Hi Dr. NerdLove,
I was inspired to write this based on the headline of your recent article and how you’ve talked about archetypes in previous columns. Do you have any advice for or places to look for men who don’t really identify under the banner of masculinity in general? I know you’ve pushed the idea of there’re being tons and tons of different personal models of masculinity, but what about the people who fall out of even that?
While adopting feminine aesthetics has gotten more acceptance over the past few years, I don’t know if I’ve seen the same encouragement for guys who are – socially – feminine or androgynous. (Most aesthetically feminine guys I know are still fairly masculine personality-wise.) It’s usually either met with insults or an assumption that our lack of masculinity corresponds with some lack of confidence. I feel you can see this in a lot of media, in which a less masculine character might end their character arc with a boost in confidence and act more aggressive. What’s more, I do get the impression that your blog does tend to assume some degree of social masculinity. Not knocking you, but I do wonder if that changes the needed advice.
For background’s sake, despite identifying as a guy and having an outwardly masculine body, my personality and usual social role is regarded by myself and others as pretty feminine. My good friends often tell me I’m pretty feminine and “think like a woman” in a non-derogatory way and compare me a lot to the female characters in the shows we watch. (Think Nia from Gurren Lagann, Kumiko from Hibike Euphonium, Aerith from FF7, and in a rare male instance Kamui Uehara from the recent No More Heroes 3 and TSA) I’m well known in town for being ‘sweet’, people say I bring a calming atmosphere to the room, and my friends value me for being the guy that’ll always listen to their problems. These are all parts of me I like about myself and it feels pretty often that the dating advice people give ask me to abandon these aspects.
The whole “safe-dangerous” dichotomy is one that I feel gross about in particular, partially as someone who’s experienced sexual assault in the past. I really hate advice that says to make yourself “a little dangerous” as well as the contrasting notion that it’s my job in a relationship to “protect” the woman. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to be able to say that in a crisis I’d do my best to help others and put them before myself, but something about me being seen in the image of a masculine “protector” makes my skin crawl. It feels like one of those areas where more progressive space will still trend towards gender essentialism.
(It’s probably good to mention I grew up and am getting my degree in a mid-sized town in a very red, very southern state. This probably has influenced the model of masculinity I’ve internalized. I have no plans at all to stay once I graduate.)
Now onto the actual ‘dating’ aspect. Despite getting myself to a point where I feel okay with asking girls out, I have yet to go on an actual date — much less form a romantic relationship. For some reason or another the answer is always a ‘no.’ Most of my friends, male and female, think I’d be a great boyfriend to whoever’d be into me and I’ve even had lady-friends offer to try and set me up on a date — all of which the attempts never succeed. While I’m grateful for the female friends I’ve had, I don’t really know what it feels like to be desired in a physical or romantic sense. (I know the point you’ve made about sex positivity leading to more/better sex but despite being that for most of my life it’s made no difference. Seeing that point kinda weirded me out after being sex-positive and approving of more forward women with no expectation of recompense for years.)
People will always say that I’ll know it when it happens, but that’s unfortunately rung hollow in my experience. I’ve had instances where I and my friends totally thought that someone was signaling interest towards me (initiating and heavily escalating physical contact, saying things as brazen as “I bet you’re a sub”, saying we should go out for coffee sometime, etc,) but when I make the move to ask them on a date it turns out they didn’t see me in that fashion at all. Every time I feel like I’m getting close, it’s as if the sun decides that it’s time for my wings to catch fire. And I’m not going to lie, it’s demoralizing. Confusing, even, when tons of girls around me’s first way to describe their boyfriend or crush is “a lot like you.”
I just don’t know what’s missing at this stage. Even worse, neither do my friends. My failed attempt usually end with the old sentiment of “you did everything right, the interest just wasn’t there.” But how long can I reasonably be expected to run on that?
I know you’ve mentioned that it’s good to be someone who is happy with who they are and to feel like you’re datable. I was doing pretty well for myself before the pandemic and have been trying to work on the physical and mental issues that predictably come with spending a year in isolation (might take a while to get that senior-sixty off, though.) I feel like I have somewhat interesting hobbies; I play guitar, I’m handy with a camera, I like to cook, and I’m constantly getting compliments from friends, peers, and professors on my personal writings. I’m well-liked within my town, and I’ve been working for years towards the path I want to take in life. I’m really wondering at this point where my blind spot could be, or if it’s just a simple matter of needing to continue with my weight loss, try therapy again despite my dissatisfaction with the last go around, and wait for someone who’ll finally either initiate or reciprocate my interest. Maybe my head will break the brick wall someday.
Malewife Matriarch, Femboy Fatale
I’m not gonna lie, MMFF; I had to read through your letter a couple of times to get the gist of exactly what you were having issues with. But I think part of the problem you’re dealing with is that you’re working from some odd, idiosyncratic or otherwise just plain wrong interpretations of… well, lots of stuff, honestly.
