Posts Tagged ‘gender roles’

At a recent Meaningful Discussions meetup on gender equality, one of the warm-up questions was “Why do you like being a man or a woman?” I thought it an odd question.

I never thought to have an opinion about being a man, any more than I thought to have much of one about being left-handed or on the short side of medium height. It was just another fact, and one that I would need to feel far more strongly about than I do before taking steps to change it.

When others at my table had answered the question, all I managed to contribute was to draw an analogy to Bill Hicks’ answer to the question, “Are You Proud to be an American?”: “I didn’t have a lot to do with it. My parents fucked there, that’s about all.”

I am aware, though, that for many people – probably the majority – being a man or a woman is a major part of how they define themselves. Or, to be exact, in the case of most men, how they define themselves is as not being women. So why am I different? Why is being a man such a minor part of my identity? Outside of my love life, which is as straight as it could be, I don’t spend much time thinking of myself as a man.

After all, I never made a conscious decision to reject male values. For the most part, I simply ignore them.

Part of the answer is probably that I never felt any need to prove my masculinity. Although I reached my full height at fifteen, I entered adolescence tall for my age, which tends to command respect among young males. Also, I won cross-country championships and broke several long distance records on the track – neither of which represented main stream athleticism in the football and basketball culture of high school, but which together were enough of an accomplishment that no one bothered me.

Despite doing well in academics, I was never called a geek or a nerd, and in the couple of attempts to bully me, I more than managed to hold my own through my smart mouth. I felt more annoyed than challenged. I never had a need to establish my position in the hierarchy of boys, or to reject a standard that I couldn’t meet. Looking back, I realize I was lucky.

Just as important was my father’s example. He told me once how, when he was in the British Army in World War 2, he made the mistake of telling a visiting officer that he didn’t see much point in the training his unit was receiving in preparation for the Normandy Invasion. Next day, he was transferred to a unit that would be among the first to land – an experience that had taught him to shut his mouth and go his own way.

Later, when I worked several summers in the plant where my father was a foreman, I noticed that was the way he lived outside the house. He could swear and joke with the best of his fellow workers (although, unlike many men of his generation, never around women or children), but I never heard him doing so in a bragging or aggressive way. Seeing him going his own way, I unconsciously did the same, withdrawing more and more from teen society in the last two years of high school. By the time I graduated, peer pressure barely existed for me.

These unconscious influences were emphasized by my conscious decision when I was fourteen that I was a feminist. By that point, my mother had been back at work for several years, and I had seen how my parents’ division of labor had shifted as a result. Around the same time, I also fell under the influence of a cool student teacher in large glasses and a granny dress who introduced feminism into her lessons. The times, as they said at the time, were a-changin’, and why should I waste my effort living up to updated standards? Declaring myself a feminist was part of my rebellious adolescence, and soon settled down to a part of my identity that I did care about.

Accordingly, I graduated, went to university, and eventually married another feminist. Both of us simultaneously made it a condition of marriage that she not change her name, and in the thirty-two years before she died, we both took considerable enjoyment from breaking sexual stereotypes in little ways, like having her pay at the restaurant. The cash came from the same bank account, so who cared who handed it out? Anyway, the confusion on the server’s face was frequently priceless.

Under all these circumstances, no wonder the question of what I liked about being a man seems meaningless to me. I am still too busy trying to be a human, which seems far more important.

Of course, not worrying about my gender identity is a form of male privilege. A woman, I suspect, would have to be superhuman in her self-will not to be continuously aware of the expectations placed on her due to her gender. No one would allow her to forget. All the same, if I had to choose something I like about being a man, I would have to say it is the fact that in many aspects of life, I don’t have to think about being a man. In fact, the question is so remote from the way I live my life that it took me four days after the meetup about gender equality to come up with any kind of answer.

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To anyone who tries to observe accurately, men are clearly the privileged gender. However, this observation is likely to generate a hostile response from certain types of men, because they do not feel privileged. They have heard their right to privilege questioned, and seen their privilege somewhat diminished in the last few decades. The diminishment does not go nearly as far as it should, so far as I am concerned, but, because their privilege forms a major part of their identity, the change is resented out of all proportion to its effect. To far too many men, being male is a major part of their identity, which is particularly difficult because the traditional roles no longer work.

