Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Perversion of Masculinity

gender-reikiThis is an entry I’ve wanted to write for a long time and that has been stewing. In order to get this right, I’ve done a lot of reading and traded discussions with several friends, both male and female, to really let my ideas ferment. What I don’t want to talk about is women, although it will come up. I feel that the feminists have a whole host of great literature providing ample arguments for how the design of our social structure and our cultural paradigms have acted to enforce — at a sub-liminal and pervasively quiet manner — a model of masculine superiority and feminine submission. As a man, even a man of a visible ethnic minority, there are certain privileges I enjoy that I cannot even see; it is not in my ability to speak on the female condition in our culture. Plenty of writers before me — male and female — can do a better job of that.

But I can speak on masculinity and manhood.

The issue of masculinity is multi-faceted and this may ultimately become a series, but I’m going to try to present — at a high level — my thoughts on how the social design of traditional masculinity has affected manhood. The discussion of masculinity in gender studies is starting to come to light to a far greater degree than it ever has before, but this is in part to anti-feminist “Men’s Rights Movement” advocating for a reclamation of manhood in the post-feminist world.

Well, they’re right. Manhood is under attack, but it’s not feminism hurting us. It’s them. It’s the patriarchy. We’ve gotten to a point where masculinity has been perverted and rendered into a caricature of what testosterone represents.

The masculine paradigm codifies as follows:

  • You must be strong and strong means that you do not show your emotions
  • Rage and aggression are the only appropriate negative emotions to display publicly
  • There can be no sign of weakness; man up, damn it!
  • You must be self-sufficient; asking for help is looked down upon, especially asking for emotional support or advice
  • Displays of affection for your significant other are mildly acceptable, but it is far superior to openly regard her as a piece of meat more often to your other male buddies

The take-away is this:

  • If you are hurting or troubled, you are alone.
  • If you need help, you are weak.
  • What you feel does not matter to anyone and you should be ashamed of having them

…and here is where it breaks down. The traditional model of masculinity raises boys in a culture of shame. Can it be any wonder that men are now afraid it is the end-times for manhood? For both men and women, the heteronormative paradigm has reinforced a host of self-image dysmorphia. The thing is that self-image dysmorphia is a type of performance anxiety; it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with how you want to appear to others.

Sexuality is a performance that seeks validation from others. Masculinity is a performance for the approval of other men. Michael Kimmel writes that “masculinity is a homosocial experience.” It is because of this type of competitive sexual performance (each man trying to “out-man” the other in a race for a higher status tier) that we have delineated so far from a model of masculinity that is beneficial to everyone.

Ultimately, maschismo is hurting men.

For evidence, we need look no further than this single Reddit post where men all over the world are chiming in with their frustrations with the current perception of manhood. It is not difficult to see how destructive this model of masculinity has become:

Asking for help means you aren’t “manning up” like everything in culture silently tells you to do. And so everything that isn’t addressed becomes that dark beast inside you, lurking at the edges.

Masculinity is a deeply misunderstood concept, almost as if on purpose. Misunderstood by society as a whole, but also by women and,most offensively, by the men themselves.

we’ve been brainwashed into thinking behavior such as this therefore labels us as a “pussy” when in fact it’s inherent Human behavior to express opinions and talk about how they feel.

In this interview with feminist writer Jessica Valenti, she mentions how Lakshmi Chaudhry wrote of the current “model of masculinity being perpetual adolescence.” It is difficult to not see the point or nod emphatically in agreement. This is a dangerous modality where men no longer know how to be men; we haven’t learned. There has been no one to teach us and we resort like teenagers into petty one-up-manships and view any challenge or criticism to be an affront to our self-image and our very concept of manhood.

Bodybuilding writer T.C. Luoma, in this heart-wrenching article about masculinity (excuse the sexist language, I am absolutely sure he does that because it makes his audience listen), advocates for a distinction between masculinity (which he defines as the characteristics derived from testosterone on a chemical/hormonal level) and manhood (the cultural definition of what it means to be a man) in that manhood should be a tempered version of masculinity:

It’s been my experience that the raw masculine qualities of Testosterone need to be transformed and channeled into manhood, which is largely based on being protective, altruistic, and heroic. Manhood, perhaps counter intuitively, also draws on certain feminine traits like empathy, cooperation, and the ability to support and nurture.

[Manhood] must be tied to responsibility, but maybe we’d better define responsibility: taking care of your body, your health, the people and animals that you love, and showing a caring attitude towards society, the environment, and to life itself.

In short, a model of masculinity that does not take into account the tempering of aggressive qualities through more “feminine” qualities like compassion will ultimately lead us (and has led us) into male behavioral patterns that are destructive. The resolution might be to to pattern a new model of masculinity, although it can be difficult to determine what masculinity should look like, how it might be possible for a model of masculinity to exist that takes into account the deconstructions of the traditional model. Anna North makes a good case for why men don’t need to codify a new model:

[D]o men need, in addition, “a positive, masculine gender identity?” It’s something of a strange concept — few feminists would ever say that women needed “a positive, feminine gender identity.” While plenty of women take pride in being female, “femininity” is so loaded with patriarchal expectation that, for feminists, it’s kind of a dirty word. This may not be a bad thing — in fact, I’d argue that “masculine” should go the same way.

