Be a man, but rethink what that means.
The casual everyday misogyny of our world is hurting us all. The same holds true for racism, classism, and all of the ways we oppress each other. When we hold some of us back we hold all of us back.
I know the last thing the world needs is a little essay about feminism written by a white man on a social network with beautiful typography. I’m not saying anything that others haven’t. And really the first thing you should do is listen to women and fucking believe them when they talk about their own experiences. Start here. Or here.
Today I’m writing to other men. This whole alpha male thing is really not working out for us.
In the news there’s an accused rapist currently standing trial for fraud charges leading the GOP field of presidential candidates in their epic battle towards moral bankruptcy. A pop star is being forced to remain under contract with her abuser because she’s seen as a financial asset more than a person with real pain and feelings. Politicians regulate women’s bodies. Women are paid less than men. The list is long. Greed, power, and brutal false masculinity dominate the headlines and all of this is handwaved away by most as either “just the way it is” or “anti-man” behavior.
All of this contributes to an increasingly hostile world that, frankly, isn’t all that good at moving forward anymore.
At this point you might disagree with me or you might be thinking “sure I know all this stuff” but stay with me for a couple more minutes. I’m going to tell a story that I’m not very proud of. If you’re a man you probably have a story like this too. The sad truth is most men have a lot of them and they don’t feel even a bit of shame. Regardless, almost no men haven’t really thought about them. It’s time.
I was a late bloomer. Fifteen years old, not quite five feet tall, and scared of the world. At the bus stop there was a kid who’d punch me in the shoulder every day, over and over, so hard I had a black bruise all the time like a faded tattoo. I was quiet in school without many friends, but I enjoyed the benefits of popularity because sitting near me in class meant I’d let you cheat off my tests and you’d do well.
I walked around with plenty of unrequited crushes and sometimes mustered up the nerve to pass a note here, or draw a tree or a flower or some bullshit to impress a girl I liked. (This isn’t today’s lesson but a side note to fifteen year old weird kids like me everywhere: you won’t impress a girl with a drawing of a tree. It’s not that they’re not interesting, but they’re not high up on the list of things teenage girls are looking for in a prom date.)
There was a dance coming up and a girl I liked told me she was really excited to go. With a friend next to me I lied and told her I was too. She left and he told me I blew it, that she wanted me to ask her to the dance. Being the kind of boy who just made drawings for girls and never dared ask them out I wasn’t sure, but he insisted.
By the end of the day there were five other boys all telling me to ask her out. That I was a coward if I didn’t. That she liked me. All of it. We hung around school for an hour of this until my friend handed me a quarter and they all literally pushed me toward the payphone that sat on a wall outside the gym. Five boys telling me I had to call this girl, five boys telling me this is what I always wanted. So I did.
I asked her out and I could hear it right away. She was nice, and gracious, and still it was awkward and embarrassing for both of us. Here I was one of the “nice guys” and she felt bad hurting my feelings but she wasn’t interested. She said no. It was fine and I understood, but even though I can’t remember I’d bet money I cried a little. In front of five fifteen year old boys.
When I hung up their encouragement didn’t stop. Led by my friend they told me to call her back and tell her she’s a bitch. One ringleader and four lackies all telling me the right thing to do is to make her feel like shit because she didn’t want to dance with the weird small kid who drew trees and let people walk over him and cheat off his paper.
And then all of a sudden it was just six fifteen year old boys and I was dialing again. I yelled and called her a bitch. I hung up.
That’s all it took to go from being the quiet kid with friends in passing to being the center of a group of six boys all proud of their bullshit masculinity and confident that we had realized the true meaning of being a man.
This is the part where I’m supposed to say I felt like shit on the inside, or that some tiny Johnny Depp stood on my shoulder and whispered sage words in my ear and suddenly I felt empathy. The truth is I felt great. I was accepted. I was part of the pack. Even when she told me I was a jerk the next day I felt okay because I had found my tribe and become a man and all the rest would work itself out.
My friend who first told me to ask her out? The one who gave me the quarter and led the mob? Yeah he was the one who took her to the dance. He was the one who called me out in front of her and told me I had been a jerk. He was the hero of the story, playing me against her just right so that he got what he wanted. And he did.
It took a long time but I worked up the guts to apologize to her. It took even longer but eventually we managed to be friends again. We were never close but she wound up telling me that my former friend was really kind of an asshole. She wasn’t wrong.
This is the pattern.
I grew about eight inches in the next few years. I never did get tall but I did learn to stand up and do right. I never really got good at asking women out either — I met the love of my life and I’ll be forever grateful she called me first because I don’t know what I’d be without her. But this story isn’t about getting the girl. It’s about empathizing and understanding she’s got all the same weird complex bullshit emotions that make you hurt and made you like her in the first place. Empathy is hard, maybe one of the most difficult skills to master and among the least practiced. Giving in to the mob is easy and all too common.
The world around you isn’t all that different from a gang of fifteen year old boys. It’s set up to let the loudest ones win, and they’ll push the rest of us around until they get what they want. The Donald Trumps and Dr. Lukes? They sleep just fine. They’ve spent a lifetime coasting by and being told by all the men around them that they’re special, that what they do is okay because those toadies want a piece of it however they can get it.
Stop fantasizing about being Putin on a bear or kick-punching some invisible terrorist to save the president. You’re not the hero of a story you’re just one of six billion people trying to get through life on a little planet in an impossibly vast galaxy in an intellectually infinite universe. This shit is hard and if we’re being honest all you want is a snack, a nap, and someone to tell you it’s going to be okay.
It’s going to be okay.
Just remember that the women around you just want the same things. Practice empathy. Start is by listening. Believe and put yourself in her shoes. Be a person and let her be a person too.
And the next time you see someone call a woman a bitch for wanting to feel okay the same way you do tell them it’s not right. Explain that it’s debasing and reductive and that it hurts us all. Tell them it’s a system built to help the bullies win. Pull them aside and find the story you’re ashamed of. Share it and explain the part about the snack and the nap and the sheer impossibility of the scale of the world. Remind them that the person they’re reducing to nothing is a person too. Bring humanity and teach empathy.
Don’t give in to the mob. Do right. That’s really how you be a man.