I don’t like all your self-referential poems and
Confessional narratives where you just go on and
On and on with your boring anxieties and
Insights into a meaningless existence.
I mean, just like the time you said
She floated on an azure sky and
Had lips that made the rain seem dry.
It started as a conventional statement of
A poet who likes women with moist lips,
But then you had to go and address the
Reader directly before declaring how
Much you liked her hair that seemed to
Have been spun from mists of gold or
Some such shit.
It is just the typical male objectification of
Women, and I, for one, am tired of it,
And I’m sure the readers, if you have
Any, agree with me.
And I must here apologize to the reader
For the overall incoherence of this
Of this rant, or whatever it is.
Nobody needs poetry, anyway,
And if you are trying to process your grief, shame, or
Rage, just get out in front of it.
Lay off the self-indulgent,
Pseudo-intellectual clap trap and confront
Your own failings
Then, you can leave your damp-lipped damsel
Alone on the beach to do whatever she wishes with
Her own alabaster thighs as you turn away
I, personally, have no patience for
Anxious but idealised objectification of
Beauty. I would rather turn my attention
To the dry-lipped strength of a messy-haired
Physically strong woman who pulled me
Up, sometimes literally, when I felt I had no
Reason to lift myself.
But that is only some kind of self-interested
Infatuation, too. Idealising a person based on
My own needs.
I guess it is no wonder why so many
Male poets just describe women as flowers.
Lately I’ve been hearing people talking about how the young people need to learn to take a joke, because, one supposes, people back in the day were never offended by anything. Of course, people back in the day were offended by quite a lot of things, and we older folks know that, because we can remember just how offended our contemporaries have always been, so it isn’t immediately obvious what these old geezers are on about.
I mean, come on, Lenny Bruce was arrested for being obscene. The Smothers Brothers were fired for being political. Comedians have been offending people for as long as comedy has been around. Except, I think I know what they’re on about. What they mean is that they used to get away with saying things they are no longer allowed to say, and they don’t like being told to stay in their lane. They used to make jokes about women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ folks without fear of any sort of reprisal.
From their explanation, you would think this is because women, racial minorities, and queers used to just laugh along with them. I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t see how anyone can possibly think that’s true. Imagine a gay kid laughing at a dad joking about killing his kids to prevent them from growing up gay. I don’t think that ever happened.
Rather, I think what happened is that these marginalized groups did not feel empowered to speak up for themselves, but now they do, and I for one think that’s a good thing. I think it is really good that gay people (and anyone who thinks gay people deserve respect) say they are offended when someone jokes about killing them. I think it is good that trans people say a man in a dress isn’t obviously the funniest damn thing in the world. I think it is good that women feel empowered enough to say they don’t think jokes about rape are part of a good time.
Comedians have every right to make any joke they want, and the audience has every right to tell them they are assholes for making them.
In a world where a man who talks openly about kissing and grabbing women without consent can be taken seriously as a candidate for leader of the “free” world, you may wonder how toxic masculinity has spun out of control. As an antidote to all the bully posturing, perhaps the wisdom of a famous cross-dressing artist can help explain how we got here and how we can move forward, so it is time to pick up Grayson Perry’s TheDescent of Man and begin to unravel the mystery of toxic masculinity.
If you have already spent some time pondering feminism, masculinity, and gender, you really have two choices as you read Perry’s screed: You can quietly applaud from the choir loft or utter a mild rebuke that it doesn’t go far enough to liberate us all from the shackles of rigid gender roles. On the other hand, if you have not really examined assumptions about gender and how they affect the world, prepare yourself for a brief but fairly inclusive overview of entertaining and insightful musings on gender, violence, fashion, and injustice.
If you aren’t already familiar with Grayson Perry, he is a celebrated artist, cross-dresser (he refers to himself as a transvestite and sometimes “tranny,” something I decline to do), and host of a television program titled All Man, which was also an exploration of masculinity. At the outset of the book, Perry says that some may think his cross-dressing gives him a better understanding of women, but he insists that it instead gives him a better understanding of men. Though he mentions cross-dressing a number of times in the book, it plays a relatively minor role in this overall thesis, with the exception of his emphasis on fashion.
