[Ed. Note: This is my attempt to turn what would otherwise be a long, far-ranging post into more digestible parts. Let me know if it works.]
Part 1 – Sissies
You’re on the air.
Buenos noches Senores y Senoras.
La primera pregunta es: Que es mas macho, pineapple o knife?
Well, let’s see.
My guess is that a pineapple is more macho than a knife.
Pineapple es mas macho que knife.
La segunda pregunta es: Que es mas macho, lightbulb o schoolbus?
No! Lo siento,
Schoolbus es mas macho que lightbulb.
And we’ll be back in un momento.
~ Laurie Anderson, “Smoke Rings”
Lately, in moments of frustration, I can sometimes be heard to say that I spend most of my time thinking about what I want to do while actually doing something else. Maybe that’s because my mind tends to work in perpetual associative mode, especially in terms of reading and writing. When I read something, I immediately start thinking of how it’s related to something else I’ve read or written. And that usually leads to an idea for something else I want to read or write. Frustration sets in because there isn’t enough time to get to all the things I want to read or write. So instead I think about them while doing something else.
But sometimes, just enough time passes that all the tangents in my mind get tied together in a kind of knot and actually make sense as a whole. At least to me. I had one of those moments this week, when I walked into a bookstore. I was just about to finish She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, and I was looking more reading related gender roles and issues. I eventually walked out with Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality, but not before I passed a book display and was confronted by a title in stark white letters on a black background: Manliness.
With some trepidation, I picked it up.
I admit, I’m automatically defensive when it comes to books like this, even before I know what the author means by “manliness.” Maybe that’s because of my experience with masculinity or manliness as a concept. Every time it was brought up, the purpose was to define what made a “real boy” or a “real man,” and I always fell short. And when I see a book with the Manliness emblazoned across the cover as the title, maybe it’s wrong but I go in with the assumption that the author is going to assert that guys like me — guys who are not typically, traditionally, or conventionally masculine — are to some degree part of “the problem.”
I’ll just go ahead and admit that when I picked up Manliness I went directly to the index, looked up “homosexuality” and went straight (pun intended) to those entries, only to find that in the very first mention the author states “One aspect omitted is homosexuality, a topic I leave to others.” I found that something of a cop-out, especially since just reading through the preface indicated that he has a particular problem with “independent men and independent women,” but definitely more so with the latter, if statements like this one are any indication.
Women today want to be equal to men, equal in a way that makes them similar to, or virtually the same as, men. They do not want the sort of equality that might result from being superior at home if inferior at work. They have decided that work is better than home.
He goes on to bemoan the progressively wider range of choices women have gained over time before adding:
Thus the true, the effectual, meaning of women’s equality is women’s independence is women’s independence — which in turn, so far as possible, means independence from men and from children.
You can read this New York Times interview with the author to get a better idea of where he’s coming from. Without getting into the economic implications for individual women, upon returning to a more Victorian division of labor between the genders, I immediately thought of conservatives who were recently in agreement with Iran’s Muslim fundamentalist president that the problem with the west is that women have too many choices.
But as I put Manliness back on the display and turned up the volume on they 80s playlist I was listening to on my iPod (the inspiration for Laurie Anderson lyric at the beginning of this post), it wasn’t women’s status that was on my mind (though it’s inextricably connected to my subject here). It was a question from another song. It’s a mid-90s song, not an 80s song, but its one that reminds me of my 80s, growing up as a skinny, effeminate, nonathletic gay boy; in the south. In other words, I was a sissy.
So many times we have to pay
For having fun and being gay
It’s not amusing
There’s always those that spoil our games
By finding fault and calling names
They draw attention to themselves
At the expense of someone else
It’s so confusing
Yet they make fun of how i talk
And imitate the way i walk
Tell me if you can
What makes a man a man
~ Marc Almond, “What Makes a Man a Man?
And the only reason that song was on my mind, which was the only reason I picked up Manliness very briefly, was because earlier I’d read Becky’s post on “real manliness.”
