Navigating Masculinity: A Roundtable
Mary Anne: I’m Mary Anne Mohanraj, your host for this discussion of intersections and alliances; we’ll start with questions of maleness and masculinity and go on from there. I’m a writer, English professor, and mom; I identify as a bisexual Sri Lankan-American cisgender woman. I had a brief tomboy period in my teen years, but I’d say that was more about feeling constrained by social expectations of women’s dress and behavior than any sense of gender dysphoria. I write in various genres, including, most recently, science fiction, and my work often dwells within the intersection of ethnic politics, violence, and sexuality.
Elliott: I’m Elliott Mason, co-head of program for Wiscon 39. I’m a wordsmith, craftsman, full time dad, and lifelong nerd. I identify as a trans man who came fairly late to that realization, after a tomboy childhood and decades of trying to “have fun with” and inhabit various female identities. None fit. Now I’m learning how to live in the world as a fairly flamboyant gay guy with lots of femme hobbies who spends most of his time in “Mommy groups”. Also, I’m white.
Jim: I’m Jim Hines, a 41-year-old author, geek, father, husband, blogger, and fanboy. I’m a straight white male, and I’ve lived most of my life here in Michigan’s lower peninsula. I’ve volunteered as a sexual assault counselor, and worked as the male outreach coordinator for a local domestic violence shelter, which meant I spent a fair amount of time talking to college-aged men about sexual violence and masculinity. It’s been a while since I’ve made it to WisCon, but I’m hoping to get back one of these days.
Na’amen: I’m Na’amen Gobert Tilahun, a 32 year old queer, poly, cis-male of Ethiopian-/Black-American extraction. I currently work as a bookseller at Borderlands Books and Booksmith both in San Francisco. I’ve volunteered as a LYRIC (Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center) talkline listener which entailed taking calls from at risk LGBTQIA youth all over the country of a variety of genders and in many different situations. Other peoples ideas and expectations of masculinity was something I struggled with a lot growing up which led to a disassociation from it that I’m just learning to try and talk about. I write. Mostly stories — but also reviews, non-fiction and poetry — about queer folks, magic, love, and the end of the world; whether it’s speculative or not depends. I have also just recently started a podcast with a friend called The Adventures of The Yellow Peril (my friend, Chris Chinn) & The Magical Negro (me!) where we talk about sf/f and general geekery from a POC pov.
Michael: I’m Michael Damian Thomas. I’m a 40-year-old parent, husband, editor/publisher who identifies as bisexual and as genderqueer and man. I’m the primary caregiver of my 12-year-old daughter, Caitlin. Caitlin has a rare congenital syndrome called Aicardi syndrome, and I coordinate all of her medical professionals, therapists, teachers, and insurance. I’ve attended 6 Wiscons.
Jed: Jed Hartman, bi, white (Norwegian + Russian Jewish + British Isles), cis, male, mid-40s. Tech writer by day, occasional fiction writer and editor in spare time. Regular WisCon attendee. Have never been comfortable with a lot of aspects of masculinity as it tends to be constructed by our society. Have always been put off by “what you have to do to Be A Man” narratives, since they don’t tend to fit with my lived experience; but am also regularly chagrined when I turn out to fit stereotypes about what men are like.
…In my opening line, I said “male”; even though I’m cis and identify firmly as male, I waffled about what specific word to use there. Am always a little uncomfortable referring to myself as a “man” because that sounds terribly grown-up and responsible; “boy” obviously isn’t right either; I don’t especially like the word “guy” but tend to fall back to it by default for lack of better term.
David: My name’s David Moles. I’m a writer, 42, white, cis, straight, married to a former Lesbian Avenger; we have a daughter (we presume, pro tem) seven months old. I have serious issues with American masculinity, and I blame the patriarchy.
Addendum: Apparently my issues with masculinity, as currently constructed, extend to being uncomfortable listing “male” among my self-identifications. Hi, Jed. :)
Benjamin: I’m Benjamin Rosenbaum! Software developer, writer, dad, erstwhile synagogue president and rugby flanker. 45-year-old white Ashkenazi Jewish upper-middle-class man. Bisexual in attraction and identity, monogamously straight in practice.
I enjoy being male! Though certainly it seems like there was a paucity of options available in terms of gendering, at the time of my birth, and for all I know there may be a better match out there, this one has worked for me. Maleness strikes me as a lovely little fandom, as long as folks don’t get all rigid about how to do it right or who’s allowed to join up. It will, of course, be even nicer once we men give notice from the various rather horrible jobs (violent enforcer of hierarchy, compulsive dominator of discourse, numb agent of production, brutal hoarder of resource) we’ve stumbled into (and assigned ourselves) under patriarchy. The whole patriarchy thing, seriously bad call on our part. (When I’m not thinking well, I feel panicked and guilty about this; when I am thinking well, I manage to feel angry about it). I am lucky enough to have relationships in which getting called on my shit — figuring out which parts of my mind are bullshit to be thrown out, and which parts are worth fighting for and reimagining — is one of the best parts of my life.
Oh, plus I write stories! Lots of them have intersections. And alliances. The book I’ve been working on forever is set in a far-future society with an oppressive gender dimorphism with wholly different genders.
Jed: David, you wrote: “Apparently my issues with masculinity, as currently constructed, extend to being uncomfortable listing “male” among my self-identifications.” I was amused by this, but also wondered about it: Was this just a way to note that you hadn’t mentioned a gender identity in your intro, or are you uncomfortable identifying as male, or are you uncomfortable with the specific word “male”, or all of the above, or … ?
David: I noticed I’d left it out, and I think there’s something psychologically revealing there. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m uncomfortable identifying as male — identifying as anything else would feel massively appropriative, really — but I do seem to be somewhat uncomfortable using the word. I would say this is because the PUAs and MRAs (pick-up artists and “men’s rights activists”) have ruined it and we can no longer have nice things, but the same argument could be used for “white” and I apparently have no problem with that.
Mary Anne: It seems like maleness / masculinity can sometimes be a site of discomfort for some of you. Can you talk about that a little more, either generally, or in specific, such as when you’re at places like WisCon, or other SF/F forums, either in person or online? I’m wondering whether maleness is something you generally inhabit comfortably, unless it’s made into an issue by a focus on gender concerns, or if your experience of it is more generally problematic?
Jim: I’m comfortable with who I am these days, though that hasn’t always been the case. I don’t see any reason to feel ashamed for being male. (Or white, or straight, for that matter.) Where the discomfort comes from is the baggage I’ve absorbed along the way about what it means to be a man, and how those beliefs and attitudes have affected me, my relationships, and the people around me. I’ve been able to recognize and dismiss some of the more over-the-top attitudes about masculinity — David mentioned PUA culture and MRAs — but that doesn’t mean I haven’t internalized plenty of problematic stuff. Just like denouncing the KKK doesn’t mean I’m free of racism.
