Robbing the Hearts of Men

It's long been my view that sexism and misogyny do every bit as much damage to men as to women.

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.

Eve-In-The-Garden-Bad-Apple Wrong.

Condemning-The-Entire-Human-Race-To-An-Awful-Existence 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.

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."
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.

Posted byPortlyDyke at 10:31 PM  


DCup said... March 8, 2008 at 3:43 AM  

This is a brilliant post! As I raise my son, I try so hard not to stifle those parts of him that are considered "feminine," but he gets the message from all around that tears are unacceptable, but that anger is okay.

And then we take him for treatment for his "anger." No wonder.

amish451 said... March 8, 2008 at 7:01 AM  

PD are beautiful and brilliant, this is a wonderful piece that I will pass along to some young men who fight this fight every day, and occasionally win ...
"The problem is:" ...PD, you left out the question "...what, are you queer? ..."
I am one 65 year-old, straight, white man and as I get older it is difficult to decide whether the pressure is diminished or if I just don't give a shit anymore ... I hope I'm able to convey to my son and grandsons that "being a man" is tougher than not showing emotion....

KJ said... March 8, 2008 at 8:23 AM  

Thank you! As a mother of a 22 year old son, I absolutely cherish reading this. Long may you blog...
With love and appreciation,

NameChanged said... March 8, 2008 at 11:47 AM  

Great work Portly Dyke. I have seen the shift in my husband since the birth of our daughter. He seems to struggle with his sensitivity/"manliness," but he is embracing his sensitivities for his daughter, and I think that is a big step.

mouthybitch said... March 8, 2008 at 5:49 PM  

As usual, a standing o. I can really tell, when you write stuff like this, that you want to make the world a better place (I could be wrong, but I like my illusions.) And I wholeheartedly appreciate it.

Anonymous said... March 8, 2008 at 10:14 PM  

Few things brighten my day ... as much as seeing that you've blessed the universe with another post. As soon as I saw tonight ... I stopped all other tubal activities, made some popcorn ... got a fresh cold beer ... and settled down to savor your every word.

I'm sure my mind will be aflutter for days hence. I involuntarily began to take inventory of men I know ... to see if I could summon an experience in which a man was openly and freely emotional around me. Sadly, despite having progressive, liberal and yes even feminist and soul searching-gender challenging types around ... I ended up having to go back some 10 years for a bonefide example.

So, I was reminded of some words of wisdom from Amy Madigan .. via Streets of Fire:

Some people that never talk about their feelings got 'em deeper than anybody. Other people never talk about their feelings 'cause they ain't got any.


Anonymous said... March 8, 2008 at 10:14 PM  

oops ... that was me ... Nik.E.Poo

The Cunning Runt said... March 9, 2008 at 6:31 PM  

PD, what a Guy - you so GET us!

Seriously, I got a whole lot more in touch with my emotions when my wife and I had babies (two gurrrls) and have always been emotionally overt, which has made life as a construction worker both difficult and, occasionally, dangerous. There's no wrath quite like that reserved for men who willingly eschew their "male privilege" in favor of expressing their emotions.

Thanks for this brilliant post, and for your understanding of me and my brothers as Human Beings, unrestricted by pre-shrunk gender roles.

Kathryn Cleve said... March 10, 2008 at 2:49 AM  

From my unique perspective, I totally agree with you. I am 91% female and struggled for decades trying to be a man. Finally found love, acceptance and devotion in a woman named Joy.
Thanks for being here and writing so well.
Kathryn Cleve
91% Female

Mary Tracy9 said... March 11, 2008 at 4:18 PM  

Well done, PD. The points you raised needed to be said.

Personally, I want feminism to be as big as possible. Having men expanding feminist ideology so that it includes them can only be a good thing. Of course, this doesn't mean that we must do their job in bringing more men on board. But it DOES mean that we shouldn't poo-poo on men who embrace feminist ideals. And I've seen feminist do precisely that.

phoenixandtree said... March 11, 2008 at 11:49 PM  

Thanks for writing this, your insights here are really important. It's crucial to separate out privilege from health, happiness or wholeness. I'm a queer man who has a lot of personality traits - intense emotions, compassion, gentleness - that are associated with femininity. I think it's easier (i.e., more socially acceptable) for queer men to be "feminine," since they're already breaking the rules of masculinity, but it's still hard for me to cry in front of other people (especially men) because of socialization and teasing. It's interesting to me that you compare the socialization of men to trauma. I think there's something to what you said, and I would also say that the rigid restraints and disconnection required to be "masculine" are a factor in why many men choose violence and thus cause (further) trauma.

