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The tools of feminism can also be applied to the damage and deformation that men suffer in our sexist society.July 11, 2012If you are anything like us, you spent some time when you were younger playing with optical illusions: the vase that, if you looked at it differently, was two faces; the fish that were also birds; the old woman who was also a young lady.If you were reading this in a book in a bookstore, and some malicious person had not moved it into the Local Birdwatching category, it would almost certainly be next to some other books about gender. (Yes, this is related.) Look at the other books, and you’d find they have one thing in common—they’re almost all about women. Women and work. Women and body image. Women and race. Women and sex. Women and feminism.You’d think that only women have a gender.For a long time, we’ve only been able to see half the illusion—we see the birds, but not the fish; the vases, but not the faces. We’ve noticed the thousands of ways, big and small, that our current gender system wounds women. Rarely, however, and often only as an afterthought does anyone remark on how the current gender system harms men.♦◊♦We live in a sexist society, one where gender programming starts at birth (though the advent of the sonogram has allowed parents to get a head start by painting the nursery pink or blue and stocking up in advance on gendered toys and clothes) and is so pervasive as to be inescapable. Feminism has done an excellent job analyzing and challenging the ways that these assigned and enforced gender roles damage and deform the lives of women. The same tools of analysis can be applied to the damage and deformation that men suffer. And that damage, sad to say, is severe.The general term for the incredibly restrictive social codes on male behavior is hegemonic masculinity, though Paul Kivel refers to it as the “Man Box” in his work, and Charlie Glickman clarifies that to the “Act Like a Man Box” to emphasize the performative nature of the restrictions. We choose to use hegemonic masculinity as our term because it is less likely than “Man Box” to be used in a trend piece about how it’s okay for men to own steamer trunks now.Indeed, the current cultural trend of terms like bromance, guyliner, mancession, and so on -- “bromanteaus” as we call them -- just demonstrates the power of hegemonic masculinity. Anything that might potentially be seen as outside the narrow bounds of acceptable male behavior, such as having a close relationship, wearing makeup, or being out of work, must be given a special name to assure people that it really is masculine, it’s not outside the box in any way.So what is the box? What are the bounds of hegemonic masculinity? The essence of it is that the things we think of as “manly,” the things a “real man” does or is, are a mess of unreasonable, contradictory and impossible expectations and assumptions. A real man is supposed to be attractive to women, but not do anything for a woman’s approval or attention. A real man is supposed to be stoic and emotionless, but is permitted to show anger. A real man is supposed to be tall and have a big penis, for heaven’s sake, and if your genetic dice didn’t shake out that way, you’d better perform the rest of the list even harder to make up for your supposed deficiency.Men who do not fit the box of hegemonic masculinity get all kinds of stigmatized. For instance, consider men who want to help raise their children. Stay-at-home dads and men on the “mommy track” often face disapproval and the belief that they “laze around all day” or “aren’t real men.” In public, men are all too often patronized as “Mr. Mom” or treated as though it’s exceptional and startling that they want to spend time with their children; it’s depressingly common for men openly interested in childcare to be called pedophiles.
Social pressure has astonishing effects on people’s behavior: just ask any teenager who drove home drunk from a party. Many people find it so unthinkable that men might want to have traditionally feminine jobs such as nurses or teachers that they tend to promote men out of those jobs and into more traditionally masculine positions such as administration; this sounds like an advantage, but most people become nurses to take care of patients, not to deal with paperwork, and it’s based in misandric stereotypes around what men can do. The social pressure to conform to the man box can be internalized, sometimes with tragic effects: unemployment increases a man’s risk of suicide more than it does a woman’s, partially because of the association between masculinity and success.
Even if they don’t experience social pressure, the expectations that they should act in a certain way can disadvantage men who don’t act that way. Straight men are all too often expected to approach women, ask them out, and pay for the date—which causes disproportionate pain to men who are socially awkward, shy or just broke. Male virgins are more likely than their female counterparts to feel shame because of their virginity.
