As a man, i have a vested interest in writing about this topic in the most genuine way possible. There is a lot at stake and i have no intention of being misunderstood. After all, a man is direct, straightforward, confident, strong, bold, authoritative and all of those other things...or is he? What is a man? That is the question I am asking nearly 60 years after Freud famously asked: "what do women want". Historically, i have had the culturally inherited wisdom of knowing that men want power, sex and status. If this generalization ever rang true, i think there are signs the tune may be changing. While i think we have come closer to understanding what women want, i notice that what men want and what men are seems to be getting more and more abstract. It is not my intention to confuse you by including an analysis of the status of women's identity in my breakdown of what it means to be a man but i can hardly talk about the identity of one gender without referring to the other. We don't live in a vacuum and our identities as men and women depend on each other to some extent. If masculine and feminine are essential molecules then genders are hybrid compounds. Do you think men wear suits, go to war, build their muscles just because they think it will have some effect on other men? Do you think women wear makeup, dye their hair, augment their breasts and devote time to fashion because it impresses other women? The answer is yes and no to both of those questions. Our gender identities as men and women are surely shaped by what we see our parents do as male and female gender role models. As our sexual instincts mature most of us become increasingly demonstrative of behaviours aimed at soliciting attention from the opposite sex. We realize that even though we may be different, it behooves us to endeavour to understand the other sex.
The reader should know that i have had a long and unique preoccupation with gender. Not from the perspective of a gay person, nor from that of a transgendered individual. My preoccupation with the question of gender stems strictly from my experience as an ordinary heterosexual male. From the outset, this interest of mine seems odd because we are usually not driven to publicly ask questions about social mechanics when we are in positions of power. We tend to ask more questions when we are oppressed because our discomfort in oppression mobilizes us to seek the causes so that we might bring some remedy. It was minorities and women during the civil rights movements who asked the tough questions because they had an interest in asking them. I have been taught that a man is always in charge. I was born in 73, a time when doctors, politicians, university professors, policemen and firemen and military personnel were all male dominated areas of work. The question as to why we say "police man" instead of "police person" was still in the process of being asked seriously when i was born. Ultimately, this question was asked by women, just as the question: "why are there no black Canadian or American heads of state?" was asked by blacks first. People who are in power know through trial and error that it does not serve their interests well to be asking questions about why it is that they hold power. Rather than ask questions, people with the power tend to remain conspicuously silent on matters of social structure. So why should a mostly Caucasian male in the largest voting demographic take to asking questions about the gender equation? My experience as a mostly Caucasian man has been such that i could never accept what i heard to be true about men and women. I heard from various sources, either implicitly or explicitly that men are liars, responsible for all of the torment, the abuse, the rape and the wrongdoing throughout history. When we look at history, the facts seem to support this overambitious conclusion but when we peer a little deeper, the assignment of blame for to gender grows seems less substantial. I learned either implicitly or explicitly that women were the "fairer sex". That women were the unwitting victims of a giant conspiracy plotted by men to rule the earth. I still meet women who make this case from time to time but there seems to be less of them. Women these days seem to be more interested in becoming the change they wish to see. Sometime around the age of 20 i came to seriously question what i had believed and now, at 38, i can say that this initial unearthing around the social construction of gender evolved into a systematic questioning of nearly everything i have at any time held to be true.