A lot of the discomfort comes from recognizing those attitudes in myself. Like the first time I realized I was assuming certain jobs around the house were my wife’s by default. Or my cluelessness the first time I encountered a females-only safe space and bemoaned how unfair it was, and having to recognize and unpack why such spaces might be necessary. Basically, I had to get over my “Not all men!” phase there…
Whether it’s over-reliance on anger and control — because Real Men (TM) are always in control — or ignorance of the struggles others face, or all of the other ways I’ve stumbled over the years, it’s never fun to recognize your own failings. And that awareness can be stronger in certain spaces like WisCon or Take Back the Night or the rape crisis center where I used to work. They all heighten my awareness of gender and masculinity. I think that’s a good thing, but the process can be frustrating and painful.
If I accepted the rules some people push about what it means to be a True Alpha Male, I’d be a lot more uncomfortable about my own maleness, because those rules tend to be both narrow and extremely toxic. It can also be uncomfortable to deviate from the Approved Party Line of Manliness. But in the end, I think that deviance makes me a healthier and generally better man.
Elliott: I have a lot of stuff to sort through and untangle in my life, pursuant to my transition, because I had always been perceived as a “weird” gender-variant woman, and likewise if I remain true to myself I will be a “weird” gender-variant man. My habits, hobbies, and general inclination average not to lie at either pole of the x-axis of an imaginary gender spectrum graph, but in the muddy middle third or so of the line. I got a lot of guff, growing up, for displaying “mannishness” in grooming or behavior, and so I learned to suppress those tendencies of mine in certain situations. I plastered them over with a faux-femme stucco and planted bright roses and ivy to disguise their presence.
When I started to travel in trans groups and knew I wanted to transition, however, I started getting something I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have: pushback and shaming for being “too womanly,” or for expressing the wrong KIND of masculinity. An extremely well-meaning trans woman told a very-uncertain-newbie me, “Honey, you’re going to have to stop being so nice. Men are pigs, and they’ll clock in a hot second that you don’t belong if you keep doing that.” She was speaking from pain, from decades of having the entire patriarchal pile of crappy expectations shoved down her own (gender-variant) throat. I get that. But it still hurts to get offered binarist, gender-essentialist, oppression-apologist bullshit as well-meaning advice when you’re vulnerable.
So a major part of my process these past few years has been untangling just what KIND of man I want to be. I’m remodeling my self again: chipping through the stucco, finding the bones of my structure, trying to figure out exactly what fits my current lifestyle and what can be discarded. I actually find I LIKE some of the foundation plantings I put in originally for disguise and distraction, so now I’m working out how to integrate them into a new whole productively. I have to root out all the things I was only doing because I hated myself or because I feared not-doing-them to be unsafe, while making sure nothing gets discarded that I actually value.
I have a small personal pantheon of Patron Saints of Manliness to use as compass-points on my journey. Clark Kent and Tim Gunn are just the kind of dapper to which I aspire in my formal dress. Certain fannish cis guys I know locally are my reassurance that I can be an emotionally accessible, huggy, smiling, volunteerist knitter (etc) and still be “A Man,” because they are one and so can I be. Long hair? Sure, someday after I quit getting “ma’am”ed constantly. Kilts and other femme grooming/fashion choices on special occasions? Hell yeah, and especially at WisCon. This year a friend of mine wants to teach me to Floomp, something I’ve not had the guts to try yet — instead I’ve been defensively clinging to my ties and plastered-flat buzzed hair and doing everything short of mounting flashing neon I’M A GUY, REALLY, TAKE ME SERIOUSLY signs on my shoulders.
Now, when I’m out people-watching, I notice non-stereotypically-masculine traits and expressions in strangers. Men with high(ish) voices, like mine will most likely be someday. Men with rounded jawlines, the kind I’ve seen a lot in support groups on guys who had to go through their testosterone puberty well past high school. Short guys, men with sparse facial hair, with earring choices that clock femme, who if you squint the other way might come off as butch women instead. I try to figure out how they do it, inasmuch as I can do so from a distance as a passive observer: how do they get assumed to be male? What about their masculinity are they “doing” differently than I am? If anything, of course.
In a way, an upbringing as female by a strongly-feminist parent has inoculated me against some of the worst “internal tape recordings” the kyriarchy wants men to live by — at the very least, I know a lot of them exist as items of societal indoctrination, which not all folks socialized male in middle school can say. But my failure to reflexively display the right tells in everyday life may be affecting why cashiers and strangers still reflexively call me ma’am instead of sir, and I’m a little conflicted about that, too.
Jed: For me, my own maleness feels like an axiom, a defining property that I can’t prove or justify with analysis — and yet most of the traits that I associate with masculinity are things I’m uncomfortable with, whether or not I see those traits in myself.
I like your line about maleness as a fandom, Ben, but by that analogy, maybe I feel about maleness and masculinity the way I feel about Star Trek: I grew up watching Star Trek, and for a long time I unquestioningly thought of myself as a Trek fan, and I guess I still kind of do; but when it comes down to specific episodes and movies and other works, there are very few of them that I actually like.
…In various contexts, I’ve seen people talk about what defines their gender identity — about how they know what gender they are — and I’ve been surprised by some people’s answers. For example, I’ve seen some straight cis guys say that their male gender identity has been partially or entirely shaped by being attracted to women. That doesn’t make sense to me (orientation and gender identity don’t correlate very strongly in my experience), but it seems to be a fairly common and strongly held feeling about one source of some people’s gender identity.
Elliott: You’re right about that phenomenon. It ties into why some of the same folks get SO VERY CONFUSED by trans folks, especially trans folks oriented to their own identity. (See also “what is autogynephilia and why it’s a hot mess of a theory.”)
Jed: For me, my sense of maleness doesn’t come with reasons or sources that I’m aware of; it’s just there.
So is it a site of discomfort to me? Maleness, no (or not much), but masculinity, yes. Here are some traits I tend to associate with masculinity-as-currently-constructed-by-our-society: aggressiveness, hierarchical power, competitiveness, upper-body muscles and other forms of physical strength, self-confidence bordering on arrogance, unwillingness to listen to or empathize with others, inability to express vulnerability or most emotions, physical protectiveness of others, leadership, comfortableness with and confidence in one’s own body.
Obviously those things are not actually masculine traits per se; anyone can have those traits, and not all men (heh) have them. And they’re not all negative things. But not many of them, positive or negative, are attributes that I think of myself as having. (A few stereotypically masculine traits that I do have: quick temper; high libido; facial hair; tendency toward splaininess; desire to wear only clothing and accessories marketed to men; the kind of reflexive performance of maleness that Elliott mentioned. There are a few others, but not many.)
But I think most of that disconnect between gender identity and stereotypical traits is true for a lot of cis guys who grow up either less adept at physical-strength stuff than men are supposed to be, or more focused on mental or emotional things than on physical-body stuff.
