Masculinity, Sensitivity, and Second Wave Privilege.
I am frankly daunted even beginning to write about this topic. Sometimes I feel like it is audacity, these days, to suggest that masculinity has intrinsic value. Indeed, every time I write about masculinity my elder sister asks how anything I write is unique to maleness, and separate from simple adulthood. I don’t know that I have a better answer today than I ever have before. Certain aspects of my self, and of the male personages I admire as an adult man working his way through the world feel masculine to me, in a way that is apparently inexpressibly male. Maleness is different from femaleness in ways that I am unqualified to distinguish empirically, but perfectly capable of identifying in practice. I fall onto the capable rhetoric of Potter Stewart: I know it when I see it.
Oddly though, we collectively seem to have no difficulty identifying those negative characteristics of maleness we’d like to correct. Pointless aggression. Sexual malfeasances. Patriarchal power systems. Ruthlessness. The things that we abjure as toxic and rancid. I wish we knew as much about the male character that we would like to foster and support. I hear a great deal about what not to do as a man. I hear far less about how to embrace productive masculinity.
When I do hear about it, it is often presented as if it is a new concept: a new way to be a man, divorced from our vicious and rapacious history. I don’t believe that masculinity has ever been unrelentingly toxic. I think that there are and have been great examples of positive masculinity throughout history, and I believe good men are more common than bad ones. I also believe that while we have come far, in the west, toward better justice, we have much farther still to go. I believe that cultural changes are massively complex – the gears of a cultural machine grind slow but finely – and that they begin with individuals changing themselves.
And of course, nothing I write about men here should be taken to imply that women are or are not similar/different. I have less to write about how women are, because I’ve never been one. Because others know more and write better on the topic. And because the point of this essay is to try to explore masculinity in and of itself, rather than as a reaction, a reflection, or a complement to femininity (whatever that might mean in its many different incarnations).
I spent a long time feeling like a lost boy. I had no male role models. My father left long before my own maleness bloomed within me, and the men in near proximity to me while mine did were either predators or baffled in their own rights. I was raised by a single mother. I had two sisters and a much younger brother. I remember being passionately lonely for a man to teach me how to be a man. I went through a phase in junior high school during which, when I saw a sports hero or actor do something impressive or admirable, I would say, “Dude, that guy’s my dad.”
I feared my sexual urges enormously, so I repressed them. The structure and balance I needed, unprovided by a father, I found in the church. I became very religious, seeking some way of explaining a world I couldn’t confront without anger or confusion. I think we all have anger and confusion as we grow into our engagement with the world. With no effective father, I was left without answers for the young man emerging. I dreamed of joining the military, which I believed to be a place where men congregated to be men, with structure and discipline.
Instead, I retreated from the world. I collapsed emotionally, believing that men suffered in silence and stoic resolve. To be a man meant ploughing whatever trench must next be excavated to endure in the world another dread day. The harder the path, the greater the man who ground his way along it. I saw masculinity as exclusively a response to adversity. Toil in misery. And yet, I did not toil. I shrank into sedentism and alcohol and doughy, blank, insignificance.
It took women to set me on my path to being a man. First, it took a woman I desired recognizing that within me was something small and hurting. It took her willingness to see that, and to offer me something that she could give me, rather than the thing I wanted, which she could not. She gave me a phone number for a therapist. Another woman. Brilliant and penetrating. And for many thankless years, this woman endured my childish agonies while slowly guiding me into a place where I could embrace my own masculinity, in my own time. It took my sisters, relentlessly correcting my childishness and proto-masculine posturing.
And of course, it took my mother. I could fill books about my mother, and she frankly deserves a book or two. She used to say, “I have always been a better father than a mother.” I don’t really know what that means. I think she means it because her own father was an imperious magister, while her mother was a drunken and vicious harpy. She idolized her father, and the tales of my grandfather’s glories remain the puffed-up stuff of legend in my family. But my mother was ambitious and incredibly gifted. She captained the family, provider and nurturer (such as it was) both, and showed me what personal and professional success looked like. As well as showing me innumerable and specific things I wanted never to be.
I am privileged in many, many ways. Born white, and male, and healthy, and wealthy, I have not suffered much that wasn’t related to my mental illnesses. And I have recovered from those illnesses, I am sure, in no small part because I had resources and benefits that people with lower levels of privilege do not have. I recognize all that and I’m grateful for it. But I also have a kind of second-wave privilege. I was raised by an educated and successful woman. She was always in charge, and she set me onto a path of success in life. My sisters provided me with up-close examples of women navigating the same course. I have, as a result, never felt threatened by women with authority. That is its own privilege today. I have less railing with the future to do than many men who are not comfortable with a society that embraces equity.
I think that many men fear that as the world adopts a fairer structure, and embraces new paths and identities for women, that we will lose opportunity and authority and privilege. And we may, collectively. And that’s quite alright. There’s nothing about being male that means we must also be in charge. But as the world changes, we do not need to lose our internal essences. We do not need to abandon that which makes us feel like men.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, I have learned more about productive masculinity than ever before. Men helping men. Men being open and honest about struggles. Men showing what it means to trudge those difficult roads and dig those awful trenches. But not in isolation. Not alone. Men among men, shouldering loads together. Discovering that most of the burdens we bear we do so from choice. That we can band together to achieve what we cannot accomplish alone. That we can be sensitive to our needs and feelings and still admire each other’s strength and courage.
I drive forward in life. But I can now recognize that sometimes moving forward in the long game means relenting, stepping back, and finding a new way. I want to achieve things, personally, that bring me praise and reward. But garnering those while holding back anyone else invalidates the pleasure I get from it. I no longer fear my own masculine nature, and I don’t despise my ambition and my aggression. But I temper personal satisfaction in order to have others in my life willing to share it.
What I once thought was masculinity was a horrible mixture of selfishness, depression, self-loathing, tantrum, gluttony, and avarice. Today I understand it in a new way. Ambition, introspection, desire, courage, and resolve. These are positive things – no, not exclusive to men in any way – that I nevertheless experience, in myself and in other men, in a way that allows me to embrace my own masculinity in a way that attempts to enrich others, not degrade them. In a way that aspires to use the assets of manhood to improve my community, my relationships, and yes, my self.
How men, in aggregate, behave has to change. But there is nothing about masculinity, of itself, that needs be domineering or arrogant or rapacious. We can be men, and be good stewards.