My unique perspective on gender began to take shape around the age of 4 when my best friend was a girl named Maya. Maya and i did everything together. She lived just a few houses away and we spent our time running carelessly naked in the parc, building snow forts in the winter and castles in the sand of Toronto summers. For the longest time, i don't even think we were conscious of the sex difference between us. Our relationship was one of innocence and equality in every regard. At some point too soon, maybe the age of 7 or so, i became sexually curious and our relationship was over. Around the age of 8 i was enrolled in ballet class. Before i could even muster an opposition, my mother had placed me in a room full of little girls and asked me to dance. Wanting to please my mother, i danced my heart out for next 8 years. I eventually grew to enjoy participating in ballet as a spectator and as a dancer. After initially overcoming the embarrassment of playing a game outside of my gender's rules, i came to realize that some women and men were curiously attracted to people who dared to bend the rules. I grew comfortable in a role as outsider and minority. Of course, i don't mean to equate my status as a minority with the status of a true ethnic minority facing oppression everyday, because i could leave any oppression i felt behind and choose to return to my privileged existence as a white middle class male. Actually, I was experiencing a duality in which i was at once privileged yet stigmatized, inside yet outside, awkward but special. Perhaps it is more fair to say that i was temporarily an outsider rather than a true minority and that i experienced the stigma and isolation reserved for people who bend the rules for accepted social functioning. Initially, i did not get much blowback for playing outside the boys game because i also played hockey and participated in other clubs reserved strictly for boys. Had i been gay, my experience of marginalization would presumably have been much greater. In my case, it was not only tolerable, but i grew to enjoy my unique position as "the different person". There is a certain amount of tolerance for children who bend the social rules of adults. Boys wearing makeup is cute but when men do it, the implications are more disturbing for most of us. In fact the younger the child, the harder it actually is to pin down which gender they belong to. Gender is a socially constructed layer on top of the biological determinants of sex and it takes time to be integrated or rejected. We seem to be willing to allow for that time to play out...up to a point.
Around the age of 16, i found love in music and joined various rock bands for the next 8 years. Here, i was in a macho phase. I had long hair, cowboy boots and an buttoned down shirt most days. Trying on this identity for a while, opened up new possibilities and served as my introduction to what i would call a heavily sexualized identity. Think of those rock stars like Robert Plant, Mick Jagger and Axl Rose, Jim Morrison (all men) and their hyper-sexualized and highly feminized personas on stage. Those men shocked us when they hit the scene because they were men behaving in somewhat feminine ways with high voices, lower muscle mass, dance and movement which had previously not been seen in men. Well, that is what i projected myself into as best i could. I wanted to be like them, with all that feminine and masculine had to offer. Until i found my own identity, i was going to try that one on and it fit me pretty well but when my hair fell out, i had to re-evaluate my position (joke). You could say that those figures were -and to some extent- still are my gender role models. I love them for their force and their sensitivity.
By the age of 22 or so, i took to painting seriously. Painting was different from the other modalities of expression i had known. Painting was an internal sport, played entirely within my mind. This is important because painting seems to be an experience which transcends the socially constructed rules of gender. This means that painting emerges out of something deeper in the human spirit, something devoid of a body and devoid perhaps even of anything we can rationally understand. I started to suspect that there is an existence beyond gender itself. A humanity which transcends sex and gender all together. A part of the human soul which is neither one gender nor the other but possibly both or neither. I suppose this is close to Jung's notion of personality as inclusive of both anima and animus.
In my early 20's, i was enrolled in a bachelor's of psychology and i noticed throughout my program that the classes seemed to consist of just slightly more women than men. It seems that the gender ratios in psychology programs have changed from mostly men to mostly women. Actually, it seems that gender ratios in university enrollment have also shifted in that direction. Shortly after my studies in psychology, i pursued a bachelor's degree in fine arts and noticed a bunch of people questioning just about everything from their own existence to everyone else's. My fine arts studies also took place in an environment where gay and lesbian voices could be heard more prominently. This aspect of my fine arts training greatly contributed to my current vision of gender as a flexible, semi-permeable social structure which is a fiction built upon some basic facts. I had grown up during my teen age years on the edge of a gay neighborhood in downtown Toronto so i had already been familiar with the myriad of possible forms which gender can take. I understood that when you take the biological determinants of sex then add the socially constructed nature of gender identity and mix in the biopsychosocial roots of sexual orientation, you start to have a pretty complex picture. As fine arts students, we were also exposed to a fair amount of non sexualized nudity in life drawing classes. I am privileged to have had the rare opportunity to look at the naturally naked human form as an object of beauty without the lens of pornography. I think that not enough people are privy to this appreciation of the human form beyond sexualization. It became clear to me that there are different kinds of men and women, far beyond manly men and womanly women.
