Lately, every time I log on to Facebook, I see something like this:
Without fail, these are posted by (intelligent! progressive! amazing!) women. Now, these are not bitter, hardened man-haters by any stretch of the imagination. Each has legitimately and honestly entered into relationships (or tried to) and been disappointed. Yes, it takes two to tango, but if you’ll put some faith in my judgements and their representations of their situations, the fault has almost uniformly laid with the men.
And again, a disclaimer – not all men are immature jerks! I don’t think I am one, although maybe that’s a sign I’m deluding myself. In any event, there are certainly enough jerks out there that nobody would argue the premise that it’s a real problem.
Each of my aforementioned female friends is expressing what I’ve come to think of as the “Ugh, Men” mentality. Such expressions are hardly uncommon. Wade onto an online dating site and read a couple womens’ profiles: inevitably, you will come across a long list of “don’t message me if”s that point to the root issues: narcissism; materialism; preoccupation with sex; obsession with their own bodies; a general lack of substance; inability to read (or write).
And many times, when I’m out with these friends, they turn to me, and ask, why? What’s the deal? What the fuck happened?
It’s always been a difficult question to answer. For one thing, having a penis does not make me an expert on the history of masculinity. For another: I’m not a good representative sample. I’ve never been comfortable with my gender’s roles and expectations, and have always been sensitive to the frustrations of women. The “Ugh, Men” mentality has hung around my neck like an albatross knotted to a noose.
And so I wouldn’t really answer, and I’d suffer the prevailing wisdom – which is to blame it on genetics. “Men are just wired that way.” “They can’t help it.” “That’s how they are.” Despite how reductionist, patronizing, and patently wrong that argument is, I’d accept it. Nobody ever seemed to give the matter any more thought.
Until recently, when a gathering of events conspired to give me a new perspective: not the least of which was the publishing of an article entitled All The Single Ladies, which explored the modern-day crisis of unmarried women. However, buried in the article (a scant few paragraphs in an otherwise exhaustively long piece) was a brief discussion of the twin crisis of “unmarriageable” men. How men are on the decline, economically, sociologically, and politically.
So I got to thinking. What the fuck happened? A couple things came to mind:
1) Male Gender Roles Have Not Been Updated Since The 50s
Over the past several decades, women have seen an explosion of possibilities. While not every door is as open as it could or should be, many more are open than in years past. The same isn’t as true of men – while there’s been a small amount of movement, we’re stuck in a weird in-between place. It’s peppered throughout daily life in small ways:
– Careers. How many male cheerleaders have you met? Housekeepers? Househusbands? Kindergarten teachers? It is only a matter of time until someone accuses them of being a pedophile.
– Tastes. Not allowed: ‘chick flicks’, romance novels, anything related to fashion, or dancing in any way that engages your hips.
– Clothing. Dress well, but not too well – then you’re metro. Nothing too girly, or you’re gay. And if you need to carry around anything, it better be in a backpack or a valise. Purse? Fannypack? Forget it.
Now, how hard is it to imagine a female truck driver? Or a woman who likes action movies? A girl who wears button-up shirts and pants? Nobody bats an eye.
At the same time, the 1950s cultural expectations remain: for men to be breadwinners, to open doors, to pay for meals, to buy flowers and pop questions, to pursue and to woo. Understand: I can see no other cultural definition of what it is to be a man. Everyone seems expected to step up to the one-size-fits-all role of provider – a role that is increasingly difficult to fulfill.
2) Male Prospects Are Dwindling
As the afore-linked article points out, men are, statistically speaking, on the decline. We’re less educated at a time where you need a college degree even to work at McDonalds. We’re competing for jobs at an increasing disadvantage against women. More men than ever are in prison. Fulfilling the gender role of provider is that much harder when you can’t afford your own place, when you make less than your partner, when you’re falling behind.
Yes, a certain amount of this is due to a societal shift to push things later in life. We’re living longer than we ever have before. Whereas one might get married at age 13 in agrarian times, and age 18 in the days when you could get a good job out of high school, nowadays it’s 22 before you’re out of college, and often upwards of 30 before you have a well-paying job. But even taking this into account, women are (at least massively anecdotally, as in, practically everyone I know) more ready to settle down at 30 than men are. One could simply attribute this to the biological clock, but humor me for a second, and assume there’s reasons beyond genetics.
My take? When a modern-day guy is staring down the huge expectation of providing for a family, with no ability to carry through on it, what does he do? Some tackle it head-on and lose themselves in work. Some get depressed and stop trying. Some decide the whole game’s rigged and try to get around it. Some get thrown in jail. And many wait it out, with the understanding that they’ll be able to provide when they’re older, better situated in better jobs. These guys often enter a prolonged adolescence, where they focus on themselves and the things they can control (their bodies) rather than those they can’t (providing for a family).
To me, the poster child for all of this is the comedian Louis CK. A recently-posted and oft-reposted blog entry posited that the surging popularity of Louis CK’s comedy is due to his striking a nerve with today’s society, and that nerve is shame. I tend to agree. Louis’s comedy is usually about his own perceived inadequacy and incompetence. He’s a well-meaning man who’s lost and confused in a rapidly-changing world, unsure how to satisfy the needs of those around him.
