The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A letter on masculinity and myth

A great letter I got regarding my "Lifewriting for Men" (not the title) project:
Dear Mr. Barnes,

I'm not so sure how serious you are regarding asking us for advice on your upcoming regarding masculinity project. I'd be happy to contribute my thoughts, but am unsure if I'm replying to a 'bot (or not)!

I've been reading your writing tips for something over a year now and they've been helping think about some of my own writing habits. Haven't plunked the money down for "life writing", though. Yet.

My wife, (DELETED), and I are anthropologists studying prostitution, sexuality, masculinity, sexual tourism and trafficking of women in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You might say that thinking about masculinity is our profession, as much as writing is yours.

Looking at what you've jotted down, I'd say you have to make an early decision: do you wish to talk about masculinity in a real fashion (i.e. with some foot rooted in what science has revealed to us) or do you want to speak about it in mythopoetic fashion, a la Robert Bly's 'Iron John'?

Personally, as a man and as an anthropologist, I`d urge you to take the high road and avoid the mythopoetry. Mythical musings which essentialize man as hero or protector or whatever have a long and very ignoble history in the west. At the same time, given that you are a writer, I realize that it`s going to be difficult for you to approach this topic from any angle but the mythopoetic.

In that case...

My friend (DELETED) and I have discussed, on and off for years, the need to revinvent masculine myths and given your particular set of skills and sensibilities, you have a much better shot at doing this than most.

I would thus suggest, then, that you think of masculinity as a sort of performance, one which is open to anyone, including women. De-essencialize masculinity and detach it from sex and the Y chromosome. What is it that men - all men - DO? What set of activities, values and ways of looking at the world seem, to you, to be particularly masculine? You might want to sound out a few gay and lesbian friends on this one, btw, given that many gays and lesbians are highly sensitive observers of masculinity.

When it comes to just "ordinary guys" and their discontents, christ, I could write a book (and in fact am writing one). With masculinity, however, one needs to always tread a very narrow path. On the one hand, maculinity is generally the priviledged gender performance in our civilization and many of its discontents are, in fact, complaints regarding the relative weakening of some of these privileges. On the other hand, masculine people are not taught to express their feelings adequately and, in general, masculine complaints are traditionally hand-waved away as so much whining. Because of this contradictory dynamic, one must be aware that what may first sound like the whining of the priviledged often covers up some very deep and disturbing issues which really must be aired and dealt with.

Just uncovering what men's problems are, then, is a problem in and of itself. Feminism has a ready set of answers but, in spite of being a feminist supporter, I have serious doubts about feminism's ability to adequately comprehend men. Many - if not most - feminists borrow a victim-victimizer dynamic which is ultimately rooted in Marxist dialectical thought to explain gender. While I don't want to reject this approach out of hand, it strikes me that it has some obvious weakenesses.

For one thing, in the classical Marxist dialectic, the proletartiat is not responsible for the ethical, moral and physcial upbringing of the bourgeoisie. In the same dialectic as applied to, say, race, black people generally do not raise white people (yes, there are exceptions - some notorious, but these aren't general). But generally, women raise men and thus a very great part of what we learn about masculinity is thus transmitted to us and/or reinforced by women.

The dynamic of oppression and reaction which exists between men and women is thus more fractal and complicated than most feminists give it credit for (Camille Paglia and Judith Butler being two notable exceptions). Though I still believe that masculinity is relatively priveleged as compared to femininity, I no longer believe that said dynamic can adequately be explained or described by a simple binary Marxist dialect which stipulates a clearly dominant oppressor and a cleary submissive (however combative) oppressed.

Any REAL discussion of masculinity is going to be difficult and an exploration of the unknown (or, better yet, the unarticulated) because of the dynamic described above and will almost inevitably piss a lot of people off.

If you're understandably not willing to dive into the deep end, then I suggest you just repackage Robert Bly's primitivst happy-crappy for the gay-affirmative era and leave it at that. ;-)

Anyhow, just my two cents.


No, I'm not going to write/record something that is also intended for girls, women, gay women, or whatever. I've seen plenty of books written for women by women, understanding that women have some special needs and interests. So do men. And in this case, it is the need to define masculinity in a way that serves them and speaks to their deepest needs and desires. Listen too much to what women want, and you'll fall into the same trap that women fall into if they listen too much to what men say.

We SAY what is in our conscious minds. We RESPOND to what touches the deeper, unconscious structure. Women are just as likely to manipulate men to be docile and controllable as men are to encourage women to be sexually available. And the result is disaster. The trick, in my mind, is to create the strengths, and then round off the corners, gentle those stallions down. But the core of strength must be there, the ability to respond to aggression, to deal with fear, to build a nest. To be strong, and confident enough in that strength, to have no need to dominate. To be capable of nurturing and protecting a child, even if you have no interest in having one. Much of this stuff is just "what is it to be an adult?" But there are some differences, without which women will not respond to you, and men will not respect you.