For a man of a certain means and status, wardrobe options are limited. When doing any kind of business, a fairly bland suit with a fabric “penis,” as Perry says, wrapped around his neck is the default choice for what Perry describes as the Default Man. The Default Man represents all the power and privilege of being male, but Perry acknowledges that not all men share the power and privilege of maleness equally. Still, the Default Man is the assumed cultural archetype for Western society. His clothing is bland, Perry avers, because the Default Man is in a position to observe and objectify others, not to be observed and evaluated himself.
To care about fashion is decidedly unmanly, and, indeed, men who fuss about their appearance are often assumed to be gay by homophobes and self-appointed gender police. Men from other social classes may not be condemned to the prison of the gray suit, but are still considered effeminate in the event that they spend too much time worrying over hairstyles and clothing choices. This is why, of course, cross-dressing is so emotionally and, for some, erotically charged.
While noting that men are responsible for most of the violence in the world, Perry claims that aggressive masculine behavior is entirely, or almost entirely, the result of conditioning that begins even before birth as parents, family, and friends begin choosing clothing, toys, and decorations that “match” the gender of an expected child. Infants and children are treated differently according to their gender, so it would be surprising if boys and girls did not behave differently. Boys learn early to suppress their emotions, be fiercely independent, and solve problems with violence.
Perry gives many compelling and interesting examples of how boys and men experience violence and emotional isolation, but I wish he had spent a little more time talking to the men who seem immune from this conditioning and to people of all genders who fail to fill the role of stereotypical male. For example, if gender is all conditioning, why is it that at least some gay (and some straight) men fail to follow the dictates of the gender binary? What disruptions alter the course of the conditioning? If we are hoping to modify gender roles for future generations, we need to explore alternative paths to non-binary or, at least, non-destructive masculinity.
Though he gives some a passing mention, Perry mostly ignores the experiences of nurturing men such as at-home dads, male carers, transgender men, transgender women, and intersex people. Perry claims gender is a matter of performance in that we all perform behaviors, dress, and emotions that indicate our gender. In other words, we perform masculinity or femininity by taking on the attributes of either gender. In this sense it would seem that anyone would be free to change the mode of performance at any given time.
The use of the word “performance” in this sense recalls the work of Judith Butler, who distinguishes between “performance” and “performativity.” Butler explains here that performativity is about the effects our behavior as related to gender has while performance is a choice to take on a role. If gender were merely a performance, bullying and other forms of gender policing would probably not be such a problem. The shame people feel when they are unable to conform to gender expectations is related to what they are, not what they do. Perry is probably wise to avoid the treacherous philosophical waters of gender identity and deep linguistic analysis, but the question of how deep our inclinations run and can be modified haunts the discussion like the baggage of an old relationship.
In chapter four, he begins by declaring, “I think we like the idea that gender is in our genes because it is convenient, it lets us off the hook.” If he is correct and gender is not in our genes, is not biologically determined, then we have a much better chance at making changes. We can expand the emotional lexicon of boys and men. We can increase male capacity for empathy. We can end war and violence and finally bring peace on earth.
After declaring that we are free to change our gender expression, he paradoxically says this: “Men, bless ‘em, are tethered to a monster, a demon conjoined twin, a one-man ‘wrong crowd’ who will often drag then into bad behaviour. The penis is at once us and not of us.” He says a boy’s sex drive keeps him from understanding the importance of platonic relationships and forming adequate social support networks. Here, near the end of the book, he seems to be speaking of a kind of gender essentialism, which contradicts most of what comes before.
He says, “Men, particularly when young, view the world through a heads-up display of sexual desire.” I’ve never been a young girl or woman, but I have a suspicion that sexual desire also occasionally clouds female judgment and causes them to behave less rationally than they may otherwise hope. And some boys, I am certain, are not so driven by their sexual desires. Regarding biological determinism, Perry clarifies, “We may be genetically predisposed to be straight or gay, identify as male or female or in between, but I think the attitudes, cues, contexts, power relationships, props and costumes are supplied by conditioning.” This clarification is crucial.
