I WAS recently at a wedding reception (of all places) when I came across two men talking about masculinity.
One was a short, round-faced man in a grey suit and the other was a tall, balding man in a trim waistcoat with shiny, black buttons. They were standing between a group of laughing women, and a large table covered in all manner of cheeses and wines.
As I arrived they were in the middle of a conversation about the “problems of toxic masculinity.” I’d been trying to have fun, get into a social mood, and talk exclusively about stupid things, but my feelings towards masculinity have changed so much over the last few years that the conversation was too hard to ignore.
The bald one, who was the more vocal of the two, was in the middle of saying something like this:
“It’s the young boys who are most at risk from the sorts of toxic masculinity that everyone’s subjected to these days. They’re taught to objectify women.” And then looked at the two of us as if he’d not just given voice to his own thoughts, but ours too.
The grey one nodded.
I responded saying that I didn’t agree. “All people are objects to one another in some way.” I said, “and in the case of attraction, sexual objects.”
The grey one with the round face laughed for some reason. But the bald one continued.
“Well, I don’t know anything about that, but I can’t say I agree. Regardless, if you look at the example of what’s coming out recently – all that Hollywood stuff, and all these examples of young men degrading women in their private chats and so on – it really does promote a culture of rape.”
“And racism.” Said a pretty woman holding a cheese plate, who had temporarily joined the conversation only to be swept away moments later.
I’d seen the sorts of articles they were referring to and was slightly aggravated by the way they were talking about immorality as if it was something exclusive to everyone else.
“Whilst being derogatory isn’t a good thing,” I said, “it isn’t exactly out of character for dumb, young boys, nor does it necessarily mean they’re going to grow up to rapists (or racists). Hell, if you read half the moronic shit I posted into chats in my youth you’d probably think I was going to grow up to be rapist Hitler. But in reality, I was just a dumb kid saying dumb things because I was insecure, thought it was edgy and, ironically, wanted people to like me.”
Here they stopped, looked at one another, then back at me with something approaching contempt.
“Well, aside from that, it encourages men to objectify their sex lives.” They both said, almost as one voice. Then alone, the grey one continued, “They just pursue sex and quantify it like some kind of achievement.” He paused for a moment and adjusted his tie. “I have a sister and I wouldn’t want her looked at like that.”
The bald one muttered something in agreement.
“I have a sister too, but it doesn’t change the way I first look at women I’m attracted to. Tell me this, when you first met your girlfriend, partner, or whatever, did you really look at her in any other way other than an objectified sexual way? Did you really think anything but “I want to fuck her”? And is it really a bad thing if you did think that? That’s just desire. Every girl who I’ve dated and got to know has started out like that in my eyes. Even if they’ve changed down the line. It’s always been dick first, brain second. That doesn’t make me a scumbag.”
“Come on, don’t be ridiculous.” Said the grey one, laughing again and looking about. “I’ve never looked at it like that!”
“I can’t say I agree.” Said the bald one. Then he fell silent.
THE RELEVANCE OF BEING MALE
It struck me as odd that they never considered for a moment that every criticism they lobbied against “toxic masculinity” were, in fact, things that women were equally guilty of (objectification and shallow sex are gender neutral after all – how could they not be?).
As we were talking, another man entered the group cradling a beer and smoothing his waxed hair into place. He seemed to grow more and more infuriated by everything that was being said.
“Christ, I’m sick of all this rubbish men are getting in the papers.” He said. “The whole idea that men are bad, men are this, men are that – it’s just garbage. It’s crap.” Then, seeming to realize he’d said nothing of value, said “being a man is about courage, it’s about heroism. It’s about standing up for, y’know, what you believe. Alexander, Napoleon, those were great men. Boys ought to aspire to that sort of thing!” And to mark that he’d finished, he drank his entire beer in one go, leaving me in astonishment.
The bald one and the grey one burst to life immediately, and I watched as they went back and forth, arguing his points as he made them. They spouted all manner of theories at him, many of which I’d never heard of, and all of which left him looking more enraged. Throughout, he only grew more dogged that being a man was some kind of heroic endeavor that involved taking one’s dominant place in history.
