[Academic Excursions] : Men

"Well, the tyranny of masculinity and the tyranny of patriarchy I think has been much more deadly to men than it has to women. It hasn't killed our hearts. It's killed men's hearts. It's silenced them; it's cut them off."  

                                                                                                                                  - Eve Ensler

An acquaintance recently asked if I only saw womxn in my private practice, her assumption being that my work with the feminine automatically and necessarily excluded men. As I began to explain the various ways repression of the feminine affects men, she interrupted me to laugh and retort that she could not possibly imagine why any man would want to explore, let alone embody, feminine characteristics. There was a curious derision and fear in her voice, and it was evident it was not a conversation in which she was willing or capable of engaging. Not for lack of intelligence, but for what it might mean for her and her identity to have the rigidified expectations of men’s roles in contemporary culture called into question, and perhaps even broadened so as to invite more freedom.

We often talk about men’s and womxn’s identities as if they are somehow mutually exclusive rather than intricately entwined. What often gets missed is the extent to which we depend on the other sex to maintain a certain position so as to secure our own. Our identities bounce off each other such that I can only be certain of what is expected of me if you maintain and stick with what is expected of you. It is often why those who refuse to play the game and buck traditional roles are ostracized, declared “mentally ill,” deemed “dangerous,” and so on. We believe we can understand that which seems similar and that our understanding will somehow keep us safe. This is the basis of “identity," and it is far easier to step into the security of ready-made roles.

Same = Safe
Different = Dangerous

In many ways then, my acquaintance’s question and accompanying contempt encapsulate the very problem with which we are faced when attempting to understand why people so stubbornly refuse greater freedom when provided the opportunity. There is an assumption in her very question that men who might embody more feminine characteristics would be unattractive, weak, laughable. She seems to not recognize how she derides herself via such assumptions, essentially disparaging the feminine (albeit a stereotypical version of “feminine”) and propagating cultural norms antithetical to her very sex. She is implicitly acting against her own interests. Again. Unconsciously.

But this portion of the essay isn’t about her (though she is most assuredly a part). It is about the conversation I wish we had been able to have—the impact of the repression of the feminine on men and the socioeconomic and subjective forces that reinforce traditional binary roles. Within her story and question, we may begin to locate answers if we can suspend the polarization between men and womxn that often occurs when the issue of “feminism” arises. There need not be such polarization if, as previously mentioned, we take as our starting point that male/female, men/womxn, and masculine/feminine are not complete opposites, recognizing that such a misguided notion quickly sets the stage for there to be “winners” and “losers.” Indeed, if we are to have any meaningful conversation that advances humanity as whole, we must exit the imaginary playground upon which discussions of feminism often get ensnared. Indeed, it is necessary if we are to organize and enact change on a social level. 

This is not a trumped up game (pun intended) where men lose because womxn win and vice versa. In fact, conceptions of “winners” and “losers” is a problem we must put aside if we are to evolve. While there are undoubtedly womxn who fall into the “man hating” category and men who still believe they somehow have the right to tell womxn what they can do with their bodies (here’s looking at you 13 white men hidden behind closed doors thinking you were ordained to make healthcare decisions for us all), it is also the case that many men do not feel this way and feel frustrated by an antiquated system that continues to subjugate womxn, and in the process, implicate as abusers all people born with a penis. In other words, the capitalist patriarchal system has become greater than the sum of its parts. The system is running on its own and dragging along unwilling participants. Do not misunderstand—there are certainly men who wish to silence womxn—of this there is little doubt; however, what I am attempting to draw attention to here are the multitude of ways the faceless system(s) unconsciously structures and works against us all. Systems are dismantled by exposing their inner workings, but we must first recognize the insidious operations and implicit assumptions of such structures.

So, what of masculinity? What of men’s identity at present? It has been said that we are experiencing a "crisis of masculinity." What does it mean to “be a man” in present day society? We garner some clue of what is expected just from my acquaintance’s question. Just as there are expectations of what it means to “be a womxn” in our society, there are also expectations of manliness. A quick review of various dictionary definitions of “masculine” and “masculinity” produced the following:

  • Having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with men, especially strength and aggressiveness.