While some men “perform” masculinity well and succeed throughout their lives, other boys and men (or people assigned male) find it impossible to “act like a man” and, further, have no desire to join the fraternity. Removing the toxic part of masculinity can make more room for varied forms of gender expression.
In the end, Perry seeks to liberate men from the confines of narrow gender conformity. Once men are freed from shame around weakness and vulnerability, perhaps they can have more compassion for themselves and for those around them. Perhaps, finally, boys who like My Little Pony can say so without fear of bullying. Perhaps, finally, men in the throes of grief can cry openly without being told they need to pull themselves together.
In a post on how men can be better feminist allies, Emma Cueto advises men to avoid the temptation to put men’s issues first. She sums up the problem of “toxic masculinity” by noting, “is not fun for anyone and often limits men’s choices in terms of interests or self-expression, and it means that many men are never really given the tools to properly deal with their own emotions.” She goes on to say that men are not sexually assaulted at the same rate as women, are not victims of domestic violence as often as women, are not victims of pay disparities or sexual discrimination as often as women, and aren’t confronted by laws designed to control their bodies. She is right on all counts, but Tom Digby’s book, Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance, helps show why it is impossible to separate culturally programmed masculinity from sexual assault, reproductive regulation, domestic violence, and job discrimination and why feminists must deal with how sexism affects both men and women simultaneously.
His thesis is that militaristic societies establish values and goals that require men to cut off their feelings of care for others and for themselves, see women’s freedom as a threat, and rely on violence to solve their problems. In order to achieve military objectives, subject both boys and girls with intense cultural programming from birth to encourage strength in boys and passivity in girls. With this thesis, he flips the script from what many assume: that men are violent and cut off from their feelings by biological programming. Early in the book, he offers two pieces of evidence that this assumption is faulty. First, men and women in some societies do not show the differences that are so prevalent in militaristic societies. Second, he shows that men often fight against their own biology to retain the appearance of stoicism. Indeed, almost all men have been cruelly taunted for their failure to maintain their composure (choking back tears) even before reaching adolescence. If biology prevented boys from crying, no one would have to keeping telling boys not to cry. The conditioning is relentless and severe.
War dependent societies must maintain ample supplies of expendable men as well as childbearing women who will provide future generations of warriors. This requires shutting down empathy in men, glorifying risk and violence, and valuing women according to sexual availability and passivity. To the extent that maintaining near constant war was the goal, this model worked for centuries, but things have changed. I wish I could say we are no longer reliant on war, but that is sadly not driving the change. Digby points out that while war is still with us, the need for individual warriors who do one-on-one combat, relying on brute strength, has greatly diminished. Combat is now highly mechanized, and what physical differences may exist between men and women often offer no benefit to either side or may even give an advantage to women (he notes the case of jet fighters).
As a result, most men do not experience direct combat, or any kind of combat, in their lives. Our warriors must find other outlets for their masculinity. They may do it through aggressive sports, war games such as paintball, or even through violent video games. Digby points out that while women may be attracted to warriors, the guy who dominates video games doesn’t get quite the accolades of war combatants.
Another change is the material relationship between men and women. In the past, women were materially dependent on men and would comply with men’s wishes in order to avoid poverty. As women have entered the workforce, many are now the primary wage earners for their families. As women earn college degrees and professional credentials at higher rates than men, it is inevitable that men will become increasingly dependent on women for material support. These social changes leave our masculine warrior with an identity crisis. One option is for him to change his identity, which requires becoming more dependent and empathetic. This would be to become more “feminine” (a horror to the warrior). Or, the second option is for him to become more strident and militant, which may account for increased attacks against feminism and women these days.
When we observe the vitriol in attacks against feminist women online, graphic violence against women in video games and movies, and actual physical brutality and murder of women, it is easy to see the desperation of the warriors who refuse to go down without a fight. The fact that their opponents wish them no real harm seems to be of no consolation. It took me awhile to read this book because I assumed I would agree with it, and I did. I already knew that men were programmed to cut off their empathy, to expect women to be passive, to have the greatest disdain for “feminine” men, and so on. This book does bring a new analysis to these facts, though. It gives a new understanding of how things have gotten where they are and how they may be different.
