men, masculinities and gender politics

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Why we men need to be called on our bullshit. (Because women aren’t oppressing themselves.)

The other day I received a comment on my blog asking me if I truly support feminism, or am I just someone who likes to attack men:

“Are you really profeminist or are you just into harshing on guys? I am starting to wonder, Bill. Feminism is about uplifting women.”

This comment rolled in after I had posted a rather scathing entry about how a crew of male electricians had just lost a bid to rewire my house because of their hypermasculine posturing and their basic disregard for the rest of humanity.

I think the person’s comment raises an interesting point. How does calling out men for their bad behavior help to advance women’s equality? Shouldn’t we just focus on what we can do for women instead?

But from my perspective, I don’t see a very clear line between men’s bad behavior in general and their subjugation of women. In fact, I don’t see a line between those two things at all! I believe that a man’s narcissistic arrogance and the sexist oppression of women are part and parcel of the exact same phenomenon. It is all part of a masculine way of being that serves only to promote male supremacy. A way of being that keeps men up and women down.

I believe that a lot of key elements of masculine identity are so deeply rooted in the use and abuse of women that many of our enactments of manhood are simply inseparable from a culture misogyny. So while I find men’s arrogance annoying and tiresome on a personal level, I also find it offensive and dangerous. Because a man who is trying too hard to be Top Dog can be unpredictable. He may snarl. He may snap. He may attack. He may kill.

And his target is all too often a woman.

How being a “real man” hurts women: the dic(k)tates of masculinity. Masculinity is different for each man who experiences it. And our experiences of it are also impacted by our other positions in society, including our social class, our race, our level of ability/disability, our sexual orientation, our gender identity, and our age. But there is still an overarching cultural message about just what it means to be a “real man.” And the four pillars of traditional western masculinity – first elucidated by Robert Brannon back in the 1970s – still stand strong. These pillars are: anti-femininity (“no sissy stuff”), status and achievement (“the big wheel”), isolation and inexpressiveness (“the sturdy oak”), and adventurousness and aggressiveness (“give ‘em hell”). And while few men live up to all of these messages all of the time, most of us will endorse at least some of them some of the time. And that fact alone can make the lives of women very difficult.

Pillar 1: Anti-feminity (“No Sissy Stuff”). Men are supposed to be manly. And while the definition of just what is manly can be difficult to actually articulate, what it means above all else is that real men are not womanly. And not only is a “real man” most decidedly not womanly, he dismisses and disdains all that is female.

It is this hyper-masculine stance – where all men must be manly (or, more importantly, not womanly) – that also accounts for many straight men’s loathing of men who are gay. Because according to the dic(k)tates of heterosexual masculinity, to love and desire a man is something that only a woman is supposed to do. It is not something that other men are supposed to do!

This adherence to anti-femininity is also why we mock men who knit, men who order fruity “chick drinks” in a bar, men who wear bright colors, men who dance well, men who provide childcare for a living, men who are highly emotional, men who are not overly sexually aggressive, men who adore kittens and puppies, men who coo over babies… the list goes on and on...

How this impacts women: According to this first pillar of masculinity, all things female are to be denigrated. Including ordering the aforementioned “chick drinks.” Including cuddling, talking about relationships, negotiating, relating, and compromising – all behaviors that are currently considered to be somehow female. Hence we men are supposed to hold these acts in contempt. In fact, even being a woman is to be held in contempt. One of the ultimate insults that we men call each other is “bitch.” As in, “I’m gonna make you my bitch!” I am going to turn you into a woman. And to be a woman is to be weak. To be abused. Despised. Debased.

(The other main insult we heterosexual men hurl at each other is “fag.” In hyper-masculine hetero-land being gay is a bad thing. Because it is all about loving and desiring a man. Which is womanlike. Less than.)

And perhaps no one expresses this contempt for all things female quite as well as the famous bodybuilder/actor and former politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger’s favorite way of insulting males whom he does not like? He calls them “girly men.” In our anti-feminine, patriarchal world, being girly is just about the worst thing one can be.

Pillar 2: Status and Achievement (“The Big Wheel”). Men are supposed to be Big Shots. Period.

How this impacts women: Men are supposed to compete fiercely in order to become The Leader of the Pack. And we are definitely not supposed to cooperate. In our attempt to be Top Dog, we piss all over the collaborative approach preferred by so many women. When we fight to be “King of the Hill,” our targets include everyone else. Other men we push back down. We humiliate and mock them. But women aren’t even allowed to start climbing up the slope! We try to outcompete the guys. But when it comes to women, we try to prevent them from even competing at all!

