Men are Broken

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A year ago last week, I had been meeting with my therapist for around a month, being treated for depression.

I remember meeting with him for the first time around the beginning of October of 2017, explaining that I was standing on the edge of a bottomless chasm, feeling like Nietzsche was totally wrong. The abyss doesn’t stare back; it doesn’t see you at all.

Then, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2017, I was a stone in his office, fingering the little frays on the sleeves of what is probably the same shirt I’m wearing today, staring a thousand yards through the wall, explaining how I’d just found out my wife was having another affair.

He didn’t ask me how it made me feel about my father, and he didn’t ask to talk about it, which I was sort of grateful for. I didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to fester inside of it, let it bloom and grow into rage. Instead, he asked something worse.

Can I ask you a question?

A sarcastic quip from me, probably.

Who is Hamilton?

Oh no.

I wished he’d asked about the affair, or the one before this. About the one I felt was coming next. About spending Thanksgiving pretending like everything was okay, putting on a pretty face for relatives.

I told him Hamilton was a Nesting Doll, but with layers all the way down, and a black hole in the center.

We’ve talked a little bit about you already, he told me. You’re like a broken chameleon. But even chameleons have a color.

We spent the next few months, in the fallout of that second affair, in the wakes of the ones that came after, taking off the porcelain heads I’d painted so delicately.

You’re good at reading a room, adapting to it, letting it set the tone, and becoming who you perceive the room needs you to be. But has Hamilton ever been in a room before?

He hammered me, and I tried not to break underneath the taps. My layers were my armor, and the skin was pink and raw underneath each one. Each time, I left with the same question:

Who is Hamilton?

Hamilton is broken.

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A few months ago, I was attending a men’s conference, and one of the speakers was instructing the thousands of men in attendance to “Act like a man.” He had four points to describe what acting like a man meant. The first was “Don’t act like a woman.”

My stomach tightened, and I let out an audible groan. I know it was audible because the burly man beside me who breathed a quick “mm!” cast a sideways glance.

The speaker spoke to these men about strength. About doing the right thing. About leadership.

But everything he was saying was something I was having more and more trouble associating with “man”ness.

Strength is not an inherent masculine quality. Neither is doing the right thing. Neither is leadership.

I was suddenly back in my sessions.

What is a man?

A man is not a woman.

That is not a definition. What is a man?

A man is strong and a leader and provides for his family.

You aren’t strong. You aren’t a leader. And women are strong leaders who provide for their families, too. What is a man?

I think men are broken.

It was barely a hundred years ago that Mary Shelley had to publish her landmark novel Frankenstein anonymously because she was an eighteen-year-old woman, and as such never would have been able to see its ink on pages.

Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë had to publish under the names Acton, Ellis, and Currer Bell.

Louisa May Alcott had to begin publishing Little Women as A. M. Barnard. Jane Austen published her first novel as “a Lady,” but early reviews theorized a man was behind the pseudonym; a woman simply couldn’t write a novel that good.

Even recently, author Catherine Nichols conducted an experiment where she shopped her novel around under two names: her own and a male-sounding pseudonym. In her words,

George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.
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These things feel like strength to me, but an unfortunate kind. A desperate kind. Tying the tourniquet and hacking off your own name, a piece of your identity, so that you can see something you’ve made come to life, but only because you must — only because the system demands it. These things sound like resolve, but a bitter one. A sort of stubbornness to see something they’ve created die on the cutting room floor, even with someone’s foot on your neck.

If that is what “being a woman” is like, I’d be honored to be described that way.

Over the last fifty or so years, we’ve seen a revolution of womanhood. We’ve seen a space develop where a woman can exhibit traits historically reserved for men — as innovators, creators, leaders, producers, providers — and do so with grace and fluidity. “Femininity” has begun developing its own vocabulary. It has started defining its own essence. Femininity is on its way to becoming a nuanced term where it was once a pigeonholed signpost indicative of a second-class citizen.

Though there is still a ways to go, we’re coming up on an age when you can be “strong” and “independent” and “feminine” at the same time, without any of those qualities diminishing the others. We’ll (hopefully) soon be in an era where a woman can be each of them in the same breath, in the same mental frame.

I realize that the previous paragraph could have its own book and that women are not out of the woods yet; my point is that the same cannot be said of “men”.