I have only one minor quibble with one claim in the book. In chapter two, Digby quotes Sandra Bartky to explain the transactional nature of heterosexual relationships. He quotes Bartky as saying, “He shows his love for her by bringing home the bacon, she by securing for him a certain quality of nurturance and concern.” The claim is that men are emotionally unavailable or unsuited for empathy and emotional nurturance. On the other hand, women are expected to provide comfort and emotional support for men. I do think it is true that men are more likely to seek emotional support from women than from men, but I do not think this transaction is so readily accepted in heterosexual relationships.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to both men and women in grief. Many men are so conditioned to “be strong” that they will never ask for support from the women in their lives for fear of appearing weak. Also, many feel they must suppress their emotional needs for the good of the family. Because they succeed in appearing strong, the women around them believe they are strong and do not need emotional support. As a result, men too often face grief and depression in complete isolation. When they finally crumble under the pressure, many will say, “I had no idea things were so bad.” This may help explain why men commit suicide at higher rates than women. Sadly, I’ve heard too many women say that they, also, do not feel supported by other women. Increasingly, at least in the United States, I feel grief is becoming a solitary activity for both men and women.
I hope we can all begin to support one another by offering each other protection, emotional support, material support, and just human kindness.
Controversy erupted recently over a photo shoot in which the stars of the movie, Suffragette, wore t-shirts that said, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” A group of white women wearing a shirt with a message comparing themselves to slaves was a problem to begin with, but people familiar with the fact that southern defenders of slavery in the US are known as Rebels only made things worse.
Defenders of the movie, the photo shoot, and the quote said the outrage was based on a misunderstanding of the quote, which comes from a speech by the British suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, rallying women to free themselves from the oppression of patriarchy. In the United States, abolitionists and suffragettes were sometimes, though not nearly always, the same people. The comparison of slavery to women’s oppression was noted by many, including former slave Frederick Douglas, who wrote, “In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for women.”
In the UK, people are less sensitive to comments about slavery and rebels. Some have suggested that the UK did not have slaves and that the quote is therefore not offensive. Time Out London, which published the photos, said in a statement: “Time Out published the original feature online and in print in the UK a week ago. The context of the photoshoot and the feature were absolutely clear to readers who read the piece. It has been read by at least half a million people in the UK and we have received no complaints.”
The UK does have a history with slavery, though. Unlike the US, Britain did not have a large workforce of slaves, but that doesn’t mean the UK had no involvement in slavery. Slavery was abolished in the UK in 1833 by the Slavery Abolition Act, which ended slavery throughout the British Empire with the exception of territories under control of the East India Company, Ceylon, and the island of Saint Helena. The exceptions were eliminated in 1843. In the US, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Having been neither a woman nor a slave, I hesitate to comment on the controversy of the use of the Emmeline Pankhurst quote, but it turns out that philosopher Elizabeth Spelman made an insightful and relevant commentary on the issue in her 1997 book, Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering. In the first place, she points out that phrases such as “women and minorities” excludes and ignores the existence of minority women. Comparisons to slavery are a case in point. She says, “Consider the talk about women being treated like slaves. Whenever we talk that way we are not only making clear that the ‘women’ we’re referring to aren’t themselves slaves; we’re making it impossible to talk about how the women who weren’t slaves treated those who were.” When a white woman suffragette declared her preference for rebellion over slavery, was she honoring the suffering of slave women or, indeed, setting herself apart from them?
Drawing on the work of Jean Fagan Yellins, Spelman continues, “The female slave is made to disappear from view. Although presumably it was the female slave’s experience that originally was the focus of concern, the other women’s experiences were made the focus.” Somehow, white women made use of the suffering of slaves without experiencing the actual realities of slavery, even if the oppression of white women was intolerable, it was not an experience shared with actual slave women.
