I grew up in northern Michigan, where men are the archetype we imagine them to be. They wear baseball caps and sunglasses when they go two-tracking in the backwoods. They drink whiskey, grow out their beards and speak in short, fact-driven sentences like, “It’s a cold one out there.” In winter, they crouch for hours on frozen lakes with only a line through the ice and their whole bodies, bundled in down jackets except for their eyes, steely with a fisherman’s patience.
Of course, this all sounds like a stereotype of what a man is supposed to be. But this is how these guys really act, and I think it’s because they know this strong-silent-type persona is what our culture expects from them.
Feminists like myself often lament the impossible demands that society places on women. The ominous “they” wants us to embody perfection. “They” want us to navigate the sinner-saint dichotomy without so much as a whimper or a lipstick smudge. We’re supposed to be mothers and bimbos and virgins and whores and wives. And yes, these expectations are a big problem — they’re reductive, dismissive and the bane of feminine existence.
But I rarely hear my fellow feminists talk about the ways in which men also fall victim to societal pressure, and how everyone can suffer from the standards we set for them.
People have specific ideas about what it means to be a man and, unfortunately, a guy doesn’t exemplify manliness simply by having a penis. Instead, he must constantly prove his masculinity and worth as a man with prescribed behaviors — you know, doing dude stuff, like hitting on chicks and strutting around without a shirt on. Then, we make all kinds of assumptions and judgments about men based on how they act.
We assume that dudes don’t feel deeply because their brains are busy marinating in 30-racks of Busch Light, football scores and whatever their dicks want. We think that men are incapable of communicating emotion and must use their fists to settle arguments. We want every man to emulate a sex idol — James Dean at our house parties, the Rat Pack at last call — and if they’re not suave and forward with women, we call them pussies. We expect men to calculate their every action, speak eloquently if at all, puff up their egos and have Teflon hearts. Basically, we expect guys to be stoic, comfortable with violence and sexually insatiable.
But by making these assumptions, we set a low standard for male behavior. We reduce guys to aggressive, unfeeling caricatures of themselves. These cartoonish projections then teach boys that things like tears and empathy make men seem feminine, which negates masculinity. Emotion therefore becomes associated with weakness and womanhood, which demonizes the softest, most human parts of a man, and leads to a wider chasm between the genders and encourages sexist behavior. For example, a guy is much more likely to put down women if he thinks keeping them at a distance will make him seem manlier in comparison. In short, we all help perpetuate our own gender inequalities by teaching boys and men that masculinity is founded on withholding their humanity.
However, I’ve loved men all of my life, and the ones I’ve cared for most have shown me their softness. My father’s a big guy who will “man up” to protect his family any day, but he also sings love songs to my mother and admits to weeping every time he hears Joni Mitchell’s “For Free.” At a time in middle school when skinny, blonde girls were inviting me to their birthday parties to make fun of my sparse unibrow, boys were there to share their earbuds on the bus as we whipped past acres of farmland. I’ve comforted two of my best male friends, one under each of my arms, as they cried through the end of “50/50.” The list goes on.
Essentially, I recognize men as humans who are more than capable of emotional complexity, and I love it when dudes defy norms by flaunting their abilities to express themselves. I know that most men have it in them to love and respect women, and many do so regularly. In my feminist circles I’m always defending guys when necessary, making sure an individual isn’t confused with the entire patriarchy.
Dudes, I believe wholeheartedly that there’s more to you than muscles, a dick and a great beer-pong shot. I’ve got your back, but I need to you get mine, too. I need you to prove me right every day. I need you to beat the system by showing that you’re not sexist, uncaring jerks.
Falling victim to societal norms isn’t an excuse for truly bad behavior, like violence or sexual aggression. The perpetuating stereotype isn’t all society’s fault — many men do play into it. But our culture also needs to alter its definition of manhood. We need it to encompass the characteristics we’d like to see in the guys who hang out with our friends, sisters and daughters. We need to allow for features like gentleness and respect and tears. By exiling such human traits from masculinity, we all have a hand in molding many men into the robots we resent. We need men to feel safe enough to rise above our expectations and show their true, complex selves.
Emily Pittinos can be reached at email@example.com