Angry Men, Searching Men—and What They Can Learn From Girls and Queers

Mr. Shakes and I rarely fight. Even when we’re debating an issue, whether one of us is playing devil’s advocate or we genuinely have different takes on the subject, we can get pretty passionate without getting angry. But there’s one subject that can send both of us into separate corners after baring teeth and claws—sexism.

Part of it, as Mr. Shakes would admit, is that he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about half the time. That’s not a function of his being stupid or unknowledgeable; it’s just that he’s not a woman. I can still introduce a concept like a woman’s body being treated as community property into a conversation and he looks at me blankly. It’s not his experience; he doesn’t know what it’s like to have strangers put his hands on his pregnant belly, or have his ass grabbed on a train by another commuter, or have his boss stare at his breasts instead of looking him in the eye. Like many men, he regards with some amusement the stereotypical mysteries of womanhood—the plethora of bottles, jars, and contraptions that make a bathroom counter top look like a chemist’s set, the fascination with shoes, going to the restroom in pairs, the stuff of jokes and sitcoms. But there is a whole unknown cultural experience of womanhood that is a mystery to him, too, much of which he doesn’t even realize exists, until I tell him. Manhood is so easily substituted for personhood; there are times he is shocked with how very different our lives are, even though they look so very similar at first glance.

Like any member of a non-dominant group, I am more familiar with his experience than he is with mine.

The other part of it, the place where it always becomes contentious, is that he has a particular blind spot for what is a qualitative intrinsic difference between men and women, and what is a difference rooted in the definitions of manhood and womanhood as dictated by cultural imperatives. That women’s breasts are shaped differently than men’s is an intrinsic difference; that they are regarded differently is cultural. On less obvious issues, sometimes Mr. Shakes just can’t wrap his head around it, and his counterargument essentially boils down to men and women are just different, babe—and that’s pretty much when I want to rip his throat out and become a lesbian.

Except I don’t. Not only because I know I can drive him straight up one wall and down another myself, but also because I know he’s trying. He hit the genetic jackpot when he was born a straight, white male, and he could easily live his entire life never making a modicum of effort to understand what it means to be gay, or a person of color, or a woman. But he hasn’t chosen to live a life of ignorant bliss.

So sometimes marital bliss takes a backseat while we fight the battle of the sexes.

The truth is, one of the problems in talking about this stuff is that saying “women and men are the same” is not the same as saying “women and men are equal.” Equality is not predicated on absolute likeness, nor should it be. Asserting that women and men are equal speaks to there being no fundamental differences between their capacities to learn and achieve, to their deserving the same pay for the same work and the same right to vote and the same opportunities. Women and men don’t have to be the same to achieve equality, and they are not. We’re different—and there’s nothing wrong with saying so, unless it’s used as an excuse for the perpetuation of inequality. Indeed, I would argue that substituting “sameness” for “equality” actually undermines our ability to celebrate our respective strengths and how they can complement each other to the betterment of us all.

Problematically, while we never seem to suffer from a lack of people willing to critique, from every conceivable angle and spanning the spectrum from fair to absurd, how women’s sex-specific qualities manifest themselves, what they mean for policy, and how they affect women and men, there is much less exploration of men’s sex-specific qualities and how they function in a changing culture. Critiques of the patriarchy (which is a crap paradigm for most men, too—especially not-rich ones) or sexism are not the same as redefining manhood, the women’s equivalent of which is rooted in the feminist movement, of which there is no male-centered counterpart. Certainly feminism is about achieving equality for women, but it is also about womanhood, which is both biological and cultural.

The lack of such an equivalent framework for men is part of what discerning biological difference versus cultural difference within themselves a dubious proposition for many men. As we see with women who reject feminism, they are keen to believe that what are easily identified cultural imperatives are really biological ones. For straight men, who exist in a culture largely structured to accommodate male primacy, pulling apart the intrinsic nature of men from the socialization borne of a society that reinforces the privilege of maleness, is exponentially more difficult.

And thusly, lots of men cannot dissociate their rigid understanding of manhood from the societal influences which are largely mutable; they’ve had no reason to question whether a society that so perfectly suits them has created a definition of manhood that isn’t “real,” and so attempts to change society are inextricably linked to attempts to change men in ways they believe they cannot be changed. And that makes a lot of men angry.

Which brings me to Sara Robinson’s There’s Something About the Men. After referencing 10 instances of men picking up guns in acts of depression, frustration, disenfranchisement, just since September 13, Sara concludes, quite correctly, I believe, that something is going very wrong among large numbers of American men:

Militia members, gun nuts, hate criminals, fundamentalists, Minutemen, high-social dominance authoritarian leaders, submissive authoritarian followers, guys like the one below, guys like the ones above. Over the years, we've had a lot of conversations here trying to figuring out what makes them tick, where they want to take us, how we can keep from going there -- and perhaps most plangently: why do we seem to have so many of them? Often, if we talk about it long enough, the conversation always seems to come back to one place. And there it stops, as if on the edge of something vast and terrifying that we simply cannot bring ourselves to grapple with.