When this relationship between white suffragettes and slaves is exposed an analyzed, of course white women will want to deny their privilege and insist that they were only honoring their sisters. They can say this with great honesty, because they are not aware of their privileged status. Further, Spelman says, “The deeper privilege goes, the less self-conscious people are of the extent to which their being who they are, in their own eyes as well as the eyes of others, is dependent upon the exploitation or degradation or disadvantage of others.”
When privilege is pointed out, it makes us uncomfortable. As a result, our reaction is motivated by shame. Self-awareness is necessary to effect change, but it is also painful. Spelman says, “Seeing oneself as deeply disfigured by privilege, and desiring to do something about it, may be impossible without feeling shame.” The shame provokes a defensive reaction, but it can also help to facilitate healing and solidarity–in some cases, anyway.
With the Emmeline Pankhurst quote used by the magazine, we can see the defensive reaction. Many people defended the quote as being taken out of context, as being somehow separate from slavery because it was British, or being a victim of PC culture gone mad. In the end, though, the outrage at the use of the quote helped spark a conversation about the suffragette movement, Britain’s role in slavery, and sensitivity to women whose experiences lie outside the realm of so-called “white feminism.”
First, I should clarify that I do not think it is acceptable for boys to hit girls, but the admonishment to “never hit a girl” has two problems. 1. It gives tacit permission to hit other boys. 2. It tells boys they have no right to complain when someone hits them. Under this one maxim, boys are certified as aggressors and negated as victims of violence.
If parents and teachers simply told boys not to hit, it would go against everything masculinity represents, unfortunately, in our culture. Fathers would worry that their sons would never toughen up, “grow a pair,” or be able to attract mates. Surely, they say, if boys don’t enter the rough and tumble world of male aggression they will all grow up to be homosexual. Rather, they really mean they will grow up to be “feminine” (I use the quotation marks to show that I do not believe any particular traits are feminine or masculine, but these words are used in stereotypical fashion), which is the real fear. Misogynists assume feminine boys are gay without understanding the difference between orientation and identity or the simple human spectrum of personality traits. It is misogyny that drives the rage against non-conforming boys. It is hatred of who they are more that what they do.
To avoid recriminations, boys with take and give punches and other forms of violence on a regular basis as practice for adulthood. The boy who grows up in this environment isn’t shamed for being violent. Rather, he is shamed when he is passive. If you are a boy who has been told he must never hit girls, when someone hits you, the aggressor has done nothing wrong. In fact, if you don’t hit back, you have done something wrong. You are lacking. Violence is an obligation of masculinity.
If you fail to stand your ground, you will be reprimanded for letting some bully push you around. You will likely be put in self-defense classes. You will likely be told you must toughen up and learn to take care of yourself. While a girl in your position might be given the opportunity to learn self-defense, her status as victim protects her from similar shaming. Violence may be an option of femininity, but it is not an obligation. Boys are denied the status of victim. Boys are told they can only be bullied if they don’t stand up for themselves.
And if a girl hits a boy, the boy is in a double bind. The shame of being hurt by a girl is far greater than the shame of being hurt by a boy, but the opportunity of self-defense or retaliation is taken away. The boy will face shaming such as: “How could you let that happen? She’s just a girl. Don’t hit her! She’s just a girl. Be a man! Just walk it off!” We wonder how adult men become victims of domestic violence, but this pattern is carried into adulthood. The man who is physically assaulted by a woman is rarely recognized as the victim he is. A woman half his size (of course, not every man is married to a woman half his size) couldn’t possibly hurt him. Surely, a grown man can take care of himself? If he strikes back, he earns the label of abuser for himself. His explanations are unlikely to be believed.
In addition to teaching boys that they are acceptable victims of male-on-male violence and that aggression against other boys is expected, it does little to protect the physical integrity of girls and women. Some time back, a video PSA against domestic violence went viral. The video shows boys standing in front of a passive girl as a man off-camera tells them to touch her and caress her. The boys do not hesitate to touch her until the man tells them to to hit her. All the boys refuse, inspiring tears and celebrations around the world. At the end of the video, a boy is told to kiss her. He asks only, “On the mouth or the cheek?” The message, it would seem, is that girls, passive and beautiful beings that they are, should never be hit but should also never have agency over their bodies. They boys say they are against violence, but they appear to have no concept of consent. They are willing to touch her body without her invitation but with the approval of an adult male. Before venturing a kiss, the boy asks the man, not the girl, how to proceed. I find the message of the PSA disturbing.