That heroism and courage had nothing to do with gender didn’t seem to occur to him, and the enormous role of chance in crafting historically “great men” didn’t seem to either.
Eventually, the bald one and the grey one became condescending, so he threw them a wild look, then left.
WHAT IS MASCULINITY?
“We’re talking about masculinity as if it’s bad or good without actually saying what it is,” I said.
Here the bald one spoke. “Well,” he said, “it’s a funny little problem really. We can’t really know what a man inherently is, as we can’t delineate between what’s socially ingrained and what’s genetic…”
He carried on like this for an enormous amount of time, so much so that various other people joined the conversation, introduced themselves, listened in baffled silence, and then left, all of which he seemed not to notice; pausing only once, when the Bride took to the microphone to make some kind of announcement. When she was done, he carried on.
He listed off various studies he’d read, how there was no clear conclusion to be made, but continuously came back to his conclusion that whatever it was, it was toxic and had to be changed. Constantly he seemed to be approaching something suggesting we should make certain kinds of free speech illegal (which seemed to be his only possible solution), but he never did.
When he was finished, he smiled at nobody in particular, and, quite satisfied, leaned his head forward, saying, “and you – what do you think?”
I thought for a moment.
“The way I see it masculinity is two things,” I said. “An appetite, and an ability to get that appetite met. The appetite is just for more: more money, more women, more power, more anything. What the thing is is irrelevant, the key thing is the appetite. For more.
Then there’s the ability to get it, to overcome whatever challenges or fear is in the way of it and acquire whatever it is we want. This is why you’ll often see men, despite their best intentions or otherwise, admiring men who ‘get’ lots of women, money or power. They feel like ‘better’ men, in a way. Even if they might not be. And often, in a moral sense, aren’t.
And it’s because masculinity is just this synthesis of appetite and ability, that masculinity in itself is neither good nor bad. Neither constructive nor destructive, it simply is. But this appetite applies to all of us, is constantly acting on us, and is something to be aware of.”
Throughout my saying this the grey one looked at me like he’d decided “right, that’s it, he’s really lost it!” and in fact fled the scene entirely and joined another conversation.
I didn’t care, so I continued, as the bald one was listening.
“It’s always acting on us, no matter how moral you or I might feel. We’re no better than some horny young kid or some domineering Hollywood mogul, we’re just exposed to different things than them. Whether it’s surplus surging hormones or a position of power. It’s easy to look at them and say they’re toxic, but we’re not in a position where our innate masculine appetite is exposed to those extremes of temptation.
It’s easy to look at masculinity and find examples of it being destructive. But, the way I see it, it’s sexual appetite that eventually led this guy, to meet this girl, which eventually led to this wedding. It’s also the appetite for status, power and above all, women, that leads guys to do incredible, creative and impressive things. It just also happens to be that same desire that gives us men who are driven to consume these things in such large quantities at the expense of what is rational, moral, or simply, enough.”
“But you can’t excuse men like Weinstein and the rest of that Hollywood lot.”
“Well I don’t see how that explains all these men – like that one just before – who get so hung up on the idea of masculinity?”
“I think they get hung up on it in direct correlation to how much they struggle with their ability to get their appetite met. I don’t think it’s as much cultural as it is a failing on their own behalf to honor their desires. So they latch onto a simple solution or scapegoat. And anyway I don’t like saying they as I think this all applies to us as well.”
He thought for a moment. “No, I don’t see that applying to me at all,” he said.
Feeling like I’d gone on a bit, I finished saying, “I think it does. I see it applying to everyone. Men and women. It just happens to be seen more in men. And I think failing to acknowledge the pitfalls of this kind of thing within yourself is a really bad idea.”
To all of this, he merely shrugged, shook his head, smiled and said he “wasn’t really sure about all of that.” I think he thought I was a moron. Or sexist. Ironically enough, I got the idea from a woman.
He never asked me how I felt about all of this. In truth, I’ve always found the pull of masculinity to be addictive but one that’s rarely ever led me in the right direction. Certainly, it’s never made me happy. I’ve come to think its that way for most people.
He said a few things more, often just repeating his earlier points, then the conversation died out. He went back to speak to his friend in the grey and I saw a hot blonde approach the bar.
I went over and talked to her about something stupid.