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What About the Men? Why Our Gender System Sucks for Men, Too

The tools of feminism can also be applied to the damage and deformation that men suffer in our sexist society.
 
 
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This article is from a book in progress by Noah Brand and Ozy Frantz.

If you are anything like us, you spent some time when you were younger playing with optical illusions: the vase that, if you looked at it differently, was two faces; the fish that were also birds; the old woman who was also a young lady.

If you were reading this in a book in a bookstore, and some malicious person had not moved it into the Local Birdwatching category, it would almost certainly be next to some other books about gender. (Yes, this is related.) Look at the other books, and you’d find they have one thing in common—they’re almost all about women. Women and work. Women and body image. Women and race. Women and sex. Women and feminism.

You’d think that only women have a gender.

For a long time, we’ve only been able to see half the illusion—we see the birds, but not the fish; the vases, but not the faces. We’ve noticed the thousands of ways, big and small, that our current gender system wounds women. Rarely, however, and often only as an afterthought does anyone remark on how the current gender system harms men.

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We live in a sexist society, one where gender programming starts at birth (though the advent of the sonogram has allowed parents to get a head start by painting the nursery pink or blue and stocking up in advance on gendered toys and clothes) and is so pervasive as to be inescapable. Feminism has done an excellent job analyzing and challenging the ways that these assigned and enforced gender roles damage and deform the lives of women. The same tools of analysis can be applied to the damage and deformation that men suffer. And that damage, sad to say, is severe.

The general term for the incredibly restrictive social codes on male behavior is hegemonic masculinity, though Paul Kivel refers to it as the “Man Box” in his work, and Charlie Glickman clarifies that to the “Act Like a Man Box” to emphasize the performative nature of the restrictions. We choose to use hegemonic masculinity as our term because it is less likely than “Man Box” to be used in a trend piece about how it’s okay for men to own steamer trunks now.

Indeed, the current cultural trend of terms like bromance, guyliner, mancession, and so on -- “bromanteaus” as we call them -- just demonstrates the power of hegemonic masculinity. Anything that might potentially be seen as outside the narrow bounds of acceptable male behavior, such as having a close relationship, wearing makeup, or being out of work, must be given a special name to assure people that it really is masculine, it’s not outside the box in any way.

So what is the box? What are the bounds of hegemonic masculinity? The essence of it is that the things we think of as “manly,” the things a “real man” does or is, are a mess of unreasonable, contradictory and impossible expectations and assumptions. A real man is supposed to be attractive to women, but not do anything for a woman’s approval or attention. A real man is supposed to be stoic and emotionless, but is permitted to show anger. A real man is supposed to be tall and have a big penis, for heaven’s sake, and if your genetic dice didn’t shake out that way, you’d better perform the rest of the list even harder to make up for your supposed deficiency.

Men who do not fit the box of hegemonic masculinity get all kinds of stigmatized. For instance, consider men who want to help raise their children. Stay-at-home dads and men on the “mommy track” often face disapproval and the belief that they “laze around all day” or “aren’t real men.” In public, men are all too often patronized as “Mr. Mom” or treated as though it’s exceptional and startling that they want to spend time with their children; it’s depressingly common for men openly interested in childcare to be called pedophiles.

 
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