  • "He is outstandingly handsome and robust, very masculine"

  • Synonyms: virile, macho, manly, muscular, muscley, strong, strapping, well built, rugged, robust, brawny, heavily built, powerful, red-blooded, vigorous;

  • Of or denoting a gender of nouns and adjectives, conventionally regarded as male.

  • Noun: the male sex or gender.

  • "The masculine as the norm"

  • Often defined as aggressive, strong, and unfeeling or stoic. Being masculine means in modern times, at least, no shows of emotion, no flamboyance, no hugging or even looking at other men, must be interested in sports and physical/violent activity.

Without exaggerating, we can thus say that—by contemporary definition—to “be a man” requires one to be handsome, robust, muscular, virile, aggressive, vigorous, attracted to violence, while also being devoid of emotion, passion, or interconnection to other human beings (no hugging!). Not exactly a glowing stereotype to which to aspire—which is precisely the issue—stereotypes always constrain freedom through a form of identity thinking that defines for individuals who one is supposed to be, while simultaneously setting up and casting out as “other” those who fail to comply. Want to be a guy who actually does not like sports, enjoys physical connection, feels passionate about life, and can communicate? You must be “gay” (oh, the problems here) or else subject to the scorn of the womxn discussed above. Such parameters hurt everyone involved by artificially pretending our social definitions hold unassailable Truth value. And, make no mistake, these definitions of what it means to be a man are just that—social constructions. Nowhere do we see this ridiculous parody of masculinity more pronounced than in current American politics, with its emphasis on the “strongest and longest” handshake. It does not take a psychoanalyst to recognize what is really being measured. And, therein lies yet another problem.

Do we really want to believe this is how the men of the world desire to be identified? As aggressive, ignorant, disconnected, passionless automatons who care about nothing more than the size of their dicks? Because—yup—that’s the stereotype of what it means to be a man. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t life-enhancing, and it certainly does not avail men to the full emotional spectrum of humanity. It is a tie that binds, constricts, and produces rage due to all that must be repressed to identify and present oneself in such a fashion. Disconnected and disallowed from all that is traditionally labeled feminine, men do become aggressive, angry, isolated, and stuck on the imaginary playground. The stereotype creates and reproduces the character.

Repression of the feminine and violent separation from the feeling life that animates existence results in a vast number of psychological difficulties and creates an emotional glass ceiling that need not exist.

Far from being “weak,” an embracing of the feminine signals a rejection of a system that demands that men identify with a caricature of masculinity that actually diminishes their well-being and vitality. The very system that equates virility with masculinity is the same system that actually undermines virility, as strength, energy, and libido can only ever derive from a fully engaged connection to an emotional and feeling life. As time advances and subjectivity has become a crisis for all people, we need to rethink these prescribed roles that have left so many in psychological tatters, scrambling to simply find a foothold. While it is most certainly anxiety-provoking to dispense with a social organization that identifies (actual, not symbolic) men with the law and womxn as devouring seductresses, it is the very intensity of this anxiety that suggests we are on the right path; for, as Lacan noted, anxiety is the purest and most fundamental affect—the one that does not deceive. To bear it at least offers the chance to transform, to evolve, and to escape the identity politics that prevent real organization and social action from occurring.  

To grow bigger, more magnanimous—to graduate from the playground on which current times are being enacted—requires that we stop pitting male against female, reducing each sex to some socially fabricated conglomeration of personality characteristics. Strength and valor are not found in power over others but in the shared experience of human beings striving to do our best and reside in generosity all the while understanding that we will, at times, inevitably fail. Such is the nature of human existence. There is much to be learned and cultivated in the failing. Failure is no reason to simply not try nor is it a reason to debase those who do not “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

For men, this means a letting go of conventionally held ideas about what it means to “be a man" and recognizing the social conditions that uphold such stereotypes. Being a man is courageously defying these outdated stereotypes so as to discover and decide for oneself how one wishes to be and to act in this world. It is not needing someone else to feel less than so that you may feel more of. It is broadening, expanding, and facing the entrenched fear of the feminine that a broken system has both perpetrated and exploited. A thorough breaking down of identity need not be viewed as a calamity but as a necessary leveling upon which to build anew—one that allows for infinite ways of being and grounds differences in our very existential sameness, encourages joy rather than derision, community rather than hyper individualism and ultimately—hopefully—an inclusive society in which all people may flourish.