I know you didn't mean it this way but I think the term "effeminate" is essentially a more academic version of "mangina." I mean, it's only used in the context of men being feminine, and carries the connotation of being somehow shameful or unnatural. Why can't men just be feminine? Reading "effeminate" makes me cringe a little.

PortlyDyke said... March 12, 2008 at 12:06 AM  

PhoenixandTree -- Thanks for your comment, and I hope you'll read back and give me a little advice/education. "Effeminate" is butt-puckery for me too, (in the same way mangina is), precisely because it carries the misogynist shame aspect. I agree with that, and found myself in a dilemma when writing that part.

It's been my experience that butch gay men don't get targeted the same way that more feminine-presenting gay men do (or straight men for that matter, now that I think of it) -- so I used "effeminate" as an adjective that I thought would be readily understandable to most readers to distinguish that I thought it was the "being like a woman" part that plays into the level of violence. (I almost used "nelly", but that seemed possibly more offensive.) Do you have a word or phrase that seems less offensive to you as a gay man? I almost opted for "feminine-presenting", but that seemed similarly problematic to me, and less generally known.

Thanks in advance for any insight you may have for me.

Sweating Through fog said... March 12, 2008 at 4:50 PM  

In thanks, and in answer to your challenge in the Shakesville comments on this, I've my view of what makes like for women so hard.

Anonymous said... March 17, 2008 at 9:53 AM  

Hey, I found this post through a link on Pandagon, and I have to say, wow, you made some seriously great points! I need to show this post to anyone I hear telling me that feminists hate men. Because it proves exactly the opposite.

Anonymous said... March 19, 2008 at 10:31 AM  

I came this way via Pandagon as well. As mom to an infant boy, I can say I think your post will resonate with parents of sons. A lot. One poster talked about her husband 'softening' with the birth of a daughter - for us, it happened with our son. Many times my husband turns to me and says something along the lines of "I always thought other parts of his childhood will be fun....teaching him to throw, catch, etc....but it continually blows me away how awesome this stage is." (our son is 6 months) Sometimes he just catches sight of our son smiling and has to run over and pick him up and kiss him. And as for me, well, I find it impossible to believe that someone could look at a tender little infant - a being who, with the right kind of care, pretty much exudes openness and love at all times (unless he's exuding "feed me NOW" or "stinky diaper") - and say that these traits ought to be squashed because they don't befit his gender. I will get between my son and that kind of 'manhood' any way I can. What kind of true strength can come from systematically brutalizing babies?
Thanks for your post.

bmmg39 said... March 21, 2008 at 9:51 AM  

Thanks for your compassionate post, PD. As a men's rights activist who is often in agreement with feminists, I have found another example here. The system of stereotypes and gender roles that has been put in place leads to much misogyny AND misandry. Men and boys are human beings, too, and have all of the emotions associated with that.

BASTA! said... April 19, 2008 at 11:27 AM  

You said at Glenn's that you have deleted three hateful comments here. However I don't see _any_ critical comments here at all. Is it because the hateful comments were the only critical comments, or because you actually delete all critical comments, hateful or not?

PortlyDyke said... April 19, 2008 at 12:05 PM  

The 3 comments that I deleted yesterday (from this post, which is a month and a half old), were not "critical" -- they didn't comment on the post AT ALL -- just called me names (anonymously - how brave), and left.

I deleted them because they were not in any way a discussion of the post at hand.

All three of them appeared after Glenn's article was posted.

It is not my policy to delete comments which disagree with my position -- however, I do delete comments which serve no other purpose than to demean me as a woman and a lesbian. As Glenn Sacks puts it in his blog: You have the privilege to comment here -- not a right.

PortlyDyke said... April 19, 2008 at 12:06 PM  

Also, the main discussion on this post happened at Shakesville, where this entry was cross-posted in March.

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