Save the Males Part 2: Devil's Bargain
What the hell is masculinity, anyway?
Part 1 here
Prefer to listen? Check out the podcast version
There is no feminine equivalent of the word “emasculated.”
Women, nonbinary people, and trans people of all genders have trouble escaping their socially-assigned roles no matter how hard they try. Men, on the other hand, seem at risk of losing their gender at all times. They certainly seem frightened of losing it. And, as the proliferation of far-right male self-help gurus attests, many disaffected young men feel like they have already lost it. Why?
“With every passing generation, men become weaker and more confused.”
Part 1 of Save the Males briefly made fun of Witcoff’s very silly article before getting serious about how sad his opening sentence is. Far too many men read that sentence and think, yes. This guy understands how I feel.
Witcoff’s authoritarian prescriptions works about as well as the authoritarian prescriptions of any other far-right male self-help program, which is to say: not very well at all. Yet the problem these hacks address is real and worthy of concern. Why do men feel this sense of loss and emasculation? Why are they so goddamn unhappy all the time?
I concluded with the rather bold claim that leftism has actual solutions for male unhappiness. Unfortunately, the left has not merely dropped the ball on reaching out to men with those solutions, but set the ball aflame and launched it directly into the sun.
To be fair, though, the left has a pretty major handicap when it comes to talking about solutions. As a leftist I cannot simply dive beard-first into a bunch of commandments or hearken back to a mythical past age when men were men or sell you on a highly masculine all-meat diet. I have no supplements to offer you.I’m sorry.
No, I have to start with some goddamn nerd shit. Like…
What is Masculinity, Anyway?
Masculinity is like pornography. You know it when you see it, it’s everywhere, and second-wave feminists really, really don’t like it.
Search for a more precise definition than that and you will likely come across a list of traits. The American Psychological Association describes masculinity as “toughness, stoicism, acquisitiveness and self-reliance” The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)--an international policy think tank–gets even more granular; they offer nine bullet points ranging from “Works in ‘manly’ jobs” to “Has the final say in household decisions” and “Does not do unpaid care and domestic work.”
Taken in aggregate, these rules and traits provide a sort of agreed-upon cultural standard for How To Be A Man. From the moment they are born, boys receive a fairly unified message from society at large, the media, and – often – parents at home about which behaviors are appropriate for men and which are not. Unless they sit down and really think about it, these boys grow up to be men who take it for granted that men behave a certain way, and that if they wish to become a man they had better behave that way as well.
This understanding of masculinity is simple and easy to understand, but also incomplete. Lists of rules and traits describe how men act, but not why men are supposed to act that way. Surely there must be some common thread, some root essence of masculinity that manifests in these very precise ways.
Enter Michael Kaufmann. Kaufmann is an academic, activist, and the co-founder of the White Ribbon project, an alliance of men dedicated to stopping violence against women. He has 40 years’ experience working with various UN organizations on issues of gender equality and literally wrote the book on sexual harassment prevention–the UN uses his training manual for all of their staff.
He also wrote the only academic paper I could find on masculinity that makes any goddamn sense to me, which I will shamelessly rip off for the rest of this article.
According to Kaufman, our cultural conception of masculinity revolves around power. All of the above rules and traits result from the idea that real men–masculine men–exert control over themselves and the world around them.
Power and control do not have to be synonymous. Lifting heavy objects requires power. Creating something from raw materials requires power. Changing the world through activism, or devoting oneself to a cause, or caring for a child, all require power. This type of power does not require winners and losers. It builds you up, and often helps the people around you, without tearing anyone else down.
This kind of power, however, is not the power we usually associate with masculinity. Because we live in a hierarchical society with men traditionally in charge of everything from the household to national policy, we tend to think of power as “a capacity to impose control on others and on our own unruly emotions.” This is the kind of power Witcoff–and most other far-right self-proclaimed masculinity experts–concentrates on. A man dominates himself, a man dominates others, a man dominates the world around him. A man holds and enforces authority over his domain, whatever that domain might be, and however people within that domain might feel about it.
Masculinity is power. Power is masculinity. A challenge to any trait associated with masculinity feels like attempted theft of power, and any loss of power threatens masculine identity.
This is why masculinity can be lost, while femininity cannot be escaped.