In the last century, traditional masculinity took two blows it has never recovered from. First, in North America and Europe, two generations were decimated several times over and warped by the loss of millions of men in the two World Wars. Some of the survivors returned home handicapped or suffering trauma, others eager to put their experiences behind them and become an economic success.

Neither of these attitudes made many of the survivors ideal role models for their children. As a result, several generations of men had to re-invent masculinity for themselves.

Lacking examples, many stalled in adolescence, which is often a time of exaggerated and over-simplified gender roles. Instead of learning responsibility for their dependents, the use of their physical strength for others, or any of the other expectations that could sometimes make the traditional masculine roles acceptable, they focused on the superficial – swearing, drinking, watching sports, and domination without responsibility.

In particular, as adolescents often do, they developed a negative identity, defining themselves primarily as not being women. A negative identity is always a shaky basis for anyone’s sense of self, but what made this identity particularly unstable was that the necessities of war time had also caused women’s roles to change as they actively helped the war efforts. The result was that the basis for many men’s identities shifted. Add the reduction of domestic work due to automation, and the liberalization of many laws, and by the 1960s, many women realized they no longer needed to depend on men.

Since male identity depended on a disappearing view of women, the change in the female gender role suddenly left many men with no sense of who they were – a problem that many men still struggle with today. Rather than adjusting to the changes, they prefer to lament them, evoking a view of traditional masculine roles that the men of the past would probably openly despise. Rather than learning from the example of feminists and starting to examine their own roles, they obsessively blamed women for destroying their sense of identity.

Those men who escaped these dead ends have done so mainly by building identities that are not based on their gender. Their senses of themselves are based on their accomplishments or sense of ethics. Rather than viewing themselves primarily as men, like feminists before them, such men have struggled to identify themselves as humans first, and to consider their biological sex as a detail only relevant in one part of their lives. Unlike the Men’s Rights Activists, they have tried to develop an adult sense of themselves, one that is self-contained and not dependent on women’s roles.

There are many advantages to this new definition of masculinity, not least of which is the possibility of actual friendships with women. However, to men who invested so much in a distortion of the past and in not being women, this new definition is unacceptable. They call men who adopt it effeminate, as though the old insult has any power over those whose identity is self-contained. The truth is, they have too much invested in their confusion and resentment to move beyond it into anything healthier.

They would rather condemn or attack, and assert their own psychosis than consider any other alternative – and, unfortunately, there is no easy way to make them re-evaluate themselves. A few learn flexibility as they realize that their wives and daughters benefit from feminism, but for the most part, they continue the confusion and the hurt by passing their perceptions on to other generations, condemning their own sons to a distorted and corrupt perception of themselves, ensuring that their self-inflicted misery will continue.

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When I was researching my master’s thesis, I became a Jungian. I didn’t plan to. But my subject was influenced by Jung, so I eventually read the complete works of Carl Jung. Often, I wondered if reading Jung in translation was any easier than reading him in German would be, but the experience left a major mark upon my thinking, especially about gender roles.

I must say that, as a person with artistic aspirations, I found Jung more sympathetic that I ever did Freud. Freud and his disciples usually make very clear that they are the experts, and that they know more about your unconscious than you do. By contrast, Jung considered artists as experts in symbolism, sometimes even as people he could learn from, and his respect made me more inclined to consider his perspectives.

Before long, the idea that people think and act largely in terms of symbols began to make sense to me. I questioned if all the archetypes were universal – although some, like the Mother and the Father probably were, but modern, often feminist, schools of Jungian thought included the possibility that some might be cultural, which made sense to me.

Either way, Jungian thought seemed to do more to map the unconscious than psychoanalysis ever did. The idea that symbols were how the unconscious expressed itself explains why rational argument so rarely changes anybody’s mind – there’s a basic translation problem between the conscious mind’s use of language, and the unconscious mind’s use of symbolism. Moreover, the idea that people project their unconscious symbols on to those around them helps to explain why misunderstanding is so commonplace – much of the time, people are reading from different scripts.

This model has been especially useful for me in understanding gender relations. For example, Jung suggested that one of the most influential archetypes for a man is the Anima, or the female version of himself. As much for symmetry as any other reason, he suggested that a woman is motivated by a similar archetype called the Animus, which is the male version of herself.

