One of the things I like to talk about on here is the concept of masculinity. The concept of being a “real man” is one that’s caused no end of distress, anxiety and out and out pain to well-meaning men. Trying to live up to the societal construct of “masculinity” is in many ways a rigged game; it’s almost impossible to be a “real man” because of how fragile the concept is. Anything from your build to losing your job to – I shit you not – using the wrong lip balm is grounds for having one’s “man card” revoked.
I’ve written quite a bit about how damaging toxic masculinity can be for men and women, and why we need to move past it. But it can be hard to do so when you’re not entirely sure what masculinity means when you’re not following one stereotype or another.
In fact, one of my readers sent me a message about this very issue:
I hope you can help me. I am firmly in your target demographic: I am thin, not manly at all. My mother passed away when I was a kid and as a result I think I tend to seek the favor of women because throughout my life I’ve felt more kinship with women and, for lack of a better term “beta males.”
I believe in equality (I’m half black/half white so I have a somewhat unique perspective on the subject as it pertains to race relations) and I feel because of that I was particularly vulnerable to the Jezebel, Tumblr feminism school of thinking. I ended up being involved with a girl who left me to get back with her ex, a guy who had previously refused to be exclusive with her. (It was her dating me that finally made him agree to be exclusive.) I was pretty devastated.
After that, I became interested in the “manosphere” and, for lack of a better term again, was “redpilled.” After several months and feeling as though I’ve cooled off, I find that the redpillers have made me feel that unless I’m working out every day and earning a certain amount of money, no woman will even look at me.
So feminists make me feel like I’m a monster and MRM makes me feel like I’m a cuckold beta shrimp who should probably kill himself and make more room for people who aren’t a waste of oxygen. After seeing the two extremes, I can’t find my sense of what the truth is. Please help.
CW’s anxieties aren’t uncommon at all; I hear a lot from people who feel hemmed in by the strictures of what a man is “supposed to be” and the stress that comes from not measuring up. So let’s break down some of these worries and talk a little about how you find your own masculinity.
“We’re A Generation of Men Raised By Women…”
Let’s start from the top, shall we? CW worries about the fact that he tends to prefer the company of women – he feels more at ease around them than he does men – and how this makes him a “beta male”. Right from the jump, this presumes that being comfortable – even preferring – the company of women is inherently a bad thing, something that diminishes his masculine standing. Presumably, if he were more manly, he’d prefer the rough-and-tumble masculine friendship and spend his time breaking logs with his bare hands while rebuilding classic muscle cars or something equally male-coded.
This isn’t unusual; some of the most common insults hurled at men who’re at ease with women are based in the implication that they’re inherently lacking in masculinity. “Beta male”, “white knight”, “mangina”, “cuck”, etc. are all predicated on the idea that platonic friendships between men and women – or even basic mutual respect – can’t exist. Heterosexual male/female relationships are exclusively about sex because every man can’t not fuck every woman he knows1 . Men who spend time with women and treat them with respect are, by these ideals, trying to trick their way into women’s pants because they know they can’t compete in the sexual marketplace with “real” men.
Ironically enough, it’s men who make friendships with other men harder. The social code of toxic masculinity prevents men from opening up and fostering deep emotional connections with other men. It’s too female, too “faggy” to be emotionally intimate with another man. The taboo alternates between the prohibition of showing weakness or “unmanly” emotions and the belief that emotional intimacy leads to physical intimacy – in other words, being emotionally close to another man means you’re trying to fuck them.
Talking about your feelings is something that’s portrayed as a weakness, something only faux-males do. As a result, men turn to women to fill their emotional needs almost exclusively. In fact, one’s spouse tends to be their primary – if not exclusive – source of emotional intimacy and openness.
Similarly, he’s lamenting that his friends are fellow “betas”2 and this is bad because… why, exactly? Because they’re less likely to give him shit for being insufficiently manly? Because being friends with people who are equally as geeky or non-jocklike is somehow bad for his social status?
