One of my campers last summer was explaining to me at one point that his stepfather always told him that “A real man always carries a knife and some paracord in case of emergencies.” My response was, “Well, I don’t always carry those things around and I’m a man.” The camper responded with “Nope.” A twelve-year-old literally told me that I’m not a real man. The staff at camp set up a space where any child can express themselves however they want to. Seeing how narrow-minded my camper’s view of masculinity was made the issue of societal pressures on men much more real. Obviously, this is not to say that societal pressures and expectations of women are not as much of an issue, it’s easy to argue that those issues are more important. But looking back on my life experience and the culture in which I live makes masculinity a very relevant subject.
I am extremely comfortable defining myself as a straight man. I have never doubted either of those descriptions for myself. However, I have also never felt that I completely embody “manliness.” Yeah, I can grow a badass beard and I love that fact, but I’m skinny, awkward, have never been that athletic, and I consider myself very in-tune with my emotions. Hell, I like crying. There have been times when I’m just sitting around by myself and just think, “Wow, I could really use a good cry.” The past year especially I feel like I get to an emotional point much more easily, maybe because of all of the work I’ve been doing with College Possible. It’s stressful and draining, but so positive overall. The day I posted my last blog I cried three times. And I really consider that a wonderful thing to be able to do.
But because of these things that are not necessarily “manly,” middle school especially was a rough time. Through that time, my best friend was athletic, constantly had girls swooning over him (that’s how I saw it, anyway), and to this day is at least kinda good at everything he tries. I was the opposite. I was picked on, girls never really looked at me, I was one of the last to be picked for sports teams on the playground, and I still think there are only a few select things that I really excel at. By some miracle I have always been okay with who I am, but the contrast that I felt between myself and my male peers, sometimes even to this day, is astonishing.
The irony is that I was involved in tae kwon do throughout middle school and some of high school, and I made it halfway through my first degree black belt. Granted, with my body type and pacifism I’m not sure I ever would have been able to injure another person, but the fact remains that I am indeed a black belt. I feel the need to point this out because it takes a lot of people by surprise. No, I haven’t been to a class in probably eight years, but earlier this year a friend that I have had for a couple years didn’t believe me when I told her that I’m a black belt. I’m still not sure if she does. So this is the type of guy I am.
Using my experience as a reference, I watched a documentary on Netflix recommended to me by a friend, The Mask You Live In. The movie goes over the cultural standards we put on boys and men, the consequences of it, and what all of that information really means. The documentary defined masculinity as being tough, not showing emotion, domination, competition, sex, drugs, alcohol, violence, and “the rejection of everything feminine.” Ultimately, the last aspect is important to discuss, because it teaches boys that being a woman/girl is inherently a bad thing, and that we as men should be separated from them as much as possible. I don’t feel the need to discuss the gender/sexuality spectrum here, but it’s a very real concept that all too often goes unacknowledged by mainstream society. Our culture is too binary; there is a rigid cutoff that separates men and women. And that leads to problems.
Boys aren’t allowed to be who they want to be because they can’t express their emotions. The most common manifestation of any emotion for men is anger, and looking at the violence and mass shootings that have occurred in recent years, it becomes more obvious that how we handle masculinity is clearly an issue we need to address more. The movie explained that 90% of homicides are committed by men, which ultimately means that gender could be a significant factor when looking at murders, not just mental illness, which in more cases than not is what society blames for the tragedies. No shit the perpetrator is mentally ill, he hasn’t been getting the emotional connections he needs in his life; he is told instead to suppress anything and everything. I’m probably oversimplifying this, but it’s still something that needs to be considered.
Boys are also exposed to a lot of violent media, oftentimes more than girls. I myself have always played a lot of video games, but one thing I noticed over the years as games became more gruesome and more realistic is that the online gaming community really sucks, especially for games like Call of Duty. I used to be excited to talk to people from around the world that were playing the same game I was, but now I can’t stand listening to tweens telling other players to go fuck themselves or that they’re going to rape their opponents’ mothers, and the thought of these boys even playing these games in the first place and even using those words or phrases is disgusting to me. I feel as though I was unique in that I first played World War II games and loved the historical aspect; I would look up the historical events and gain a better understanding of what I was experiencing in the alternate reality of the games, which was why the Assassin’s Creed series stuck out to me as well. Games that are contemporary are relevant to the lives of gamers and can have a huge impact on how they perceive the world around them and normalizes violence. At least, that’s my opinion about video games, which I realize is a little ironic, but I’m thankful that somehow I have always been able to separate games from reality.
Rejecting anything feminine also means that heterosexuality is supposed to be the norm in a man’s world. It’s no secret that bullying due to being gay can sometimes lead to teen suicide. While I’m not gay, the one time I did snap and lash out physically from being bullied was in middle school, and the insult did have the connotation that I was gay. Since then I have obviously become more comfortable with who I am, but that ever-present definition of masculinity is always a thing that men everywhere are aware of. Earlier this year I went to a movie with a friend of mine and he was giving me a ride on his scooter. Picturing the two of us grown men on a bright yellow scooter is hilarious to me since we’re so close anyway, but we definitely did get a few looks going down the street. My friend pointed out that “this is probably the gayest thing we’ve ever done.” But back to the point at hand, men need to prove their sexuality in a completely different way than women do, and that results in the idea of sexual “conquests” to prove one’s masculinity, another thing I have a hard time relating to. Of course, the double standard between men and women in this context is ridiculous since women who sleep around are “sluts” or “whores” in the eyes of society. And ultimately all of this results in the objectification of women. The Mask You Live In uses the example of “hit that” or “tap that” to refer to women in a sexual way, which is completely dehumanizing. Not to mention a lot of similar euphemisms use violent language (i.e. hit), which is bound to lead to other issues.
The documentary goes into a lot more issues that I won’t talk about, but I just wanted to express how I feel about some of the issues that spoke to me directly wen I watched it. I feel like I was able to get over a lot of the obstacles that many other young men face and I have become comfortable with who I am. Who knows what it was; I had supportive teachers, coaches and instructors, and especially my parents. Maybe I’m just lucky. But that still means that as a society we need to be aware of what we are teaching our kids, both boys and girls, about genders. The spectrum needs to be emphasized and everyone should be encouraged to be who they are instead of what our culture tells them to be. And for those young men and women who don’t have people to look up to, help them find role models to let them reach their full potential and be who they want to be. I highly encourage everyone to watch The Mask You Live In as well as Miss Representation, which I need to rewatch now (both are on Netflix). It’s not enough to be aware of the issues surrounding gender, it’s time we all educated ourselves and figured out what we can do to contribute to the solution, for men, women, and everyone in between.