Case in point: the idea about sex-positivity leading to more sex. I think part of the disconnect you’re having here is that you’re taking this on the personal level — that being a more sex positive person will lead to you having more opportunities to get laid. While this can be true — God knows people are more likely to sleep with someone who’s more accepting and less judgemental about other people’s sexuality, preferences, orientation or history than folks who aren’t — what you’re referring to is the effect on the social level. As I’ve said many times before: part of the reason why women have less sex than they would necessarily prefer is because society judges them for having it at all and especially in ways that aren’t socially “approved of”. One of the most common reasons why women are less open to, say, casual sex with men, than they might be otherwise is because most of the time it’s too dangerous for them, the sex is rarely worth the level of risk, and men tend to judge them for having sex with them. A more sexually positive society means that people over all feel freer and more empowered to have the kind of sex that they would want to have — whether that’s tons of wild and crazy adventures, a monogamous and committed partner or no sex at all.
But another issue is that you talk about being non-masculine in reference to your gender performance, rather than aesthetics or identity. From what I’m gathering from your letter, you’re talking about being less aggressive and macho and more nurturing, empathetic, calming and sweet, and possibly a little less assertive and proactive than others. I think the problem you’re having is that you’re assuming that this means you’re not “manly” and that these are exclusively female traits. And while yes, those are traits that are coded as female by society… that doesn’t mean that you’re any less of a man for having or embodying those traits and values. It just means that you, as a man, are more nurturing, empathetic, calming and so on.
And therein lies the issue. Your problem isn’t that you’re too “femme” or whatever, it’s that you seem to have an issue with accepting that you’re just as much of a man as some eats-too-much-red-meat-booze-guns-and-bangin-broads macho meathead stereotype. Part of the reason why coercive and exclusionary definitions of “masculinity” can be so toxic is because they define “manhood” in incredibly narrow, limiting and damaging ways. Being someone who’s caring and nurturing doesn’t make you feminine; it makes you someone who’s caring and nurturing, just as someone who’s rough-and-tumble and aggressive isn’t masculine automatically, they’re someone who’s rough-and-tumble and aggressive.
As the saying goes: if you’re a man, then what you do is man shit. Do you like crafts like knitting or sewing? Then congratulations, you’re a dude who likes knitting and sewing. If you like the idea of being domestic then hey, you’re a domestic kind of guy. Yeah, stuff like “Way of The House Husband” gets laughs by contrasting a former Yakuza tough-guy with the fact that he loves cleaning, cooking and taking care of the house… but the truth is that he would be no less of a man if he weren’t a former lieutenant in an organized crime family.
I think part of what you’re stuggling with here is that you’ve internalized so many of these restrictive ideas about manhood and masculinity that you feel like the fact that you’re softer and gentler marks you as weird or non-manly. It doesn’t really help that so many of your go-to references are from anime and video games. I may love a shitload of anime but let’s be honest: most of the stuff that gets brought to the US tends to be pretty essentialist when it comes to gender roles, especially for male characters in shonen (that is, aimed at young boys between the ages of 12 and 15) titles. One thing that would likely help would be to broaden your horizons and pay attention to more shows, movies, books and comics that feature many different ways of being a man without buying into the false dichotomy of strict masculine/feminine roles.
The most obvious example — and one I refer to frequently — is Netflix’s Queer Eye. One of the things that makes this iteration so enjoyable is that you have four people (Jonathan Van Ness is non-binary) who range from very straight-presenting to incredibly camp , but who are all warm, calming, nurturing and demonstrative. They’re all great examples of just how being a man (or non-binary) doesn’t mean being locked into one particular mode of behavior, and as such, they’re a soothing breath of fresh air. You might also appreciate more of The Great British Bake Off, where all of the contestants and judges are just… sweet and supportive of one another, even in the framework of an elimination-style competition.
If we move to fiction, then you have shows like Ted Lasso, which features Jason Sudeikis as a man who’s kind, collaborative and supportive, whose positivity and optimism carry the day in ways that a more vituperative, chair-throwing, yelling-and-screaming performance never could. And in shows like Letterkenny, you have folks like Squirrley Dan who are far from the macho stereotype as you’re likely to find and even traditionally masculine folks like Wayne have a softer side that they love to indulge in… just check out the Super Soft Birthday Party. And even folks like Riley and Jonesy, who are much more traditional in their gender performance, are shown to be far from one-dimensional jocks. They may be bro-y as hell, but they also have a much more nuanced and accepting form of masculinity than would otherwise be expected from guys who look and act like them.
(I find it amusing that we’ve actually managed to go backwards, socially, from the 80’s in a number of ways, when one of the most popular long-running sitcoms involved a man who worked as a nanny.)
