Before you go all Outraged-Feminist on my ass -- read on, please.
I believe that the very things that men complain about -- needing to be "the strong one", "the provider", the "bread-winner" -- are a direct result of sexism and misogyny which attempts to cast human beings in rigid gender-based roles from which they believe they cannot escape.
I believe that the very things that men complain about -- feeling under- or un-appreciated, misunderstood, or unseen -- are compounded by the fact that the gender-based role of the guy is to be "strong and silent" -- to "suck it up and be a man" -- because, if he's doing that, how the fuck are we supposed to know what's going on inside him?
Yes, I believe that men have "privilege" over women -- no matter what their stratum on the great pyramid of oppression -- poor men generally still possess privilege more than poor women, black men generally still possess privilege more than black women, etc. (and yes, I know there are exceptions, but I am consciously choosing to speak in cultural generalities -- So sue me!).
However, I think that, at the level of basic existence as a human being, any privilege obtained by being male in this culture is probably cold comfort when you consider the real toll that sexism and misogyny take on those who identify as, or are considered Man/Male/Men/Males.
Here's one of the ways that I believe this toll is taken:
In our society (at least), the following traits are considered primarily "female/womanly":
Tender, Emotional, Vulnerable, Receptive, Passive, Compassionate.
(OK -- you can argue with me about this if you want, but I challenge you to ask 10 people who you know to listen to these words read aloud -- without prepping them beforehand about the context of your query -- and ask them to assign the words as either Male or Female. I'm not saying that this is "what is so" about men and women, I'm saying that this is the overwhelmingly common cultural perception/expectation.)
This is where the toll is paid:
If you are living in a misogynist, sexist society where privilege is awarded automatically by virtue of manliness/maleness or perceived manliness/maleness, and therefore, being womanly/female is an undesirable (if not despicable) position, then you are going to work hard to avoid the culturally-acceptable traits of womanliness.
This, I believe, is one of the tragedies of sexism for men in our culture -- the abrogation of their right to "have a heart" -- a full-range emotional body.
Men feel -- because they're human. They experience moments of tenderness, and vulnerability, and emotion (yes, emotions other than rage) -- as well as moments of compassion, and receptivity, and passivity.
The problem is: They can't express that without looking like a woman. Which, in a sexist, misogynist society, would be a bad thing. A thing that loses you jobs, and gets you called "pussy", and "mangina", and subjects you to suggestions that you "sit to pee" -- which would all be BAD, because being anything like a woman/female human is BAD.
Bad and wrong.
This is one of the tolls of sexism and misogyny for men -- they are robbed of their hearts.
Which to me, is tragic.
My father is 81 now, and 17 years ago, just after his retirement, I went with him and my mom to see the movie "The Doctor". The theater was crowded, so I sat in a seat in the row directly in front of my mom and dad, and during the film, I heard this distinct sniffling behind me, and assumed it was my mom. As we left the theater, I noticed my dad's eyes were all swollen and puffy.
I said: "Were you the one who was crying?"
He replied: "Yeah. I don't know what it is. Ever since I retired, I just cry at almost anything . . . . . . . . It's kind of a relief."
I was curious about this. I understood that there was probably a very basic shift from needing to wear the "mask" (required of both men and women) in the work environment (being "businesslike" or "professional"=not showing emotion) -- but I suspected that there was something more.
Since one of the prime stereotypes of what it is to "be a man" in this society is that you are valued for the profession that you have, and the work you produce, it seems to me that my father's retirement from his profession was also, in some way, a resignation from some need to adhere to an entire range of stringent cultural expectations of maleness.
His softening has continued through the last 17 years, and he and I had a particularly sweet moment where we were both blubbing away together at a Little House on the Prairie re-run during a visit. Friends have reported similar "softening" in their elderly fathers.
Think about this the next time you hear someone say the words: "Be a man!"
Actually look at the situation in which this comes up, and think about what is being demanded. In my experience, it usually means: Shut up about your feelings. Grit your teeth and bear your pain and don't let anyone know you're feeling it. Don't show it on your face, don't talk about it, square your shoulders and your jaw and carry on like everything's OK -- hide it however you can.
That, to me, is unbearably sad.
Little boys who cry are "sissies" (aka -- "girl-like").
This wouldn't, and couldn't, be a problem if being a woman, or being like a woman, wasn't a very bad thing -- and training a human being to devalue someone else on a basis that truly, logically makes no sense at all (women by virtue of their physical anatomy, people of color by virtue of their skin color, queer people by virtue of their choice of who to have sex with) requires deep and continuous programming.
Boys cry. They cry from the moment they are born. If they didn't cry as infants, you'd worry about this.
The indoctrination required to train a human being out of one of the deepest human responses (emotionality) is a staggering task when you really think about it -- yet it is done, systematically and thoroughly -- male children are taught to control and suppress any emotion which falls outside the acceptable stereotypical range for "real men" from very early on -- and I believe that it is these stifled emotions in men which so often erupt in the only emotion that is consider "gender-appropriate" -- anger.
After all -- if you'd been denied the right to express the rest of the human emotional range (sad, bad, scared, etc.), don't you think you'd be a bit pissed off, too?
My male friends have reported, in moments of vulnerability, how intense the pressure to "be a man" can be -- how difficult it is for them to cry in front of other men (or in front of anyone) -- how much they fear being perceived as "weak" or passive. A straight, male friend went out last Halloween in drag, and reported that he felt unsafe the entire time he was in public -- because he was a virtual woman for the night.
Personally, I think that in a misogynist culture, one of the only things you can do that is worse than actually being a woman is to be/become a woman, or be/become like a woman. I believe that this is the reason that "sissies" are so often brutally targeted on the playground, and effeminate gay men and drag queens and jail-house punks are traditionally beaten severely and killed in hideous ways -- they have betrayed the privilege of maleness by daring to exhibit behaviors that make them like women.
(Similar punishment is doled out for women who dare to aspire to "manliness" -- think "Boys Don't Cry" -- but that's a different post entirely.)
Of all the ways that sexism and misogyny harm men, I honestly believe that this is the worst -- that men are expected by society to give up these crucial parts of their humanity -- their ability to connect with other human beings emotionally, to express their vulnerability and tenderness without being mocked, and to associate fully with their authentic selves.
This post was inspired by an email exchange that I had with a friend, in which we discussed recent flare-ups of what we both see as sexism and misogyny among men who we consider to be allies, and whether it was really possible for a man in our culture to fully embrace feminism. I found myself typing this:
"I believe that it is possible, but that it's difficult in the way that really deeply ingrained shit is difficult -- like healing from trauma.As much as I want my sisters to be able to walk the world in safety, with their full range of self honored and recognized, and their horizons broad and unhindered by misogyny, so, too, I want my brothers to be be able to walk the world in safety, with their full range of self honored and recognized, and their hearts wide open to the world, unhindered by misogyny.
In fact, I do think that men in our society are traumatized by sexism and misogyny -- they just haven't felt the wound yet, like someone who is dissociated -- and they're terrified of feeling it."
[cross-posted at Teh Portly Dyke]