So all of that is one area of discomfort. Another, of course, is that no matter how sensitive and unmasculine I may think of myself as being, other people see me as male, which (along with other attributes, such as whiteness) confers upon me most of the considerable privilege the patriarchy can bring to bear. And as is the way of privilege, that’s usually uncomfortable only if I stop to think about it; privilege can feel pretty good if I’m not paying attention. So when I do notice what’s going on, that can make me pretty uncomfortable. In a privileged not-really-a-serious-problem kind of way. But that kind of discomfort is a good thing.
Ben: I hate all the ways that being male has meant I’ve been miseducated: taught to talk too much, to assume too much, to expect unpaid emotional labor from other people, to regard my ideas, my comfort, my desire as being more important, more central. I dislike how it’s made me blind to other people’s vulnerability, and even to my own (or sometimes hyperaware and defensive of my own?)
I dislike the way in which being male has separated me from other human beings: from women, from men, from myself.
Separated me from women, because of how it’s made me untrustworthy: I may run roughshod over your conversation, take too much of your labor, unsee you, exhaust you. For all you know, if you’re a stranger on the street at night, I might attack you: I cross the street to save you the trouble of doing so, or to save myself the embarrassment when you do.
It’s also separated me from other men: not just the homophobia (the men I can cuddle with are countable on one hand) but the fact that being male is on some level an eternal game of King of the Hill — all those times when we get huffy, when we go compulsively to one-upping or knowing better or ribbing that is somehow abrasive, rather than getting closer, or where the only way we can figure out how to get closer is to give each other shit.
Jed: I’m reminded of a bit from Fred Small’s song “No Limit”: “I asked my brothers; they said We have wanted your embrace; your heart has been a fortress, your words a state of siege.”
Ben: I was at the coffee shop the other day and the guy behind the counter, who likes to banter, was a little annoyed that I was asking for a cinnamon stick for my apple cider. I think it’s much cooler with a cinnamon stick than with powdered cinnamon, which, you know, kind of turns into a sludge at the top of the cider. But he was out, and he was a little mad that I was putting him on the spot, and he was also trying to be funny, so he did this schtick like: “a cinnamon stick? How old are you? You want to play with a cinnamon stick? I’m going to call you a woman in a minute.”
He was trying to make a connection. I’m going to call you a woman; masculinity isn’t something you have, it’s something you constantly prove. Femininity is a lack you can be accused of. (If you’re a woman, you can also be accused of a lack of femininity, but that’s a double lack; no women’s rugby team coach hectors her trainees to pick up the pace by calling out tauntingly “let’s move…gentlemen!” If you fail at being a man, you’re a woman; if you fail at being a woman, you don’t get to be a man.)
Elliott: Girls do get called “boys” as an insult, but in my experience usually over presentational choices, not athletics. If you’re wearing “wrong” makeup, or sitting down with your knees apart, out comes the gender-policing: “You look like a football player!” “Make sure to hide the good china.”
Mary Anne: I hear it in lines like, “If you don’t get your eyebrows (upper lip, legs, etc.) waxed, you’re going to look like a man.” Or, “If you stick to the five pound weights and just do lots of reps, your arm muscles won’t get too big.”
Elliott: Yeah. Or, putting the cherry on the shit sandwich, women who are less skilled with makeup being told, “Wow, that makes you look like a tranny.”
Because even worse than making a grooming choice that makes someone think you’re a guy is making a grooming choice that makes the onlookers decide in their bigotry you must be a pathetic man FOOLING HIMSELF that he’s successfully pretending to be a woman. :-/
Na’amen: I didn’t really chime in on this first question initially because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about maleness and masculinity and how I react to it in everyday life. However what Ben said about masculinity being something you always have to prove and the insults that are used to control those stepping outside of it triggered a thought/memory.
I was teased a lot growing up because I was read as queer by most boys because I wasn’t interested in sports or the “normal” masculine things. I loved to read and write and had many friends who identified as women so that made me ‘queer’ in their eyes. It had little to nothing to do with sexual orientation, it was about stepping outside the boundaries of acceptable masculinity. However, I never really took it as the insult they intended because I loved all the women in my life. I could understand why they thought it was an insult but being a woman actually seemed like a positive thing. I interacted with women more and I loved them much more than any of the men in my life so to be called a woman by this group of men I didn’t like or respect didn’t matter that much to me. I mean I still got embarrassed by taunting in front of groups but the gendered insults didn’t hit me or stay with me because I saw women as better as they weren’t the ones who taunted or teased me.
The negativity I carry around maleness everyday is linked to these things. I am uncomfortable around other men because so many of my experience with men has seen them acting, loud, privileged and unapologetic. The problem is that I assume all men are like that until proven otherwise. This can have negative effects on my everyday life and my dating life as you might imagine.
Ben: Seriously, though, that’s what the rugby coach used to say: “come on, ladies.” Childhood was full of that kind of crap. It’s not that I ever really imagined myself as anything other than male, but it’s also not like there’s any kind of secure purchase on masculinity; it’s a setup, an unwinnable game.
(I don’t think, Jed, that this is just true of the physically unadept. The nerd is unmanned and left helpless and frustrated in gym class, the jock in math class, the athlete valedictorian by his older brother. There’s always enough unmanning to go around. You are never so Ozymandias that someone else is not Dr. Manhattan.)
Finally, I end up separated me from myself, because of the self-hatred implicit in our image of ourselves as the aggressor. We all know, on some deep level, that being a man is fucked up. That it’s rape and war and cruelty. We learn that really fucking young. We arrive here, we’re given toy weapons and told by our world, “hey, you can be powerful and magnificent and the one in charge, for once! All you have to do is treat some people like they don’t matter and make them not exist any more. Pew pew pew! Ratatatatat!” (Not that I’m against toy weapons, mind you: the world is so saturated with this bullshit that acting it out out loud can be a kind of healing. But I have a three-year old nephew; do you know how many people he kills every day? The bodycount is immense).
I don’t think this self-hatred is an effect of having one’s consciousness raised. Engaging with feminism has actually turned the nameless desperate panic into something actionable and concrete and at a distance from me. It’s allowed me to calm the fuck down and feel hopeful about it. Let me tell you, hating a system of oppression is such a relief compared to hating yourself.
Elliott: There are ways in which the entire structure of patriarchal indoctrination is set up to teach us to gaslight ourselves. Because it’s much easier to control a bunch of people when they are each their very own personalized guard and punisher than to externalize the process. Am I being manly enough that nobody’ll think I’m a sissy? Wait, now I’m being an overbearing asshole … etc. Women in feminism are intimately acquainted with the system of impossible double-binds surrounding appropriate feminine gender presentation, but the ones around men may be less widely noticed.
Ben: The mechanisms are so ubiquitous that I’m wondering if you have stubbed your nose on them without realizing it — or if, instead, the way you came to manhood has shielded you from gaslighting yourself about it?
