Monday, February 08, 2010

Contrary to Some Voices, Masculinity is Not Under Attack

I write this post in response to a handful of Super Bowl commercials that I write this post in response to two or three Super Bowl commercials that aired last night. The implication in each of them, to some degree or another, was that masculinity was under attack, the ravages of femininity were destroying machismo, or that marriage was an emasculating process that turned male virility into weak-kneed passivity. These views are nothing new, but when they are emphasized so heavily, the general implication is quite clear. Some must believe that men are losing control of the game and being transformed into, if not women, some hybrid form which is itself a cheap imitation to the rough and tough masculinity of the past. Knee-jerk responses neglect to understand that in the process of achieving equality for everyone, masculinity will change in direct proportion to the way femininity has changed. The truth is that nothing is being lost and everything is being gained, but some confuse the cause of reform with tragic destruction of the tried-and-true.

If I didn't know better, I might buy into these wrong-headed assertions myself. However, I happen to recognize that while an older incarnation of masculinity might have been less compelled towards public displays of sensitivity or equal deference to relationship partners, this kind of supposed supreme self-reliance also meant that men were often incapable of sharing vulnerability and thus expressing the fullest range of human expression. Problems best talked out and shared with others were frequently kept inside, often disguised or numbed away by alcohol or other drugs. I suppose having had a grandfather who likely struggled with bipolar himself, one who, I might add, never really ever came to terms with what he considered a shameful weakness, does makes me understand his struggle without rushing to judgment as some might do. I don't romanticize the masculinity of another age. I pity it. To me it is supremely limiting and heavily stunted. Why anyone would wish to reinforce masculinity in such rigid, lonely terms is beyond me.

When we talk about a Patriarchal society, we mean a societal framework designed by (usually white) men for other (usually white) men. The scope of Patriarchy is vast and at times so invasive and omnipresent that one has a difficult time adequately stating its fullest impact upon all. Feminist voices for years have taken much time pointing out Patriarchy's shortcomings, especially how it callously disenfranchised women by forcing them to play by the parameters and rules of a system for which they were often ill-suited. Their criticism, which is quite valid, states that if men were capable of designing such a fantastic system, why then does it produce so many unresolved problems? More recently, Feminists have fought for the inclusion and incorporation of people of color, LGBTs, and other minority voices into the discussion. It is my opinion, based on what I have observed, that any system which does not take into account multiple points of view and the unique concerns of a wide swath of people across the board will always remain imperfect and inequal. The deepest irony of all is that the Paternalistic system as it exists now works for the well-heeled, powerful, and well-connected at the expense of almost everyone else imaginable, so many men now terrified at its supposed demise are the very same who are ground underfoot by it.

The radical Feminists of a generation prior envisioned a superior, alternate system designed by women, but the failing in that point of view is that by being just as exclusionary as their male brethren, they managed to perpetuate only a brand new spin on the same problems. Though I am a man, I do not find any discomfort whatsoever in spaces dominated by women, because unlike some of my same gender, I do not see gender equality as a zero sum game. Inherent in each of those Super Bowl commercials was that belief---that in surrendering to the desires of women, they would be losing their masculinity and freedom in the process. My hope is that other men will come to understand, as I have, that everyone's liberation depends on maximum participation by everyone. This includes participation in spaces, circles, and movements not often populated by white men, or, for that matter, men at all. Still, so long as the way things have always been finds itself threatened, the same old appeals to some standard of masculine purity will be invoked. The paradoxically unifying feature of gender inequality is that both male and female gender roles are defined as the pursuit of a kind of perfect balance that is beyond the grasp of everyone, regardless of gender identification. Still, it is invoked frequently to chide or to lecture people to get back in line, else some kind of anarchic chaos result from it.

We know where we're headed, and we also know that every age presents its own challenges and its own problems. It is easier to declare a war and invoke a moral panic than to calmly examine the reality of the situation before us. Whether it's sexting or some perceived attack on masculine strength and independence, we ought to expect the same sorts of attacks until the end. Names change, context differs, the sales pitch is modified slightly, but in the end, it's really no different. The goal is to plan for the inevitable, hope for the best, and make sure to never relinquish control of the framing. Reform and the need for reform of any sort and in any context is ceaseless. Let us cogently articulate our reservations, discuss our strategies, put them into action, and then wait for the next volley from the other side. In the meantime, I fight alongside my sisters as well as my brothers and do so happily and with great purpose.


Anonymous said...

This post has something in common with both the ads you describe and a lot of academic feminism: detachment from the lived experience of, well, everybody else. Who besides a few intellectuals in the world’s wealthiest societies goes around critiquing Paternalism and meditating on abstract reform schemes?

It seems bleakly comical that some Americans can fret about their masculinity being under attack while others worry that their young men are being destroyed by violence.

On the specific subject of manhood and how it’s created, I’ve recently stumbled on the writing of Geoffrey Canada and am humbled by his insights, however theoretically uninformed. He's the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone and has inspired some Obama administration policy.

I’ve also been reading about the ways men in the ante-bellum South gained social status through mad boasting and senseless fighting that often ended in disfigurement or unpunished killing. No one planned for or desired these customs, but it’s possible to point to social and political facts that helped create them. Once they are in place, it’s very difficult for males not to participate in them, as Canada also explains about his South Bronx childhood.

The state can do things to prevent, e.g., gun manufacturers from marketing affordable, pocket-portable killing machines to insecure young men. That’s the kind of development that leads male status contests onto a rising spiral of deadly violence. Yet because of other political facts, the state can’t do much in this line without stirring paranoid fears in another segment of the populace. (This American Life has a good hour on “guns and the people who love them” in this week’s podcast.)

Joel Monka said...

Part of the problem is that as many women buy the stereotypes as men. It was Spartan women who told their sons and husbands, "come back with your shield, or on it." It was women who wandered the city streets in the world wars handing white feathers to any man not in uniform. It was women who recorded, and bought, songs saying things like, "Johnny be angry, Johnny be mad... I want a brave man, I want a cave man..." and "When you asked me out and I turned you down, Never thought that'd stop you from askin' now. Why'd you go and give up so easily? I thought you'd see ... When I say no I mean maybe, or maybe I mean yes." And women still swoon over "bad boys", and then are amazed when they act like bad boys.

Maybe it's different today- though when I watch music videos I doubt it- but when I was coming of age, boys learned their male stereotypes as much from the behavior of the girls around them as from anything else, and what they were learning wasn't very enlightened- and this behavior usually continued well into the 20's. If feminists were more successful teaching young women about sexist behavior, it would end much faster; but somehow, the implication always seems to be that men's attitudes are formed in a vacuum, and women's part in their formation is rarely addressed.