I’ve spent a lot of my life being friends with guys. As a child, I was the Hermione Granger to a Harry and a Ron. When I got older, I’d go to house parties and game nights and pub crawls that often consisted of me and a bunch of dudes.
I love my male friends to pieces, but their group dynamics have been fascinating to observe over the years. If there’s anything I’ve found, it’s that when it comes to threats against their masculinity, straight cisgender men are so delicate it would be hilarious if it weren’t so horrifying.
From the high schoolers on a band trip who would rather sleep in the hotel room bathtub than (gasp!) next to another boy, to the male co-worker who—and I swear this is true—refused to use an umbrella in the pouring rain because umbrellas are “for women,” their performance of masculinity can seem comically over-the-top. Everything from eating salad to using emojis to touching each other in any way other than that awkward, one-armed, back-clapping bro-hug is apparently verboten to your garden-variety Straight Cis Western Man.TM
It’s easy to brush all this off as funny, but their behaviour speaks to a deeper and much more unsettling truth: men’s terror of being perceived as anything other than burly, macho, and aggressively heterosexual. They’re generally improving, but for many men, the gravest insult imaginable is still the implication that they’re either gay or feminine.
If he clings so desperately to his masculinity that he can’t even bring himself to make eye contact with another guy, it makes sense that his fear manifests as violence toward those he sees as undermining it. If he beats up a gay man for looking at him wrong, it’s to prove he doesn’t return that man’s interest because “real men” aren’t gay. If he hits his wife, it’s to exert control over her because “real men” have to be in control.
But rather than blaming the individual man (or at least, alongside blaming him), we should be asking how we’ve created such an atmosphere of insecurity and self-loathing in straight men—in a similar if less obvious way than we have for women.
We start pushing our supposed ideals of emotionally detached masculinity on boys literally at birth: parents are permitted to hold and cuddle their sons until they’re around six or seven. Past that age, if those little boys continue to invite physical closeness, especially with their mothers (rather than, say, making a show of grudgingly putting up with it) they’re seen as mama’s boys, as needy, as clingy, as weak.
On top of that, we buy them onesies (blue ones, obviously) that are unironically plastered with slogans like “Ladies Man,” “Lock Up Your Daughters,” and, bizarrely, “I’m Just a Studmuffin Looking for My Cupcake.” Because nothing screams heteronormativity like assuming your son popped out of the womb trying to score.
When they get a little older, the Masculinity Police turn into the Masculinity Militia, and it doesn’t just affect boys. Parents will pat themselves on the back if their daughter is into sports because traditionally masculine interests, even those that fall outside of prescribed gender roles, aren’t generally a transgression. A little boy with a doll, on the other hand? Still an affront to society. We don’t even have a word for the male equivalent of a tomboy—a fairly nice and mostly harmless description of gender non-conforming behaviour in a girl, and yet still a phase she’s expected to grow out of—because that kind of child isn’t supposed to exist. If he does, the names he gets called are a lot nastier than “tomboy.”
If we’re forcing a heteromasculine narrative on infant boys before they can so much as control their own bowels and then training them to reject physical and emotional closeness as well as traditionally feminine interests, is it any bloody wonder that they grow up to be men who are starved for affection and can’t even compliment each other without the obligatory “no homo” disclaimer? (This is partly because we’ve also conditioned them to understand that compliments are a down payment for sex, but that’s a rant for another time.)
Before you come for my blood with that “not all men” bullshit, consider this: one, I’m perfectly aware that there plenty of men who treat women decently; in fact, I know quite a few of them. But two, I also give zero fucks if all this makes you angry, because I’m sick of letting men’s anger—or the threat of it—dictate my actions.
The funny thing is that I’m actually on your side here, guys. You’ve been screwed over by patriarchy almost as badly as I have, and dismantling it would benefit you too. (Not that this should be the only reason why men get on board with feminism, but hey—it’s a start.) I, for one, would love to live in a world where men were a little less pissed off all the time.
But then, can I really be surprised that men lash out in anger if that’s the only emotion they’re socially permitted to express? It’s not that they don’t feel other emotions, because they absolutely do and in spades. But thanks to our old friend Toxic Masculinity (the idea that traditionally male gender norms are psychologically and emotionally damaging to men), those feelings get expressed as anger. Consider, for example, the friendzone: an imaginary place where no means yes and whiny fuckboys get to blame women for their problems.
An appropriate response to “getting put in the friendzone” (read: having unrequited feelings for a woman who made the mistake of assuming you actually respected her as a person) is this: “My feelings aren’t returned, and that’s my problem because it makes me sad.”
But hold the phone: it still isn’t socially acceptable for men to openly display sadness, especially when that sadness is tied up in romantic rejection. So what happens instead? That reaction gets turned upside down and becomes “You don’t return my feelings, and that’s your problem because it makes me angry.”
Which is where I start to have a problem. Because I feel for all the emotionally stunted men who have been so damaged by patriarchy, who turn their sadness and hurt and disappointment into anger for the simple reason that they’ve never been taught what else to do with it. I’m deeply sorry that these men aren’t comfortable hugging their sons or sharing their emotional burden with even their closest male friends.
However, my sympathy comes to a crashing halt when those men start to turn their repressed feelings against their wives, girlfriends, female coworkers, failed hookups or even the women who pass them in the street. Because those are the reactions that get violent. Those are the reactions that get women killed.