Elliott: Well, that’s what my Manliness Saints are for: an internal self-check I can run items of experience past for an internal validation of whether it’s a legitimate criticism or hyper-macho bullshit. To be honest, I have no real interest in fitting into the the particular narrow range of very stereotypically-masculine men, of whom I’m coming to realize we don’t have any in this conversation.
Ben: Here is how hilariously pervasive this is: when I read the line “a particular narrow range of ‘masculine guy’ (of whom there are apparently no examples in this conversation)”, I IMMEDIATELY, non-ironically and in earnest, began wondering if I really ought to comment to the effect that, hey, I played flanker on a rugby team, so surely that means I can pass as a masculine guy, with whatever qualifications like I do a mean falsetto performance of “99 Luftballons”, but still…
It literally took me 5 seconds to notice what I was doing and realize how funny it was. And some part of me still hopes that I can convince you that I’m a masculine guy however narrow the range, even though, really, that’s an insane thing to want.
Elliott: *fistbump of solidarity* Those feels, dude, I know them.
Jed: Even though I have no interest at all in being or seeming “masculine” in the traditional sense, I do find myself wanting to prove my “toughness” on some nontraditional axes — for example, by refusing to admit that my enjoyment of super-spicy food (by white-people standards) has diminished in recent years, so these days I sometimes prefer milder curries over hotter ones. And when I got seasick for the first time a couple years ago, part of my distress about it was that I think of myself as the kind of guy who smiles sympathetically at the seasick people while I stand boldly at the prow and grin into the teeth of the wind, so I was unhappy about having to admit the “weakness” of feeling queasy.
Mary Anne: It’s funny — I also have desires towards toughness, like when I really wanted to try going through childbirth without drugs, to somehow prove that I was as tough as all the women who have done so through the ages. But I think that’s completely differently inflected from masculine constructions of toughness. More about endurance than strength / power?
Jim: There are times I can enjoy the masculine version of toughness. I love working out and sparring at karate these days, but it’s because I like and trust the people I’m working out with. This particular style has deliberately created a culture of collaboration, where I show up and spend the first few minutes hugging folks. But I definitely felt pretty smug that night Erik and I both left the circle with matching swollen lips.
On the other hand, looking back, I spent years ignoring undiagnosed depression because I was determined to tough it out. Because like Jed said, it was more important not to admit “weakness” than it was to treat a real medical problem. Such tricksy indoctrinations, precious. So tricksy.
Ben: And every time oppressors freak out in desperation at oppression being talked about, I’m certain that’s what’s at the bottom of it — self-hatred. It sure is for me. If you show me what I am, what I’ve agreed to, what I’ve accepted, what I’m complicit in, I want to destroy you, because I can’t stand that knowledge. I picked up that gun, I killed all the bad guys, pew pew pew, and I kept shooting, I’ve been shooting ever since, because the alternative was being a woman. A woman, you know: like that woman who picks you up and takes care of you when you fall down shooting bad guys; she has to take care of you. If you do the wrong thing, if you’re ever not badass enough, if you ever ask for a fucking cinnamon stick, you’re going to be that, you’re not going to be in charge any more, you’re not going to have this oceanic backup, the world caring what you say, putting you in the center, taking care of you. So pick up the pace, ladies.
This isn’t worse in childhood than in adulthood. It isn’t worse on the rugby field than at Worldcon. It’s present in every conversation about Java classes, Battlestar Galactica, and doing the laundry. It’s everywhere. I’ve never seen any place outside of this discourse. It’s at Wiscon too. But at Wiscon the weight of this discourse is easier to bear, because at least at Wiscon we’re talking about it.
Na’amen: My maleness is too entangled with my blackness to ever be seen completely separated and is therefore always something I’m aware of; being a large black male means a lot of the initial reactions I get from people on the street is fear. Some interactions are easier to navigate but the identities remain linked. For example if someone moves their bag away from me or automatically checks their pockets when I’m around, that I feel mostly comfortable calling out as racially charged. However if a woman crosses the street when she sees me I have to stop myself and realize that many women have reasons to be wary around men who are strangers. Is she moving because I’m black? Is she moving because I’m male? Both? I think the latter feels more valid to me because it is the marginalized reacting to a fear of what looks like the oppressor while the racial thing is punching down.
Incidents like the ones above happen to me literally every day, so I’m always reminded that I am a black man. Especially with Ferguson and the many, many similar cases finally getting national attention, my awareness that I am a black man is more at the forefront of my mind than ever. I don’t know if I find it problematic always, but there’s never a time when I’m completely comfortable within it because I know that one false move can lead to intense repercussions. Therefore I always have to be aware of where I am, who is around and how I present my masculinity, so that it doesn’t seem dangerous, angry or over the top. So much so that it can feel like performing a role at times. Maybe the right word is tired; I get tired of policing how I express my masculinity for fear of being seen as the Dangerous Angry Black Man™.
Mary Anne: So what do you like about being male? What do you see as its positive attributes? And relatedly, are any of those attributes actually exclusively male anymore? If the feminist movement says that women can do everything men can do, is there anything left that’s specifically *male*?
Elliott: I like being able to be mighty, to feel competent; and certain aspects of masculinity let me embrace that in a way I was widely discouraged when I was trying to fit into femininity. My mightiness wants to exist to protect, to lift up, to collaborate, and that, too, feels right for me. I am a Phil Coulson man, not a Rambo man. Rambo wears his muscles and his violence and his dominance on his naked biceps, for everyone to see glistening. Phil Coulson wears a generic dark suit and works behind the scenes to get his team into the most productive space for their task and support them, but by gosh if you rob the wrong convenience store when he’s around you are NOT going to come out on top.
I had a lot of people ask me why I felt the need to transition (“to take such a radical step,” in one person’s words): why should I do this thing and attempt to get the world at large to legally and socially put me in the Dude Box and not the Chick Box? Why not just flex my activist muscles and make a space for a wider spectrum of womanhood being acceptable?
And, of course, I AM for wider acceptance of non-stereotypical gender expressions. The entire glitter rainbow of humanity should be able to feel comfortable walking in the world and be accepted using the pronouns they prefer — if I ran the world. But I don’t, and that means that in the mundane world at least, there are two options. Both have widespread cultural assumptions and indoctrination about what you will like and how you will act. Girls just “naturally” will X, or want to X; boys will just “naturally” prefer Y. Etc. Binarist garbage, of course.
However, if you were to make a list of (and I did) as many of those x/y stereotype pairs as you can think of, on the preponderance, I feel more comfortable if people are expecting me to Y. I like it when people expect me to hold doors, get stuff off tall shelves, offer to carry one end of the couch for friends who are moving. I feel very uncomfortable in all-female conversations that are very stereotypically femme in their conventions and topics. I prefer conversing about *information* over complex investigations of exactly who has wronged whom in what dramatastic display THIS week. I parent, but I am not dainty. I don’t take apart cars myself for fun, but I like to understand how they work and how to determine when an expert’s help is needed.
