What does it mean for men to talk about being men? Mostly it means not talking at all, at least, not in an unguarded, safe, real way. Self-censorship is a twisted birthright passed down to boys by their fathers.
To grow up with a traditional, patriarchal, alpha-male father is to know pain and repression. My dad called women drivers “cunts” and “bitches” on the regular, whenever one didn’t put their turn signal on, for instance, or made a sudden change into his lane. Sometimes, he’d pull the car right up next to theirs and roll his window down to yell curses at them. As a child, to even do so little as to say “Calm down, Dad,” meant risking that wrath turned on me, because—of course!—my dad was always in the right. All women were terrible drivers. All African Americans, which he referred to by the Italian American racial slur “mulignan,” were criminals. All impoverished whites were “trailer trash.” Challenging these stereotypes or deviating from his rather narrow spectrum of male behavior meant conflict, belittlement, and even punishment.
So I stayed silent, and mostly he did too, about both the bad and the good in our relationship. Recently, while watching the movie Thor with my six-year-old son, I saw an all-too-familiar paternal pause. At the end of the film, when the day is saved, Odin looks out onto the magical kingdom of Asgard and says to Thor, “I’m proud of you, son.”
For a silent beat, Thor appears happy, but my throat thickened. “What Odin means is, ‘I love you, Thor.’” I told my son. “It would have been nice if Odin had said that directly, and hugged Thor too.”
But traditional manly man American types don’t touch or say I love you. I didn’t hear this often from my white father in my suburban childhood home, nor did I witness it while teaching low-income children of color in New York City. Specific concepts of masculinity in America are tied to race, but one thing remains the same all over: for cis-men, stakes can be high to act like a man. The impression my dad conveyed was that you were either a man like him, an equal deserving of respect, or you weren’t a man at all, not worth dignifying.
For reasons unclear to me, the traditional macho shoe my dad stomped around in never fit me well. I found better examples for what to do and not do as a man from pop culture. David Bowie. Tori Amos. Prince. Liz Phair. Jerry Seinfeld. I had a tenuous relationship to my gender, a sense of not belonging, both with my peers and, more significantly, at home. The messages from my father came like water-torture, steady and small, drip by drip. “Boys don’t cry.” “Boys play sports.” “Boys don’t daydream and doodle.” “Boys read books about pirates, not magical princesses.” Later, that became “Give the books a break and get outside,” then, “You may be book smart, but you don’t know shit about real life” — by which he meant, the world of men.
“Are you gay?” my dad asked me when I was in middle school. I think it would have helped him relate to me if I was, explaining why I didn’t seem like “a man,” i.e. heterosexual. Instead, I confused him, and so my coming to adulthood has meant minimizing how much I share with both my dad and my mom, who, like an old-fashioned 1950s style wife, cares for his every need like a mother. Even now, as a dad myself, we rarely discuss fatherhood. We lack common ground.
Nor does he understand my desire to write. He is the working class son of immigrants, and never went to college. He has no interest in books, or New York, or even the online world; he’s never had an email account and only uses the Internet to look at porn. He’s expressed admiration for my ability to speak in front of an audience, but has also wondered why I feel I’m so special as to say anything about anything at all. I’ve joked and replied, “I’m not sure either.” Self-deprecation is a way of avoiding a fight, it’s a form of bowing down to his authority without completely losing face, a strategy I learned as a child.
I’m telling you this as way of explaining that there is no monolithic experience of masculinity; even people who appear to exist within the patriarchy don’t, nor would they want to. This sentiment comes repulsively close to the statement “not all men.” I am aware of how that phrase is used to derail discussions of rape and sexism, or at least toss a cloak of exceptionability around the speaker. I will admit to my share of bad guy behavior. In college, I grappled with the urge to be a better human being and the desire to act like a man, two things that often seemed in opposition to one another. I had a large, close group of female friends, but gaining their trust and respect meant behaving in ways my dad would have called emasculated, which perhaps explained why, for a while, I grew my hair out and pulled it back with plastic barrettes—I felt more comfortable expressing my feminine side than my masculine. But during my senior year, with graduation looming, the end of youth and my entrance into manhood, I faced a kind of crisis.
That spring semester, I draped myself in exaggerated, masculine tropes—some learned at home, others gleaned from Kerouac and Henry Miller—like a little boy trying on his old man’s suit. I drank far too much too often and made lewd jokes about my dick. When my female housemates organized a girl’s night in, I broke into the house through a window with a few male friends. We burst into the living room, pants down, not realizing how threatening my housemates would find this invasion. “Oh, lighten up,” I told them, words I’d heard my dad say as a child, whenever he had offended someone. Not long after that, at a post-finals party, I verbally assaulted one of my closest friends in the vilest of fashions. She consulted with other women who knew me—they considered having some kind of intervention—before deciding the best way to convey the severity of my act was to report me. The next day I found myself, brimming with self-loathing and remorse, in front of the head of campus security. I welled up with tears, realizing that I had crossed the line from making jokes about assholish male behavior to being an asshole male myself. I felt so ashamed.
