing the two in the first place? Why not simply call a protective behavior, “protective” rather than “motherly” or “warrior-like”? Because these identities give us roadmaps and direction to relate to one another and this develops intimacy. When I’m in a characteristically masculine role, my woman can enjoy characteristically feminine roles, and vice versa. When used with understanding, it gender roles simply become a vocabulary for relating to other men and other women.

william harryman said...

Hey Booster,

Thanks for sharing your views on this. I agree with you on the need for polarity. No matter where we are in our development, our biology goes with us, so to totally leave gender out of things reduces our humanity, I think.

But I like the exercise of NOT thinking in gender terms, as you suggest. It opens up the ability to really think about how and why we use these ideas -- to release our "notions around what characterizes masculinity."

My girlfriend likes me to be VERY masculine on occasion because it allows her to feel more feminine than her day job allows - works for me.


James said...

Great stuff! I was discussing the concept of being 'metro' with someone a few weeks ago. In the U.S., it's associated with a man taking care of himself and using quality/name brand products rather than just letting himself go. However, in Europe, Italian men work on sports cars and do masculine things all while wearing the same quality of clothes and looking great. I mean, come on...James Bond is metro and I don't see anyone calling him out!