I’m not sure if I agree with her assessment, but it is clear from this and the dozens of articles popping up lately touting the “end of men” and the “decline of masculinity” that something is wrong with our current model of manhood. It cannot stand side-by-side with a model of womanhood that is determined to seek out equal rights; it is by its nature oppressive, juvenile, and harmful.

The dialogue needs to be opened up about the male identity, possibly a new masculinity, a deconstruction of the traditional model and how silently, but grievously, destructive it is. Luckily, there is a New Masculinity movement. Some very intelligent men and women are beginning to write and speak out about the issue of manhood and performing deconstructive analyses on the heteronormative gender roles with respect to how it affects the male identity. This is a discourse in which we must participate, in league with feminism, to usher in an era of equal standing.


The Anticipation for 2013 Reads

Since 2013 is fast approaching, I thought I’d compile a list of my hotly anticipated books slated to be released in 2013. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell. I love her. Words cannot express how much I love her. Meeting Karen Russell tangled up my guts into knots. And she was absolutely the nicest and sweetest woman ever. It was just an event – a reading and a signing – and I hope to one day meet her as a peer … but, still, monumental experience for me. Both St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Swamplandia! remain as some of the best literature I’ve ever read. I will probably do a jig when my copy of Vampires arrives in the mail.

2) The Isle of Youth and Find Me by Laura van den Berg. I think that Laura van den Berg will be one of the greatest writers of our age. I think she’s helping to herald a definition of “American 21st Century Literature” that isn’t a “post-“, that doesn’t define itself by looking backward on what has come before. When I met with Karen Russell, we talked about Laura briefly. Karen’s face lit up – “Oh! She’s wonderful.” – and we spoke about how hauntingly beautiful her titles are. Laura van den Berg gets extra points for writing stories about cryptozoology (mokele mbembe! No one knows what that is!), which I will admit is a weird passion of mine. What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us is one of the finest collections of stories the world has ever seen and I adore Laura’s ability to take a fabulist element and then ground it into a realist story and making it relevant to the characters in wholly unique ways. There’s a meta-metaphor way to analysis that I won’t get into, because it’d be an essay. But suffice to say, she’s one of my heroes. I was star-struck meeting her, fumbling for words, creating awkwardness all-around. That does not happen easily for me. Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon. I only recently discovered this was coming out. At the reading I saw Laura van den Berg at, there was this Asian guy next to her that she seemed pretty friendly with. I thought, “Huh. That looks like Paul Yoon.” Turns out, it was Paul Yoon. Here is a man of beautiful, sensitive prose. His writing does something that I’ve never been brave enough to really attempt: it discusses the Asian-American experience. It reaches back to his heritage, allows him to connect to this indivisible part of his identity. I have spent nearly my entire life to remove that aspect of my identity, to be defined by it as little as possible. The connotations of being “Asian” were always negative in my head – criminal; drug addict; gang member; gambler; murderer; crime lord; cheater; liar – and while this is very far from what I think most non-Asian (and, in my experience, most non-Vietnamese) populations would think of when they conceptualize an Asian, it is what I learned about being Asian growing up. Literature is about a cultural dialogue – a transmission of thought and feeling – between author and audience. A writer has something to say that no one else can say. Paul Yoon says what he has to say like no one else can, and Once the Shore is magnificently done. I admire his ability to speak, without shame or hesitation, on the Asian experience. While I have something to say on that too, I have often disguised it more generally, still afraid to be defined by it and only it. What Paul Yoon understands is that he can be an Asian-American writer and an American writer and just a writer all at once. I’m tremendously eager to hear what he has to say next. In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell. Holy crap, I cannot believe how long we have to wait for this. There is so so so much that can be said about Matt Bell. I had the pleasure of hearing him read a couple of weeks ago from this wonderful work and there can be no doubt that Matt Bell is an absolute master of his craft. Every sentence was constructed with precision, delivered masterfully. And, to add to everything, he introduced the novel hilariously. Plus, he can use the word “fingerling” in a way that makes it creepy and terrifying rather than make us think of the phrase “finger-lickin’ good” and laughing hysterically at it. That’s talent. This man is raw talent. Check out Cataclysm Baby and How They Were Found for a peek at his genius.

5) The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. People who meet me learn one thing really quickly: I am a huge nerd. This often surprises people, considering my physique and the fact that I’m rather athletic. I’ve done parkour for nearly nine years now and I’ve been powerlifting for three. Here’s the big secret: people who do parkour are all huge nerds. Most powerlifters too. In both communities, we’re all trying our best to become the fantastic superheroes we grew up idolizing. So many of us are gamers, comic book readers, table-top gamers, etc. And among the geek community, few gods are so universally revered as Neil Gaiman. He brought us Sandman and the Endless; he brought us Stardust, Coraline, The Graveyard Book; he brought us Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Gaiman is also one of the very few science fiction writers who seems to be widely accepted in the literary community. And me? I’ll pretty much read anything Gaiman puts out. I know there are a lot of Gaiman fans out there who prefer him as a novelist, but it was as a comic book writer that I first learned of Gaiman. It was Sandman that won my heart (actually, it was Death and not Dream who did that), and he will always always be a comic writer to me. So while I’m ecstatic for him to have another novel coming out, I’m also ECSTATIC to hear that 2013 will finally see the release of new Sandman titles – in particular, a prequel mini-series. To geekdom!