I have a four-year-old brother named Charlie, and last year I watched his mother rebuke him for starting to cry after he fell off his aunt’s front stoop while running around like the little maniac he is. Picking him up off the ground by the upper arm, she locked eyes with him and commanded, “Be tough! Big man!” She shook him a little bit for emphasis.
After the situation calmed, I took her aside in a hallway and asked her why she'd reacted so strongly. “He needs to be a big boy so he can be tough when he grows up," she said. “Being weak isn’t good for him. He has to be a real man.”
Embedded in this lesson were the rudiments of how boys are taught to cope with life: Don’t reveal your emotions, expect physical consequences if you do, and, above all, desensitize yourself to yourself and to others.
“Being weak isn’t good for him. He has to be a real man.”
Some other key elements of masculinity that I worry Charlie will have to try hard not to learn: prioritizing aggression as a principal form of communication; cultivating condescension, fear, dismissal, and even hatred toward women and gay men; seeing heterosexual, white men as the most valuable members of society (young white boys are the only children whose self-esteem increases, not decreases, after watching television); paternalism toward and domination over women.
If a man accepts that he must be traditionally masculine, he’ll get to enjoy a life made more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, sickness—men are reluctant to admit pain to their doctors, preferring “looking tough” to “looking alive”—racism, sexism, and other forms of grievous hardship. That’s what men are signing up for when they agree to be real men. But the toll is one we all have to contend with.
An easy way to feel worthless is to deny that your feelings and experiences exist. Showing emotion, an act common to human people as a species, is often characterized as “female,” and shameful and anger-inducing in men, even as concealing it stokes the sense of worthlessness in them. Men are presented with no option other than self-loathing, which easily metastasizes into outward aggression. A social psychologist and professor at the University of Maryland, Arie Kruglanski told the Washington Post:
"Hate of other people is really displaced hate of oneself [...] It's about the loss of a sense of significance, that one is important, and that can happen because of personal failure or being part of a discriminated minority or being bullied. There are many different ways people can feel insignificant."
Ultimately, feelings of self-hate motivate people to restore their sense of significance through action. And the fastest, most efficient, most powerful action, said Kruglanski, is "the most primitive, primordial act a human being [can take] -- showing one's power over other human beings.
In other words: violence.
Longstanding male beliefs in emotional austerity, dominance over others, and stone-heartedness have resulted in a nation overrun by violent men who target women—especially trans women; especially poor women; especially women of color—and queer people. As an article in the New York Times about the commonalities between male-driven “intimate terrorism” and mass attacks notes: “According to the Violence Policy Center, 895 women in the United States were murdered by their current or former [male] intimate partners in 2013 (and this does not include those killed amid mass shootings).” To parse this further: Black women are murdered by men at a rate two and a half times higher than white women—in the same VPC study the Times cited, When Men Murder Women, one of three sections is simply titled “Black Females.” Most often, women of all races were killed as the result of an argument, one that a man could see only one way to definitively win. It’s also worth recognizing that 98 percent of mass killings in America are perpetrated by men.
American hypermasculine aggression and its inherent racism come together to form our most longstanding and unchecked social disease, one that is resulting in historic loss of life.
Men who abuse or kill others because of “gender panic” are purportedly acting out of the belief that their traditional (lethal) masculinity is under siege. (Did you know that the “gay/trans panic defense” is a legal defense that can be used in trials to defend/rationalize the actions of those who murder gay and trans people in every state but California?)
“Siege,” to many men, is the mere sight of women and queer people flourishing, even if that doesn’t affect male lives in any tangible, quantifiable way. If you are non-male (or non-straight) and dare to live successfully and under your own rule (as best you can, in a world largely owned and operated by men), you are inherently endangered, especially if you aren’t white or cis.
