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Posts Tagged ‘masculinity’

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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As with many men, a daily shave is part of my morning routine. But I didn’t realize how ingrained the habit was until yesterday. I was up at 6AM, rushing so I could catch the ferry to Gibson’s Landing, when my razor became quieter and quieter then died out altogether, leaving me with one side of my neck and both cheeks unshaved.

The problem wasn’t a social one. My hair is a muddy brown and my skin reddish, so anyone else would have to get within a few centimeters to notice the incomplete shave.  However, so far as my sense of myself went, my half-shaved self was a surprisingly strong violation of my self-image.

The problem was not the idea of a beard, although I’ve never been strongly tempted to grow one, even as a young adult. Admittedly, a few days without shaving leaves me with the impulse to scrape the skin off my cheeks and necks in the hopes of stopping the itching, Then, too, a beard would be high-maintenance compared to being clean-shaven, especially for someone like me for whom sweaty exercise is part of most days, and sooner or later one of my parrots would find it irresistible to pull or climb across.

Nor do I have any desire to add anything to my morning routine that would require me to stare at myself in a mirror just minutes after waking. I simply lack the vanity, and would far prefer using a safety razor while reading.

All the same, I have sometimes toyed with idea of growing a beard. I associate it with ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights, and a few periods of ancient Rome, so I am alive to the romance of facial hair. If I had ever found myself in the usual time-honored circumstances, such as a week long camping trip, I would succumbed to the temptation and endured the skin irritation just to see what I looked like. If nothing else, in my earlier years, I might have been tried the look simply in the hopes of looking my age.

However, under almost any circumstance, I would have shaved off any beard in a matter of days. Even though five o’clock shadow is a problem for me, starting the day clean-shaven matters to me. It is as important a part of personal hygiene to me as having clean and trimmed finger nails. Without either, I am vaguely uneasy just under the surface of consciousness, and haunted by the feeling that I am at disadvantage. My confidence, as flimsy as it is at the best of times, always feels like it is about to buckle and snap unless I am properly shaved.

Unfortunately, yesterday morning I could only endure. I caught my bus, glad it was still dark so my neither-nor state was concealed. Arriving downtown, I was just in time for the start of the Boxing Day sales, and when I missed my connection, I resisted with difficulty the impulse to dart into the nearest department store and buy a razor to use on the ferry.

Somehow, common sense took hold of me. Catching the ferry was more important than my personal preferences, I told myself. The relatives I was going to spend the day with wouldn’t care what I looked like, even if I did. Anyway, it was a holiday, and many men around me hadn’t bothered to shave, although mostly the unshaven were younger than I am, and more obsessed by fashion as well. Never mind that they were trying for a casual elegance and I only felt scruffy.

With a mental grip like an eagle’s talons, I marched self over to the queue, making a point of making eye contact with the driver, the man at the ticket booth, and the servers in the ferry cafeteria. Resisting the urge to lower my head and scurry through the shadows, I willed a firmness to my stride and tried to project an air of confidence as I approached the relative who was picking me on the other side of the water.

Then, after exchanging the greetings of the season, I looked my relative squarely in the eyes. “Can we stop by the drug store?” I asked, with just a hint of a self-pitying whine.

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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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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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