I think that if you were less caught up in feeling like an oddity for being gentler and more nurturing and more accepting that this is just the kind of man you are, you’d have far fewer issues over all, including in the dating sphere. One of the things I have long found to be true is that the less in alignment you are with your authentic self, the worse you do. When you feel like you have to apologize or explain away being yourself, you sabotage your own sense of confidence and self-worth. That makes it much harder not only to pursue relationships with folks you find attractive, but to meet and match with people who are actually right for you. It doesn’t do any good to go after a relationship with someone when your values and personalities conflict in fundamental ways after all. Someone who thinks that a guy who likes the idea of being a house husband is sus isn’t going to be a good match, no matter how attracted you two may be to one another.
The more you can bring yourself in alignment with your true self and accept this as who you are as a man, rather than treating it as being something that makes you less of a man, the happier and more confident you’ll be. That, in turn, will help you in life overall, but especially in dating and relationships. Once that is sorted, I think you’ll find that the rest starts to fall into place.
I love your work! I’m a female and your work gives me hope in so many ways. You remind me that men, woman and all humans identifying inside of or outside of the binary system all have the same issues, as well as desires, dreams, and goals. But we are conditioned differently to become a social construction of gender instead of just human.
Anyway, I wanted to reach out to you mostly to vent, but also maybe you can help. My family is very conservative and I considered posting a little rant of my FB page, but realized that would probably cause the men in my family to call me a crazy female or ask if I’m ‘riding the broom’ or whatever.
So I asked myself who would be interested in explaining to men why this situation is wrong and where would men actually listen to the rationale? Lightbulb! Dr. NerdLove and his people! Yay!
Ok so here’s the story: I joined Codependents Anonymous about 8 months ago. I have a history of various kind of abuse from both men and women and I finally had a therapist call out my issues as codependent and push me into meetings. Through the program I am realizing how much abuse I haven’t even seen, because I didn’t even know it was abuse.
I decided to join a mixed group (open to all genders) which made me very uneasy at first, because most of my abuse has been from men. As it tuned out the group has been really cathartic. It turns out men can be codependent too! (Which I knew from reading your blog, but hit me differently in Coda) I felt safe there for the first 6 months. But now there’s a man in the group (who’s actually one of the original founders of the meeting I attend) and he’s making me feel really uncomfortable.
A few months ago he was talking to me after the meeting and he asked if I was married and I said no. So he told me, “you should just get married.” And I was shocked. I asked, “Where is that even coming from?” He said, “well if you were married you’d deal with your husbands problems and you’d have your own family and you wouldn’t have time to worry about other people anymore.” And I was shocked again, because 1. He assumes I’m going to marry a man 2. Shifting coda issue from friends to family isn’t actually solving the whole codependency issue. It’s literally just transferring it to other relationships. So I just sat there with my mouth hanging open. The other leader of the group started laughing and I gave him a sharp look, so he stopped laughing and told the guy to knock it off because he was not being helpful.
Fast forward to today, the same guy who told me that I should “just get married and it would solve all my problems” said some more toxically masculine nonsense.
So I shared tonight that I am in a DBT ( Dialectical Behavior Therapy) group and I had learned about core emotions including sadness. There was a list of maybe 8 reasons to feel sad, and when I read them I had 7 of them. Being codependent I was like,” oh wait. what? oh ok so I am sad. Interesting!” Because I have trouble even identifying my emotion, just finding the correct emotion felt like a positive step.
After I read the reasons to be sad I learned it’s ok for me to be sad. I was surprising to me that it’s ok for me to have this emotion that’s not just making other people happy.
I called a friend (because they suggested it as a coping mechanism in DBT ) and I said, “hey I am sad and this _ is why” and she validated that it was ok for me to be sad and that I had a right to be sad! I was so happy/ relieved to find out it was acceptable for me to be sad. It felt great actually — I get to have emotions just like other people! Wooo! It felt great to share the odd win with the group. Haha. Allowing myself to be sad about sad things is not something I’ve been able to do. It felt crazy to let myself be sad, but I’m learning it’s not crazy, it’s human.
Anyway coda has a rule that you can’t comment on other people’s shares during share time, but after people chat and sometimes say, “your share was really helpful” or “I related to that so much, thank you for your share.” Which doesn’t bother me at all. But the same guy who told me that getting married would solve all of my problems chimed in to say, “I don’t want you to be sad” I was thinking uh oh… oh no. Here we go… but I smiled and said, “oh ok, thanks.” So the other (male) lead jumps in and says, “hey man, she just found out it is ok for her to be sad.” The sexist guy says, “well I just don’t want her to be sad. It’s not good to be sad all of the time. If she’s sad she’ll get depression and I don’t want that for her.” So then a female in the group jumps in and says, “hey that’s not what she said…” and defends me in allowing me to feel my own emotions.