Yet women and queer people continue to share the weight of this misconduct in conversations with one another, rather than hearing it discussed among those who are truly culpable for them—by that, I don’t mean when men interrupt us to talk about, actually, how great they are; I mean they need to take it up as their own conversation without detracting from ours. Unless men accept that they are responsible for sexism, and so need to talk to other men about solving that, I have zero interest in colluding with them on issues of gender—it’s disrespectful to denigrate and denigrate and denigrate somebody, then ask them to accept that you’re, actually, good, despite all your behavior to the contrary, and you want to learn, and so can’t you teach them, because they didn’t mean to hurt you! The fact that women and queers have been tasked with lugging the weight of gendered issues among themselves and among well-meaning, infuriating men feels like a widespread game of, "Why are you hitting yourself?" Though just as juvenile in its logic, it’s obviously more serious in its fallout.
Looking past individual pain: There is racist shrapnel lodged in the country at the hands of traditional white American masculinity, which has continually motivated anti-black racism beginning with colonialism and slavery, when black men were framed as sexual aggressors and black women were raped and otherwise vilely treated as white men's sexual pawns. This persists today: Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white man who shot up a predominantly black church in Charlestown, South Carolina, said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you are taking over our country. And you have to go,” before opening fire.
More recently, men like Brock Turner, the white Stanford no-neck who raped a woman (and had his daddy complain to his trial’s judge that the victim had wrecked his son’s taste for steak forever—you can’t tell me the food he chose to highlight is a coincidence) model the assumed dominance and ownership behavior that is the sole territory of well-to-do white men. Brock Turner was given a six-month jail sentence for raping a woman on the grounds that he didn’t deserve to suffer a “severe impact” for his hypermasculine crime (the implication was that his victim deserved what she got). Men are, over and over, ruled to be more valuable than anyone else in this country.
I think of the malignant, precedent-setting and -maintaining 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black child who was accused of making a suggestive comment to a white woman. Of the black people killed in their place of worship by Dylann Roof in the name of “protecting” white women. Of the queer and trans people targeted and murdered on a Latinx night by a man who couldn’t stand to see two men kiss. Of the 13 black women raped by an Oklahoma City police officer, Daniel Holtzclaw, while he was on the job—he selected his victims based on histories of drug abuse and prostitution. And of the murders and murders and murders of trans people, like Goddess Diamond, Maya Young, Veronica Banks Cano, Mercedes Successful, Tyreece “Reecey” Walker, and too many others this year alone (one loss would be too many), who have overwhelmingly been nonwhite women. Male hatred is intersectional in its toll, and so any counter must be when contending with it. I recognize the loud, foundational role women and queers have had in drawing closer to one another across all genders, but heterosexual men also need to call upon one another to protect the lives that are actually “under siege.” When women and queers can do so safely with the beloved (hetero) male people in our lives, insist on calling men in. This is not always possible. Many women and queer people have been lost to this effort.
Asking men, even ones I trust, to think about and act supportively of “women’s issues” (reproductive health, domestic violence, the wage gap, and so many other causes that belong to everyone—that I am fucking so sick of hearing described as “women’s issues”) can feel like an act of self-abnegation. Some expressions and permutations of masculinity have been hard to delve into with male partners without resentment because they’re basically misogyny (and, among straight men, homophobia) in shabby behavioral disguises: Men have gotten upset with me for making money, “being difficult” (this has always meant “having an opinion of any kind, about anything”), going out, staying in, dressing up, not dressing up, attending the same professional meetings they do, and just about every other expression of autonomy that is the provenance of a modern non-child. As a white, non-trans woman experiencing this daily, I know I’ve got it very easy.
Men are always right, or else they’re under attack and will attack back.
I sometimes try to have earnest conversations with men about gender and find their opinions are based in tacit dismissal of or scorn for me—well, not me, the individual person, but the broader gender I’m contained within and mistaken for representing entirely, as if she were one person, and that one person were all the same pestilent girl. A conversation with a local male politician about childcare and hunger programs in New York City ended when he said, “It’s sexy that you’re so ambitious.” The other week, I sunnily disagreed with a stranger at a party who was bloviating to a group about how unfair women were to him, when he was just trying to have fun—“I’m an equal-opportunity offender,” he began. “If women want to be the same as men, they should be able to take a joke.”
The joke had been a racist nothing-or-other about blond Asian women, and I simply hadn’t laughed, continuing to talk instead to someone else. I don’t think I even said anything, outside of possibly, “I don’t find that funny,” when he asked why I didn’t give him the reaction he wanted.