At the age of about 28, i was admitted into the art therapy master's program and here, i discovered that i was not merely the only man in my group of 13 but the only man in the program composed of several groups! There had been men previously but they graduated the same year i was admitted. I wondered how it was that men were absent from my program and came to realize that they are actually absent from the profession in general. I remembered Freud's argument that biology is destiny. I thought about the angry challenges to Freud's ideas about the sexes but i also wondered: "what if biology partly explains why men gravitate to computer sciences and women gravitate to early childhood education"? Shifting the focus back on myself, i wondered: "What was i doing in the art therapy program and how did i get there? It did not initially occur to me that the profession was composed of roughly 90% women so i can tell you how shocked i was to discover that i was again the "gender-bender" in a field of women. There i was again, a dominant white male in a position of being the "odd man in". I have come to see that my life experiences and my way of viewing the world all contributed to putting me on the path to becoming an art therapist. There are particular senses and sensibilities within me which made it a mere certainty that i would gravitate into the orbit of a profession where there were few others like me. The gender gap in my chosen field had so impressed me that i decided to investigate the issue further by conducting my master's research on the relevance of gender in the profession and practice of art therapy. I discovered that men were also conspicuously absent from the professions of social work, nursing and early education. The people i turned to in order to find out where the men were, mostly explained to me that there were issues of lower status and remuneration which kept men away from those professions. Where had i heard this before? I remember hearing this argument being invoked to explain why men were mostly absent from the early childhood domain. The problem with this explanation was that it once again presented men as competitive, success driven monsters lusting after financial gain, status and power. It once again suggested that women were virtuous because they devoted their lives to "caring" professions regardless of the external rewards waiting for them. I wondered if there could be other reasons for the gender divide in so many professions. I wondered if some of that culprit "sexism" could be rearing its head in women's domains. After all, i had always heard that women were not engineers, great artists, politicians and computer scientists because the men in those fields were sexist. Accepting that this claim is at least partly true, it was only natural for me to hypothesize that the same kind of forces might be at play in keeping men out of women's professions. Is it possible that beyond power, status and remuneration, men do not enter women's fields of work for other reasons? Could it be that men avoid what has traditionally been women’s work because they feel they won't fit in with the female majority while also being outcast by their brothers for breaking the social rules governing what men must do? As I am about to explain, my views on gender roles grew ensnared in the political quagmires of angry feminists and macho chauvinists for a while. Now, i understand that there is a lot more to gender than just the politics of power even though it may be that the politics of power first turned our attention to gendered lines. This is not a post about the effects of gender in the professional world nor about power lines between the sexes. This post is about masculine identity and its current crisis in the disappearance of manhood.
So far, it has been important to provide some background about how i came to hold many of my current positions on gender. It would not be fair in my opinion, for anyone to present a discussion on the subject of gender without presenting some personal biographical information first. Doing this ensures that the my position remains authentic to my experience and not simply a borrowed opinion or a theoretical exercise in which i pretend to believe what i am saying (Devil's Advocate). Far too often, i have been involved in a conversation about gender in which someone pushed forth a political agenda behind the mask of an enlightened discussion. I want to spare you this disappointment later on so it has been important to lay it out for you. I am writing from the perspective of a man who sees men struggling every day just to be men. Every day, i am reminded that men have not had to rise up from underneath anyone's thumb except their own and that they don't really know what it means to foster a masculine identity from the ground up. When you are born into an identity which is bestowed upon you like a royal title, you have not had to fight for anything and you can't know what you have unless it you spend some time without it. Women spent a long time having their gender role proscribed for them by men. At some point, they revolted against this, redefining their roles. We men are only now starting to question what being a man can mean. In a strange sense here, a certain amount of oppression may help to crystallize a groups identity because when we overcome our oppression, we emerge stronger, better defined with a clearer understanding of who we are. Caucasian men have never had the opportunity to rebel and redefine their collective purpose because they have never been collectively oppressed. Of course, men have fought with each other but this is not the same as oppression. You might say that man has been oppressed by his own doing. His is the perpetrator and the victim of his own aggression. Perhaps i am romanticizing oppression a little here but still, i think the basic argument holds that you really understand what you have when someone takes it away. No one has ever taken away manhood..and yet, you could also say that we men have never finished the job of defining what being a man can be.
