This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
Lately, though, I’ve been paying more attention to how men get screwed up by this stuff, too. Not screwed up as badly as women, to be sure… but not trivially, either. I care about it. And I think other feminists — and other women and men who may not see themselves as feminists — ought to care about it, too.
I care about this stuff for a lot of reasons. I care because I have men and boys in my life, men and boys who matter to me: I see how they get twisted into knots by gender roles that are not only insanely rigid but impossibly contradictory, and it makes me sick and sad and seriously pissed off. I care because I care about justice: fair is fair, and I don’t want to solve the problem of gender inequality by making things suck worse for men.
And I care for entirely pragmatic, even Machiavellian reasons. I care because I care about feminism… and I think one of the best things we can do to advance feminism is to get more men on board. If we can convince more men that sexism screws up their lives, too — and that life shared with free and equal women is a whole lot more fun — we’re going to get a lot more men on our side. (Like the bumper sticker a friend once had on her truck: “Feminists Fuck Better.”)
So I’ve been looking more carefully at the specific ways sexism hurts men. In particular, I’ve been looking at our society’s expectations of men, our very definitions of maleness. I’ve been looking at how rigid and narrow many of these expectations are, creating a razor-thin window of acceptable manly behavior that you’d have to be a professional tightrope walker to navigate. (Which would be a problem, since “professional tightrope walker” is definitely outside the parameters of acceptable manliness.) I’ve been looking at how so many of these expectations are not only rigid, but totally contradictory, creating a vision of idealized manhood that’s not just ridiculous but literally unattainable. And I’ve been asking the men in my life — friends, colleagues, family members, community members, guys I know on the Internet — what kinds of expectations they get about Being A Man… and how those expectations affect them.
And I came up with this very short, very provisional, not even close to exhaustive list.
And yet, man after man that I talked to brought this one up. The willingness to, as my friend Michael put it, “actually, physically, with fists or other weapons, fight” — to defend one’s honor (or the honor of one’s lady, or country, or sports team, or whatever) — is more central to how men are taught to see manhood than I had any notion of. Even if conflicts never get that far — even if you never actually have to pound anyone with your fists — being both willing and able to do so is a weirdly high priority in the Penis Club. As Adam said, “You would rather get a concussion than be called less than a man.” And Damion told me this story: “I’m in the passenger seat when my (relatively butch) sister-in-law flips off some guy in Baltimore traffic. He jumps out of the car, enraged, and my first thought is ‘Great, now I’ve got to beat the shit out of this guy.'”
Which puts men in a nasty conundrum. The laws and expectations of our civilized society are designed to keep physical violence to a minimum. And for good reason: physical violence is, you know, destructive. So men are expected — indeed required — to avoid and deflect confrontation, and to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence.
And when they do, they get called pussies.
Of course, while it was horribly unmanly for him to be guided by his wife, it was perfectly fine for him to be guided by the guys he worked with at the auto shop. As Scott said, “King of Queens is a good example, I think because though he tries to be a good husband and companion, he often finds himself in conflict with what his friends want or with his own sense of what should be considered masculine.” Men’s definitions of manhood are supposed to come from other men — not from women. They’re just not supposed to care all that much what women think of them.
You see this a lot in fashion advice for men. Men aren’t supposed to look like dorks or slobs, of course… but they can’t look like they care about their looks, either. Men — straight men, anyway — have to achieve that perfect, razor’s edge balance between good grooming and carelessness. You’re supposed to look good — but those good looks have to seem effortless. Looking like you care how you look makes you look like a woman. Or a gay man. (More on that in a tic.) Women are supposed to be the ones prettying themselves up into objects of desire. Men are not supposed to be the objects of desire. They’re supposed to be the subjects. And subjects aren’t supposed to care what their objects think of them.
Except when they’re trying to get those objects to come.
So yes, men are allowed to be hotter for some girls than others. But they’re still supposed to get it on with anything that moves and spreads its legs. Anything female and not grotesque, anyway. Men are expected to have sexual desire… but that desire can’t be their own. It can’t be idiosyncratic. Or even all that personal. It can’t belong to them.
And for the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, it can’t be based on emotion.
This one is so common, it’s almost ubiquitous. At least half the men I talked to made a point about it… and a bunch of the ones who didn’t mention it explicitly alluded to it in other ways. David B. says he learned that men are supposed to be “reserved emotionally. Apparently men are only supposed to be passionate about sex, cars, sports and beer. And even then, passionate is not the ‘appropriate’ way for a man to describe his feeling about something.” David M. got the same memo: “No whining, no complaining, and no crying.” Michael T., got it, too: “To be a man you must be non emotional and disconnected.” And the other Michael: “Have no emotional intelligence / don’t show too many emotions.” Andrew says he learned that a man “is supposed to be hard as nails and is to show no emotion.” Jason learned that being a man means “not showing emotion, being ‘tough’ so to speak — and that one is from peers, family and all of the above.” Dean points out “the usual messages about big boys don’t cry (yes, we do) and how a real man doesn’t complain (yes, they do).” Scott also points to “the ‘boys don’t cry’ mantra.” Ben T. says, “I hate the fact that men can’t be scared of anything.” James says he learned to appear emotionless so effectively that “I did not shed a single tear when my Dad died during heart surgery.” And Georges points out, “It always amazed me how brave I had to be to allow my feelings to show.”