And, yes, these are all things woman-identified people can do, and in fact they do them! Every day of the week! But most times in a social situation when someone reflexively expects me to stereotype femme, it’s like I stub my mental toes on it. It feels wrong. It doesn’t fit.
And, yes, I sleep with men; that alone would make many uber-dudes question my masculinity. So in a way, I’ll always have a “pass” to be nonstandard in my presentation: I’m a flaming queer who is into fashion, Broadway musicals, knitting, and making things sparkly. I don’t think I’ll ever settle into a narrow gender-expression channel, but I’m ok with that.
Phil Coulson is not threatened by not being the center of attention all the time. He’s man enough to not need to wave his manhood in people’s faces. I aspire someday to be that kind of man. It is somewhere between embarrassing and proud fanboy cred that I am using well-written Avengers fanfic as part of my process of working through various sorts of masculinity.
Jim: I want to be Phil Coulson when I grow up!
Ahem. Anyway, if gender is mostly, if not entirely, a social/cultural construct, I’m not sure there’s much you can describe as inherently or exclusively male. That said, growing up male in the U.S., there are certainly some positives.
For instance, there’s an emphasis on problem-solving and addressing problems head-on, whether it’s a conflict at work, a broken toilet at the house, or a dead switch in my wife’s van (to name three relatively recent examples). Problem-solving isn’t a specifically male ability, but it’s something I feel I’ve been taught as a guy pretty much from day one, and it’s given me confidence that I can handle most crises.
The down side is that sometimes the fix-it approach isn’t the best one. I had to learn that sometimes people don’t want my advice or solutions. They might just want someone to listen, to empathize, and to help them talk things out and come to their own solutions.
Other aspects of American masculinity that I appreciate are the emphasis on strength, providing for your family, helping/ when you protecting people who are vulnerable…but all of these can be taken too far. And then you have the toxic meme that to be masculine means to reject anything “feminine.” That terror of appearing feminine has caused so much harm and damage.
There’s also the way other people treat you. I find that people are more willing to listen to me, to take me seriously, and to be respectful. Things that should be the default for any human being, regardless of gender, but our world isn’t there yet. This is some of what I think about when I hear the word privilege, and yeah, I appreciate those privileges. I also think they should apply to everyone.
Na’amen: It is hard for me to talk about maleness as positive. Since I view gender as socially constructed it feels like all the advantages to being male are, as Jim eloquently stated above, actually privileges that are denied to other people. It also feels like the things I love about my life should not be inherently linked to maleness at all. I appreciate that I am generally safe walking at night or that my voice is (sometimes, my color often gets in the way) heard. I like those things about being male definitely, because they grant me a respect and a safety that I enjoy and take advantage of but I also try to remember that if I participate and appreciate them without thought I am perpetuating the same system. I try to remember that my responsibility then is to try to expand those privileges to include everyone, until they are no longer privileges but basic respects expected of and from everyone. That’s why I have a problem thinking of these things as things I enjoy about being male because while I do enjoy them the other side is the responsibility of privilege.
We’re so often taught by society that masculinity exists in opposition with femininity that personality traits, entertainment and even colors get divided that way and I think one of the things I like to do is fail to fulfill people’s expectations of masculinity, and turn stereotypes on their head. I often don’t get read as queer by many straight folks so when I become aware I am being read as straight I will try to break their illusions in the most shocking (but respectful) manner possible. For example recently I was in a group of straight men (invited by one of them I think of as a friend) when they started talking graphically of heterosexual cisgendered sex, thus including me in a particular group dynamic without consultation. My friend trusted me to handle it so when it was my turn I shared a story of my own about queer sex. The reaction was mixed but my point got across. In the past I’ve had this met with both nonchalance and the horror of widening eyes and really both are satisfactory in their own way.
So I guess that’s my answer. The thing I enjoy most about my own masculinity and maleness is fucking with it.
Elliott: My trans “grandma”, a lady who took me under her wing early, positively delighted in being able to go around to her friends and chirp, “Did you hear? My grandson’s PREGNANT!” That fierce joy in queering a situation (related, I think, to what SCAdians call freaking the mundanes) is pretty awesome.
Ben: So: what do I like about it?
It’s a good deal easier to talk about what I don’t like. I think that’s always easier, with oppressor roles. What’s to like?
But, I remind myself, men liking being men is actually important feminist work.
Self-hatred is a dead end. Here’s something I learned as a Jew living in German-speaking Europe: the last thing I want is people wallowing about the Holocaust and being Germans. That pisses me off. Yes, I want people to take responsibility (Germans, by the way, are generally better at this than the Swiss and the Austrians). But also: I want them proud of being Germans, to be rooted in being Germans, to enjoy being Germans and have that be enough for them. That’s actually a prerequisite for them being trustworthy allies.
I think about this to push myself towards owning, embracing, relishing, coming home in being a man.
So there are three things to like about being male, all entangled and hard to distinguish. One is the privilege granted by male supremacy. One is the ways in which men have — partially, incoherently, collectively, historically — managed to resist the privilege, managed to find ways to not completely become what oppression demands of us. And one is just stuff that men as a group, as a community, as a style, as a fandom, happen to be into.
What we’ve been made into, what we’ve fought to keep, what we’ve come up with.
Do I “like” the privilege? I don’t know, does a junkie “like” heroin? Not really. Do I like getting to be the one to talk, to decide, the one to matter, the important one, the one whose desires have primacy and can be spoken? Well, it feels like I will die the moment it’s taken away. I don’t think that’s “like”. I resent and need it. I hate and want it.
I love men hugging. Every time men hug, even that stiff one-arm deal, it’s an act of defiance. I love hugging men; I love that their faces are sometimes scratchy.
I was lucky enough to be surrounded in adolescence by guy friends who hugged. (I think it was my friend Ramin who really started it, he had come from Iran in 7th grade and maybe guys hugged more over there?) Honestly I think the fact that we knew how to hug kept us sane. We hugged, we wrestled, we played a lot: tabletop RPGs, basketball.
We hung on to play, and this is a victory in general, that men have hung on to being playful. Even where it’s compromised to the point that all that’s left is grunting at other men smashing into each other on the TV, there’s some kind of room to play. And a lot of men know how to go all out in play — to knock the hell out of each other and get up grinning. This is something all humans should have. Yes, this victory is contaminated by privilege; it’s something that sexism has grudgingly allowed men, has tried more resolutely to take away from women. It’s still a victory, just as women having mostly hung on to really listening to each other, unabashedly seeking to know what each other are feeling, is a victory.
This isn’t about “traits that are specifically male”. Women who knock each other down grinning, men who listen fully, come immediately to mind as soon as I say this. At most it’s a bimodal distribution, and a starting point: we need to reclaim everything humans have figure out how to do for every human.
But we’re dealing here with specifics of history. At fifteen on the beach my guy friends and I would tackle each other into pits in the sand. I didn’t know a lot of girls I could do that with. So I’m grateful to those men for preserving my access to roughhousing.