I disagree with Cook’s criticism of raising men to be manly. I think parents need to be tuned into their kids, of course, but boys are not always inclined to develop their own manliness. If you don’t teach them to be manly in this age of video games and computers, you might well end up with a timid, flabby, insecure, non-aggressive boy who won’t ever reach his potential. That is as criminal as forcing an assertive, intelligent girl to dress in frilly dresses and focus on finding a good man instead of developing her own interests and talents. Cook can criticize throwing footballs, hunting, etc. as “archaic” forms of manliness all she wants, but doing so only reinforces the perception that feminism is about destroying manliness.
Further, it reveals how little she understands manly men. Sports and the myriad of other outdoor activities that men enjoy together are male bonding events and absolutely crucial for building the self-confidence a man needs to succeed and be respected among his peers. Men should teach their sons to be good at those activities so they are able to bond with other men (and, by the way, women need to butt out and leave the men alone to do it). Without physical, emotional and mental strength, most men will lack confidence and likely not reach their full potential. It simply is not enough that a man be “honorable, trustworthy, caring and responsible.”
It reminded me in some ways of my own growing up and my folks’ various attempts to “make a man of me,” including stuff like making me stay in the Boy Scouts (all the way to Eagle Scout) when I said over and over again that I wanted out.Going off to camp,learning to tie knots, pitch tents, hiking,etc., were all things that I hated beyond measure, and things that I did not want to do in the least. Nevermind the things I was interested in and was good at. My problem was that I liked and wanted the wrong things. And if I wasn’t aggressive and assertive enough, it was because I wasn’t who I was supposed to be.
Because it’s clear, to some people at least, what a man is supposed to be.
That dominant conception of masculinity in U.S. culture is easily summarized: Men are assumed to be naturally competitive and aggressive, and being a real man is therefore marked by the struggle for control, conquest and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants and takes it. Men who don’t measure up are wimps, sissies, fags, girls. The worst insult one man can hurl at another — whether it’s boys on the playground or CEOs in the boardroom — is the accusation that a man is like a woman. Although the culture acknowledges that men can in some situations have traits traditionally associated with women (caring, compassion, tenderness), in the end it is men’s strength-expressed-as-toughness that defines us and must trump any female-like softness. Those aspects of masculinity must prevail for a man to be a “real man.”
Competitive. Aggressive. Control.Conquest. Domination. If those aren’t foremost in your personality, if they’re secondary to qualities usually associated with women, you’re not a man. You’re something less than a man. You’re like a woman, as the article says. In the rawest of masculine vernacular, then, you get fucked. You are meant to get fucked. And if you’re a man whose “like a woman” the shorthand for all of the above is “faggot,” a term we’ve heard lately from actors, authors, and asshole political commentators, leveled at various people up to and including a presidential candidate.
Another lyric, this time from song that actually started playing on my iPod as I wandered back to the gay/lesbian studies shelf, to find my book.
You don’t want to sound dumb
Don’t want to offend
So don’t call me a faggot
Not unless you are a friend
Then if you’re tall, handsome and strong
You can wear the uniform and I could play along
And so it goes, go round again
But now and then we wonder who the real men are
~ Joe Jackson, “Real Men”
Fine, I thought. One of the great reliefs I find in being a gay man is that I’m pretty far removed from the hand-wringing over all this business of who is or isn’t man enough.
Wrong. By the time I make it to the gay and lesbian studies section to find my book, I peruse the shelf and my eyes fall on another one-word title, a word I’d read just recently on both The Malcontent and Andrew Sullivan’s blog: Androphilia: Rejecting the Gay Identity, Reclaiming Masculinity. I picked up the book, read the back cover, and looked at the table of contents, but didn’t have time to investigate further just how this author defined manliness or masculinity. So I looked up the author, Jack Malebranche, on the web, where I found an excerpt from the book.