The Animus seems so much an after-thought in Jung’s writing that a widespread debate, especially among female Jungians, is whether the archetype exists. Realizing that men tend to define themselves in terms of not being a woman – in fact, to treat women as the archetype of the Shadow – I had no trouble in concluding that the Anima exists.

But the Animus? The evidence for that archetype seems much weaker. Some women go into mental contortions, even enduring abuse, to make themselves over in the image that men want, but – to many men’s intense dislike – women as a whole do not seem to define themselves as being the opposite of men. Men need women to tell them who they are, but women do not seem to need men to the same degree or in the same way.

For me, this difference explains the difficulty that many men have in accepting feminism. Because their identify depends on women’s roles, any change in women’s roles means that men’s own identity is under-mined. Already inclined to see women’s roles as mysterious and even sinister, they move easily to seeing any change as a threat – something that the Shadow is never far from being at the best of time.

To avoid this reaction, a man needs to reject the Anima and Shadow as an influence on his thinking. But the two archetypes are such a fundamental part of male thinking that rejection is difficult, and often impossible.

This reaction is one that most feminist theory seems to have largely overlooked. What Jungian theory suggests to me is that male hostility to feminism is generally not about the threat of a loss of privilege or power. Rather, it is about a loss of identity, about no longer having models to tell men who they are (or, to be more accurate, who they are not).

By contrast, women may not approach changes in gender roles easily. If nothing else, habit remains a strong motivation. But traditional gender roles have less to offer modern women than they do men, because less of their identity is based on not being men. Women may feel unsettled when they try to move beyond tradition, but the average woman is far less likely than men to feel that their entire sense of identity is being destroyed in the process.

What makes the situation all the harder is that, because the problems are played out symbolically, men are frequently unable to express what has happened. They may become angry, depressed, or abusive, but these reactions in themselves only indicate that something is wrong – and not what the exact problem is. At best, the number of men – or women – who understand their symbolic life is always going to be very few.

Jung is not the only way to this perception. In Stiffed!, Susan Faludi comes to a similar analysis simply by hearing the same problems over and over from the men she interviews. But my guide was Jung, and he remains – mistakes and all – one of the foundations of my thinking.

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The idea that I could outgrow a book surprises me. My tastes are liberal, encompassing everything from nineteenth century classics to the latest graphic novel, and I can largely separate personal taste from artistic sensibility. Yet, sadly, that is what has happened with Nevil Shute’s On the Beach.

I first read On the Beach as a young teenager. Its years as a bestseller were about a decade in the past, but it seemed to me a bridge between mainstream and science fiction – something I was making a conscious effort to find, since examples were few in number. I read it two or three times, finding myself haunted by its depiction of the last humans waiting their unavoidable death from radiation poisoning after a nuclear war.

The book survived all my moves, yet somehow in the intervening decades, I never took it off the shelf to read again until yesterday. Something of the effectiveness of the setting remained, but I found it a clumsy, almost unreadable book. Part of what bothered me was Shute’s fondness for telling rather than showing, and his painfully obvious red herrings, but what bothered me most was the shallow characterization of the two main female characters.

Not, you understand, that Shute depicted his male characters with any skill. The first is Dwight Towers, the captain of the last American submarine. He is dull as most characters defined by their dedication to duty are. He might generate a little pathos in his continued devotion to his deceased family, but since that devotion makes him reject any but the most Platonic relationship with the Australian woman he loves – despite their impending fate – he comes across as a cad instead. Still, he comes off better than Peter Holmes, the Australian liaison officer with the submarine, who has no observable personality beyond being a newly married man with a young baby.

The men, however, are masterpieces of Shakespearean subtlety compared to the women in their lives. Moira Davidson, the woman Towers spends time with when he is off duty, is a hard-drinking party-goer in her mid-twenties, with a reputation – apparently undeserved – for being a loose woman that is based mostly on her risque talk. Influenced by Towers, she responds to his nobility by discovering her own.

In ordinary circumstances, she confides to the other woman, she would do all she could to seduce him away from his wife. “’It’d be worth doing her dirt if it meant having Dwight for good, and children, and a home, and full life,’” Davidson says. “’But to do her dirt just for three month’s pleasure and nothing at the end of it – that’s another thing.’” I may be a loose woman, but I don’t know that I’m all that loose.’” Instead, she supports his doublethink about his family still being alive, and follows his suggestion that she take secretarial classes to give purpose to her life in the brief time that remains.