I play basketball with a bunch of guys. That it’s all men sometimes irritates me; I think it’s kind of dumb, I sort of want them to be more inclusive. I do like these guys though. I like their playfulness, their going all out, the easy way they can hold competitiveness and good humor tied inextricably together. It’s the good kind of competitiveness, where you keep score passionately until the game’s over then forget it instantly, where you push each other higher.
These guys are jocks, and I’m not, I’m a nerd. You don’t see this on the court — I play hard — but you see it on the sidelines when people make jokes. I make nerd jokes. Jock jokes are sometimes ribald (less of that in this space, they’re sensitive guys, cautious of overstepping), mostly ribbing, challenging each other, taking the piss. Nerd jokes tend towards the reductio ad absurdum, the deft wordplay, the oddball juxtaposition, the weird fact. My jokes get blank stares. Also, they like to sit around with great excitement trying to remember exactly which basketball stars were in the lineup of which 80s pro basketball teams. They challenge each other and make bets about it, then look up who won on Wikipedia with their phones. I can honestly not imagine a more boring topic of conversation; I would rather read the telephone book.
Nonetheless I recognize these things. Nerd and jock are among the endless panoply of ways for men to unman each other, to play king of the hill, but they’re also a great deal more similar than they are different. Groups of nerd guys stand around one-upping each other and demonstrating mastery too, either bitterly or with an honest sense of gleeful engagement. Basketball teams of the 80s is just another fandom. These guys are recalling their heroes, who once inspired them, and when they go out on the court the play is enriched and expanded because they are mirroring those heroes, acting heroic in their stead, imitating them in a way. I recognize that; it’s how I am about writing. I’m not saying any of this is exclusively guy stuff. But it’s also guy stuff. It’s stuff guys, collectively, as, if you will, a people, have fought to hang onto, in the face of all the horrible things the world has made us.
Jed: I wasn’t going to answer this question, but it occurs to me (more or less expanding on something Jim said) that I do like some traditionally male approaches to communication and problem solving, as long they’re not taken too far and as long as they’re tempered with other approaches. For example, there’s a stereotype that when a woman is describing some distressing thing that’s happened in her life, male listeners tend to try to problem-solve, while female listeners tend to express sympathy. (I’m not sure what the stereotype is for other genders’ reactions.) I’ve gradually learned to ask whether the person who’s distressed is looking for sympathy or problem-solving; I think both are useful tools, and the response fairly often turns out to be something like “First be sympathetic for a while, and then let’s try and find a solution.”
Similarly, “male” directness can be refreshing and efficient, as long as it doesn’t try to deny the value of “female” indirectness.
Relatedly, I think there’s a stereotype that men tend to be more task-focused, and that women tend to be more relationship-focused. (Thanks to Sumana for those terms.) I think a focus on a task can be a really useful and important thing — as long as it’s not done to the exclusion or detriment of relationships.
And one more: Ben, I hear that your son recently commented that in our construction of masculinity, strength consists of not letting anyone see that you’re struggling. Although I think it’s terribly sad that we often don’t allow men to show vulnerability, I think there can be a place for the appearance of invulnerability; I think in some contexts, used carefully, it can provoke inspiration and aspiration and respect.
Mary Anne: Hm. I think I’d phrase it differently — heroes are the ones who get pounded, and then get up again and keep going. It’s a kind of invulnerability, but it only works because we know they’re being hit hard, that they’re hurting. But they get up and keep going anyway, when a lesser man [person] would give up. I think that’s the strength we really admire, more than someone who just doesn’t feel the pain.
Last question, and this one is a bit more confrontational. I’ve surrounded myself with feminist men, the kind who are committed to 50/50 partnerships, treating women as equals, etc. But even so, I sometimes find myself resenting their maleness. It often has nothing to do with them personally — I read one too many articles on college sexual assault, or domestic violence, or rape as a tool of cultural attack in war zones, or even just one of the perennial stories on the challenges women face in the workplace. Sometimes it’s personal; when my partner leaves more than fifty percent of the joint housework for me, or when something he’s said makes us both realize that on some level, he assumes his career is more important. Sometimes, I am filled with fury. What challenges do you face, in your feminism, in your work as an ally? Does it make it harder, knowing that women you care for may be really angry with you? What strategies do you use, to navigate that often tricky ground?
David: I guess I don’t really find it that tricky? It helps to keep in mind that, taken as a class, we deserve all of that anger and then some. Where it is personal, it also helps to be mindful of structural inequality, unconscious bias, all of that — and then to actually talk about that. Realizing and saying “Oh, fuck, I’m sorry, I’m doing that thing guys do” may not always stop somebody being angry at you but it does make it hard for you to escalate the argument, being angry back.
Is this really about the housework and about our different arbitrary standards of neatness, or is it about our joint responsibility to maintain an environment we’re both happy to live in? Is this really about my career, or have the patriarchy, capitalism, and family history teamed up to stick me with a deep-seated anxiety about the bacon, bringing home of?
Sometimes it’s not you, it’s a lifetime of microaggressions, and you need to respect that the way you’d respect any other trauma. And sometimes it really is you, and you don’t have the full picture.
Ben: Totally ditto this, and I love how David concretely describes the work of asking the questions. And they’re non-rhetorical questions. Maybe it is about arbitrary different standards of neatness, or maybe some of it is.
The first, indispensable step is for us to shut up and listen, but it’s only a first step. I have fucked up plenty by stonewalling on taking responsibility, but I’ve also fucked up by shutting down, thinking “oh god you’re right, it’s all my fault!” and then overpromising things I can’t deliver, as I have by stonewalling.
Our minds are required to be in there too, thinking about the problem, as equal partners; but our minds are only useful if they are skeptical of themselves, of the assumptions we’ve been schooled in. I think you’ve evoked the balancing act of calling ourselves into question, but not abdicating our responsibility to think with.
David: This is me heading into my mid-forties, you understand. At twenty-five I was totally capable of going full #NotAllMen.
Jim: You are so not alone there, David.
Na’amen: I think the first thing is that were dealing with two different kinds of anger here, one is institutional anger and then there’s personal anger. In either case the key is listening to that anger, allowing the person you are trying to be an ally to speak as if you were an ally and not a member of the opposition. A lot of that can be venting and ranting, one of the jobs as an ally is to sit in that uncomfortableness and allow it to happen. It is nothing compared to the source of the anger and often it’s how women feel every day while surrounded by the misogynist-rape culture our society markets and promotes. You can sit in it for an hour or two and allow someone to feel safe and allowed to have their feelings. Really you can.
If that’s something you find you can’t do I don’t think you’re a true ally. This is not saying don’t have feelings about it, don’t be hurt or anything like that but DO NOT make it about yourself and your feelings and recognize that often this is righteous anger is the expulsion of the poison bullshit she lives with every day.
