The trap of the Asshole/Wimp dichotomy

I was recently going through Facebook posts from a few years ago looking for speech-related milestones for Joanna. Back then, I posted something every night, just about, on my blog. That is astounding to me. Such a rate of posting is now impossible in my current life. But it was neat to see. I have to remember to print those all out at some point, as a record of my kids’ early years.

Having been reminded of the existence of my blog, however, I decided that I wanted to note some of my thoughts on a topic which has been occupying my brain (and heart) lately. And that is, our cultural definition of masculinity and how it emasculates men.

Obviously, these are my own thoughts, not based on research directly, but on my personal experience and on things I’ve read over the years.

One of the cultural vices society places on women is the Madonna/Whore complex, in which there are only two options for women: be sexually chaste (and ignorant) and thus maintain your virtue long enough to arrive safely at your wedding day; or claim and express your sexuality, and in doing so embody Eve’s sin, damage your value to any husband you might trick into marrying you, and reduce your chances of ever being truly happy to zero.

This post is not about that, but I mention it to demonstrate how it prevents women from experiencing or expressing their whole authentic selves, as well as setting them up for all kinds of pain in relationships. And the answer to the problems presented by the perpetuation of that belief system (given specific life by Freud, of course) is not to attempt to find a magic spot somewhere in the middle, but to walk away from the paradigm altogether.

Similarly, I think, men are presented with two options in our society, from the very beginning of their lives as male-sex-organ-possessing babies. I’ll call this the Asshole/Wimp complex for the purposes of this post. To be more accurate in the way guys who are perceived to fall into the second category are derided, I should really use the slang term for female genitalia, but will desist for the sake of politeness.

Many other people have written about this, of course. But it has recently struck me with force how the definition of strength for men is exactly the opposite of what strength actually is, in my opinion.

I think that two of the most important lessons human beings can/should learn are: a) how to take care of themselves, and b) how to ask for help from others. In our culture, however, asking for help is viewed as such a sign of weakness, that the messaging boys and men receive is that they should resist with all their might even being aware of what they need, let alone asking for those needs to be met. And in lieu of doing so, they become focused instead on what they want, and then those wants get redefined as needs, which leads to a destructive sense of entitlement that has sometimes terrible consequences for themselves and everyone around them.

Men don’t need to rape women. But they’re told that their desire for sex is so natural and so powerful that of course they can’t be expected to contain it in the face of the provocation of all the whores out there. (And yes, of course rape is about all sorts of things, but I think it originates with a sense of entitlement to take what the rapist wants, in an exercise of power.)

Human beings do need connection. We are social animals. But we elide our need for connection with the want of having that connection be made and maintained with a particular person in the way we want it. And we respond to that elision in different ways. Men who are socialized never to admit or communicate what they actually need then sometimes just take what they want because that is the tool they’ve been taught and the tool they’ve exercised. And that is the Asshole side of the equation.

And other men who have been socialized never to admit or communicate what they actually need then sometimes pretend everything is fine while burning with building resentment; or they entirely suppress their awareness of their own needs; or they attempt to redirect those needs into a channel that feels safe to them. And that is the Wimp side of the equation.

As I said above, I believe that the answer to the gender dichotomies presented by society in the polarized characterizations and expectations of men and women is not to try to find a place of balance in between the two extremes (which is truly impossible to do, and equally limiting). Instead, we have to walk away from that construction altogether. But doing so is incredibly difficult, and cannot ever be totally managed. Patriarchy is the air we breathe, after all.

I think it takes incredible emotional courage, strength of will, psychological fortitude, and consistently practiced self-awareness to reject these paradigms.

For me, self-reliance in men looks so different than it has been characterized: it can be seen in a man who can and will put in the effort to be self-aware using both mind and heart to gain that self-awareness; it can be seen in a man who can and does communicate what he needs and wants, accepting that no one person can meet all those needs and/or wants, or is obliged to do so; it can be seen in a man who will allow and encourage other men and boys to explore the full range of their humanity; it can be seen in a man who listens to hear and not to rebut the voices of women and girls; it is a man who will stand up for himself without knocking others down.

We need to be having conversations about what we need, what we want, and what will work in any given situation and relationship. And we have to honestly state those wants and needs before we can move to practical, fair, and balanced solutions to the inevitable conflicts we humans experience.

Men, please say what you need and want. And be prepared for the fact you may not get it. But it is SO MUCH EASIER to figure out what to do with all the relevant data on the table.

Thank you. This has been my personal PSA for the week.

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