Having healthy friendships, ones where you can actually be close and foster intimacy is an unquestionably good thing. One of the dangers with traditional, toxic masculinity is that it literally hurts people – having few close friends is as dangerous for your health as smoking. Being friends with people of any gender who have similar interests and who are similarly less inclined to follow the isolating dictates of traditional masculinity is a good thing, both emotionally and physically. Trying to force yourself into a lifestyle and personality that isn’t you – especially in an attempt to prove how alpha you are – is a great way to develop very shallow social circles and to find yourself feeling isolated and alone even when you’re surrounded by people.
Defining your masculinity by who you’re friends with isn’t just unhealthy, it’s absurd. Being friends with geeks doesn’t make you unmanly, nor does being friends with mostly jocks and lumberjacks make you a man’s man. Be friends with people based on mutual respect, not on where they put you on the MAN-SPECTRUM. Finding your emotional truth, being able to express those emotions healthily and having intimate friendships isn’t “beta”. It’s being true to yourself, rather than trying to put on a performance of masculinity.
The Emasculating Feminists of Tumblr Aren’t Coming For Your Penis
The next interesting part of CW’s letter is the lament about how certain feminist sites make him feel like a monster for the crime of being male. Once again, this is something I see often – well-meaning men spending time in female-coded and feminist space and becoming horrified at the possibility of being a creeper, a monster, what-have-you.
Part of the problem is, frankly, the source. Take the fact that CW calls out Tumblr and Jezebel specifically. Taking either Tumblr or Jezebel as the hallmark of feminist thought is a mistake. Tumblr is one of the eternal boogiemen of the Men’s Rights crowd, whether it’s in the form of The Red Pill, GamerGate, Men Going Their Own Way or any of the other permutations; in their minds, Tumblr is alternately the home of hopelessly naive children with no concept of how the world works and man-eating Social Justice Warriors – voracious harpies who will not rest until white, cisgendered heterosexual men are neutered, enslaved and/or extinct.
But while Tumblr is many things – and I say this as someone with an active Tumblr account – the sole, definitive voice of feminism and social justice it ain’t.
One of the things that makes Tumblr great is that it’s a space that’s given many people – especially women, transgender and queer people of all stripes – a platform and a voice in ways that they never had before. It’s a great place to express yourself, share ideas and get familiar with new concepts and philosophies. At the same time however, it also trends relatively young and with youth comes the tendency towards enthusiasm over experience. For many people, Tumblr is their first exposure to any form of social justice and they take to it with the same embarrassing earnestness as a college student discovering Karl Marx and vegetarianism for the first time. As a result, you will have people who become evangelical in their quest for social justice, looking for outrage and punishing those who fail to conform to their visions perfectly. Many people, ranging from Dan Savage to Joss Whedon to author John Green have been targeted by various segments of the Tumblr population. Even Laci Green – someone who is unquestionably a staunch ally of the LGBTQ community – has been hounded by Tumblr communities for her perceived sins. (DOCTOR’S NOTE: Damn, this example aged badly, didn’t it?)
Tumblr is perfectly designed for knee-jerk responses to slights, real or imagined, helping prompt the dopamine rush that comes with the righteous outrage and taking down of some sinner. But the fact that a castigating post on Tumblr has hundreds of thousands of notes and reblogs doesn’t make it representational of mainstream feminist thought towards men. Hell, it doesn’t even mean that it’s correct.
Same with Jezebel. While I generally like Jezebel’s snarky house-style of writing, there’ve been plenty of times when articles traded accuracy or nuance for hits and easily sharable outrage. This is one of the truths of the Internet: indignation generates more attention than almost anything else and attention is the currency of Internet-based writing.
(We will now pause to appreciate the irony.)
While Jezebel is a feminist blog, it’s not the feminist outlet. Treating either of those as the voice of feminism is a mistake; they are no more the sole representatives of feminism3 than Andrea Dworkin is the sole feminist philosopher and thought-leader. Feminism is a wide umbrella with many variations and many of them disagree with one another; pick out any five feminists and you’ll likely get six opinions.
However, feminism isn’t about attacking men, it’s about (among many, many things) dismantling the system that disadvantages people because of their gender… a system that hurts men too.
The advice I give people who feel “attacked” by feminism is fairly simple: if you’re not doing the behavior they’re describing, then they’re not talking about you. Recognizing that (cis, hetero) men have systematic advantages that women don’t isn’t about making you feel bad for being a man, it’s simply about being aware that these advantages exist and trying to help counterbalance them. Making a mistake isn’t the end of the world, either. Most of the time, people really just want you to take steps to not be a dick in the future. In fact, taking time to dial back the defensiveness, listen and apologize is one of the traits of positive masculinity.