“You’re so challenging,” he complained. “Why do you have to make everything about sexism?” Again, all I had done was not make him feel as witty and entertaining as he presumed he deserved to, just by staying quiet. I hadn’t made one gendered comment—sometimes, you can tell it’s not going to be worth it; that you’ll be met with this kind of reaction no matter what you say, or don’t.
Running in my head over and over, in these moments, is this nauseating ticker-tape refrain: I’m not a woman, I’m a person/I’m not a person, I’m a woman. It’s like these male partners saw me as an amusing novelty in these moments—a talking possession, like the animate household items in Beauty and the Beast, except, in this plotline, the singing candelabra’s supposed to be fuckable. At other times, talking about the details of my life pertaining to my work, sexual goings-on, or whatever else some dude has wanted to govern for me, have ended in tumult.
In one serious, long-term relationship, a boyfriend, B., got upset with me when I started making advancements in my career and so was less available to hang around with him. I should have been suspicious when, a few months prior, we went to the West and visited his tuberous, mean mother. After dinner one night, she turned to me and snarled the promise that she’d “show me what feminism really was,” even though I never brought the topic up. (I think she internet-stalked me really intensely; as you might have guessed, I sometimes write about gender.) She seemed to be referring to some backward female version of real manhood; from what I could tell, she was upset with me for the mortal sins of wearing makeup and platonically living with a man who wasn’t her son. How could I take pride in my gender when I was so bad at living in it?
When we got home to New York, B. told me that the reason his mother hadn’t liked me was, in fact, because pursuing my professional prospects would take me away from him, and I should have been staying home while he worked. Apparently, she also called me some outdated word for whore—trollop? Harlot? Whatever it was, I found it hilarious, and I was surprised when I saw that B. wasn’t laughing. Instead, he used this “female perspective” to bolster his case that she was right. I suggested that my career was perhaps just as worthy of prioritizing as his was. B. didn’t seem to see this trollop-harlot’s point.
Uneasy and disappointed, I spent less and less time with B. He came over one night after my first article for a major magazine was published. I was excited about it, and I was disappointed when he was disinterested in hearing about it, let alone reading it. When I told him that I felt like he didn’t care, he apologized, but something was ominous in his voice—he seemed enraged with me for being hurt, and I could tell I should probably leave the room. I locked the door to my bedroom, and an instant later, he was screaming at me and pounding his fists on it until it broke.
The next day, he sent me an email “apologizing for,” a.k.a. rationalizing, his behavior. After he told me he was sorry that night, he explained, “I sat there, thinking something like this: Why don’t you stand up for yourself, you fucking pussy? Why did you just immediately adopt that mollifying, apologetic tone when accused of something that is so clearly bullshit?” Instead of talking to me about what I or he was really thinking or feeling, the solution was to impound the thought, call himself a “pussy” for momentarily (and not-even-halfway authentically) taking my feelings into account, and behave like an infant telling a violent knock-knock joke, the punchline of which was his own rage fugue on the other side of the door. I guess that’s what feminism really was! B. and his mom sure showed this harlot, or whatever!
This experience, compared to that of so many women (and queers) who have lost their lives or livelihoods or physical well-being or spirits to masculine anger, is a mild one. But B.’s seething words about standing up for himself against a person who had done nothing to hurt him—about being a fucking pussy for allowing even the most fledgling acknowledgement of my feelings to escape from him, and his ruinous fury over having been apologetic to me (even though he wasn’t!) speak to the collective irascible logic that drives male violence. Men are always right, or else they’re under attack and will attack back. Men see female noncompliance as equitable to physical endangerment, as we have seen and seen.
No one has to do away entirely with traditionally male gendered behaviors. I’m not calling for the mass abolition of the NFL (...necessarily). But all of us, of all genders, need to expect more of men, including their ability to talk about gender with one another—dismissing their ability to do so reinforces that it’s unnecessary that they try.