The sexist guy then says, “well you have such a pretty face, it’s a shame for you to be sad. You’re too pretty to be sad.” And I nearly lost my mind, but as society has condition me to do I smiled like my life depended on it. He continued, “I just want to give you a Dutch hug and make you feel better.” The other male lead made some kind of joke that I couldn’t hear over of the very colorful stream of profanity’s my brain was coming up with. I was fighting to keep it all contained behind my *pretty* smile. I replied, “yeah you’re right. I’ll just rub some dirt in in.” Everyone laughed and the situation was diffused. But I was furious. I looked happy, but I was fighting not to lose it.
Because a man finds me attractive I only get to be happy or turned on. My being anything outside of these emotion threatens their fragile toxic masculinity. I am a real person, not a doll sent her to beautify your life or make you feel good about yourself. How can one human dictate the emotional range of another and not understand that it is abuse?
I don’t want to cause a problem in the group, but I also can’t allow myself to be treated as less than a person. I am smart and funny and competent — I struggle every day to remind myself I am worthy. When shit like this happens I feel I’m back to being the helpless girl who has to keep the men around happy so she can be safe.
I just want to feel safe in body. And because I am a woman I don’t get that right. Because I am a young attractive woman I don’t get to feel safe or angry or sad. I must be happy to stay safe. And I can’t stand it anymore.
I couldn’t stand up for myself today or a month ago. But I want to stand up for myself in the future. I realize this guy is a moron and he is probably incapable of understanding why he has offended me.
I actually understand the he meant well. He probably believes he did me a solid. He probably believes he made me feel attractive. He probably believes made me feel like I deserve to be happy. But he didn’t actually accomplish any of that.
I know what he wanted to say was, “you are young and beautiful and you deserve to be happy and find someone to love you. I wish I had the power to bring you joy and peace.” I know that’s what he meant.
But what he said was, “you’re too pretty to be sad.” He took away my value as a human — unless I am happy — I shouldn’t even exist. If I’m not being happy / acting happy I’m just making him insecure and bringing down the mood. I should just be happy. I mean I’m a girl why should I be sad, when there are men like him running the world. It’s a simple job for a young pretty girl
2. get married
3. radiate happiness
I know it’s not about me. He probably just doesn’t know any better. He probably meant well. He will probably never learn. I could spend years trying to gently explain this to the guy and it’s probably that nothing would change. It’s frustrating. I wish I lived in a world where this didn’t keep happening. Can you help me explain to the men (who care to learn) why semantics matters? Why women need to be allowed to be sad, even if they are pretty?
Survivor and Recovering Codependent Human Female
Honestly, SRCHF, I don’t think you need me to explain things differently; you laid it out rather well here!
Other than saying the same thing as you, just as a man (which, sadly, does make some folks listen), I would add this: one of the problems with the way this guy framed and phrased things isn’t just the semantics or underlying sexism. It’s the message he’s sending — likely without realizing it. Much like when men tell women to “smile”, the message he’s sending when he says “you’re too pretty to be sad” is that his desire carries more weight than yours does. Despite what you have shared during your session, he has decided that your feelings are less deserved and less valid.
He doesn’t want that for you? Well, it’s good to want things. Except, the way he’s phrased things is that he has decided that his wishes supersede your lived experience. His desire for you to not be sad — because it apparently displeases his boner — somehow outranks your right to feel the way you feel. Because he has deemed you to be “too pretty”, this means that your continuing to be sad is an affront to his wishes. While he may not realize that’s what he’s saying, the effect is that he’s telling you that he has determined that you aren’t the person best positioned to decide how you should feel. He is. And, as the kids said five minutes ago: that ain’t it, chief.
There’s also the unintentional judgement on your appearance and the other women in your group. Would it be ok for you to be sad if you were less attractive? Are people who are less conventionally attractive less deserving of happiness? Should your physical features mean that you’re only “allowed” to experience certain emotions and that the full range of the human experience are only for people who rank between, what, a 4 and a 7? Is it ok for you to have expressions or emotions other than happiness if it doesn’t make his penis smile?
But really, the most important part, more than anything else, is right here where you hit the nail precisely on the head: “When shit like this happens I feel I’m back to being the helpless girl who has to keep the men around happy so she can be safe.
I just want to feel safe in body. And because I am a woman I don’t get that right. Because I am a young attractive woman I don’t get to feel safe or angry or sad. I must be happy to stay safe. And I can’t stand it anymore.”
That is what he — and folks like him — needs to hear. You phrased this perfectly. And you’re becoming stronger and more self-assured every day. You’ve got the tools, you’ve got the words and you’ve got the strength to handle all of this, SRCHF. You’re building yourself up to be precisely the person you needed one month ago, today and tomorrow. You’re becoming your own hero and you should be immensely proud of all the progress you’ve made, because it’s pretty goddamn bad-ass of you.
You’ve got this.
All will be well.