We could instead teach boys and girls to respect the bodies of all others. Sure, teach the children self-defense techniques but teach them also that aggression is an assault on the bodily integrity of another. Furthermore, this aggression can come in the form of a slap, a kick, or a kiss. We can teach children to respect all bodies and that touching others requires consent, and we can begin by showing respect for the bodies of children. It is not all right to hit girls because it is not all right to hit people. And, as the video below shows, it is not all right to hit animals, either.
When my first son was born, his mother and I were lucky enough that we could juggle our schedules and avoid putting him in daycare. I hadn’t thought much about the role of fathers before becoming a father, but I was soon to learn the full extent of social prejudice towards dads. I think the most common complaint for nurturing fathers everywhere, whether they stay home with their children or not, is being referred to as a babysitter (for example, see here. When out and about, people would often attempt to compliment me with a cheery, “Oh, it is so nice to see dads out babysitting.” Depending on my mood, I would sometimes challenge them by asking, “Have you ever seen any moms out babysitting?” When in a less surly mood, I would say, “I’m not babysitting; these are my children!” Over the years, fathers have generally become much more involved in childcare, but too many people still diminish their role to babysitting.
In the office where I worked at the time my son was a baby, we had a dry-erase board to show where people were when out of the office. When female coworkers were out with
their children, someone would write on the board “sick daughter” or something similar. When my son was sick, I would return to find a notice proclaiming I was out “babysitting.” It didn’t seem like such a problem at first. I would just chuckle and explain that if I had a babysitter, I wouldn’t have to miss work. I would also note that babysitters get paid for their efforts, but fathering my child provided no financial rewards at all. I was trying to raise awareness of the importance of fathering, but I generally only succeeded in raising a chuckle.
I also noticed that when I went to a doctor’s visit with his mother, the doctor and nurses would speak to her even when I was closest or even when I was actually holding my son. It was clear that the mother was the default parent and the father, no matter how involved, could only provide auxiliary services. It was around this time that I read The Nurturing Fatherby Kyle Pruett. Since its publication, this book has faced some criticism but remains a groundbreaking and relevant work in fatherhood research. The book explored many facets of fathering, but the only message I saw was that fathers can do everything mothers can do, and it made me want to stay home with my son (rather, sons, as we were soon expecting our second child).
I was able to quit my job and stay home full time. My life was a mélange of celebration and condemnation. Many people would congratulate me on being in touch with my “feminine” side. Others would offer an indirect criticism with a loaded questions such as, “How does your wife feel about you staying home full time?” Or, sometimes men would say, “Oh, I wish my wife would let me do that!” I resented the implication that I was “not working,” and I further resented the implication that I was somehow taking on something easier than what my wife was doing. Any mention of this was generally met with, “Well, now you know what women have faced for centuries!” Women (and nurturing men) have suffered from bias and disrespect for centuries, but I don’t think at-home dads are the ones most in need of consciousness raising experiences.
On the other hand, I was quite lucky. I found several playgroups that welcomed me with enthusiastically open arms. I was often the only dad to be found, but I did meet a couple of other at-home dads. For the most part, the women in the group treated me like any other parent, but occasionally I had awkward conversations. One mom once asked me whether I fed my children. Given that they were strong and healthy, I thought the answer was obvious, but I guess she was asking whether someone else was feeding them for me. When I told her I did, indeed, feed my children, she replied, “With hot food?” Nope, we dads just give them cereal and cookies, of course. I let her know I cooked for my children and moved on. Fortunately, she was the exception to the rule of open and inviting moms who were happy to share childcare tips and horror stories. Other men in the eighties weren’t so lucky. A few men sued mothers-only groups for access to parenting support. All parents struggle with the pressure of parenting, and finding others for support is essential.
