Masculinity Without Denigrating Women

Alyssa Rosenberg, addressing a recent post of mine, sharpens a point in our current debate:

How much does masculine culture depend on women and femininity as a reference point? To what extent does asserting what it means to be a man necessitate pointing out and denigrating what men are not and what masculinity is not supposed to be?

If cheerleaders suddenly vanished from the sidelines of NFL games, would those contests suddenly be less fun? In action movies, do you find the hero’s bona fides less credible if a woman contributes to his successes, or if she rescues him? If you are playing video games, how much of your enjoyment has to do with opportunities to treat women in-game in ways that are not available to you in real life?

It occurs to me that I am somewhat (ahem) deficient in personal experience to address this point, which is why I encourage straight male readers to respond. And even when I have been immersed in masculine culture – such as a rowdy, rugby-loving, all-male high school – I wasn’t very attuned to how heterosexual attraction and views of women contributed to the atmosphere. I couldn’t bond with other adolescent boys over their difficulties with and longing for the opposite sex. I had no real struggle to date women, no frustrations or anxieties about the opposite sex, and so was oddly neutral – to the extent of having a real blind spot – in this eternal hetero-dilemma.

But I don’t want to duck Alyssa’s point, so let me think of it another way: to what extent can hetero male culture retain its quintessential maleness while losing its homophobia?

One way is to hope and pray that every cool straight dude ends up like Chris Kluwe and totally gets that it’s not kosher – and actually immature – to demean or demonize those men who do not fit into the classic male macho archetype. Another is to reassure straight men that gay men do not want to change the core part of male culture, but merely want to be accepted as fully part of it.

I think we’re making a lot of progress on both fronts. From the mainstreaming of gay culture to the emergence of openly gay men in highly masculinized cultures – think Tim Cook in nerdland or Michael Sam in sports – the sharper edges of homophobia have been rounded a bit. But that is partly because of a strategy of engagement rather than confrontation. My own inclination from the 1980s on – and it was not shared very enthusiastically by many on the gay left – was to emphasize what gay men and straight men have in common: a need for emotional commitment and stability as well as to get our rocks off from time to time; the desire and will to serve one’s country in the military; the commonalities of sports and drinking and the gym and dirty jokes. And part of our success, I think, is that we absolutely constructed this as a non-zero-sum project. I think a feminism that started with a love and appreciation for classic male culture – and then sought to persuade men that it doesn’t have to be sexist toward women – would be more productive than treating all men as inherently suspect or privileged, and attempting to police their culture from the outside.

But – and here’s the thing – I don’t think we’ll ever live in a world where homophobia is absent among many men, especially younger ones. Our primate nature – exacerbated by cresting levels of testosterone in the teen and early adult years – will always trend toward loyalty to in-groups and disdain of out-groups. We can mitigate this, but it’s utopian to think we can abolish it. So, yeah, I can live with the word “fag” as something that will always be a part of hetero-male culture. I can live with religious groups demonizing me. I can ignore the insults and smears – on the street or online. It’s just part of the price for living in a free society.

Equally, the young testosteroned male’s desire for and incomprehension of the opposite gender can be mitigated, it seems to me, but not abolished. And in the case of male attitudes toward women, of course, the “other” is also the object of often-crippling and overwhelming sexual desire. These are powerful – often internally conflicting – forces and they will not easily be constrained by abstract rules or “social justice warriors”.

And so I think we just have to live with a certain amount of straight-very-male homophobia and sexism, and leave it be. Young men want to live out fantasies of rescuing big-boobed women while being encased in a steroidal muscle culture (precisely because, for so many, it is utterly beyond their actual day-to-day lives). And my inclination is simply: give them a break. Sure, offer alternatives – but the most appealing ones should work with the grain of masculinity rather than against it. Keep the cheer-leaders – but add some dudes to the mix. Don’t insist that straight men have to change their way of life; suggest ways in which it can become more inclusive of others within its own rules and ethos. Do not pathologize some deep parts of human nature – because you are pathologizing human beings simply for being who they are, which means that the level of coercion to change them for the better can be dangerously high. I don’t think Alyssa and I are that far apart on this.

What I think is counterproductive is precisely an agenda that refuses to see real, biological differences, physical and mental, between men and women, whose first item on the agenda is to get men to “check their privilege”, and who want to police speech and urgently stamp out sexism and homophobia. This will often compound the problem, create a zero-sum environment, and in a world where Twitter gives everyone a completely unaccountable megaphone, generate levels of public toxicity we can all live without.

My position on this is therefore, essentially, conservative-libertarian. It sees human nature as something to be enjoyed and not always reformed, or fully reformable. It revels in the differences between groups of people, rather than being terrified by them. It does not traffic in either the delusion that we can never make our society in general less bigoted or prejudiced or hateful (we can and we have) or the delusion that such emotions will ever be abolished or eradicated. It seeks coexistence of various, often contradictory, subcultures, rather than the imperative of “social justice.” And it tends to prefer anarchic and sometimes ugly freedom to well-intentioned and admirable attempts at social control.

There is a happy medium here. But it appears that our ideological polarization is making it increasingly impossible to sustain, even as we have an amazing example – our progress on gay rights – that shows just how fruitful it can be.