Things which were traditionally associated with men only are no longer theirs alone. Those private turfs of economic mastery where men once ruled alone are no longer. The socioeconomic landscape, once ruled by men is in rapid transformation. The fruits of women’s and minorities liberation movements are now coming to maturity in Canada and U.S. This means that access to education, political, economic and legal avenues gradually opened up and that now women are entering fields which were once the domains of men alone. Women have capitalized on their earned equality moving out of the house and into what was once a male workforce. This is a good thing and the thankful consequence for men is that we are now starting to question what is happening to the world we expected to find as boys. The fact of women’s transforming gender role identities seems to necessitate that men also reevaluate their position. As women enter law and politics, medicine, business and higher education positions, those fields of work are transformed. Hopefully, women entering those areas bring their womanhood with them and don't simply try to fit in with the boys because we have had enough of that already. Women entering police work should do the job just as women must do it and not as men would have them do it. They should bring their unique vantage points and philosophy to bear. We don't want politics and law and economics as usual being done the same way they have been done since men invented them, so it is a good thing that women should enter those areas and change them in the ways that only women can. I say “praised be the emancipation of women!” Unfortunately, in the process of being overjoyed for women's emancipation we have neglected to look at how some other things seem to be changing as well. Women's identities have emerged to include the statement: "We are capable of doing men's work!" As true as that is, there are basically two consequences of this emergent gender role identity for women which have not been addressed adequately in my view and they are: "Who is going to do the jobs that women used to do?" and "What will become of manhood given that what has defined us as men is being done by women?" After all, we can't all be lawyer's and doctors, engineers, politicians and business tycoons, some of us have to join the ranks of shall we say: "less glamorous" caring professions. Children require a lot of care and if women are leaving the home to go to work, and men are defined by the fact that they bring home money, then who does that leave to take care of the children? All of these changes in the socioeconomics of gender roles and gender identities have real consequences for manhood - a manhood which was already fragile at best.
Where can men now go to be useful? In a world were we once said: "boys will be boys" we now say: "girls will be boys". How can a man use his strengths in the service of his community? With only a bit of levity i would say that men must begin to set their sights lower. Away from the lofty ideals of PhD. studies and astronaut life. Away from the fast cars and bright lights of the big city. We men must set our sights lower, much lower where we will find children running around, needing to be picked up. Lower than that still there is the earth which needs tending. Hard work like farming used to have a special place in our society. A place of honour. When we lost that, manhood started to slip away. Men moved from the land to the factory taking on new roles as machinists. They did not know that machinists are just one step away from machines. At some point, technical or trades jobs like plumber, electrician, mechanic and factory worker lost their prestige. Jobs which men used to do in service to the community are now lackluster.
Looking in my drawer today, i pulled out a manual knife sharpener, bought at Canadian Tire a few years back. I sharpened all my knives perfectly in about 5 minutes. I thought to myself that sharpening knives used to be some guy's job and that for under $20, i could buy a mass produced tool to replace him completely. Every summer to this day, the knife sharpening man comes down the alley, ringing his bell and soliciting clients in need of sharp knives. The job is done more efficiently now and more cheaply to be sure but we lost something important when we replaced that human service with a plastic product. We lost a thread in our social fabric. We lost someone who got us neighbours out of our homes and into the alley, talking to each other. Doesn't sound like much but it is a big deal in a world where the internet is drawing us deeper and deeper into our own caves. We opted for a less work - more reward approach to living and our manhood slipped a couple of notches when we did that. With more money came more possessions and it slipped still further as manhood came to be known as what we had rather than what we did. A man became someone with a gun, or someone with a nice suit or someone with a car, a hot girlfriend, a leather jacket or a cigarette. A man came to be known as what he had rather than what he was, as what he said rather than what he felt, as what he thought rather than what he did. Today, man sits in front of a computer torn between the allure of pornography and the tasks laid out for him in the hierarchical structure of his office environment.