Here’s the problem, though: masculinity sucks and is also impossible.
Any behavior or characteristic coded feminine threatens masculinity, which includes the expression or experience of just about any emotion other than anger. Men do not cry. Men do not get sentimental. Men do not fail, experience setbacks, or exhibit moments of weakness. Men do not need help. Men are self-sufficient, stoic, and strong
Except, that’s not how human beings work, at all, any of us. We all experience a wide range of emotional reactions to the world and people around us, from love to joy to grief–emotions that cry out to be shared and processed. No one can make it through this life alone and unassisted. No one should have to try. And every single one of us fails from time to time. We all have dark nights of the soul where we feel helpless and trapped.
But men aren’t supposed to feel any of those things. They all feel them, but they aren’t supposed to.
You see, perhaps, the awful bind men find themselves in. Male identity depends on living up to an impossible and profoundly unhealthy ideal. The closer they manage to come to perfect masculinity, the more deprived they are of basic emotional needs and the more they secretly long for these needs to be met. This longing itself is a sign of weakness, and so the cycle of self-loathing carries on.
The deep-seated male terror of emasculation is not actually fear of losing one’s masculinity. It is the fear that everyone around you will discover that you never had it in the first place.
The worst of it is, because any expression of insecurity or sadness betrays a lack of masculinity, most men never talk about it and therefore never find out that all men experience this. They deny their failure to live up to this impossible standard both to themselves and to others, which leaves them isolated and without strong emotional support.
This alienation explains why men tend to not have the kind of close male friendships that women traditionally have with other women. Needing that friendship in the first place would be a telltale sign of feminine emotional need, for one thing, and having a friendship like that risks someone else finding out the shameful secret of imperfect, imperiled masculinity.
A Bargain Rescinded
In return for isolation, loneliness, and emotional dysfunction, however, men get to run society. Which, you have to admit, is a hell of a perk.
Traditionally speaking, men get to rule over their household. They get to vote and hold political office. They can get a higher education and have their opinions taken seriously. Sure, you might never really get close to another human being or experience the full range of human emotion, but you do get to run shit, and that’s pretty cool.
Since power itself rests at the heart of masculinity, attaining power also reaffirms masculinity. It provides concrete proof that you are, in fact, a real man, that your fears of emasculation are misplaced, and that you are doing well. Power acts as a crucial counterweight to male anxiety.
Which is why so many men respond so very, very poorly to women gaining more power in the modern world.
In today’s feminist hellscape, women get to emerge from the kitchen and compete with men in the halls of power. They get to vote, have their own credit cards, become CEOs and academics and politicians. Worse yet, as women entered the workforce they not only began to exercise power formerly restricted to men, but to actively displace men from positions of power. According to the logic of masculinity, these women are more manly than the men they replace. Everything’s gone topsy turvy. This wasn’t the deal at all.
In a sense, Witcoff’s claim that modern society erodes masculinity is absolutely correct. The whole idea was that men exchange pain for power. But society reneged on that bargain over the past hundred years or so and made traditional masculinity impossible. Men continue to live emotionally truncated lives but are no longer guaranteed sovereignty over women or power in the outside world.
The far right’s answer to this unfortunate state of affairs is a push towards the return to the old days, when men were men and got all the perks of being men, and women were women and happy to stay at home to do all that emotional nurturing caretaking shit they used to like so much. Allegedly.
But there’s another answer. A much cooler answer. What if men stopped trying to live up to an impossible ideal? What if we, as a society, destroyed the ties that bind male self-worth to isolation, alienation, and emotional illiteracy?
What if we set men free?
If I could go back in time and change one thing about the movement for gender equality, I would call it something–anything–other than “feminism.” The name implies that the gender equality movement exists only for the sake of women, which simply is not true. Feminism, like all leftist concepts, should be for everyone. Most feminists see it that way, too.
But the left does not sell it that way.
What feminism offers in practice, on the ground, is often not liberation from the masculine bind but even worse terms than before. Not only does the movement encourage men to further suppress their emotions, leftist circles often attempt the wholesale stripping of male power and agency. It is the worst deal in the history of gender deals, maybe ever.
Next week, we will talk about how the Left does this and how they can,
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