Something is not right with the boys. Something in the way Americans look at males and manhood has gone sour, curdling into to a rank, toxic, and nasty brew that is changing the entire flavor of our culture. Men everywhere seem to be furious. Some turn it outward against women, against society, against the institutions that no longer seem to nurture them. Some turn it inward against themselves, putting their energies into bizarre self-destructive fantasy lives centered around money, violence, and sex. Some, more disenchanted than angry, check out entirely, abdicating any interest in making commitments or contributions to a family, a profession, or a community to spend their lives as perpetual Lost Boys. Together, all this misdirected, destructive energy has become a social, cultural, and political liability that we can no longer afford to ignore.

As the old preacher asked in the opening scenes of The Big Chill: "Are the satisfactions of being a good man among our common men no longer enough?" Given the number of men who seem to be completely disconnected from the very idea of the greater good, let alone the thought that they have any responsibility to it, the answer seems to be: No. They're not.
There are men, Sara notes, who attribute this problem to feminism, and, realistically, although a lot of boys are happier with undeserved privilege isn’t a fair argument against fighting for equality, it’s tough to ignore that the fight has indeed generated a fair bit of anger among men who view it as a zero-sum game. Anyone who believes that for every woman working, there’s a man without a job—or not as good a job as he’d otherwise have—isn’t rational enough to be persuaded of the reality that “in most of the ways that matter, we're a better, stronger society because” of feminism. And those angry, disaffected, irrational men have been well-courted by conservatives:

The right wing has very aggressively stepped forward with all kinds of answers to salve their souls. The military. NASCAR. Promise Keepers. The Boy Scouts. And, more ominously, the KKK and the militias and the Minutemen. The conservative Cult of Maleness is full of tradition and ritual, conformity and hierarchy, the stuff of which male cultures have always been made. …Say what you will about all this puffed-up patriarchal posturing, but the fact remains: these made-for-men bonding ops seem to be channeling some powerful energy, and fulfilling some yawning emotional needs.
Progressives, however, Sara argues, have not been as forthcoming. She suggests that we need to admit that men and women are different and reject the “forced androgyny of liberal culture”—and here’s where I think she makes a mistake. I’m not sure to what liberal culture she’s referring, considering that even feminists are still arguing about wearing lip gloss and high heels. This reinforces the erroneous notion that arguing for equality is arguing for sameness, and even the feminists who reject feminine trappings don’t argue that women and men should be “the same.” We need to get it out of our heads and our dialogue that there are people of either gender vociferously advocating some approximation of a sci-fi fantasy in which we all wear spandex body suits and one’s sex is superfluous. Promulgating this notion, substituting being given the same opportunity and respect with being the same, is part of what drives the anger of men who feel disenfranchised from traditional notions of manhood and see no alternative around which to create a new definition.

And so, when Sara says she believes it “may be time for the progressive community to have an honest discussion about why these guys are angry; what they feel like they’ve lost; and how we’re going to rebuild a new definition of manhood that meets their deepest emotional, social, and spiritual needs without also bringing on the resurrection of the late-but-not-lamented macho asshole,” I couldn’t agree more—I just hope we can do it without relying on the strawliberal who supports forced androgyny, because that’s a false framework created in reaction to women who want to be seen as equals. It’s very dangerous to hold up liberal views of sex- and gender-redefinition as “the bad example” by invoking this backlash creation, because it is within liberalism that men will find their best models—feminism and the gay rights movement.

Sara suggests that maybe, for men, “the process of re-creating their place in our culture has hardly even started.” This is absolutely right, and a collective process is long overdue. A progressive men’s movement geared toward redefinition and re-creating men’s place in a changing culture may not appeal to the men flocking to the bastions of traditional manhood offered up by the rightwing any more than feminism does to rightwing women, but in the same way that feminism achieved a tipping point, whereafter traditional womanhood was seen as just that—“traditional,” but no longer a singular definition—a progressive men’s movement could accomplish the same. It might even find a few converts in the process—perhaps some of those angry men who see no alternative to the tradition they feel they are losing.

And, if nothing else, it would provide that long-absent framework that men who are already interested in such an endeavor have been missing, the tools to finally begin extracting what defines manhood according to men from what defines manhood according to a patriarchy. They are very different things indeed. Just ask a gay man—he’s already walking this road.

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