15 June, 2009

On Male Emotions

I tried to write a letter to my little brother.

I failed.

I started to write about how I couldn't stop puking when he was born. He had a needle feeding an IV into his head and I didn't know what else to do with my worry. I wound up trying to continue typing through tears clouding my eyes because I am so proud of him now and because I am so happy that he doesn't remember most of the things I fought so hard to protect him from growing up. We're brothers, we bear scars inflicted by one another. Thankfully, his adult teeth settled in normally even after I'd managed to knock several of his milk teeth out with a baseball bat (by accident, I swear!), but my toenails have never looked quite the same since he picked up a rock and smashed them off of my right foot when I wasn't paying attention (not an accident, I'm certain!), although his doing so certainly got my attention.

But here's the thing that's interesting: real successful men in the Western world aren't supposed to tear up, let alone cry, for anything ever regardless of everything, except when we are hit in the crotch. Indeed, my first reaction to noting the tears gathering at the corners of my eyes was to stop what I was doing and ensure that no one could see me or, if they could (which would be embarrassing), that they at least hadn't noticed. If they had I would have had no choice but to covertly punch myself in the crotch to give me an excuse.

Western men are, in essence, expected to dissociate themselves from their internal emotional state and relate to general society through a very narrow prescripted set of emotional cues. We're allowed jocularity, enthusiasm (for sports, money, and women), and stoicism. If we have some modicum of power over our fellows, we're also allowed public displays of frustration and/or anger. But to be sad, withdrawn, or quiet is considered weird. Compassion is tolerated from certain professions (e.g., MDs only) but is regarded elsewhere as creepy.

I don't claim to know where these proscribed action sets came from, but I do observe that they are rather inflexibly reinforced through everyday interactions among men. I posit here that these perpetuate the irresponsible man-child phenotype I discussed in the post just below.

To completely assume adulthood and its obligations is to also assume its mores and social rituals, including the restrictive expression of male emotions. As a result, it is far easier for young men to float along expressing nothing but "dude!" and lust than it is to develop the maturity required to really feel anything in the first place and then be caught up in the inherent cognitive dissonance of Western expression.

Consequently, to help change the definition of a real successful man from a cold, stoic automaton to a responsible, considerate, and respectful individual and in doing so help the cause of gender inequality, we need to also broaden the avenues through which men in the West may express themselves. Not only will this allow everyone to better understand each other, it will also allow young men growing into adulthood to better understand themselves.


LostMarbles said...

Awesome Post.

A minor aside on something that I've been thinking about:

I keep noticing that you're using the phrase "real men". I think qualifying genders how one needs to act to be a "real man" or a "real woman" is part of the problem. Making people feel inadequate based on them not being able meet a gender archetype is a psychologically harmful thing. And I'm not sure that redefining "real men" is the best way to go about creating gender equality when that phrase has always been used as a method to socialize boys into men obsessed with controlling themselves, their emotions, and anything/anyone else they can.

Toaster Sunshine said...

You're right. Saying "real men" or "real women" just creates a new narrow qualia of inclusion. I've modified to post for accuracy. I think "successful" is broader and more inclusive, and also perhaps more expressive of sought goals.

Ambivalent Academic said...

Toaster, you're adorable. And very refreshing. I like this last little mini-series of posts you've got going on.

DrL said...

I have seen one man cry publicly last year. You may not be aware of this event as this was in Europe – European Soccer Champions League finals. One guy made a unbelievable mistake and missed the ball at the penalty shot and his team lost. He cried like a baby, with millions people watching this game. I respect this guy for showing his tears very much. To me he is a hero of all manhood! Men should be allowed to cry!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I remember once watching an Indian film (Monsoon Wedding),and the "father-role" actor had one scene in which he sobbed his heart out.I just sat there with my mouth open,it was the first time I'd ever seen a man crying,properly.But you would just not see that in western film.Another reason to despise Hollywood.
It's similar in China,I hope societies that still allow men to have tear ducts will not be influenced so heavily by Western culture that that,too,is lost.