And according to this dic(k)tate, when it comes to heterosexual relationships, the man is supposed to be The Breadwinner. The Decision Maker. The Unquestioned Authority. The King of his Castle. The Lord of All He Surveys. And “his” woman is his trophy. For her to challenge his authority is to emasculate him. And he will not tolerate it.

When we men try to be Big Shots, women suffer.

Pillar 3: Isolation and Inexpressiveness (“The sturdy oak”). Men are supposed to be stoic and to go it alone.

How this impacts women:

You say: We need to talk.

We often respond with: Talk about what? What is there to talk about? I am sure as hell not going to talk about my emotions. Hell, I don’t even allow myself to experience emotions! Except for rage. I will allow myself to experience that one. And I will allow you to experience my rage as well.

A “real man” is not just stoic, he is an island unto himself. So he is unlikely to seek help even when he needs it.

Get help for myself? Keep dreaming. For I am a sturdy oak, standing alone, proud and tall. Needing no support.

And when men don’t get the help they need, it is women who often pay the price.

Pillar 4: Adventurousness and Aggressiveness (“Give ‘em hell”). We guys are supposed to be a Badass!

How this impacts women: A guy who is a Badass can be incredibly fun to be around. With him there is never a dull moment! But any woman who has ever been on a few dates with a Badass can probably tell you that these men are a lot less fun to be around when they don’t get what they want. Like when he wants sex and she doesn’t. He may become pushy. He may become aggressive. And he may not take “no” for an answer. When we guys follow the order telling us to be a Badass, it is again women who face the painful consequences.

When men are jerks, women get hurt. Modern mainstream masculinity is a mess. The messages we guys receive are these: be macho, be dominant, be distant, be aggressive. And when we men follow these directives (and many of us do, at least to a certain extent), women pay the price. So, in response to the person who posted that comment on whether I am truly profeminist, or just anti-male, let me say this:

Women are not raping themselves.

Women are not harassing themselves.

Women are not beating themselves.

Women are not causing their own fears as they walk down the street.

Women are not paying themselves 30% less than men make for the same work.

Women are not ignoring women’s voices.

Women are not attempting to take their own reproductive rights away.

Women are not passing laws to subject themselves to demeaning and unnecessary medical procedures like internal vaginal ultrasounds before getting an abortion.

What women are trying to do is to make their way through this world – through this male supremacist, misogynist patriarchy. And when we men act like thugs, it makes a woman’s journey that much more difficult.

Yes, feminism is about uplifting women... uplifting them from the ditch we men threw them into! Women need uplifting because they find themselves in a ditch down below men. A place of less money, less respect, and less freedom than we men are allowed to claim. And we always need to remember that women didn’t get down into that ditch all by themselves! Women were put there by men. And it is not merely a matter of them simply climbing out and joining us up above. Sometimes it is a matter of us reaching out and offering women a helping hand up.

That’s the fun part. The pleasant part. When we men get to be super great guys. At those times, it’s all sunshine and roses. Nothing feels better than helping others climb to new heights of empowerment and accomplishment!

But that’s only one part of the struggle.

The other part of the struggle – the part that is a lot less fun – is when we have to reach out horizontally. Not down into the ditch to help a woman up, but rather immediately across the ditch in order to push away the hands of other men who want to continue to hold that woman down. When we have to confront the men who are still actively seeking to limit women’s choices and options. The men who try to assert male dominance by shutting women up. By shutting women down. Who try to control women by threatening them, by assaulting them, even by raping them. Men who continue to deny women a seat at the table. Men who refuse to listen to women’s voices. Men who go around acting like incredible jerks – in ways subtle and not so subtle – as they assert their male supremacist identity. Men just like those electricians whom I refused to hire for that job.

So, to that commenter I would say this: I believe that it is too weak a statement to say that there exists a link between men’s asinine behavior on the one hand and the oppression of women on the other. To my way of thinking, there is no need to even look for a link between these two phenomena. Because they are actually the same damn thing.

If you see a guy being a jerk when there are no women present, you can be pretty damn sure that he is also a jerk to women. And men’s macho bullshit is a real problem for women, even if there is no woman around to experience it at that instant.

For me it is merely unpleasant to encounter that sort of hyper-masculine behavior. But for women it can be deadly.