As for Mary Holmes, an examination of her mental competence would have no sure outcome. Her only interest is her new baby and her home, and, while some allowance must be made for denial she makes no effort to understand what is happening. Her stupidity gives her husband Peter an excuse to lecture the readers through her, but she is genuinely surprised when the radiation arrives, and wonders if cough drops would protect her from it. “’I’m glad we haven’t got newspapers now,’” she says shortly before they die. “’It’s been much nicer without them.’” She is humored by her husband, and, needless to say, no help at all when the family commits suicide to avoid suffering the lingering death through radiation. Instead, she follows her husband’s lead, and only in her last moments shows any understanding of what is happening.

These female characters are despicable in themselves. But what is worse is that, despite their very different attitudes, they have no trouble confiding in each other for no better reason than the fact that their men are at sea. In reality, two such women would despise each other. Yet Shute assumes that because they are women, they want the same thing, which allows them to become confidants.

Even worse, Shute seems to consider Mary Holmes an example for Davidson. Despite Davidson’s greater intelligence, she ends up much the same, following her man into death without a thought of her own.

Naturally, it would be wrong to blame Shute for setting On the Beach in a time when gender roles – especially for women – were so limited. But I do blame him, very much, for accepting those roles without any question, and being unable to see past them and depict the women in his novel as individuals. A more talented writer would have had Davidson resisting the transformation into a good woman, perhaps even tempting Dwight unsuccessfully and uncertain whether to be angry at him.

Similarly, Mary would be more human if she showed more awareness, and a scene or two revealed that she was playing the role she thought necessary for her husband’s well-being, or wished she had more time for herself. The gender atmosphere of the novel might still have been uncomfortable for a reader today, but at least it wouldn’t have seemed so much the result of an impoverished imagination.

I dislike discarding a book; it always feels close to censorship. But I found On the Beach so distasteful that I know that I’ve read it for the last time.

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I sometimes think that the hardest part of being a widower is not learning to live alone, but going to a party. To my relief, nobody has tried to fix me up with anyone (although I fear it’s only a matter of time), but everybody does something far worse: they try to send me home with food.

Apparently, it’s a heartfelt conviction that, because I live alone, I must be either starving or else eating at restaurants seven nights a week. Or perhaps people imagine that I’m like one acquaintance whose idea of meal preparation was to cook seven pounds of hamburger on Sunday night then wrap it up in seven pieces. The idea that I might actually enjoy cooking, or find it an important part of my routine never occurs to them.

The truth of the matter is very different. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I made a point of stocking my kitchen with basic supplies and taking a cook book, in the firm belief that normal adults, male or female, should know how to feed themselves. This outlook baffled the room mate I had briefly, whose idea of food was whatever he could find to eat when he was hungry.

In fact, one reason we parted ways was that I thought he should reciprocate and do some cooking occasionally. But his idea of cooking was to fry an egg, and, after he burned through an over mitt by leaning on a stove burner while he was talking, I thought it wiser not to insist.

When I married, I continued to cook twenty-nine days of the month out of thirty. Often, I was working from home, so I was the logical cook if we were going to eat before midnight. I didn’t mind; it was better than washing dishes, and freed me (I used to claim) to dirty as many pots and pans as I wanted, secure in the knowledge that I would never have to scrub them.

Besides, preparing a meal helped to divide my work and personal time – a line that easily blurs when you work at home. Instead of a commute, I drag myself away from the computer and spend half an hour in the kitchen, clearing my mind by focusing on the simple tasks of cutting up vegetables and mixing sauces.

As a result, while nobody would call me a gourmet, I like to think that I know my way around a kitchen. My freezer is packed with meats and berries, the refrigerator with vegetables and fruit. I have firm ideas on which spices or cheeses I should use in a given circumstance. I have two dozen standard dishes, ranging from sweet potato pie or risotto to lasagna or meatloaf for days when I’m not feeling imaginative, several dozen side dishes such as potat bravas, corn fritters, or spanakopita I can mix and match for variation, and a dozen carefully selected cook books I can use as the starting point for improvisation when I experiment. Unless I’m meeting a friend, I only eat out or order take in a couple of times a month, usually when my work has run late or on the Friday after an exhausting week.