Dads are generally expected to be extremely proud when their sons follow in their career footsteps, and I am proud that my younger son now has children of his own and stays home to care for them. Some things have changed in the intervening years, but people still ask him whether he is “babysitting” from time to time. More fathers stay home full time now (or at least take the role of primary caregiver), so it attracts less attention. The biggest difference I notice when out with my grandchildren, though, is that almost all men’s rooms now have changing stations. Gone are the days of having to choose between changing a diaper on the floor of a public restroom or a more sanitary location in full view of the general public.
I don’t really think anyone would be surprised now to learn my son knows how to turn on the stove, but there biases against men involved with children persist in some areas. Men are still mocked for their ignorance of food, as can be seen here. Moms remain the default experts on nutrition, soothing, and health. Too many people believe that only moms know how to care for children, as seen here. Dads are recognized more for playing with their children and encouraging them to be joyful and competitive.
Life will be easier for moms and dads when the denigration of childcare ends and everyone who cares for our next generation, whether mom, dad, or an early childhood teacher, is respected and valued for their contribution to creating the next generation of nurturers, leaders, inventors, and parents. We’re doing much better, but we can aim higher still.
When we feel ashamed or judged, we have several possible ways of responding. One method of dealing with shame is to defend yourself vigorously, to deny anything is wrong, and to attack those who might think differently. We can imagine the loud protests of Hamlet’s mother, though perhaps Hamlet’s attack on his mother is equally revealing. A second method, which is my preferred method, is to try to suppress it, hide it, and pretend it does not exist, and I think I have plenty of company with millions of people struggling with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and a myriad of shortcomings. This kind of shame destroys you from the inside out. The third and most difficult method of dealing with shame is to acknowledge it, confront it, and try to resolve it in some way. When we meet individuals who can do this, we admire them, praise them, and exalt them, which is as it should be. Think of a former member of the KKK who becomes a civil rights leader, for example.
In the aftermath of Elliot Rodgers’ mass killing, pundits, analysts, feminists, psychologists, and just about everyone else has jumped to understand and explain what may cause someone to want to kill with such intensity and drive. It appears that Rodgers dealt with feelings of deep shame and inadequacy because he felt he failed as a man because he couldn’t convince women to have sex with him. Many men, even those who have had their share of sexual encounters, share his shame, but fewer question the assumptions that create that shame. Men are expected to be on a constant mission to prove themselves through sexual conquests, and most men internalize this to one degree or another in the same way that women internalize attitudes toward body image.
It isn’t surprising, then, that many men reacted defensively to discussions of sexist attitudes and their dire consequences. Who is going to say, “I see now that I’ve bought into a dangerous belief system. I see that my way of thinking leads to mass murder.”? Not many, which might explain the emotional and unrelated defenses of Glenn Beck, Seth Rogen, and all the men who reacted negatively to #yesallwomen. Beck went on a long tirade against the idea that sexual assault and harassment is prevalent and suggested that people are calling normal, consensual sex rape. Rogen responded to Ann Hornaday’s critique of media that depicts women as trophies by tweeting, ““How dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage.”
These men want to make clear that they are not part of the problem. They recognize that their attitudes and maybe even their actions are now being criticized as part of the problem, and they are saying, “Hey, don’t point the finger at me.” They may also realize they have internalized the values that oppress and torture men. We may want to respond to #yesallwomen with #notallmen, but the fact is that all men, at least in my culture, are familiar with the beliefs and attitudes that shame men for “purity” and women for “sexual prowess.” We feel it deep in our bones, and it makes us uncomfortable.
In the next wave, many women wonder why more “enlightened” men don’t speak up and stand with them. To be fair, many men have shown the courage to do this, but doing so requires us all to look inside and examine what we may prefer to hide and suppress. You don’t have to be a rapist or a murderer to recognize common feelings or assumptions you may have or may have once had, and it can create a kind of soul-burning shame.
Few tasks in life are as difficult as confronting our own shame. The attitudes and beliefs that define us as men and women touch us at the core of our being. A thoughtful, honest, complex, and courageous discussion of how to liberate and protect men and women will be lengthy and arduous, but a better world is possible.
PS: And let’s have a discussion about access to guns as well.