Because of that experience, and the continued support of my female friends; because of seeking out art work made by women, and reading widely and writing with discipline and going through therapy; because of deciding to be a stay-at-home-dad while my wife worked full-time, and who knows what other factors, I slowly awoke to feminism. The process took too long, and will never really end, but it happened. Now, on an almost daily basis I am disgusted, angered, and confounded by the behavior of my gender and, often, race as well. White men terrorize our nation’s schools, shopping malls, and other public places with assault weapons, dismantle women’s reproductive freedoms in our national and state legislature, and propel the presidential candidacy of a sexist and racist like Donald Trump, to name just a few current issues that make me sick. I hear these men speaking in ratcheted-up rhetoric, transforming every problem into crisis, every stranger into an enemy, every disagreement into a winner-take-all screaming match, and I’m reminded of my dad.
Like him, these men are scared, still reeling from the attacks of 9/11, the subsequent recession and financial collapse, and the many social changes that threaten their values and what they see as the natural order of the world, in which they’re on top, unchallenged, ever in the right. Real men are never scared, and so by way of emotional alchemy they subconsciously transform this fear into anger. They point their discomfort outward, at women, blacks, Muslims, the extreme poor, anyone who isn’t quite like them. I know it well, having seen it up close. It’s easier turning a critical eye on someone else, to identify the enemy as outside instead of seeing him staring back at you in the mirror. It’s fucked up.
Sadly, I witness this extremism sometimes trickling into the literary community as well. Too often debates about gender, race, and publishing’s inclusion of historically marginalized voices escalate into shouting matches, especially on social media. Recently, I saw one smart young writer tweet about how she was going to burn white men. Not their books, or, if that was her intent, that wasn’t her language. The men themselves. While elsewhere I see calls for white men to just shut the fuck up, in all caps. Sometimes, we should, for sure. But if we’re going to have a conversation as a society about gender, race, religion—our core identities—then we all deserve to have a voice at the table. To imply otherwise means using discourse that looks surprisingly similar in goals and methods to the cissexist heteropatriarchy.
But toxic, repressive ideology can be hard to shake. Publishing is a business like any other, which means it is, by nature, conservative, responding to the demands of the market as opposed to shaping it. I see women calling for more books that reflect their experiences and rewarding those that do with sales and attention, but I don’t find the same demand coming for books that challenge masculine stereotypes. And I’m not speaking theoretically here, but from experience.
In 2014, Berkley Books published an anthology that I edited of male novelists writing about being dads called When I First Held You. I saw this project as important personally—I was a stay-at-home dad with a baby, and found myself frustrated that fatherhood from the father’s perspective wasn’t a theme much explored in literature. Assembling the essays was also a political act, part of tearing down what Rebecca Traister called on the New Republic “the secret dads club,” broadening the parenting discussion to include men. But the book was a hard sell. During a conference call about the project, an interested editor at one publishing house told me that women would be my primary readers because men don’t buy books, especially ones about being dads. She turned out to be unable to convince her publisher the book was a good bet. They deemed the audience too small, and sadly, they were right.
As a young adult, when I realized that I didn’t have good role model of masculinity at home, I looked to books. I didn’t like what I found there. My hope with the anthology was to collect stories which expanded rather than limited what it means to “be a man,” in particular, a father. My guess is that most writers, no matter their background, feel something similar; it’s the lack of literature about their experience which fuels their creative engine. Sure, there are those who seek fame and fortune and so tell the stories that the culture wants to hear, whose work inscribes and empowers gender norms and privilege. We should be wary of celebrating these books, and demand that agents, editors, marketers, critics—the gatekeepers of literary taste—give their precious few slots to stories that push against the herd, and not go with it. What we writers should not do, though, is lump any group of people—white women, black men, white men, whomever—together and say they are the problem. This is just what the patriarchy does, and what racists do, and we writers are more reflective, self-aware, compassionate, and fearless than that, or we should be.
As Eula Biss writes in The New York Times, “Whiteness is not who you are,” and so too is masculinity a social construct that doesn’t define all biological men; some of us have felt its oppressive weight too. Of course, it’s radically different writing that as a white male than a man of color, a female, or a transgendered person. The patriarchy wants to claim me as a member—I’m the one resisting. And literally, I have resisted. Years ago, when I worked at the Hearst Corporation, an older, white male executive assured me that one day I too could have a corner office just like him. I walked away from that job to become a New York City Teaching Fellow. I did not want to join the club, but I had the option to conform whereas many do not. I know there are other resistance members out there, but often in the media at large and in real life face-to-face encounters I don’t hear men talking about their masculinity—what it means to them, how they manifest it, what cultural ideals do they move toward and what do they push away from—instead, they maintain the code of masculine silence, the rejection of discourse about feelings, and culpability, and discomfort, and guilt. Messages of “shut the fuck up” unintentionally enforce this.
There is no one story that speaks for all men, or all white people, as I’m sure there is no single narrative that fits every woman. If reading has taught me anything, it’s that the world is a complex place filled with many types, many voices, and that there are more out there, visible now only by their absence. We need to hear from everyone, even people who might make us uncomfortable, or whose stories bring to light parts of ourselves we’d rather not see. Male writers should be following the lead of female writers and sharing the ways that patriarchal forces have forced them to fit tight, uncomfortable molds, and their experiences shouldn’t be discounted purely because of their gender. We can’t be scared of having a conversation, which means both talking and listening; we can’t let discomfort turn to fear and then destructive rage, we can’t pull our car up to someone else’s and belittle them, or see them only in stereotypical terms, it’s not right. We have to be better than the oppressive, small-minded forces of silence and stagnation. Shit’s not going to change otherwise.
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.