Toxic Alphas and The False Allies of Masculinity
Then on the other hand, we have the MRAs. In CW’s case, after feeling devastated by the end of a relationship, he joined the Red Pill community – one that’s filled with its own… nuanced… version of relationships and gender roles. The Men’s Rights Advocacy movement in its many forms is a seductive one. The MRAs proclaim to offer solutions to men’s problems. The Red Pill community offers apparent sympathy for men’s relationship struggles and proposes ways of resolving them. But that initial breath of seeming compassion for men rapidly gives way to their purpose: hating on women… and men.
As CW found out, being part of the Red Pill community is contingent on being a very specific kind of man – the wily Alpha Male. The Alpha Male is what men are supposed to aspire to – manly leaders of men, fucking bitches and making money. Of course, there are some problems with this idea. To start with: nobody can agree on what an “alpha” is; what makes someone alpha rather than beta (or red-pill vs. blue-pill) is so amorphous as to be unclassifiable. The closest anyone can come to agreement is that being alpha is “got mine, fuck you” levels of selfishness dressed up in masculine tropes. Volunteering? Totally beta if you’re doing something stupid like helping the poor.
The other, of course, is that alpha and beta divisions don’t exist in nature. It’s a case of bad science and confirmation bias coming together to confirm what people already want to believe: that the alpha fucks and the beta bucks, yo.
But that facade of compassion fades very quickly if you don’t conform to the “true” idea of what a “man” is. The sympathy only exists for people who believe as they do. The RedPill and other groups like fetishize the tropes of toxic masculinity and try to elevate it to a special, sacred calling. Anyone who isn’t manly in the way that the RedPill believes you should be manly is a cuck-beta-loser. Don’t believe domestic abuse is the key to keeping a relationship? You’re a pussy. Aren’t swole? Hang up your penis, you clearly don’t need it. Trans men? Not men at all. Even their thought-leaders and figureheads aren’t immune; diverge from the One True Path and folks will find all sorts of reasons to show that you were never a true Man after all.
Groups like these prey on the insecurities of others, telling people like CW that they’re special, enlightened, different from everyone else. They live in a world of “us vs. them”, the hypermasculine elite and the beta bucks, the redpill’d who see the world as it really is, man and the blue-pill average frustrated chumps. It’s a form of external validation and gender-policing, one that only works as long as everybody goes along with it.
Escaping The False Dichotomy and Finding True Masculinity
The trap that many people fall into is a classic false dichotomy: that the only choices for being a man are virtual emasculation, living in fear of being labeled “problematic” and an over-the-top fetishization of (white) masculinity. You can be a quiche-eating wimp or you can be Ron Swanson-but-with-better-abs without anything in between.
Masculinity isn’t about what you do, it’s about who you are. A flamboyantly camp gay man is as much of a man as Henry Rollins. A trans man is just as much of a man as Terry Crewes. Who you fuck or how many you’ve fucked doesn’t enter into it; someone with zero partners isn’t less manly than Ron Jeremy. How much ass you kick has nothing to do with it; Ghandi is no less of a man than Simo Häyä4
There are many ways to be a man. You can look like a golden god or you can be a skinny, twitchy nerd. You can be complex and complicated, embrace the many sides of yourself and not diminish your masculinity one iota. You can incredibly fit rock star with a profoundly luxuriant mustache and dote upon your cats like they were your children.
Being gentle, kind or considerate doesn’t mean you’re not a man. Being physically weak doesn’t diminish your masculinity, nor does being strong enhance it. Compassion and respect for others: that makes you a man. Finding and utilizing your strengths: that makes you a man.
Finding your truth, honoring it, being true to it is how you find your masculinity.
- Once again: somehow this never addresses same-sex friendships involving gay men and women; heteronormativity, y’all! [↩]
- We’ll get to this in a moment [↩]
- as much as people like to treat them that way [↩]
- A Finnish sniper in WWII who racked up more than 500 kills against the Soviets. He was so feared that the Soviets would mortar the region he was rumored to be in rather than try to track him down in person. [↩]