A brief thought experiment. What comes to mind when you think of “stay-at-home dad”? Is it the same image we construct when we see men posting about their wives or mothers on Mother’s Day, talking about how they have the hardest job in the world — the überfrau who manages a household, makes sure everyone is fed and sane and clean, who juggles the emotional labor of meal planning and schedule managing and date coordinating all while retaining the gentleness and grace associated with “mother”? Somehow, I doubt it. Manliness seems to be inextricably linked with potency, power, strength; a “fragile” or “effeminate” or man is somehow neutered.

Women have taken the reigns of their femininity into their own hands and have stopped defining it as “not-man.” And as “woman” has broken away from the definition of “not a man”, “man” has done no such thing. It has either clung to or doubled down on a somewhat outdated distinction between genders that relies on “man” being one thing and “woman” being something else.

Now, I live in the heart of the Red State South, where a sentence like that is generally met with something like, “So if there’s no difference between men and women, you can just be whatever gender you want because it doesn’t matter!”

But this kind of rebuttal is a straw man, and entirely misses the point. Femininity is wholly distinct from masculinity — the difference is that it doesn’t define itself by that distinction anymore. This kind of argument is a desperate claw for an identity from a group of people who see the liberation of woman as a revocation of the liberty of man.

And perhaps it’s that desperation that has broken us.

On December 2, 2015, Tashfeen Malik walked into an office Christmas party in San Bernadino with her husband and gunned down 14 people, injuring 22 others. On April 3 of this year, Nasim Agdham opened fire in the YouTube headquarters in San Bruno. There are a handful of instances like these, where women demonstrate violent outbursts, but they are far and away the exception. Mass violence tends to be a uniquely male phenomenon.

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Furthermore, men account for 79% of suicides and homicide victims (of which 90.3% were carried out by men), and 51% of the homeless population (the majority of the remainder is split between single women and families — 24% and 23%, respectively). While just about every species of animal displays heightened male aggression, that aggression almost always has a biological root. Males may compete for mates, for territory, for food. Humans are unique in their propensity for sadistic violence, and human males are almost solely responsible for it.

Men are broken.

I don’t know that a man can understand the feeling of knowing that not even one hundred years ago, their entire gender was legally prohibited from doing something we consider a fundamental civic right, like voting. We can’t understand someone denying us something as trivial as a credit card on the basis of the our sex.

Furthermore, for a white man in 2018 America, the concept of protesting in order to get something we didn’t already have (but others did) is wholly foreign. We’ve never known what it felt like to be denied something simply because of something that we can’t change. We can’t know what it’s like to get a manuscript looked over just because our name is Catherine, not George.

Blanket statement incoming: Women have taken the title of woman into their own hands and are molding a future out of it. Men are not. We are still in a situation where, in 2018, at a conference for men, men are being told that “act like a man” means “don’t act like woman.”

Well if women are active, fighting for equality, yearning to be taken seriously, and eager to be known by their merit rather than their genitalia, why shouldn’t men act like women?

The truth is, we don’t know what we’re supposed to act like.

Men, as I’ve said, are broken.

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Wait, a man said to one of my friends. This man is in his fifties, a generation older. You’re talking about candles?

It smelled great, my friend said. You can’t tell me you don’t like things that smell good.

I do like things that smell good, the older man replied. Like my wife and my daughters.

I couldn’t help myself. I told my friend to tone it down because someone’s fragile masculinity couldn’t handle it.

My masculinity is fine, the older man told me, because at least it exists.

Women are finally in positions to be heard, and so the noise they’re making is louder. They’re putting other women in positions of power — positions of power over men. Men, in turn, are having to listen, adapt, learn, and reflect because if they don’t, they’ll be made irrelevant by more than half of the population. We’re learning something that women have known for decades: gender has nothing to do with capability.

This presents us with a problem that we have yet to solve, namely that perhaps everything society has taught us about being “masculine” is a lie. It has to be more than just “not a woman.”

Girls are outperforming boys at every turn; they’re told, for perhaps the first time ever, that they can be anything, that doing something “like a girl” means with strength and grace and doing it all the way through.

Meanwhile, men are having to face a situation in which wanton aggression, brute strength, heedless competition are neither necessary nor wanted. Some look at themselves and see a wholesale lack of these “classically” masculine traits and struggle to understand where they fit. As it turns out, twenty-first century American men do not have a paradigm for masculinity that allows for reflection or grief or tenderness (or despair) that doesn’t also strip them of what they’re told makes them a man.

It’s time to take a cue from the powerful women at each corner around us, to open ourselves up to an exploration of the complexity of masculinity, to see all of the shades that comprise it. We might not have realized it until recently, but men are broken. But that doesn’t mean we have to stay that way.