In short, I am a better than average cook. Moreover, many of my friends should know that, because I’ve fed them. Yet, at the end of a party, surveying the leftovers and wondering what to do with them, everyone seems to forget that fact. Perhaps they even see a chance to do a kindness. All the same, I’m irked to be an object of pity, and annoyed that my hard-won competence in the kitchen is overlooked.

But of course I say none of this. Instead, I express my thanks, declining the offer with the (usually) true excuse that my freezer and fridge are full. Then, just before I leave, I check my pack for any stray tupperware containers that might have been slipped into it when I wasn’t looking.

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Anyone who troubles to think knows that traditional male roles are outdated. They started going stale fifty years ago, and by now they are too moldy for anyone to digest. Yet almost no discussion takes place about what – if anything – should replace them.

As with any trend, the media is eager to seize on every explanation for the unsuitability of traditional male roles. The decline of heavy industry and the outsourcing of jobs are popular explanations. Often, too, the changes in women’s roles is cited, sometimes with urban legends like reverse discrimination, but increasingly by even uglier methods such as personal misogyny and laws about reproductive issues that have been called a war on women (and that have about as much chance of succeeding as demands to ship both legal and illegal immigrants home). But the shallowness of these explanations is suggested by the facts that they are inevitably voiced in aggrieved and puzzled tones, and that they offer no alternatives.

The trouble is, men are the least politically conscious gender. Robert Bly’s mythic men’s movement was never much more than another media-manufactured craze, while modern male supremacists sound like a parody of the popular stereotypes of feminism and provoke laughter more than serious consideration.

Even more importantly, such efforts are essentially reactionary. They demand a return to the roles of a past that lasted very briefly. To the extent that these roles were widely accepted, they existed from about 1850 to 1960, and never did manage to influence the working or lower middle classes very thoroughly.

While gender roles certainly existed before that, and were often weighted in favor of men, any social history reveals that they were rarely those that we think of as traditional. Nobody thought it odd that a medieval English merchant’s widow should take over his business, while women in tenth century Iceland had legal rights that women in modern society only regained midway through the twentieth century. Nor, as we find increasingly, is there much evidence of our social roles having an evolutionary origin – all of which only makes the arguments of male supremacists even more desperate than they initially sound.

So far, the best analysis of modern male roles can be found in Susan Faludi’s Stiffed. Faludi, who is best known for Backlash!, an analysis of the reactions against the second wave of feminism, is equally insightful in talking about men’s roles. She suggests that the generation of men who fought World War 2 returned home emotionally distant, losing themselves in their careers in their overwhelming desire for normality. As a result, they became distant parents, and failed to pass on an image of responsible masculinity to their Baby Boomer sons.

Left to shape their own images of masculinity based on the movies, these sons focused on the more superficial aspects of their father’s roles. They expected control of both family and society, but failed to notice that this control was supposed to be justified by their support and loyalty. Male roles became such a caricature of themselves that today, watching sports is supposed to have more to do with masculinity than making sacrifices for your family, or worrying about the moral values of your children.

In a few places, some of the old masculine roles survived. Faludi notes, for example, that until just before the millennium, father and son roles were common in places like shipyards, where new workers were routinely assigned to the care of older men. These mentorships, by Faludi’s accounts, were highly valued by everyone involved. But most Baby Boomers had no opportunity for a similar experience, and had to make up masculinity as they went along.

Many never got past an adolescent concept of masculinity. If you doubt that,check the leading movies of the last twenty years, especially the comedies.

Yet even if they learned their father’s values, the usefulness of these values in recent decades would have been limited. As self-actualization and economic necessity brought more women into the workplace, the justifications for traditional sex roles quickly declined. In particular, the economic justification of marriage for women diminished. At the most, a woman might marry to extend the prosperity of herself and her future children. No longer needing marriage for basic survival, why should any woman put up with even the appearance of deferring to her partner?

In this light, the confusion and anger of many modern men about feminism is understandable – not admirable and by no means excusable, but understandable. Unsure of their roles, then finding those roles diminished, they could hardly be expected to react except with fear and anger, especially when no obvious alternative exists.