I know some women who, in their romantic lives, don’t want to part with some of masculinity’s behavioral qualifiers—which is fine by me. A friend of mine tells me she wants to be with a real man, the kind my brother Charlie’s mother hopes to raise. She says that she wants him to be strong, rugged, capable of fixing things with tools and/or eliminating them with a fly swatter, and generally brodacious. That’s cool—but, within that, it’s crucial to realize that you can have a butch boyfriend that doesn’t have to seal off his emotions, insult or minimize women and queer people, and/or want to literally own his partner. If you love him and he loves you, in the truest senses, he won’t—no matter how built or carnivorous he is. If you love him and he loves you, he’ll care about your freedom, and he’ll talk to his friends about it.
Talking about the ills of masculinity doesn’t negate its anodyne aspects—just its most vicious ones. While men should want to better their lives by examining them in this way, that’s not the ultimate or sole point. American hypermasculine aggression and its inherent racism come together to form our most longstanding and unchecked social disease, one that is resulting in historic loss of life—historic in that it’s both appalling in its recent death toll and the clear product of a gruesome national history authored by it.
Every American man has the civic duty to agitate against the dangers of traditional masculinity, as so many non-male activists have long done without the overt allyship of the majority of the people whose responsibility this issue predominantly belongs to. Typically, when men have organized around sexism, it’s to promote it, or to promote themselves—to interrupt other movements, which is just another method of demanding that others comply to their male visions of how things should go, despite having no experience with or true insight into what others have achieved without their help. Dudes, I apologize: I’m not all so very interested in that. I bet other men would be, though. Go talk to them about it.
A more productive way for men to think and speak about sexism would be to follow the basic cues of feminist, anti-racist, and queer intersectional activism: Self-interrogate within your community and identity, talk to others within it, and listen to and promote outside voices who are impacted detrimentally based on their identities. Vote, think, and behave accordingly. Women literally cannot do this for you. (No matter how many times some numbnuts on the internet asks a woman to educate him, like a personal feminism concierge.)
Counteracting masculinity on a personal level isn’t impossible, as dudes I love prove to me all the time. I know many men who are self-aware about the insidious, gross parts of being socialized as a guy and work to combat its erosion on their hearts and minds (although these dudes are handily outnumbered by the men I know who refuse this opportunity). One friend, a writer for The Nation, Mychal Denzel Smith, recently published a book called Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man's Education about his experiences rising through this weird, fraught modernity, and his ideological transformations as they have applied to race, gender, and the interesting challenge of being a person. The whole book is an impactful gift; here’s a piece of Mychal’s excruciating, beautiful, necessary response to the murders of two gay black men, Mark Carson and Dionte Green:
We haven’t been brave enough to love the black gay men who have invited us in. We’ve attempted to define them out of the movement. We greeted Mark and Dionte’s deaths with silence. But we can change.
We have the capacity for self-reflection if we’re willing to tap into it. President Obama evolved. Amiri Baraka did, too. They did so through hard listening and wrestling with their own discomfort. They let go of long-held beliefs. They recognized that there were real lives being damaged on the other side of their ideas. They moved into acceptance.
But true self-reflection won’t only result in an acceptance that continues to separate. It will mean unpacking our identities that have been rooted in archaic notions of masculinity and sexuality, and embracing the parts of ourselves we’ve been taught to reject. It will allow for a broader range of intimate expression with people of all different genders. It will help us see more clearly the myriad ways these definitions of manhood have stifled our growth. Then the acceptance won’t just be external. Acceptance will become too weak of a word. We’ll only be able to describe it as love.
I am rooting for this new world, in which men of all races and identity-based designations are able to help heal one another as they try to be better to women and queer people, with my whole heart. I understand it’s not my work to do. Let’s collectively ask, all of us, that we are able to be all the parts of ourselves not only safely, but joyously, without fear, and that the men among us do the necessary work to get closer to achieving that. I’m all about keeping an open heart whenever possible. It’s time for men to decide the same for themselves and recognize that the task of defending people against male brutality is theirs, not women’s, to contend with—to decide that there is validity to what women and queers have been pushing for, and to question and dismantle the latent and lethal aspects of aggressive masculinity among themselves. If that feels tough—well, isn’t toughness the bedrock of real men?