October 15, 2004

The Desert of the Real

I've been following, over the last couple of weeks, the discussion on Alas, A Blog about Real Manhood (for which start here, and continue here and here, with many links therefrom) - or, if you must, Ideal Manhood or Authentic Manhood or whatever the sensitive-yet-masculine term of choice for the moment is.

If you don't feel like wading through all that, the thrust is this: many men, guided by the Men's Movement that came into the popular consciousness anround the early '90s, feel that it's become necessary to redefine what "manhood" is, because the culture's default setting is destructive and toxic - and I have to pretty much agree. I've certainly been witness to the effects of testosterone poisoning enough times to see that the current system is broken, and I'll be the first in line to agree that macho posturing, unchecked aggression and stalwart emotionlessness are fucked-up yardsticks by which to measure personhood.

The Men's Movement and I part company, however, when they begin to assert that what's needed is a new way to frame what a "real man" is, rather than dispose of that kind of terminology altogether. I'm just not convinced that it's constructive to say "a real man can cry" or "a real man is good to women" - or at least I'm not swayed that it's better than saying that a good person does these things, without loading everything down with gender-role baggage in a better-tailored coat.

But these guys feel very strongly that only a man can teach a boy to be a man, and they've got all kinds of arguments from Jungian mythopoeticism to Evolutionary Psychology to back them up, often with great force. They believe that men and women are so fundamentally different (as opposed to being affected in different ways by a gender-divided culture) that the only way to solve the problem is to work, as it were, within the system rather than subverting it altogether. And I don't buy it at all.

Now, I'm as mythopoetic as the next long-haired guy with Sandman on his bookshelves; I read Iron John in college, and nodded in recognition at much of it, right about until I read Women Who Run With the Wolves and found lots of the wildish-woman stuff as resonant as the hairy-man stuff, and realized that about 95 percent of what I was encountering needed no gender qualifier at all. (And it's been a while, but I seem to recall Pinkola-Estes saying as much at one point in the text.) Here was a whole bunch of self-affirming metaphor I'd be missing out on if I were hung up on Maleness, however progressive, however sensitive. I think I turned my back on all of needing to be a Real Man by whatever measure about the same time I stopped feeling the need to reconcile with my amoral, manipulative, misogynist father; I wonder what Robert Bly would make of that.

So I'm going to go out on a limb and say that we probably should quit dividing up what we teach our children - what we want them to become, as Good People - along gender-role lines unless the lesson in question actually involves a particular set of genitals. (Okay, it's probably better to learn to shave from another male - though if Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is any measure, most Real Men don't know how the hell to do that, either. But I digress.) I don't believe that only a Man can teach a boy how to treat women (or vice versa); indeed, do we really want those kinds of decisions being made by males off on their own? A boy learns how to treat women by talking (and listening!) to his mother, his sisters, his girlfriends, his women friends. He doesn't learn it by some Real Man role model taking him aside, any more than he'd get a lesson on how to make love to his girlfriend from the guys in his locker room.

(This is not to discount the good influence male role models can have, and I think it's immensely valuable for young kids of all genders to see the good example set by adult males who aren't assholes. I'm always happy at Swampstock when my mom takes a moment at the firelighting to thank the good men in attendance for being positive examples of nurturing, gentle, kind people. But I bet none of the guys she's talking about are wrapping it up in some bullshit New Ideal Real Authentic Man image, and lots of us figured it out when we stopped playing the Boys and Girls game altogether.)

The trouble, as Amp points out, is that setting a new standard - Real Man or Ideal Man or whatever - sets up a heirarchy, however good the intentions. And it's too easy for the opposite of Real Man to be Woman, and there we are back in the same quagmire again, where the worst thing you can do is call someone some female name: girly-man, lady, sissy, pussy, cunt. Real Manhood advocates protest that the opposite of "real man" is properly "boy" and not "woman," and I think their hearts are in the right place, but it's still reinforcing that Female-As-Other problem and I don't think it's tearing down the right walls. Because when you build the standard up to what Men Should Be, rather than how People Should Be, you're leaving a whole lot of folks in the cold.

Like me.

See, I've already failed the Ideal Man test. I didn't have some conscientious male role model to teach me Authentic Masculinity (and though I did grow up being exposed to some kind and gentle and good men, their influence was much less direct). I learned most of what I know about being a good person fom the women in my family - how to compromise, how to listen, how to share, how to fight and still love each other, how to be a gracious winner and a good loser, how to value the worth in other human beings. How to be understanding. How to be strong, how to be angry without being hateful, how to be responsible. How to drive and cook and do math and do laundry and make art and put the seat down.

So - what am I missing? What's wrong with me? And if my ambiguous, genderfucked, androgynous sense of identity is short some vital, authentically masculine component - why am I so content?

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