Of course, when manhood has slipped far enough out of reach, there are plenty of folks willing to step in and make use of that primal energy.The military does a pretty good job of both promising a father, in the form of structure and discipline while also promising access to manhood through the warrior archetype. I am not saying that the warrior archetype has no place in manhood, merely that when the military industrial complex controls that archetype, we fool ourselves as men. Look at the world around you, society, evolution and you can see that the warrior archetype is an outdated vestige of what we men used to be. Today, I has no purpose. Religion also did a pretty good job of promising not only a father but also access to manhood through obedience to the father. The promises made by religion and the military can only make good on a small part of the offer. Being a man is actually a formidable task which religion and the military combined could never accomplish. Being a man is a complex, dynamic and lifelong commitment. Manhood has become a no-man's-land and something which belongs to nobody, belongs to anybody. What we have are entrepreneurs vying to control a piece of manhood and masculine identity. Shaving cream, cars, hollywood stars and cigars all promise to uphold manhood just as push up bras promise to hold up womanhood. These economic pushers do not help us on the path but confuse us, diluting the essence of manhood into consumable chunks of prefabricated nonsense.
So what is becoming of manhood? Manhood is going to jail. It is getting jumped into street gangs like the crips and bloods or MS13 and the hell’s angels. It is doing everything and anything it can to make the money to buy the things which men possess. Manhood is dropping out of school, wasting away the time while angrily waiting for a paycheck which is going to the more qualified single woman living next door. Incidentally, she may be waiting for prince charming to knock on the door and help her take care of her fatherless children while she goes to work...Manhood is making babies and running from them as fast as he can. Manhood is learning to make love like a porno star. But fear not, it is my job to be optimistic and my mission to tell you that men are known to come to their senses whilst they sit on the precipice of disaster. We may be heroes yet. But like every hero, we must act in a timely fashion. We must take back manhood just as women have taken back the night. We must reinvent ourselves as new men: fearless, courageous in the face of unknown challenges. We must brave a new frontier in a world where only the unarmed will inherit the earth.
Women have moved into what were traditionally men’s fields. Men have not done the same just yet. We are still hanging on to whatever is left of our own illusion. The good news is that we people are capable of extraordinary feats. We have a consciousness and a will which enable us to change our course as soon as we have the insight to do so. Of course, better known for our ability to remain on the path of disaster even when we know what awaits us but still, we have also known for our courage in the face of adversity. We can change, we don’t usually do it because we need motivation to change and most people don’t have motivation till there is fire at the door. It is hard work to change. Why would anyone want to go outside and explore an unknown and potentially dangerous world when we can stay in a nice warm bed? We have made a bed but we need no longer lie in it. Men seem to be looking around for signs that it is o.k to cross the pond. Slowly, these signs are making themselves known.
Women built an identity out from under oppression. Some chose to surmount that oppression through unique ingenuity. Some chose to join the rank and file within the dominant male social structures, becoming lawyers, politicians, doctors and figures of authority- doing those jobs as close as possible to the ways in which men did them. Others still chose to identify with their status as oppressed individuals, presenting themselves as victims. When it comes to men, well we have only really had one choice: To assume a position of authority thrust upon us or to accept a position of subservience for failing to do so. Of course, some men choose neither but these are an enlightened bunch, largely unnoticed in the history books. Men who choose to deny their inheritance as rulers of the earth are pigeon holed as wimps, gay or otherwise defective. The archetype we are buying these days is the same one we have been buying since the beginning: tall, dark and handsome; rough and tough or for those who don't fit those molds there is the "smart and nerdy" archetype". You can't usually be intelligent and excel at sports. You can't be a great artist and a bodybuilder. You can't be a thinker and a ladies' man. The categories are mutually exclusive. Women have molds, men have molds and we are all condemned to be what others tell us to be. I guess, in this regard, we are equal.
