The Toxic Masculinity Issue
We met with this Issue’s writer over dinner a few weeks back. I remember listening to him formulate his thoughts and describe his experiences; what struck me about his story was its relationship with time. Rather than describing a singular moment, he looked at how his understanding of masculinity, and of himself, had changed over a much longer period - almost twenty years of his life.
I find that with time I have moved away from surface-level analysis of my identity and my relationship with the world, beginning to dig deeper into the sources of those conflicts/struggles. This week’s writer does just that: he writes about how time has informed and transformed the issue at-large in these related instances due to his gradual understanding.
As we move forward into the year ahead, we encourage our readers to think a little more deeply - not only about day-to-day issues and struggles, but also about how we each fit into larger systems of oppression. Are we missing a new side to the story? Are we promoting a socially constructed set of rules that in fact hurt and oppress others? Are we contributing to that oppression on a daily basis - not by active malevolence, but by the fact of remaining inactive?
MAN ENOUGH - Anonymous
CW: gender, sexuality, sexual violence
When I was a boy growing up in rural southeastern North Carolina, there were a few occasions when I wished I had been born a girl instead. It wasn’t because I felt trapped in the wrong body; my envy for the other sex was purely one of socialization. Watching the men around me through 10-year-old eyes, it just seemed that girls had so many more options than boys.
Emotions were treated differently - for starters, girls were actually encouraged to express them. They could cry, yell with excitement, hug each other in greeting and hold hands on the playground without anybody screaming “gay!” I felt ashamed for being particular about my clothes while for girls it seemed encouraged. They had more choices - they could wear everything I wore and a lot more. Hobbies were also gendered, of course. Girls who liked deer hunting and working on their daddy’s trucks were sometimes affectionately called “tomboys.” People had a name for feminine boys, too, but it’s a slur I’m not interested in repeating here.
At the same time that women were teaching me about vulnerability, passion, and acceptance, most men in my life were setting very different standards of acceptable - and expected - behavior. Men were stolid, unmoved by most things. The emotion I most often saw them demonstrate was anger, and boys followed suit. When boys my age struck out at home plate, they flung their baseball bats violently into the fence; crying after a game was unthinkable. In a school or church setting where other kids were having fun, you could bet there would be a group of boys nearby rolling their eyes, too cool to participate. Later they would crack jokes, criticizing those who had the gall to express themselves. Nothing was less cool than empathy.
Over time, I came to learn that “man” didn’t really mean “male.” It meant one specific type of male: strong, masculine, and heterosexual. I remember being asked to move two buckets of concrete in middle school. The response was instantaneous from a nearby adult: “He’s not man enough to do that.” In college, I attended a theatre show with a straight character played by an actor who acted flamboyant onstage for comedic effect. Afterwards, I heard someone comment, “It’s funny how they got that guy to play a man,” the implication being that a flamboyant man is not a man at all.
With age, I began to feel more comfortable in my gender role. This was partly accomplished by repressing behaviors the world around me deemed “feminine,” like being sensitive to the needs of others. Rather than speaking up, I stood by idly when men around me made harmful jokes, like describing the donkey punch, sad clown, and other terms from Urban Dictionary that glorify sexual violence. I took to calling most everything negative “gay,” despite being bisexual. At the time, I was closeted even to myself, because the world had told me that bisexual men didn’t exist; if a guy hooked up with another guy, even just once, he was gay. Full-stop.
Despite my reluctant conformity to what felt like masculinity, I was still confused and frustrated that so many men were invested in such a narrow view of our gender. In college, I took the time to learn more about feminism for the first time. At first, I was resistant to the idea of patriarchy. How could we be living in a world inherently advantageous to men when I felt so aggrieved by society as a male? But I kept reading. And as I looked at the world through this new lens, the behavior I’d seen in so many men - including myself - started to make more sense.
Perhaps most embarrassingly, I realized that the things I had once envied as “options only available for women” were often the very objects of their oppression. While I had believed the dresses and makeup were merely fun forms of self-expression, I came to learn that many women had been coerced and even forced to wear them by employers, partners, and friends alike for years. I had been jealous that women were free to express themselves, ignorant of the historical expectation for women to emotionally support the men around them while staying quiet and well-behaved.
Before, I couldn’t understand why men policed feminine behavior in other men, even as I had begun to police these behaviors myself. Now, I see the unfortunate reality: our patriarchal society considers women weak - and stereotypically feminine behavior as an indicator of that weakness. While I had resented that being a man was so unforgivingly associated with strength and stability, it had never occurred to me that this was vastly preferable to the alternative.
This assumption that women are weak is the reason many men would take great offense to being called a woman. You can see this sprinkled all throughout popular culture. “You play ball like a girl,” for example, has long been used to imply the inferiority of women to men. This rhetoric became so common that women started reappropriating it in positive ways, but it still persists. At my golf practices in high school, the phrase “You hit it with your purse,” was commonly used when a swing wasn’t powerful enough.
I began to realize I had ignored the parts of the world around me that vocalized a subliminal hatred of women. Like hearing the joke “It’s not rape if you yell surprise,” way, way too many times in middle school. Or the time I turned into my friend’s driveway, and he told me from the passenger seat that I had gripped the steering wheel like a woman and should never, ever do that again. (I grabbed it with my palm up, like a pull-up bar, if you’re wondering.)
Men can, in fact, freely express their emotions. We can turn the steering wheel however we please; there are no actual consequences. My distaste for these social norms clouded my ability to see that they are merely a byproduct of women’s oppression, as that oppression is stitched into the very fabric of our society. Even though these forces impact men negatively, they are vehemently anti-woman at their core. Look at the WWII draft: although men were the ones forced to serve, the underlying reasoning was that women were too weak.
I hope we can move toward a world without gender roles, where our sex needn’t function as a predictor - or a limiting factor - for our hobbies or habits. But that only happens with an honest conversation about how our society views women. Had I never been exposed to more viewpoints, I might be like one friend from my hometown, who recently cried to me while drinking about how he never feels “man enough.” Makes sense - he lives in a world that has taught him there’s nothing more despicable than being a woman.
MORE TO THE STORY
According to GQ, over 50% of men did not know anything about #MeToo when surveyed in the months after the movement exploded into pop and political culture. Those that did know of it were likely to be anxious and confused about what does constitute appropriate behavior. Read GQ’s breakdown of the numbers (and some helpful explanations) here.
Bibi van der Zee writes about her efforts to raise her three sons as feminists. She talks about how it is good to argue, about how even the most engaged of us harbor unconscious biases, and about how we need to talk to children more frequently and more honestly about everything from pornography to politics. Read her piece here.