Androphilia is a rejection of the overloaded gay identity and a return to a discussion of homosexuality in terms of desire: a raw, apolitical sexual desire and the sexualized appreciation for masculinity as experienced by men. The gay sensiblility is a near-oblivious embrace of a castrating slur, the nonstop celebration of an age-old, emasulating stimga applied to men who engaged in homosexual acts. Gays and radical queers imagine that they challenge the status quo, but in appropriating the stigma of effeminacy, they merely conform to and confirm long-established expectations. Men who love men have been paradoxically cast as the enemies of masculinity—slaves to the feminist pipe dream of a ‘gender-neutral’ (read: anti-male, pro-female) world.
Androphlia is a manifesto full of truly dangerous ideas: that men can have sex with men and retain their manhood, that homosexuality can be about championing a masculine ideal rather than attacking it, and that the wicked, oppressive ‘construct of masculinity’ despised by the gay community could actually enrich and improve the lives of homosexual and bisexual men. Androphilia is for those men who never really bought what the gay community was selling; it’s a challenge to leave the gay world completely behind and to rejoin the world of men, unapologetically, as androphliles, but more importantly, as men.
Well. So much for my relief that I’d finally gotten out of that bloody old arena. But I knew that already. I’d just let myself forget. Standing there looking over Mr. Malebranche’s book, I was reminded of the whole discussion that broke out in various places when StraightActing.Com launched back in 2000. The site’s “about” page is under construction, but the original front page of their site described it as follows.
Society has stereotyped homosexual men as being feminine. Some are. Some aren’t. So then, what do all these words mean? Straight Acting? Masculine? Feminine? Unfortunately, they mean a lot of different Does Being Proud to Be Gay Mean Proud To Be Feminine?things to different people, so it’s hard to “judge” just how “straight acting” or “masculine” someone is. Does Masculinity have to do with “muscles”? No. Does being more “Straight Acting” than feminine make you a better person? No. Does displaying your gay pride mean you are feminine or proud to be feminine? No.
It was only slightly reassuring then to see the authors wrote “being more ‘Straight Acting’ than feminine make you a better person? No.” Just as it’s almost slightly reassuring that on his Amazon blog Mr. Malebranche writes, “Androphilia was never designed to be some sissy-bashing rant.”
That may well be, but drawing a line of demarcation around “what makes a man a man” automatically leaves some of us,who were at least born the with the required chromosomes and genitalia, outside of the circle of men for no other reason than that our own temperaments disqualify from some definitions. I am a man. I prefer cooperation and collaboration to competition. I dislike conflict and if possible try to avoid it through communication and compromise. I’d rather bake a quiche than swing a bat, and I’d rather read a book than watch basketball. I’d rather go to a Broadway show than a baseball gam. I’d rather hug than hit, would rather kiss than kill, and would rather fuck or be fucked (consensually, after a hour or so of foreplay, and followed by 20 minutes or so of snuggling) than fight. I’m not what anyone would call aggressive, except perhaps where my family is concerned, but then so is a mother bear.
Those qualities exclude me from all the definitions of manliness and masculinity above. But, I am a man. I’ve never thought of myself as or wanted to be anything other than a man. The thing is, I’ve never felt I have to be different than I am in order to be a man, a “real man.” I certainly don’t fall into that group of gay men Malebranche says “really like being considered some sort of third sex,” whom he claims not to have a problem with. Just as the authors of StraightActing.Com declare “we all equal” on their website.
But drawing that line of demarcation around manliness or masculinity, thus defining it, means defining those outside that line as well. And if the authors above are defining “what makes a man a man,” then those who fall outside that definition have be seen as not being men no matter how we define ourselves. In that context we are not “real men,” but are either something other than men or something less than men.
And thus, while none of the authors above would necessarily use the terms, we become “sissies” or “faggots” for falling too far outside their ideals of manliness or masculinity. We don’t “act like men” or “like men are supposed to act.” So we are like something other than men. Or like something less than men.
[Next up, Part 2: Sex.]