The world changed and he didn’t.
3) Male Role Models Are Virtually Non-Existent
Watch primetime network TV and count the commercials and programs that portray adult men as morons or children. You will quickly run out of fingers upon which to count. In most circumstances, but nowhere more than in sitcoms, these men are paired with a wise girlfriend/wife/love interest, to temper their seemingly-inborn idiocy. In mere decades we’ve gone from father knows best to father knows nothing. Homer the Greek to Homer Simpson.
In all seriousness, who are men to emulate nowadays? Don Draper of Mad Men, serial adulterer alcoholic from fifty years ago? Walter White from Breaking Bad, a teacher who turns to dealing meth after proving unable to provide for his family? Barack Obama, a man so drowned in political and moral compromises that he’s disappointed nearly everyone in the country? Chris Brown, who beat his girlfriend to a pulp? Jack Bauer? Justin Bieber?
The only man who seems to address this is Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club. Obviously, Tyler Durden is not a role model, but he did capture the frustration of a “generation of men raised by women.” Palahniuk is the best thing we have to a mainstream Susan Faludi. And best thing? This ostensible forefather of the future Men’s Liberation movement, author of one of the most macho books in modern history, is an openly gay man.
(apologies to Jean, whose forced repeat viewings of Mulan may make this image intensely painful)
4) There’s No Instruction Manual
Here’s where it gets personal.
During the heyday of the Women’s Liberation movement, many of the most vociferous feminists laid the groundwork for decades of confusion. Common courtesies like holding doors were painted by many as assaults on the strength of women everywhere. As ludicrous as that sort of hyperbolic vitriol may seem, its effects linger to the present day.
When I started dating, everything was a mystery. Do I pay? Go dutch? Offer to pay? Hold doors? Hold bags? Hold my tongue? Then and now dating often felt like walking through a field of invisible tripwires; playing a game whose rules I do not know, but whose punishments I soon would. Looking back at my parents’ marriage, I feel that my father was just as lost as me. The rules he learned growing up didn’t apply anymore. We are generations of men without direction. Chivalry is dead, and its replacement is late.
It quickly became evident that every person I encountered had their own, wholly different set of rules (duh). With each woman I met, I was never sure what I was up against, what preconceived notions she might bring to the table, how our base assumptions about gender might differ. Common sense wasn’t such a commonality.
Everyone reacts to this realization differently. Some stick rigidly to their worldview and find only people that fit neatly with that. Others date around in order to see what they like. Others still develop chameleon-like personas to ingratiate themselves. The accepted wisdom from movies seems to just ‘be yourself’ (although perhaps a more pliable, open-minded version of yourself), and love will find you.
Well, I was not content with simply ‘being myself’. I wanted to be more. Better. I was hellbent on being an ambassador for my entire gender.
I know how ridiculous that sounds. But realize that I grew up surrounded by women who, almost uniformly, were frustrated and disappointed by men, and that weighed on me heavily. As a self-defense mechanism if nothing else, I needed to show that not all men are monsters. I poured decades into proving that men come in many shapes and sizes, that we are not unfeeling cretins, that friendship and worthwhile relationships are indeed possible.
It was not honest with myself but it was not a lie. I genuinely was, and continue to be, completely platonic friends with a large number of women. Their well-being and feelings were, and continue to be, of paramount importance to me. I never hid any wolven ambitions, nor did I conceal some sort of bare-chested, narcissistic “true” personality. My interactions were, and continue to be, honest. They just were not as honest as they could have been.
As you could guess and my closest friends could attest, my ambassadorship sometimes made me miserable, usually in the context of my relationships. It was not a daily misery by any stretch. 99 minutes out of 100, I was happy with who I was and how I was acting. And yet, I found myself avoiding relationship situations where I would have to be the jerk, because I could never bring myself to be the jerk. I had to make sure that my partner was provided for in every possible situation, and take the blame for every problem to which I could conceivably tie myself.
I couldn’t usually communicate my unhappiness. Sometimes this was because I couldn’t be honest with myself, like being upset about being treated in patronizing manner – an ambassador would see that she meant well. Sometimes this was because men simply are never taught good tools for communication – we have to wing it. Sometimes it was simply because I am a man. And men are supposed to be able to take it. And take it. And take it.
And then one day, I woke up, and found I couldn’t take it anymore. From men who give the entire gender a bad name. From women who roll their eyes and say, “ugh, men.” From society’s expectations of me. And most of all, from my expectations of myself.
So I sat. And I thought. And I wrote this blog entry.
So what the fuck happened? I couldn’t tell you, exactly. But I’m glad it did. Feels like a step forward.
Edit: After re-reading the post, I worry that some might think I was saying that I had been some kind of perfect boyfriend, a paragon of virtue – no. I had a large share of failures, many of them abject and terrible, and many due to my inability and unwillingness to communicate. Just making that clear.