How to Make Masculinity Stop Hurting
My dad's best friend died last week. Heart attack. He was 60, barely older than my dad, not old enough for his heart to give way. They've been friends for 35 years, longer than I've been alive. I got a heartbreaking email from my father about how they met, where they'd traveled together, and his favorite joke (What did the Buddhist say to the hot dog vendor? Make me one with everything).
In his eulogy, his son wrote that he was "a devoted family man, one who extended the term to cover a great many individuals, supporting and caring for those who needed him."
And I thought, that's radical masculinity.
Traditional, limitational masculinity says "Don't talk about your feelings." That masculinity says "Be strong all the time." It says "A 'real' man is tough, and "The worst thing you can be is a sissy, a pussy, a girl, feminine, weak." Radical masculinity says: I am listening. Who do you want to be?How does one learn how to be that? How do you grow up into a masculinity, a maleness, an adult manhood, despite this culture's obsession with bad boys and lunkheads, to be a caring protective provider, to make effective, positive changes in this world, to build something that will last, to be generous with your heart and mind and love and time?
Traditional, limitational masculinity says don't talk about your feelings. That masculinity says be strong all the time. It says a "real" man is tough, and the worst thing you can be is a sissy, a pussy, a girl, feminine, weak.
Radical masculinity says: I am listening. Who do you want to be?
There is no shortage of research and writings on the pain of being socialized into a gender role in western cultures. In this GI Joe society, where the most common toys for little boys are guns and tanks and trucks, where the constant credo of "big boys don't cry!" echoes in all of our ears, despite our sex, despite our progressive parents, we cut our teeth on the masculinity that confines and withholds and withdraws basic human emotional experiences, denying they even exist, ruling that anything not invulnerable and impenetrable is weak, girly, or inappropriate for a "real man."
I know these men. I grew up with these men as role models. I saw the painful results of this stoicism. I knew I didn't want to be a part of that, but I didn't know if I had another choice.
There are some real, beneficial functions for this mode of masculinity: to provide for a family, to keep those one loves safe from harm, to be the structure around which others can build and formulate and grow and change, to be part of a historic lineage, to fit in, to be commended for one's strength. But this kind of masculinity is too rigid to allow for the kind of growth needed in this fast-paced, information society where anyone can become anything, where we have more access to systems of power like government, education, and technology, than ever before. This outdated masculinity holds us back. This masculinity is keeping a fist-tight grip on the past, on some sort of idealized, unobtainable version of "man" which is more of a figment of our collective subconscious than a nostalgia for how society used to be.
And now, forty years after the second wave of feminism blazed new freeways for women's rights, masculinity needs to turn itself inside out in order to bring us as a collective whole to our next stage of human well-being.
This same tool that has blazed the way for women can be used for men and masculinity, too—feminism is a powerful gateway to gender theory, to breaking down the expectations placed on people because of their gender.
But as I attempt to bridge this gap between masculinity studies and feminism more and more, I've run into some men who have resistance. What about the ways feminism rejects men and men's experiences? What about the ways feminism polices gender, going so far as to claim that "gender causes oppression," so therefore we should reject all gender always?
But me, I like gender. I think it feels good to get dolled up and use my physical presentation as a way to communicate with lovers and friends and communities and society. I like the way my masculinity does not necessarily line up with my breasts or my female pronouns, asking those who interact with me to challenge their preconceived notion of what it is to be a woman.