A Thought Adventure

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

35. The Lopsided Definition of Masculinity

Why have we failed to give masculinity a definition as simple and unequivocal as the one we've given femininity? Because as a society we're stuck in an underdeveloped stage of consciousness. We don't grasp that how we define something (or look at anything) is always a choice, our choice, whether we've made that choice consciously or unconsciously. We don't quite realize yet that society is a living, changing entity, and that it's our job to regularly revise its assumptions--rather than regard them as divine decrees or truths carved on stone.

A major element in this failure is the iron-grip our ideas of manliness have on us, especially but not only on men. I asked earlier why men put up with the self-destruction involved in so much of what they do. The answer is that few things scare men more than being seen as unmanly, a risk they run if not living up to a set of rigid and unforgiving masculine norms.     

At the center of these norms--which smack of antiquated fighter ideals like toughness, belligerence, detachment--is the egregious but deeply ingrained lie that to be a man is to NOT be like a woman. I remember coming across old men in my childhood who thought it below their manly dignity simply to feel content and satisfied. "Thrive?" one of them said, "That's what potted plants and domestics do!"

The idea that violence is associated with manhood goes far back in history and may be one of the hardest to erase when replacing the old concept of masculinity with a more modern one. In Power and Innocence, A Search for the Sources of Violence, psychologist Rollo May writes about how the experience of violence puts men in contact with deep and powerful emotions. “In the most primitive way possible, it makes us feel, and thus know, we are alive.” And in his memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow describes violence as the lingua franca of male communication, something you must learn to endure and administer if you are a man.

Be rational rather than emotional and always be in charge are demands made on men imale myths and hero stories the world over. In the Western tradition, from Jesus to James Bond, the hero often goes on a long, dangerous journey, The goal he pursues absorbs him so completely that it alienates him from his surroundings and makes him solitary. Examples are Odysseus, Faust, Robinson Crusoe, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Superman and maybe the most well-known modern icon, James Bond; for him winning is a necessity and losing spells irrevocable ruin. In the relationship between man and woman one always dominates and the other is the object. We find no story here about how to coexist with an equal by developing true mutuality. The same idea of manhood--albeit without the rugged individualism and sexual boastfulness--can be found also in China, India, Japan.

James Bond

The female counterpart
Though this role model no doubt answers to a positive need in men to be useful in the world, it also demonstrates that they must expend unconscionable energy to keep the instincts at bay and raise walls against people, especially women. What these stories show, in essence, is that when his restless activity speeds the hero away from the intuitive and feeling part of himself--as represented by the women in the stories--all he does is struggle against himself. I therefore see them as metaphors for men‘s failed pursuit of a complement to their rationality, i.e., the lost half of themselves

A good illustration of what’s required of men is Rudyard Kipling’s poem If--. Although it seems to advise some 19th century colonial officer-to-be how to interact with other men, most of it is actually common sense. For instance: be fair, don’t give tit for tat, stay calm, trust yourself, be brave, don’t give up--things that are just as applicable to people in general, women as well as men. It’s only in the last stanza when he glorifies emotional detachment (and holds out its reward in unlimited power) that Kipling applauds the numbness to natural human responses that are typically linked to manliness:

                        If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
                        If all men count with you, but none too much,
                        If you can fill the unforgiving minute
                        With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
                        Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
                        And--which is more--you’ll be a Man, my son!

In fairness, when humanity first woke up to a conscious apprehension of the world (which I connect with the last matriarchal reign), men may have felt that suppressing their softer, so-called` feminine side protected them from painful memories of matriarchal oppression. But the distrust of womanhood that followed has had disastrous consequences. It developed into a hostility to everything feminine so profound and all-encompassing that it not only distorted men’s relations with women but also cut men off from a whole half of their own selves--and thus from an important source of true manhood.

What then is ‘true manhood?’ To turn the searchlight on that conundrum, see next post.

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