Only now are we starting to see fathers and brothers as the true heroes of modernity. We are at a point in history where a man may refuse to fight and be granted a pardon because he is raising children. Leaving one's children behind to fight abroad is never a man's choice in my opinion. Women fought for what was called equality at a time when gender role wars were waged. What women got was something else in my opinion. Equality should have meant equal but different. Instead, it meant "as much like men as possible". Instead of joining the police force, women should have come up with an alternative force to it. Perhaps something like the "crime prevention force". Instead of law, women might have considered developing an alternative system of justice operating outside the scope of crime and punishment. If you look at the whole picture of morality and social convention, you start to notice that this may be exactly what women have been doing in some areas. Instead of racing to acquire the power and status of doctors, women could have invented and developed a preventative model of health care, focusing on health rather than sickness. Instead of politics as usual, women could have banded together, refused to vote or take part in any form of political life. They could have developed an alternate form of cooperative government which dialogue rather than opposition was the main event. If anyone can bring balance to the adversarial structure of law and politics, surely it is women. Perhaps i place too much burden of responsibility on women. Perhaps i hold womankind responsible for what it can not accomplish. Still, if there is one thing i can justifiably demand of women, it is that be women and not men. No matter how much social justice, injustice or upheaval, women and men will always be different in some pretty fundamental ways. The question today is: "are we ready to accept and celebrate those differences?"
Today, as an art therapist, i still hold a kind of fateful position in a professional no-man's land, living in a world between the roles of two genders. Still, as a male art therapist, i am incontestably a bit of an oddity. Maybe that's how i like it. Art therapy has often been referred to as a hybrid discipline and this is actually true on multiple levels. It is a hybrid of art and science, of objective and subjective knowledge fields, of age old wisdom and childlike vision, of crystallized and fluid intelligence and i believe that art therapy is also hybridized out of masculine and feminine gender typologies. As an art therapist, i am at my best when i take everything i have learned from women and combine it with everything i know about being a man.
In the people i see as clients, manhood continues to show signs of crisis. In one of the schools where i work there are roughly 100 boys and only 2 girls. This school is a place for children with behavioural difficulties. I was reminded lately that boys are many times more likely to be diagnosed with a behavioural difficulty. Boys are about 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Defficit and Hyperactivity Disorder . Boys are more likely to drop out of school and about 11 times more likely to wind up in jail than girls. We talk a lot about violence against women but men are far more likely to be the victims of male violence. Do we talk about men's violence against other men? Is there a march in the street for men's rights? There is no march for men's rights because the running joke has been: "what does the dominant group need to protest about?". To this day, it would seem strange fro a group of straight, white men to march together in the street in support of men's right to self determination. Yet, I think a time may be coming when it might be possible to suggest a masculinist movement in favour of taking masculinity and manhood back from whoever has hijacked it.
I heard once that sick women go to the hospital while sick men go to jail. Are these the two cultural institutions in place to deal with our two genders? Women get empathy and men get punishment? I think there are some problems with building our social structures around the concepts of men as villains and women as victims. I have long felt that men and women both need help facing the challenge of their emerging identities. One has not needed more help than the other, only different kinds of help. One has not been dominant while the other submissive. Both have been suffering. Both have been lost and confused. It is time for us men to ask ourselves: "where do we need help?" "how can we help ourselves and each other?" "can we ask for help?"
Thanks for reading. Those are my thoughts on gender and the disappearance of manhood. If you have seen manhood, please let me know by commenting on this post or clicking on the "follow" button in the bottom right. For further study please consider the following:
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