Tuesday, October 25, 2011

It's a Confusing Time to be a Man

I find it a very confusing time to be a man.

I have an amazing group of guy friends from college, all of whom very much fit into the "Renaissance Man" category. They are kind, compassionate, gentle, creative, and sensitive, and those that are married are very supportive of their wives' careers. Most all of them not only know how to cook but are incredible chefs. Four of them are fathers, or on their way to being fathers, and some of those fathers will be the ones to stay-at-home, doing their jobs remotely, while their wives are out in the workforce. My friends are going to be ridiculously good fathers.

Every time we all get together we eat copious amounts of red meat. I realized this recently, and I can't escape the suspicion that there is something very primal about this - the 21st century version of men on the hunt, gathered around a fire telling inflated stories of heroism and laughing loudly. Honestly, it's glorious. The highlights of my year. Kings discussing their exploits while ripping meat off the bone with jagged incisors and  yelling at chariot races.

Yet I have no problem writing that first paragraph, but the second paragraph makes me feel guilty, self-conscious, and chauvinistic. That's because I live in a culture that exalts the first definition of manhood, but is highly suspicious or critical of the second definition. Or at least that is the culture that I have internalized.

What happens when a generation of men have been raised to view the first definition as true masculinity and the second definition as a distortion, a cultural display of sexism? The women's liberation movement of the 60's was responding, among other things, to a kind of masculinity that oppressed women, that subordinated them both in value and role, a kind of masculinity that overpowered and stereotyped. And we celebrate that there has been much progress in that movement, even if there is more work to be done. But what if we are now living in a culture (okay, this is probably white, upper-middle class culture I'm talking about) in which "sensitive" and "feminist" and "in touch with their feelings" have become the norms of masculinity?

Many men in late Generation-X and the millenial generation have all been raised to believe that that is who they are supposed to be. That is what the men in their lives have modeled and the women in their lives have praised. What happens when the "traditional" understandings of masculinity have been lost? And the big and probably unanswerable question, is this: is there something about the traditional understanding of masculinity that transcends culture, that can be preserved while shedding the sexism that so often accompanies it?   

I'm just gonna say it. I think a lot of men deny parts of themselves because they are are afraid of their wives. They may not label it as fear, or admit it, but I think it's true. They let themselves be controlled because they are afraid of standing up for themselves. They spend too many hours at the office, they lie, they hide things, they get into pornography because it's a fantasy that they control - all because they are afraid. They act like boys before their mothers rather than men before their wives.

Unfortunately, when some men realize this fear they react badly. They get angry and they try to seize what they feel like they have lost by overpowering women or blaming them. Is there a way for men to name the fear and confront the fear without resorting to destructive, sexist tactics? Can we change some of the gender dynamics in our culture without just oscillating back to the gender roles of another era?

I don't have a lot of answers at this point, which only adds to the tension. And the tension that I'm most feeling at this point boils down to this:  I want to support my wife's career and her leadership abilities and yet I want to feel strong and powerful. I am happy to play the stereotypically feminine role of cook but I call my grill "PROMETHEUS GOD OF THE FIREBOX!!!" I eat wine and cheese at home and beer and ribs with my friends. I want to be sensitive and compassionate and yet I want everyone to know that if they threaten my wife they will have to answer to me.

My best Sunday school answer at this point is....Jesus. We must find our definitions of masculinity not first in what our culture dictates but in who Jesus is. The man who wept at Lazarus' grave and showed incredible compassion on people that others cast out, and the man who tied up a whip of cords and turned over tables in his Father's house, because you don't mess with the worship of God. 

It's a confusing time to be a man. Who's with me?