The Shame Game: Masculinity is Fucked
What does it mean to ‘man-up’ when the social mechanisms through which masculinity was traditionally expressed, are so evidently diminished? […] Masculinity is about more than simply ‘talking about your feelings’. It is a dying emotional language and one that many men will never learn, because we’ve forgotten how to teach it…
Nobody wants a return to 20th century machismo, where ‘big boys don’t cry’, women are subject to their dominance and emotionality is regarded as a female trait and thus, a weakness. As a man, I know only too well how destructive and toxic those facets of masculinity can be. In many ways, the decline in male dominance is good news, but for many young men, just trying to find their place in a world where masculinity is in flux, this massive social shift can feel less like progress and more like a form of punishment, bordering humiliation.
Shame is at the heart of this. As boys, men are shamed into a rigid caricature of masculinity and emotionlessness. As adults, men are shamed for the sin of being a man, and the sins of all men before them. Shame compounded by shame.
Even if they have tried to fight this virulent strain of macho-man bullshit, even if they have managed to allow themselves to be vulnerable, and caring, and open, they are shamed. Shamed for being less than men. Painted as homosexual or feminine, as if those were terrible things, so that even a man who has accepted his femininity or homosexuality still feels a deep-rooted and abiding sense of shame.
We are shamed by not having work, shamed by not providing for a family, shamed for holding it all in, shamed for letting it all explode, shamed for saying the wrong thing, shamed for not saying the right thing.
So much of today’s discourse seems to be about turning on men — all men — and saying SHAME ON YOU. Undoubtedly, some men deserve it (perhaps a great many men do). But the sad fact is we are all, ALL OF US, used to being shamed. And at the bottom of shame there is despair.
This is an issue that intersects with class, sexuality, gender, and so many other factors. The shame men are made to feel about their feelings, hopes, responsibilities, and actions literally becomes the violence we see in our culture — in speech and in action. Yet we are so quick to disown that violence because we don’t want to admit our complicity. We pile on more shame.
We all have sympathy, after the fact, for someone who has taken their own life… but it’s too damn late to care.
It’s one of the endlessly multiplying ironies of existence — to be told, What have you got to cry about? all through school, all the while just taking it, while daily you are punched, kicked, spat on, abused, called names, shamed for existing, only to finally become an adult, and they start calling you out for your ‘privilege’ because of all the ‘systemic advantages’ you enjoyed as a child.
I definitely had the privilege of being constantly bullied for being different from whatever a ‘man’ should be. So to then, as an adult, be repeatedly conversationally crucified for being a man, having to constantly apologise for it, to have my opinions and my work and my worth dismissed because I am a man, because I had it “easy”, to constantly be told I am playing “on the lowest difficulty setting” (Scalzi)…. I can see why that drives some men into the arms of MRA, or similar movements.
Sometimes misogyny and rage are reactions to being told you are worthless. They are a consequence of the male psyche being defined in opposition to the female psyche. To claim our manhood, we must reject ‘femininity’ — and the borders of our manliness are constantly, subtly policed by other men.
More shame is not the answer. We are shamed into being men — shaming us out of it will not work. Men need compassion and understanding from and for each other before they can contribute to feminist discourse. Otherwise, their actions as ‘feminists’ are dishonest — an attempt to distance themselves from the ‘bad guys’ or worse, conceal the shittier aspects of their own characters.
It’s not good enough for men to wear the word ‘feminism’ like a shield or a mask. We need to find a way to empower men to open up, to be vulnerable — so that they feel less alone. Loneliness and depression among young men is epidemic, and getting worse.
Privilege theory advocates likes to labour the point about how men have it easy. Nobody has it easy. Life is suffering and the only way to give that suffering meaning is to find some community. Men and women grow up either fitting into or deviating from social constructs, and the degrees of variance are almost infinite.
To treat either group as generic, as conforming to those constructs faithfully and completely, is ridiculous — to say one suffers more than the other is impossible to prove. Suffering is universal, and that is what we have in common. The degree of suffering is debatable, but not as important as that commonality.
We need brotherhood, real brotherhood. You want to take a guy down for being an asshole? Fine. But you understand, on some level, what its like to be that guy. The fact we all pretend we are islands unto ourselves is the problem. Your enemy is not your enemy. Your enemy needs your empathy in order to change.
Look at the violence the men around you are doing to themselves and to others. See if there is a response you can formulate which does not involve shaming them, pushing them away, or labelling them as monsters. Live better, lead by example — by all means, disown those who lack the compassion or empathy to change, but don’t deny their capacity to feel.
We all want and need to be better men… but we have to do it together.
The documentary ‘The Mask You Live In’ is worth a watch, although it devolves into ‘video games bad, violent movies bad, violent TV bad’ which has literally zero reliable scientific evidence to back it up. The first half though, on emotional literacy in boys, is essential viewing and really gives an insight into how boys become men and what they lose in the process.