This one, I would argue, is more crippling than all the rest combined. I, personally, might be able to manage a life where I always had to be willing to fight or fuck; where I had to walk an impossible tightrope between caring what my partner thought without caring too much; where I had to twist myself into knots to avoid any hint that I might be attracted to people of the same sex. (See below.) But a life where I had to deny my most basic animal emotions — love and fear, passion and grief — just to not get treated as a gender freak? That would send me screaming ’round the bend. (More than I already am, I mean.)
Unless you are. In which case, it’s more or less okay.
This is kind of a funny one. Acceptance of actual homosexuality has increased by a staggering amount in the last few decades. In less than 40 years, the LGBT rights movement has gone from fighting for our right to not be put in mental institutions and lobotomized, to fighting for our right to get legally married. (And, okay, the right to not be fired from our jobs or kicked out of the U.S. military… but still.) And social acceptance of queers has paralleled our political acceptance. If you actually are a gay man, the “Don’t be even a little bit gay” message is being replaced, more and more every day, with the message, “Well… okay.”
Now, I will say that these attitudes are beginning to change. The advances of the LGBT movement have freed things up for straights as well as queers, and the younger generation is a lot more fluid and casual about sexual orientation than mine ever was. As my friend Ben pointed out, “The loosening of roles that accompanied feminism and the gay rights movement probably benefited straight men at least as much as it did women and gay men… Witness metrosexuality: now that being mistaken for gay isn’t a disaster, men have more fashion leeway.” And Adam, who describes himself as “effeminate, though heterosexual,” says that being assumed to be gay “gave me a pass on some of the more restrictive rules of masculinity. After all, nobody really bothered to tell me to ‘man up’ when I sounded ‘fruity’ anyway.”
But at the same time, as gay visibility has increased, the likelihood of being mistaken for gay has gone way, way up. And as a result, the number of opportunities for anxious, gay-panic freakouts has gone up as well. Being mistaken for gay isn’t as disastrous as it once was — it’s more of a laugh line and less of a petrifying threat — but it also happens a lot more often. And the anxiety it still creates for a lot of straight men is a lot more constant… even if it isn’t as severe.
And I’ve just barely started. I don’t have nearly enough space here to write the full-length novel I could write on this subject. I’ve skipped some of the biggest and most important gender expectations of men: the expectations of competiveness, of status consciousness, of financial success, strength and athleticism, leadership skills, mechanical skills, easy erectile functionality, a dehumanizing attitude towards women, giving a crap about sports. Heck, men get a clear social message that, in order to be manly, they have to be tall. What the heck are you supposed to do about that?
What the heck are any of us supposed to do about any of this?
Well, having unloaded all this depressing crap, I think it’s important to deliver some good news: There are ways out of this, and around it, and through it. A lot of men I talked about this said that yes, they were certainly aware of the rigid expectations held of them as men… but they didn’t personally feel hugely constrained by them. Sure, they were aware of these expectations. But they also felt comfortable rejecting them. Or embracing the parts they liked, and rejecting the parts they didn’t. Or subverting them, in creative and fun and sexy ways.
Admittedly, because of my own personality and proclivities, the men in my life tend to be — how shall we put this? — outside the mainstream of conventional American society. (“Big nerdy pinko freaks” would be another way to put it.) And a lot of them are gay or bi, which skews the sampling even more. But just like lots of feminist women are able to laugh off the sitcoms and billboards and women’s magazines and live however the frack we want, lots of feminist men are able to unload the John Wayne/ Cary Grant/ “What kind of man reads Playboy” crap they got loaded with — or, depending on their generation, the Rambo/ Tom Cruise/ Maxim Magazine crap — and just get on with their lives.
Different people feel more affected by gender expectations than others. Some of us — women and men alike — still hear these voices in the back of our heads, still feel them shaping our reflexes, still see a need to consciously drag these messages into the light so we know how to recognize them and have an easier time tossing them overboard. And some folks — again, both women and men — feel like this is really not that big a deal. Yes, they say, society wants men to be one way and women to be another. Who cares what society wants? For some people, it takes years of introspection and therapy and processing to unload this junk. Some people never unlearn it, in fact; some people let their whole lives be run by it. And other people seem to unload it just by deciding to do it.
So I don’t know what to tell you about how to do that.
All I can tell you is that it’s totally worth it.
Thanks to Adam, Alan, Andrew, Ben, Other Ben, Chad, Christopher, Craig, Crypt, Damion, Darren, David, Other David, Still Other David, Yet Still Another David, And Yet One More David, Dean, Georges, Glendon, Jacob, James, Other James, Jason, Jeff, Joel, jraoul, Kyle, Lauro, Lenny, Leo, Mark, Michael, Other Michael, Still Other Michael, Scott, Other Scott, Still Other Scott, Sean, Anonymous, and everyone else I talked with, for their invaluable help with this piece.