Personally if I know the anger is institutional in nature it is much easier for me to sit there and let it happen because I don’t feel nearly as defensive. While I definitely still benefit from the system that has put whoever into this spiral of hurt and anger it does not come along with the guilt of having accidentally hurt someone I consider an ally. When it’s something that I’ve done personally, the main thing I have to remember to do is not let my defensiveness become my response. We all get defensive when we get called out at times, whether it’s because we don’t want to admit that we hurt someone or because you want to prove you’re not prejudiced or you want the chance to explain what you actually meant.
None of that matters. The defensiveness is the response you have to train yourself out of because society trains you every-single-day that you as the privileged party are always right, that you should not be questioned, that people should understand what you meant even when you weren’t clear. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe these in the larger sense; the subtle effects of it still seeps into your actions. If we aren’t called on the little ways in which we act out our privilege it’s so easy for those to become larger and more pervasive. This is not to say we can always get over the defensiveness right then and there. If I find myself getting really defensive I’ll often acknowledge it with a, “I’m really interested in having this discussion but I’m feeling very defensive right now — is there any way we could take a break and have this conversation in an hour or two when I’ve had a little more time to process.” I’ve rarely had people react negatively to that because it shows that you want to hear them and are trying to schedule a time when you can really take it in.
I also think that finding that person with whom you can share these thoughts without explanation is really important. One of my besties is a white lesbian I’ve known for well over a decade, we call each other Homo Life Buddy to acknowledge our connection and affection for one another. Even though she lives across the country now, we skype regularly and it is a normal occurrence for her to vent to me about men in a general rage sense and I do the same to her about white people all the time. We both understand what the situation is and that the anger is not directed at each other personally. Being able to do that has only made our friendship stronger and also gave us greater perspective that has made us both more sensitive to issues that we are invested in as allies.
Ben: I love what Na’amen said about saying “can we talk about this in an hour?” It was very hard for me to learn to do this, because I have this urgency to resolve it right now, because oh God if I don’t she’ll hate me forever. If I lean on the trust in the relationship, I can have the slack to ask for something like that, time to get my head together.
I also want to agree that venting — that kind of irrational, needy, steam-blowing-off, maybe-not-everything-I’m-saying-makes sense intimate talking-it-out — is crucial, and it’s crucial not only in our roles as targets of oppression but also as oppressors. “Oh god she hates me I fucked up but goddamnit I was trying my best why can’t she see that how the fuck was I supposed to know that…” That shit is going on in your head, and keeping it close to your chest is not helping you think any better about the situation.
But. There’s a really crucial rule here, which is, you don’t vent about your oppressor role at someone targeted by it. You don’t run over a peasant with your carriage and then crouch down and complain to the peasant about how hard it is to be a noble these days and how you only wanted the best for your serfs. This seems like an obvious basic rule of human courtesy, but I am stunned at how much ignorance of this rule is a source of destruction of relationships, particularly online where, hello, everyone can hear everything. So online if you vent about how hard it is that you’ve been miseducated into an oppressor role, you’re venting at the people that you’re currently oppressing. Don’t. Just don’t. (I’m not saying don’t discuss the fact that you’ve been miseducated or express emotion about this; I’m saying don’t vent — don’t pour all your injured feelings out in search of feeling better.)
But do vent about it, because you need to. You were set up with this bullshit and you’ll be far more effective at handling it if you can vent.
So who do you vent to? I think the ideal person is a mentor — so, for sexism, another guy, but a guy you trust around sexism. The last thing you want is a guy whose own defensiveness gets triggered, who’s going to defend your actions; “she’s just overreacting.” No, you want a guy who’s going to shake his head and say, “whoa dude, you seriously fucked up,” and grin and love you anyway. You want, in other words, someone not targeted by the oppression who sees it as oppression, but sees it also not as a catastrophe but as our ongoing everyday work of mending the world. You want someone you trust to be completely on your side, which means not on the side of the patriarchy.
Jim: Ditto what Na’amen said about the two types of anger. One of the challenges was learning that the anger wasn’t necessarily personal. When I come across an article talking about rape statistics, for example, and the author says something like “I hate men,” that’s institutional anger. It’s not, “I personally and specifically hate Jim C. Hines for his maleness.”
The balance to that awareness is that it can be easy to think of yourself as the exception. “Oh, they don’t mean me, because I’m such a Nice Guy.” Well, sometimes it is me. Sometimes it is personal. Because sometimes I screw up. Sometimes there are internalized attitudes and assumptions that I haven’t rooted out yet. Sometimes I say or do stupid, unthinking, hurtful, sexist stuff. And getting called out on that stuff is hard. There’s that defensive impulse to wave around my feminist cred and say, “But it’s me! The good guy who blogs about rape and sexual harassment and called out sexist cover poses and — ”
And I still mess up. It’s on me to acknowledge that, and to take responsibility for doing better. Isn’t that part of what societal masculinity is all about? Taking responsibility and owning your mistakes?
Easier said than done. There’s an email sitting in my inbox from last week that criticizes my portrayal of a female character in my most recent book. The writer didn’t hold back, either. I’m still working to get past my own hurt and defensiveness and ego to be able to read it without automatically saying, “But here’s a list of other women who love that character” or “You just don’t understand what I’m doing with her storyline” or just “Nope, you’re wrong!”
Someone being angry at me isn’t the end of the world. Anger and confrontation can be scary. But people you care about can be mad at you without it meaning they hate you and think you’re Evil Incarnate. It’s possible to listen to anger, to acknowledge and even validate it. Some of the most powerful conversations I’ve had have started with one person saying “I’m pissed at you for this thing,” and the other person saying, “Huh. Wow, you’re right. I’d be pissed too.”
Jed: I admire what y’all are saying here, and I agree that you’re right about how we should behave. Na’amen, I especially like your “is there any way we could take a break” paradigm; that sounds like a useful tool. But I don’t know if I can honestly say I live up to these good approaches.
Knowing that someone’s angry at me, or even angry at the patriarchy and that’s spilling over onto me? That’s hard. Intellectually, I totally get that it’s not nearly as hard as what the other person has to deal with on a regular basis; I’m certainly not asking for any sympathy here, just answering the question. But for conflict-averse me, my approach tends to be more about denial and hiding and defensiveness than about patient listening.
Mary Anne, you asked “Does it make it harder, knowing that women you care for may be really angry with you?” For me, the answer is absolutely yes. And although the strategies to navigate this ground that the rest of you are describing are great strategies that I would love to follow, in practice my “strategies” tend to consist of things like not exposing myself to that anger. Which obviously is a privilege thing, the privilege to be able to unilaterally take a break; I’m certainly not saying my approach is good or right. I’m being descriptive here, not prescriptive.
Ben: So to the anger question, I have two complementary answers. One is: does it make it hard? Of course it does. In the context of a relationship with a lot of trust, less so. But there’s still somewhere in me where I’m desperately afraid of other people’s anger. (Though I’m actually always already afraid I’ve fucked up and you’re angry with me, for any value of “you”, so you expressing your anger often comes as a relief.)