This subject is, of course, endless. But it seems to me that, in the same way that women are starting to learn to move beyond their traditional roles, men need to learn to move beyond theirs. The trouble is, the average modern man is completely unprepared to do so. For many men, their gender role is central to their identity. More – making sure that no one can accuse them of being in any way female is important to their sense of self-worth. Yet, with the social differences between men and women diminishing in industrialized culture, men have less and less to compare themselves to. They can only fall back on trivialities, such as preferring beer to wine – which in the end makes their gender identities even less secure.

What men need is to analyze their recent history as thoroughly as feminists have analyzed women’s. Once they do that, more men might manage to identify themselves less as men and more as humans, and even learn to ally with feminists.

But that is an effort that many men are still reluctant to make. Instead of recognizing the inadequacy of the roles they model themselves upon, they would rather cling to those roles and ignore their increasing irrelevancy. But, until they are ready to move on, the personal and social cost is going to be as high as it is needless.

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When I was a teenager, the norms of swearing changed. Even now, the conflicting messages leave me firmly in neither camp.

On the one hand, according to the old standard, swearing was something no decent man did in front of women and children, but was essential for membership in some aspects of masculine culture. Women weren’t supposed to swear at all, and the most feisty woman looked embarrassed if she did.

On the other hand, with publication standards being relaxed and the rise of the counter-culture, everyone was starting to swear. In fact, to swear was to be modern and unbound by convention.

Today, this time of transition feels so remote as to be incomprehensible. What, anybody under forty-five might ask, was the fuss about? Yet knowing when you could swear and when you couldn’t was an important social skill, and swearing inappropriately said more than anyone today can imagine about your class and personality.

For example, to my father, who had been in the army and was employed in working class positions for most of his life, an atmosphere of casual swearing was a normal part of his week day. Yet perhaps because he was upwardly mobile or because my mother would never approve, he was careful about his swearing outside work.

Until I was fifteen and worked my first summer in the Canadian Telephone and Supply shops where he was a front-line supervisor, I was under the impression that he hardly swore at all. He might use “bloody” or “hell and damnation” if he was frustrated with one of his house-building projects in the basement, of “hell’s bells” if he was seriously fed up, but never when any of the family were in the same room. These mild swear words were as much as I ever heard, and my impression was their English-flavored colorfulness made them almost acceptable.

Laboring under this illusion, I was surprised when, after I made a mistake in the shops, he loudly asked, “What the heck you were doing?” and was greeted by howls of uncontrollable laughter by the workers he supervised. For weeks afterward, they would exclaim, “Heck!” around him in a good-natured way, and he would respond with a burst of ordinary profanity and mock-anger. A few times, I joined in myself.

More than anything else, this episode drummed into me that, for years, my father had been restraining his normal vocabulary around me. But that was what men of his generation did, living with a double-standard for expression. Any man who didn’t swear at all was considered effeminate or snobbish, but any man who swore in what was called “mixed company” was uncouth and boorish.

In such a complex atmosphere, I went through a period when when I was eight or nine when I prudishly avoided swearing. When my best friend took up the habit of saying “shit” at every opportunity, after a couple of months, I shocked his younger sister by telling her what he was saying. A few days later, he shamefacedly promised me he would change his language.

I was not going to be “one of those teenagers,” I repeated told my mother, referring to those who accepted modern standards (and were no doubt unruly because they didn’t speak properly). I believed firmly in the old standard’s last line of defense: swearing showed a lack of imagination and vocabulary, and I could prove that I had both by not swearing.

I still find that condemnation of swearing true. Now, however, I have to add that the whole point of swearing is to have some forceful words available when you have no time to be imaginative. When you want to swear, being original isn’t your priority (although I do envy some of the medieval kings, who, according to T. H. White, had such oaths as “By the head, teeth, and the splendor of God.”).

However, the times were changing, as I said. By cultural and personal necessity, in adolescence I found I could no more do without swearing than anyone else. I knew better than to swear in front of my parents; strangely enough, my father wouldn’t have approved any more than my mother. But I started using some of my father’s milder and more colorful expressions, like “bloody.” At the time, I still had a residual Christianity, so “God” seemed a suitable addition to my vocabulary as well. Both remain with me – although the religion does not. “Bloody” in particular seems to delight some American women when spoken with an English accent.