Yes, the rules are changing, but not equally across all segments of society, and trying to pretend this is a unisex world before it actually is simply courts frustration, anger and fear. I won't interview lesbians and transsexuals about this stuff, although I'm sure they have interesting things to say. I will draw my attitudes from older men and the women who have been married to them long enough to raise a family. Where THOSE attitudes align with the fevers of youth, I will chart a path. Hopefully, what I have to say will be useful to 90% of men. That I certainly hope for. Where the rules are different for, say, gay men, I would hope there are responsible gay men who will write to that need. My suspicion is that many, if not most, of the rules are the same.

Everything else has the risk of running off the edge of the map.


The current winning title? "Things Dad Never Told Me* (*That every Son should know)"

Yes, there is testosterone there. But then, that's what we're talking about, you know.


suzanne said...

testosterone is not
the ONLY thing
that makes a Man. . .!

quentin vaughan said...

I guess I just love the myth/hero vibe! I make no apologies for it. As it teaches me solid useable wisdom in my world.

Anonymous said...

I think Steven has done an excellent job balancing the 'mythic' with the 'chop wood/carry water' aspect. I would not want to see either aspect neglected.

As someone who read Iron John back in the day, I think Bly tapped into a deep well. It wasn't him or his book that descended into the "happy-crappy" -- it was those men -- the James Rays of their day -- who pumped Bly's deep well just for $$$.

Robert Curry

PS: And yes PLEASE -- no marxist dialectics! Keep academe out of this completely....

Marty S said...

I find the letter that is the core of this post and this whole subject confusing. It seems to me we are discussing and sometimes confusing two different things. Maleness and masculinity. The human species has two genders male and female, which are quite different physically. Some of those physical differences include hormones and brain structure, which means they are also different mentally/emotionally. This is how nature made us. Then there are the concepts of masculinity and femininity which I consider to be more social constructs than function of physical characteristics, although those characteristics do play a role in forming the social construct. So which of these subjects are you actually planning to address in the book or if the book is going to address both how will their treatment differ.

Steve Perry said...

You have a point, Suzanne, but it is a powerful chem:

Give enough of it to a woman, and she will start to look like a man, right down to developing a clitoris that can enlarge and resemble, if not function as, a penis.

Some of these changes aren't reversible ...

Ethiopian_Infidel said...

"You have a point, Suzanne, but it is a powerful chem:"

Simply put, if one's concentration of Estrogen and Progesterone are higher, female physical and behavioral characteristics predominate; if Testosterone's higher, male physiology and behavior do. Whatever "makes" a woman or man (or an effeminate or masculine homosexual) follows straightforward from endocrinology.

suzanne said...

Give enough of it to a woman, and she will start to look like a man, right down to developing a clitoris that can enlarge and resemble, *snip* (ouch), a penis.

from my personal knwledge
can already enlarge

and really now
all penises started out
as clitorises

everyone begins life female

BC Monkey said...

Unrelated to this post, but instead to diet and eating.

This is why we're fat: We can't say no

This is why we're fat: Slaves to sugar

Steve given your previosu discussions on diet and self control, you might find interesting.

Steve Perry said...

Ever go to a bodybuilding competition and see the women who take major amounts of anabolic steroids -- male hormones? They look like men in bikinis, with voices that make James Earl Jones sound like a soprano.

Yeah, a normal clitoris get bigger under stimulation, but that's not what we're talking about here, where the roids can produce something that looks like a four-year-old boy's willie on a woman with a beard and hair on her chest ...

We might all start out as the basic model human (female) but that testosterone is a major factor in turning girls into boys.

Anonymous said...

"Mythical musings which essentialize man as hero or protector or whatever have a long and very ignoble history in the West." What? Every culture be it Western or Eastern have such "musings." What is this guy on? And to put down mythology and discard it as practically useless is to defy reality all together. Even modern science or facts (if you will) reveal that most young men are drawn to masculine images portrayed by MEN, not by women or gay men. No bashing on gay men but in reality, most young men do not wish to model themselves after them. To say whether that is "right" or "wrong" is another argument in which you're presenting yourself as the judge. If you want to look at masulinity from a scientific point of view, then it's easy to see that the human mind holds a place for mythology. People are drawn to movies, music, sports, stories, however, the reason for this isn't so much literal as it is metaphorical. I remember watching a documentary on Elephants in a reservation/park. There was a big problem- the adolescent elephants ("bulls") were actually forming "gangs" and killing off rhinos in the park. The aggression was due to the fact that the females would not engage the young bulls and that there were no adult bulls to keep them the youngsters in check. The narrator acutally pointed out that there was no adult bull to show the younger ones how to engage the females appropriately! The park evenutally brought in older bulls to see if their presence could intervene in this matter. It eventually worked. Do I even need to emphasize my point? The person who taught me to be a man was another man- my father. My mother taught me about men, but not how to be. You take a away the man when talking about masculinity and you have an obvious problem. How else would you describe gangs? -Younger men looking for acceptance not from women but from other "men." You ignore this then you're not taking the "high road." In my opinion you just have an axe to grind.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, this brilliant idea is necessary just by the way

Anonymous said...

Always look at the bright side. (Be optimistic).