Today I want to talk about men – specifically their social roles. This is partially because of Father’s Day coming up next weekend but also because of Orlando.
They are interconnected, especially when we talk about violence as an avenue for emotional expression or redemption, as well as LGBTQIA+ calling into question traditional understandings of masculine identity.
It’s not a simple X and Y problem, but one that involves many layers and pieces of culture.
Fair warning, I’m going to get pretty philosophical pretty fast, but I swear it’s all connected. I promise. So pour yourself another cup of coffee and let’s talk masculine archetypes, body, power, and culture.
We can’t talk about men without talking about women.
The night my husband became a father, he held my hand, whispering encouraging words in my ear as my body went through a marathon as ancient as Eve. He watched in awe as our son came into the world. He beamed with love, as the three of us snuggled. When he carried our son, my husband held him awkwardly, afraid of harming such a fragile body. While I was a little unsure of all the things I needed to do as a new parent, at some point during my pregnancy, I changed. My priorities shifted. My behavior shifted. My perspective shifted. I felt a deep need to cradle my son to me, jumping at the slightest sign of discomfort from this tiny person. It was clear the experience was different for my husband and I, and not just because I had been the pregnant one.
Women have a set way they move through life connected to specific physical changes (whether we choose to utilize those changes or are unable to is a different matter). Because of these changes, we have archetypes that illustrate our shifting power, which I’ve previously discussed here.
Men don’t have it in quite the same way because the biology doesn’t work the same. When does a man become a man? Boys don’t get periods. They don’t have a set time when it’s clear they come into their full masculine power like women experience with feminine power. Men don’t suddenly lose their ability to make sperm. They don’t have a set time when they come out of their power in the way women do.
There are the same life transitions for men – the Boy (Hero), the Father, and the Old Man – but even as I write these things, I feel differently about them than I do the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. It’s just not the same. Biology and cycles are connected to the feminine archetypes. But what about the male? It feels more arbitrary. It’s not as clearly defined.
And isn’t that the problem?
The Problem of Power
I recently had a piece published on the Good Men Project and frankly, I wrestled with writing it. In it I talked about my need to parent intentionally because of my personal history (You can read the full details in my memoir here.). My history is something I am sensitive about sharing because it can distract readers from the intended message. My history is rarely, if ever, the point. It’s always an illustration. I don’t see myself as a “survivor.” I don’t see myself as a “victim.” I don’t want pity or to be reduced to a certain experience in my life. But the thing was, in order to explain my parenting choices, I had to share this. To talk about raising sons, we have to talk about experiences with adult men.
We need to talk about what the current culture does – the very personal results yielded by how we understand manhood and masculine identity so that we can begin to discuss how it can change.
Ultimately, I submitted the piece with all my messy history because I feel strongly about how we raise boys. I’ve intimately felt the result of toxic masculinity in young boys through adult men. Of course, I’ve also benefited from well-rounded masculinity throughout my life in friends, relatives, and others.
The question is, what causes one to embrace toxic masculinity over well-roundedness? Is it how a boy is raised? Is it shame? Is it media portrayals of men? Does it have to do with perceived power and losing what power men have? Is it fear that power is a zero sum game – that others having power necessarily removes the straight man’s status? Is it some combination? And what can I do to ensure the masculinity I want gets embraced by my child? These are questions that spin through my head as I parent my son.
Inevitably, I find myself thinking, he will never give birth.
It is undeniable that women have a power that men can never have – to give birth. Whether a woman is able or doesn’t choose to give birth is a different matter – identifying with the feminine connects a person to this power.
When a man is involved with making a child (and he needs to be less and less so thanks to technological innovation), he makes a deposit and is done. Fathering (not to be confused with siring), for the man, is more conscious choice than biological imperative. The pregnant woman’s body, however, forces the woman to mother at least until birth. Even after birth, there are physical, hormonal changes that occur in the mother’s body that are unique, urging her to be a present mother (whether she is or not becomes a matter of individual social context).
