[DEFINITION: In this article, I use the terms “male trait,” “masculinity,” and “man” to refer to cultural, not natural, ideas that affect me as a male-identified person, and that seem to affect many other men I know. I’m not saying that these “male” traits appear “naturally” in men, and I’m definitely not saying that the opposite of these traits appears “naturally” in women. This is about the things that we, as a society, have made up in order to define ourselves. ]
Men are off their game in today’s world. We’re at an impasse, or a crossroads; unsure what to do with that tricky, problematic collection of behaviors marked as the domain of male-identified people and labeled “masculinity.” A lot of us really like feminism, but apparently we’re doing it wrong. We also really like, you know… being men. But is that OK anymore? What does that even mean?
If you didn’t see it when it came out, look at “This American Bro: A Portrait of the Worst Guy Ever,” which was all over my newsfeed earlier this year. John Saward’s spot-on take-down of the prototypical Bro is genuinely funny, and I felt good about laughing at it, too. After all, I share Saward’s frustration with some of the Bro’s all-too-familiar behaviors: yelling racial slurs, calling things “gay,” having meaningless confrontations in bars. As someone passionate about social justice, I’m disgusted by men using alcohol (or anything) as an excuse to spout homophobia and racism. And as a man, I don’t think you should use testosterone as an excuse to draw attention to yourself.
The problem is, if you take away the shitty-person-ness at the core of this Bro – bigotry, arrogance, lack of consideration for other peoples’ space – he’s a lot like… me and a lot of the guys I know. In fact, if you take out the few examples of actually morally reprehensible behavior in the article, what remains is a searing critique of Going Out and Drinking With Your Guy Friends. The article annoyed me because, in so many ways, I am this guy.
Yes friends, I am the basic bro. From my affinity for drinking games to my love of Will Ferrell to my interest in cars, there are many typical “masculine” traits that, for better or worse, make up an integral part of who I am and how I see myself. Somewhere down in that contested realm between nature and nurture is the notion that I am a man, not simply a genderless person who happens to have a penis. The notion that I sometimes have a responsibility to pick up something heavy, or kill a spider, or remain calm in an emotional situation. Again, I don’t believe that these responsibilities are naturally the sole domain of men, but I feel them despite that. Then there’s the shared, mutual male identity that informs some of my most meaningful relationships. But how did being a man get to be so darned confusing?
It’s generally agreed that masculinity, as an institution, has been reeling since the late twentieth century. The project that men have begun of redefining our identity and way of life to promote social, economic and political equality between genders is, unfortunately, less visible than its counterpart, the women’s movement. This is not to discount the crucial work that has been under way for several decades towards promoting healthy, progressive manhood. But in mainstream culture, where female-identified people have built a thriving social discourse on the subject of gender equality, men have been more passive.
And since men have largely been absent from this new sphere of progressive identity politics, basic hallmarks of male identity have begun to face criticism in that sphere. People who care about addressing gender inequality, sexism, and rape culture, (a lot of my friends), do not see an ally in the guy wearing a suit and flirting with women, the guy watching sports, or the guy setting up the beer pong table; hence the gleeful mockery of the Bro. In response, some men perceive feminism as an attack on the very basis of who we are, and lash out angrily, or throw up their hands and turn their backs, effectively ending the conversation before it begins. Some of us, sensing the coming obsolescence of male identity, act out manhood with a sense of tongue-in-cheek irony. (But don’t look at me. I just like horn-rimmed glasses and old man sweaters, OK?) And while many of us are enthusiastic about feminism, we’re ambivalent about where our identity fits into all of this, even if we can actually manage to be helpful and productive allies.
Quite the conundrum, huh? To those who don’t want to wring their hands over the difficulties of Poor, Confused Men in modern society, I understand if you check out here. To men who realize how important it is to work towards gender equality, but are afraid of losing sight of who they are, I have some tips.
Here’s what I do: I look at masculinity critically. I decide which parts of this bloated, baggage-laden tradition are actually important in my life, and I throw everything else away. Like I said before; my list includes killing spiders, lifting heavy things, and when I really have to, controlling my emotions. In those roles, I A) don’t hurt anyone B) play a helpful masculine role in the lives of my loved ones. I think men need to keep these criteria in mind when considering the various masculine traits that make up who they are. (HINT: CRITERIA “A” IS REALLY IMPORTANT.)
And believe me, the security that comes with decisively taking on certain male traits, and only those traits, is liberating. If a woman thinks I’m casting her as weak and helpless by offering to pick something up for her, or holding the door, this poses zero threat to my manhood. I have no problem leaving her alone, because I actually understand how she might feel that way. I also know that this particular holdover from the door-holding patriarchy is fine with pretty much everyone else in my life, hardcore feminists included, so I’m just gonna go on my merry, manly way. Or if, from the other side, you catch hell from the Masculinity Gestapo for, say, watching Mean Girls while the Superbowl is on, who cares? You did your manly duty today. You can’t spend your life trying to appease some set of expectations about who a man should be.
There are doubtless still times at which I feel like a shitty feminist ally, just as there are times when I feel emasculated and spineless as a man. But just trying to piss out the fire of the intersectional women’s movement is never going to get you anywhere. Likewise, to moan about how being a “real” man just isn’t the same in this day and age is bullshit. We have to the power to decide what manhood is and isn’t. But you have to think hard about it. Every day.
Welcome to the project of gender identity, then. Have a beer. It’s okay.
Scott Groffman is a blogger, farmer, and student interested in social justice and politics. He enjoys gender studies, pop music and peanut butter. Scott blogs at themalegaze.net.