And in terms of speaking in public about things, it often stops me. I don’t know about anyone else here, but for me, the fact that I told Mary Anne that I’d write something for this volume and then didn’t? And then she put out a call saying “hey I’ve got all women, and no men, can we do a roundtable?” Hmm. And that my first thought was “ooh, Mary Anne will be there, it will be safe, she’ll make sure I don’t fuck up, she’ll keep people from being angry at me?”
And then, that Mary Anne had to write in a followup after we did the first draft, “I do think there’s a little bit of a tendency to give the ‘right’ answer. I’d be more interested in moments that are difficult…”?
Well there’s a difficult moment right there: even with Mary Anne here to keep me safe I still want to sound like I have everything under control, and only say the safe things, the ones that won’t make anyone mad at me.
So that’s the first thing: I’m afraid of your anger, and it stops me.
The second thing I want to say is: bring it. For God’s sake, please be angry with me. Sexism is a disease; I know I’m treating other people badly, and it’s often invisible to me. Or it’s visible, but I don’t have the guts to confront it on my own. If everyone plays along with it too, if no one ever confronts me, chances are I’m going to continue to be the kind of person I despise.
And it’s unfair of me to ask. It’s pretty awful to say that I can’t just manage to be a decent human being all on my own, to acknowledge that I’m going to continue to kick you and ask you to tell me you’re angry before I stop. That’s awful.
So it’s a favor I’m asking. Be angry. Trust me enough to tell me that you’re angry. There’s a part of me that feels like I’ll die if I hear it, but don’t listen to that part. Listen to the part that wants to be the person I aspire to be.
Elliott: I’m in an odd position where doing things now that I did ten years ago, in exactly the same way, will be read completely differently … because then I was perceived as a woman saying/doing them and now I am a man. Precisely the same actions and words that previously came off as in-group acceptable are now horrific trampling actions of the patriarchy. So I’m having to temper my tendencies to speak up quickly, to summarize and enthuse, because when I do it now it punches non-men on the bruises they have from Men Doing That Thing their whole lives.
Online, I take specific steps when sharing links or talking about social justice and oppression. I take a deep breath and first ask myself, do I need to respond to this? Do I need to respond instantly? Do I need to fill a comment thread with quick replies and rejoinders? Is there another person (a woman, a person of color, a nonbinary gender-variant person, etc) whose words I can signal-boost instead of writing something short that is original to me?
Jed: Well said — I’ve been trying to learn to do pretty much exactly what you’re describing in that last paragraph, asking myself those specific questions. I find it really hard to do. But worthwhile.
Elliott: It’s weird to have to shift from viewing feminism as my primary activism, my homespace, into viewing myself as an anti-sexist activist. I am now an ally, a visitor to my former home country, and I no longer have the right to talk about a lot of things as if I had ownership of them. I keep reflexively saying “we” when talking about women and women’s experiences, and that’s become increasingly uncool to my peers as more and more of them take me seriously as a man.
Mary Anne: I would gladly talk about this at much more length; in many ways, I feel like our society’s conversations about masculinity are just beginning, that we’re now playing catch-up to what the early feminists started in their conversations about femininity. But our space is limited. Any final thoughts?
Jim: Years ago, I wrote a short story about two married thieves, from the point of view of a male thief. Then there was an anthology looking for sword & sorcery stories from a specifically female point of view. I figured it would be no problem to simply swap the two characters around and submit the story.
I was stunned by the number of times I found myself automatically starting to change bits of dialogue and action, because what had seemed perfectly normal for a male protagonist just felt wrong for a female. It was eye-opening to see how many ways those unconscious attitudes had burrowed into my brain and snuck into my writing without me ever even realizing it.
Ben: I have had that experience too, and in fact I have Scrivener set up to compile my novel always into two PDFs, with genders swapped. Mind-blowing, isn’t it? (Fun fact: a manic pixie dream girl, gender-flipped, becomes a creepy stalker.)
Elliott: It seems to me, the best cure for oppression is speech — and, of course, listening. When we KNOW what other humans have to put up with on a daily basis, the behavior behind those patterns becomes iteratively less acceptable to those of us that didn’t use to know it existed. And in a way, Rule One of American Masculinity is “We Do Not Talk About American Masculinity.”
When I was putting my first tentative toes onto the path of transition, I extensively websearched and researched (because I’m a geek, and geeks deal with emotional turmoil by seeking data). And at least one of the sites I found, early on, that seemed to have useful touchstones and help for me in navigating masculinity and learning gendered skills and owning my dapper … turns out to be owned and run by MRAs. I hadn’t done a deep-dive on it, just read here and there from articles that looked useful, and so when I later enthusiastically linked someone to one of their historical-grooming articles it was shocking to me for them to counter-link me to a poisonous WIMMENZ BE KEEPIN US DOWN article on the same site.
MRAs shouldn’t be the only ones hosting that conversation. We masculine people need to be capable of inhabiting the vulnerable space that examining masculinity involves, and to find our buddies: our real friends, who will hear us vent about the pain of having to own an oppressor role we never volunteered for (while working to end oppression), and tell us when we’re being dumbasses or harmful. There needs to be a network of anti-sexist men that younger or more vulnerable baby-dudes can hook into for support and teaching.
We need to talk about this.
Na’amen: We all make mistakes. Everyone. And the way to react is not with anger or defense but with thought and respect. Even those of us who try to be educated and aware of power dynamics don’t always do it right. None of this is saying don’t make a mistake but don’t try to defend your mistake by making more and more until there’s no way to deal with the mountain of privilege you’ve piled on.
I’m thinking of a specific example in terms of writing which is Joe Abercrombie (unfortunately I can’t find the link now) who was called out for the way women are dealt with in his initial trilogy. His fans automatically jumped to defend him with the same old sexist language and reactions. Then Mr. Abercrombie waded in and basically agreed with the initial takedown, pointed out where he had done worse, apologized and promised to do better. This sort of reaction made me step back and say, “Huh, well I won’t read any of the previous books but I’ll definitely check out his new releases.” There will always be people who will hate you no matter what after the initial slip-up but you’d be surprised how far a heartfelt apology can go in terms of smoothing over your mistakes and I mean a real one not one of those ‘sorry if you were offended’ faux-apologies.
So yeah, if you fuck up, don’t get defensive, apologize, take your lumps and try better next time. I feel like that’s some real basic 101 stuff but it keeps happening so obviously it needs to keep being said.
Mary Anne: Speaking just for myself, this is what makes me feel safer in the world, and more hopeful about our future; these conversations, with men actively involved. Thank you all, so much, for the time and thoughtfulness you invested in this discussion.
(originally published in WisCon Chronicles 9: Intersections and Alliances, Aqueduct Press, reprinted by permission)