Rob Okun

How This Election Could Change the Meaning of Masculinity in America

In the waning days of the presidential campaign, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are the leads in a gripping national drama about masculinity and Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin are nominees for best supporting actors.

Sen. McCain has replaced George Bush as the standard bearer for conventional manhood -- stubborn, controlling, shoot-from-the-hip, inflexible. From his sneering angry attacks on Sen. Obama's character to his Marlboro Man response to the perilous financial calamity, John Wayne (and Richard Nixon) would be proud. While his handlers spin his behavior as a sign of decisive, manly leadership, his campaign has devolved to the point former Secretary of State Colin Powell crossed party lines to endorse Sen. Obama. Neither on Main Street, nor on Wall Street, polls indicate, are people buying the Republican ticket's bullying tactics (which McCain briefly curtailed, only to resume with zeals). No cross dresser, Gov. Palin, meanwhile, is behaving in a way that would make that bastion of masculine behavior, the late Charlton Heston, proud indeed. Sen. Obama, who has been described in scores of newspaper editorial endorsements as sensitive, thoughtful, composed, and collaborative, reflects a gentler brand of masculinity. Polls suggest his "let's stay calm" approach to the financial crisis -- and in general -- is playing much better with voters than the McCain-Palin fear-mongering. While "It's the masculinity, stupid" is unlikely to become a last minute campaign theme, manhood is a subtext in the campaign. Consider how a less strident brand of American masculinity as practiced by an Obama-Biden administration would contribute to polishing our tarnished reputation internationally.

Obama has resisted supporters' calls to find his "killer instinct" and "go for the jugular." They miss the point. Obama really does want to do things differently. He understands that old school manhood translates into old style politics and visa versa. Whatever legitimate criticisms can be made about some of Obama's positions, his conduct signals an effort to expand the definition of masculinity away from suspicion and isolation and toward trust and collaboration. For growing numbers of voters, being willing to talk with our enemies (now central to the Bush administration's diplomatic strategy) is seen not as a naïve flaw but as a quiet strength.

As gender's role as a force in the campaign has unfolded, a new political reality has emerged: "kinder, gentler" expressions of masculinity are being viewed positively. Mean-spirited representations, as evidenced by Gov. Palin's snarly attacks, rather than attracting Hillary Clinton's supporters, aren't getting much traction. Among the electorate those most excited about her candidacy -- portraying Dick Cheney in a dress -- are Tina Fey and her writers at "Saturday Night Live."

By contrast, remember Sen. Biden's emotional moment at his debate against Gov. Palin? There was a time (think Sen. Edmund Muskie crying in New Hampshire 40 years ago) when a display of such feeling by a man would have been seen as a game-changing moment of weakness. Biden's moment only made him seem more human and, when commented on at all, elicited a positive response. Clearly, ideas about manhood are changing. It's about time. (In case you've forgotten, the Delaware senator choked up for a moment while recalling his life as a single father 35 years ago in the aftermath of his wife and baby daughter dying in an automobile accident that also seriously injured his two young sons). Notably, Gov. Palin didn't acknowledge Biden's tender moment. How old school male. Imagine what the response would have been if the roles had been reversed?

All of the vital issues facing the nation -- from civil liberties to global warming, from finding a way out of the financial morass to ending two wars -- have been directly impacted these past eight years by the old style masculinity practiced by the president and much of the senior members of his administration. The now laughable image of George ("Mission Accomplished") W. triumphantly striding in his flight suit across the aircraft carrier deck, may be one John McCain longs to reprise, but it is the polar opposite of the brand of manhood Obama and Joe Biden are symbolizing. And lest some presume that a "new masculinity" is only something Obama is embodying, consider this: That at 65, Biden, a white, senior, respected Senate leader, is willing to play second fiddle to his younger, African American colleague, communicates volumes about what's possible in redefining masculinity.

Women have long asked the question: "Is it possible for more men to grow and change?" For them, and for all voters, this campaign season offers a simple, clear answer: "Yes, we can."

Copyright 2008 Women's eNews. All Rights Reserved.

Time For a National Teach-In on Men and Masculinity

Even though it was again a man who went on yet another campus shooting spree, the national conversation has so far failed to focus on the root causes of this latest lethal outburst: men's depression and how men are socialized. Until we acknowledge those issues, we can only expect more tragic bloodlettings.

The Valentine's Day massacre at Northern Illinois University ended with five dead and 16 wounded before Steven Kazmierczak fatally turned one of his guns on himself. The multiple murders are the latest example of an expression of masculinity society continues to ignore at its peril. While a horrifying tragedy was unfolding on a campus 65 miles from Chicago, troubled men in tiny hamlets and big cities across the U.S. also were experiencing painful emotional episodes that few were paying attention to, including themselves.

Men's violence of the magnitude Kazmierczak perpetuated needs more than news shows inviting the likes of Dr. Phil on for analysis. We need a national teach-in on masculinity attended by doctors, social workers, teachers, clergy, the judiciary, legislators and parents. And the facilitators need to come from the ranks of those who've been examining male behavior and working with men and boys for the past 30 years.

The profile of the 27-year-old Kazmierczak follows a familiar pattern -- a hospitalization for mental illness, a reticence to talk about his problems, a fascination with guns and, most tellingly, recently ceasing to take his depression medication. That he was in a two-year relationship with a young woman who said she was shocked to discover he had committed such a horrific act only adds to the tragedy of men hiding the secret of their mental anguish, especially from those they love. The story isn't about Kazmierczak opening fire at innocent students, as tragic as the loss of lives is. It's about a society that still doesn't acknowledge maleness as the singular characteristic tying together virtually every similar act of violence over the past decade. We've known it was masculinity since the shootings in Pearl, Mississippi in October, 1997; Jonesboro, Arkansas in March, 1998; Littleton, Colorado in April, 1999; Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in October, 2006; and, just 10 months ago, by the slaughter at Virginia Tech. The inconvenient truth is not just that all the assailants have been male but that until we make that fact predominant all the observations the forensic psychologists the news programs trot out are pointless.

The conspiracy of silence about men and depression, men's reticence to seek counseling, the health care community's underreporting of the relationship between men's mental health and a host of related problems -- from alcoholism to heart disease -- all have to be challenged. This is a campaign the Surgeon General needs to mount with all the resources of the one that changed social attitudes about smoking. The current social agreement about masculinity assumes a minority of men like Kazmierczak are an unavoidable part of male behavior. Certainly society doesn't sanction horrific mass killings, but we have compartmentalized these particular aberrant acts as a kind of "boys will be boys gone wild" -- not as an endorsement but as an explanation of the inevitable. We can no longer ignore the fact that too many men live lives of quiet desperation -- it isn't just the loner who doesn't talk with anyone about life's struggle. Most of us men, at one time or another go underground with our feelings as part of a misguided strategy to better negotiate our lives. In Kazmierczak's case, his silence -- to himself and his girlfriend -- proved deadly.

It's time to draw a new social agreement about masculinity proclaiming we will intervene with moody, shut down, angry males and not just those found on our campuses or in our offices and factories. Sadly, they are also on our elementary school playgrounds and walking the corridors of our middle schools.

How many more men must lash out before we acknowledge men's mental health is as serious a health issue as prostate cancer? Mental health treatment for troubled men must rise to the top of the national agenda if there's to be any hope of preventing future tragedies. The killings in Illinois may be over, but the national campaign about the crisis in masculinity has barely begun.


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