For several years, I held out against the more popular words like “fuck” or “shit.” I even winced when someone used them. They just weren’t words I could bring myself to use.

However, by the time I started university, the change in standards was complete. Swearing or not swearing was no longer an indicator of anything. Almost everybody was swearing, and there was something wonderfully liberating about hearing women swearing as freely as men – both to my ears and, so far as I could observe, to the women themselves. It seemed part of the march towards equality that such superficial gender differences had disappeared overnight, and that men no longer needed the double-standard of my father’s generation, except when talking to the old.

Now, of course, swearing is not even remotely a political act. A generation, if not two, no longer think twice about swearing as the mood hits them. It’s just another means of expression, and I no longer react to it. In a hard-swearing company, I usually notice myself swearing freely myself as I unconsciously try to fit in.

Still, childhood habits persist. Left to myself, I remain an infrequent swearer, a habit that gives me a reputation for politeness. Even today, I’m most likely to use “fucking” when reporting what someone else says, or in fiction because it’s part of how a character would talk. If you listen carefully, when I do swear, a small catch in my voice reveals the last trace of my first conditioning.

Mostly, though, I just consider swearing a matter of personal style – and that’s how such words should be viewed. They’re just words among words. They never were worth the worry they used to cause.

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I know that many men are more obsessed with gender stereotypes than I am. However, I have a renewed appreciation of how crippling such obsessions can be after reading a comment left last week on my Linux Pro Magazine blog.

The comment was placed on a blog entry about the gap between Linux Fund’s intentions to produce an anti-harassment policy and its reputation and recent statements. It was not a direct response to any of the issues raised in the blog entry, but a reaction to the fact that I had written about such a topic at all.

“You are desperately in need of an intervention, Mr. Byfield,” the comment read. “Your self-hatred and conditioned sense of male-inferiority are obvious. I would suggest you spend some time reading _____, a site that exposes the fraud of ‘misogyny’ while exposing the very real sexism, misandry, that is poisoning and destroying Western Civilization.”

I’ve left out the site’s name and URL, since I have no wish to promote it.

I replied that, contrary to this statement, I was quite comfortable with myself, and had enough self-confidence not to find feminist goals a threat. I also said I would add this comment to the Abuse page of my personal web site. This dismissal produced a second message (which I did not post) denouncing me as a “neutered male” and denying any intention to abuse.

These comments were so mis-directed that my first response was a good, long laugh – and that’s something that I don’t do very often when I’m alone. But the only logical conclusion I could reach was that the name hurling was supposed to sting me into action. Apparently, male stereotypes are such a preoccupation for the sender that he could not conceive of a man who would not respond to them. The idea that his comments were so absurd that I refused to take them seriously never seems to have occurred to him – so much so that, in his second comment, he could only repeat himself in stronger terms, and not deal at all with the fact that I found his comments humorous.

Self-hating? Feelings of inferiority? Me? If the people who dislike me were to categorize my faults, I assure you that neither would be on the list.

But, then, anyone who could toss such adjectives around then deny that they were designed to insult shows such a lack of self-perspective that I could hardly expect them to understand that someone might think differently from them. However, no doubt he would claim that he was simply telling the truth.

Perhaps, too, like many fanatics, he imagined that I had never encountered his arguments. Once I went to the site he suggested, the truth of the comments on it would be so self-evident that I would immediately reverse my position. The fact that I had read male supremacists as well as feminists (just as I had theologians and atheists, anarchists and fascists) and found the male supremacists wanting in logic and powers of observation never seems to have occurred to him.

Possible proof of this perspective is that the sender described the essays on the site as well-argued and insightful. (The teacher in me longs to explain that, just because you agree with a statement does not make it well-expressed or well-argued, but, judging from his comments, this distinction would probably be too subtle for him.)

Still, curiosity and ingrained fairness made me look through the site. It was all that I had expected, and then some. Anger, hatred, paranoia, poorly-defined grievances, even worse-argued claims – it was all there. Sometimes, this mixture was subdued into a thin semblance of rational thought, and other times it approached incoherence, but it was never completely absent.