Ultimately, the most important concepts in hegemonic masculinity are “strong," “tough,” and “winner.” Each of these is code for a wealth of symbolism and subconcepts, so that “tough” implies both “stoically emotionless” and “does not seek medical attention.” “Strong” covers “supports his family financially” and “bench-presses more than his bodyweight,” among other things. “Winner” is the key to a Pandora’s box of competition and inadequacy, where the twin concepts of “loser” and “failure” lurk, waiting to consume men’s sense of self at the least excuse.
Even for men who conform to these demands, these ideals of masculinity can burden them. Take toughness, for instance—it’s good to be tough, right? Chuck Norris is tough. Wolverine is tough. Toughness lets you survive in this hard world, keeps you from being weak and vulnerable. That’s a good thing to encourage people to be, right?
Turns out, not so much.
The ideal of physical toughness kills people. Especially men. Except for sex work, the most male-dominated jobs are the most dangerous, from lumberjacks to firefighters to soldiers, men are more likely to be injured on the job and suffer an astonishing 92% of fatal occupational injuries. Historically and cross-culturally, men’s life expectancy is shorter than women’s; in the United States, men tend to live four years less than women. While some of the discrepancy may be biological, much of it is due to socialization: in fact, the level of patriarchy in a society is associated with lower life expectancy for men. Men are encouraged to “tough out” pain and not go to doctors unless they absolutely need to.
Emotional toughness can also cause men pain; if you can’t open up emotionally to another person, it makes it more difficult to have friends. The social support gap is large and growing—men tend to report having fewer close friends and being less connected to their communities than women. For far too many men, romantic relationships are the only acceptable venue for them to express their feelings (and even there, the idea that men hate emotional intimacy limits them). In fact, men tend to report more distress due to a strained romantic relationship, possibly because women are far more likely to have a group of friends to help with the social support. The nervously joking societal construct of “bromance” arises from the notion that having a close male friend is something weird enough that it needs its own name.
Then there’s rape. When was the last time you heard men mentioned as rape or molestation victims in any public discussion of such issues? Despite the fact that 1 in 6 men are subject to unwanted sexual activity before the age of 18, despite the fact that 1 in 4 rape survivors in America is male, far too many people still believe a man cannot be raped, especially by a woman: the myth that an erection is consent, instead of a biological function, remains strong. The Centers for Disease Control’s own statistics draw a line between “rape” and “being forced to penetrate someone.” Not to be rude to the CDC, but we have a word for sex that someone is forced to have against their will. It’s called rape.
Even in cases of boys as young as 13 who are raped by teachers or other authority figures, many people congratulate them or call them lucky. Try to imagine anyone saying that to a 13-year-old girl who was molested by her teacher, and you begin to see how deep the gender gulf is here. In fact, some male rape survivors never acknowledge, even to themselves, that what they endured was rape. Rape of men is endemic within the prison system, which is not treated as a human rights outrage, but as an appropriate subject for jokes. Some even speak glowingly of prison rape as the real deterrent to criminal activity. It’s amazing how many people are downright enthusiastic about their government running rape camps, so long as the victims are male.
The ideal of toughness also impacts male survivors of abuse. Many people believe that men cannot be abused, because they’re “stronger,” or that if a man is abused it’s proof that he’s a wimp or a weakling; many believe that men who were raped are responsible for and enjoyed their rapes. Many of the guides to recognizing abuse are gendered with a female survivor and a male perpetrator, rendering abuse of men invisible. Many shelters do not provide services to male survivors (although some female-only shelters will put male survivors up in hotels).
Most men will never end up in prison, a majority will never be raped or abused, but the same societal expectations that allow us to laugh off the rape and abuse of men give rise to a thousand smaller micro-aggressions, all the little ways in which men are made to feel horrible in a gendered way. It sounds strange to say that the same system tells men that they are grotesque and laughable for being masculine, and simultaneously pathetic and laughable for not being masculine enough, but bizarrely, that is the case.
Of course, a few men do manage to perform hegemonic masculinity quite well and even avoid most of the negative consequences of masculinity.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Ozy Frantz and Noah Brand - What About the Men? Why Our Gender System Sucks for Men, Too
This article by Ozy Frantz and Noah Brand originally appeared at The Good Men Project and was reposted at Alternet. This article is from a book in progress by Brand and Frantz. I'll be curious to see the book when they complete it - it may be a welcome addition to men's studies.