This is not to ignore the changes of men who choose to parent. When a man chooses to be present with a child, bonds are formed and when fostered, they become incredibly strong. We can point to any number of examples of men who are incredible, loving fathers who dote on their children, and go to extraordinary lengths to nurture them. It is a beautiful thing and of course, benefits the child, the father, and society as a whole.
But what makes a good father? What is involved in that role? We have clear ideas about women – about mothers and what makes a good mother. It is something that causes epic online battles. It’s breastfeeding or formula feeding. It’s soap, diapers, and discipline. It’s working or not. It’s organic or processed. It’s sleep training, potty training, and helicoptering. These things are placed on mothers and when a child is hurt, or philosophies fail, it is the mother whose ability is questioned.
Maybe this has to do with the clearly defined archetypes of feminine power. Maybe it has to do with dominance hierarchies that define women through their relationships rather than their inherent value as human beings. Maybe it’s how masculine and feminine power were manipulated over human history.
I’m not sure what it is, but it’s clear that when women assert control, things get messy. Masculine roles are called into question because the arbitrary lines get thrown out.
And that’s frightening.
When Roles Become Suggestions
Technology makes it easier for women to assert control over their bodies, which means men have less control over reproduction. Since we can pop a pill, insert a copper “T” in the womb, or have elective surgery, we have greater control over when and how we birth. Women can do all the things men do socially through this control. By breaking barriers around domestic roles, it changes what options are available in families, which allows for other identities to have a place. Suddenly there are many ways women can be. They can be independent. They can have kids and be single. They can be with another woman. They don’t have to be just “woman” but can choose to explore the full range of their gender expression.
With changing feminine roles, the arbitrary lines of what a man is or isn’t dissolve. What does it mean to be “man” when “woman” is no longer a set role, but a constellation of possibilities? Women were connected to clear biological moments of feminine power, but for men, we collectively created the definition of manhood. When the basis of that arbitrary definition is removed, men feel lost (think: the dad character from the movie Pleasantville, or pretty much any men’s rights activist). Without this arbitrary definition, our culture struggles to redefine what it means to be a man – and for some people (both men and women), that is extremely frightening.
When people are frightened, they make poor choices. Many times, those poor choices hurt others. This is more so when masculinity is culturally tied to entitlement (to resources, status, sex, etc), and violence – which is also connected to redemption in entertainment (see: The Matrix, 300, or pretty much any blockbuster movie in recent memory).
When a man grows up with the expectation that he is entitled to a certain status and level of power, we get things like the Stanford rape case, or the Isla Vista shooting. When a man grows up without strategies for peaceful conflict resolution, and watches movies glamorizing heroes as they kill, it’s no wonder that we get situations like Columbine, or the anchor and cameraman shooting.
When we use this perspective, all the violent behavior makes sense. It is no wonder why groups like ISIS or Westboro Baptist exist – they are afraid. These groups, and people of similar mindsets, watch the world changing around them, and it scares them. They are afraid of losing what they know. They are afraid of losing traditional masculine roles. They are afraid of losing traditional feminine roles. They are afraid of what this will do to them – who they will become – and they want to do anything they can to stop it.
These groups look at women controlling their bodies and hate them. They hate LGBTQIA+ people’s expanding rights and visibility. They hate because both of these things indicate cultural shifts, throwing gender roles, status, and power into question.
We can make laws to ban guns or create mental health structures, but until we address this fear, this mindset will continue to plague society.
While there are milestones we can point to in a man’s life, when they occur is determined much more through culture than biology. Because of this, we as a culture need to decide what masculinity looks like at those milestones and provide avenues for conversation around this. We need to allow for other possibilities outside the taciturn emotionless straight man, and comfort those who find that journey of discovery frightening.
We need to acknowledge that it can be scary to explore new things. It can be scary to have what you know called into question. But it doesn’t have to be. It can be filled with joy, wonder, and beauty. It can be a glorious adventure.
All it takes is a shift in perspective. For that, we just have to decide.
What do you think it means to be a man? A father? Leave a comment below!
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- Neither Selfish or Selfless – Only Loving! - April 30, 2018