I came away marveling at the self-inflicted perversity of the writers, and an impression of baffled grievance that the degree of privilege they would like to have become accustomed to was not unquestioningly theirs (which brings up another point: why do modern reactionaries always claim to be victims – a point of view they profess to despise in their opponents?).

I also wanted to rinse my brain – repeatedly, with bleach. The degree of hatred expressed was so extreme and so unreasoning, so utterly lacking in any generosity of spirit that I was never even remotely tempted to alter my views. Instead, I was left with the belief that every term of abused hurled at me was a projection of male supremacists’ own insecurities. In fact, male supremacists themselves are by far the strongest argument against their own views.

I’m still not convinced that we need gender roles of any sort in modern industrial society. However, if we must have them, the best suggestion I’ve heard for men comes from Susan Faludi’s Stiffed!, which points out that all male groups from sailors to industrial workers have an unspoken tradition of older men teaching younger ones what they need to survive. That would be a role in which a man could take justified pride.

No doubt more is needed, but one thing is sure: we won’t find healthy male roles for those who need them by retreating into a fantasy of a past of privilege. In the end, my strongest impression was that those writing for the site were ineffectual losers, more ready to find scapegoats in feminism than to take control of their own lives – an attitude, I can’t help pointing out that, by their own standards, is as unmanly as they could get.

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Even before adolescence, I knew I was an untypical male. By that, I do not mean that I was gay, transsexual, or anything else outside the statistical norm. Rather, I mean that I found – and find – very little appealing in the roles available to a straight male in modern industrial society. The times I grew up in, my childhood experiences, and my early sense of myself as an individual all made that impossible.

I can’t remember ever being taunted, much less abused because I happened to be unusual. I was tall for my age until I was fourteen and stopped growing, which meant that others tended to leave me alone. It helped, too, that I was a champion distance runner and a frequent scorer in soccer and rugby, because being good at sport buys respect in high school. And throughout my life, I’ve usually been fit, and moved with the unconscious confidence that brings. Had I ever made the effort, I might have forced a place in masculine society without any difficulty.

However, I never cared much cared to. Taking part in sports was one thing, but no amount of alcohol makes watching them interesting to me. Cars, for me, are merely transportation. Loud comments about women and jokes about them only seem rude.

And where was the place for art and intellect in this bundle of expectations? I refused to believe that such things were a consolation prize for nerds, because from an early age reading was as important to my sense of self as running faster than everybody else.

As for the idea that some tasks were masculine and others female, that seemed ridiculous to me. If work needed to be done, what difference did the gender of the one who did it make?

Part of the reason for my outlook was probably the times. Growing up during the second wave of feminism, I kept hearing that male stereotypes were not only outdated, but unjust. That meant that, since I had grown up on a steady diet of Robin Hood and King Arthur and of how Might didn’t make Right, I could not in good conscience imitate them.

Moreover, at an early age I had had the experience of not being taken seriously and dismissed by those in authority; I entered school with a speech impediment, and was sometimes regarded as mentally challenged by teachers and the parents of friends until it was corrected. At the time, I did not know why I was looked at askance, but I was old enough to resent the fact. Consequently, I had no trouble empathizing with the grievances of feminism. I’m not saying that I never benefited from male privilege (of course I did), but, unlike most boys and men, I could never take it for granted.

Later in life, trauma reinforced these reactions, but the point is that, once I realized that female gender assumptions needed to be questioned, questioning my own came naturally.

By contrast, I can’t remember many models of masculinity that were worth following. Yet that lack never bothered me much. Throughout my life, my tastes in practically everything – books, music, movies, food – have always been outside the norm. I was an individualist from an early age, so I never felt much need to identify with the male gender roles. Unlike most boys, I wasn’t used to a sense of belonging anyway.

Did I miss anything, growing up as an eccentric male? Very likely, but I can’t imagine what it might have been. Perhaps some romantic opportunities, because I wasn’t playing by the expected rules? But, if so, I can’t feel much regret. I doubt that such opportunities could have led to satisfactory or long-lived relationships.

Moreover, while the greatest of all male privileges is not to understand that you are privileged, I like to think that by generally regarding myself as human first and male second, I have been more than adequately compensated for missing any such opportunities by the conversations and friendships I have managed to have with women instead. There isn’t a traditional male who could say the same.

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