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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Ghostbusters!

I saw the new “Ghostbusters” tonight. I came out of the theater glowing, so happy I felt it sparking through my body, off my skin, lighting me from head to toe. Four women. Four women! FOUR WOMEN! Leading the film! Not talking about relationships! The dramatic tension in the movie was NOT about a relationship with a man! Four funny women taking out the paranormal trash!

Was the movie perfect? No, of course not. But I laughed out loud many times. I got my jolt of nostalgia through listening to the music and the visual style of the ghosts. And I was incandescently happy about the lack of sexy-woman-ness in the movie. Oh god, it was so wonderful.

NO FAT JOKES! Not a one. Women eating, joking, getting to know each other. Women screwing up, women being smart, women running but not in an unrealistic superhero way, women getting shit done, and nary a bikini in sight.

It is literally impossible for me to convey how much all that meant to me. It’s like being told, finally, that I get to be a real person. That will be impossible for many people to understand. But the total and complete absence of anyone of my gender who looks like me NOT being the butt of jokes through the movie, or of pity. Oh my god.

I loved “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in a lot of ways. But even Buffy stayed pretty hip by nice tight jowl inside the universe of our screwed up beauty standard. And a lot of the tension in that show was built with more or less standard tropes, having to do with Buffy’s feelings about the various boys and men in her life.

Melissa McCarthy is only 2 years younger than I am. Kristen Wiig is 3 years younger than Melissa. Leslie Jones is my age. My god. Middle-aged, competent, funny, brave, interesting, smart women kicking ass.

Nostalgia is powerful. The patriarchy is yet more powerful, enormously so. Seeing this movie starts to show me how deeply I have absorbed the message that only men can be authoritative, funny, creative, believable, and *real* in that authentic, representative of the human species way. I can feel that programming resisting the data in front of my eyes. When humor, language, physical presentation, emotive expression, and style are all placed inside small, predictable boxes, it becomes hard to even recognize anything else. I remember the first time I had milk fresh from a cow. I was 14 years old. We were staying on a farm B&B in Cornwall. I didn’t like it. It tasted nothing like what came out of our plastic white jugs at home. It was warm, and so strong-tasting. Ew, I thought. It took a few days for my taste-buds to start adapting, for my expectations to change, for my mind and body to open to new experience.

Watching this movie, watching the few others I have seen where the female lead is not driven by romantic love or sexual trauma, and especially where the female lead is doing comedy, has been a similar experience. I almost cannot recognize the material. It is immediately filed away in my brain as not-right, less-than.

In fairy tales, the heroine is (at least in the books of my childhood) almost exclusively the youngest and the prettiest and the sweetest girl. Those stories were always about someone else. The rewards were unreachable, and the lessons learned directed at others. I never imagined myself as the heroine. How could I? I was none of those things.

Movies are even worse. There is visual evidence that people of interest, people to whom we are meant to relate, are in a category and class entirely unreachable by me. I’ve written about that before on this blog.

And so the reaction I describe above seems to me to be to be a societal definition of girl- and woman-hood that excludes everyone else, creating self-hatred, which is then directed outward again at any sort of cultural/artistic expression which counters it or provides an alternative vision.

The sexist backlash against this movie has been predictable and disgusting. Some people act like the makers of this movie and desecrating an altar, reaching into their minds and ruining their memories. And the racist backlash has been even more awful: Leslie Jones felt it necessary to leave Twitter due to the horrific things being tweeted her way. (http://fusion.net/story/327103/leslie-jones-twitter-racism/) The violent, violating, infantile fury of people who want a white world of strong white men and sexy white women is a thing that damages people every day. It must be resisted every day. I think many people forget the necessity of resistance, because it’s the water we all swim in, and it’s made that way, to corrupt and divide and vanish into the murk when challenged.

And so, we give into self- and other-hatred, we dismiss, we acquiesce, we judge.

But I have had experiences where I feel the scales falling from my eyes, where I stretch and breathe and get a different sort of oxygen in my lungs. Spending time in dyke bars does that for me. Spending long and intensive time with women does that for me. Sometimes in a great while a book does that for me. And I am going to watch this movie over and over until I can chuck the societal definitions screaming in my head, and take in what is before my eyes, let it sink in.

A place where someone like me can be fully human.

I saw the movie with a friend who is 22 years my junior. I have known her for 15 years, since she was in elementary school. When the original movie came out I was in my mid-teens, 10 years younger than she is now. The world was a different place then; I was very different then. Being a private cello teacher, I’ve had the chance over the past couple of decades to watch quite a number of kids grow up. I have been so happy to see how many of my female students are involved in sports, reaping the benefits of a more vigorously enforced Title IV. My friend has had since she was a kid a stronger sense of herself and her capabilities than I did when I was a kid, partly due to family environment, and partly to personality. But also, though it’s not linear and there are definitely ways in which things have gotten the opposite of better (gender expression polarization, for example, and the toxic explosion of pink-beauty-princess-defined girlhood), there have been real gains made too which I see manifested in her life and the lives of my students.

Being able to have a feminist joy-fest with her, to share the laughs and the joys with her, was a special gift.

My 7-year-old has been picking up on the pretty significant gender disparity in media and books. She notices. And that is a great thing. I tell her what I think about it, but I cannot tell her what to think about it, not really. What I want is for her to notice. She’s starting to notice the media white-wash, too. I told her this afternoon that I was going to see the movie. I told her I was really excited about it, because it was a remake of one I’d seen when I was a kid, and this one was 4 women. She said, “Oh, and it was all men before?” I said that yes, it was. “And,” she said, “was it all white people?” Yes, I said, it was.

Right now, though I am terrified, horrified, agonized about many things happening in the world, I do believe that change is possible. It is possible to re-learn. It is possible to prioritize justice and love and collaboration. And to do so one has to live it every day. And one has to forgive oneself for the thousands of times one fails to do so.

This movie makes me want to shout and punch things and dance and laugh and conquer and learn and grow.

Thank you to everyone who made it.