Are Men In a Box?

The gender equality discussion which has again risen to prominence as a result of  “Me To”  has also prompted a re-visit of the notion that men are boxed in by stereotypical notions of what it is to be a real man.  According to some masculinity writers  the “Man Box” is a set of rigid expectations that define what a “real man” is.  A real man is most importantly strong and stoic. He doesn’t show emotions other than anger and excitement. He is a breadwinner. He plays or watches sports. He is the dominant participant in every exchange. He is a man’s man. This “real man” represents what is supposedly normative and acceptable within the tightly controlled performance of American male masculinity. He has dominated our movies and television. He defines what we expect from our political leaders.. He is our symbol for what is admirable and honorable in American men..

My question is,” Is this all bad?”   To begin with we all need boxes -more formally  role expectations.   These are shaped both by biology and culture and give us a structure to help us define ourselves.  Clearly  it is important that these expectations are not overly rigid and do provide some room for re-definition.  However, it is a mistake for a man to pretend to discard the Man Box leaving him with no sense of what it is to be a man.   Instead we need to redefine not abandon the notion of the Man Box.

The rubric that real men don’t show emotions – real men don’t cry – misses an important distinction between feeling emotions and how we express those emotions.  Are strength and stoicism negative characteristics?  The first thing to get out of the way is the misconception that stoicism is about suppressing one’s emotions and going through life with a stiff upper lip. Rather, stoics are taught to transform emotions in order to achieve inner calm. Emotions – of fear, or anger, or love – are instinctive human reactions to certain situations, and cannot be avoided. But the reflective mind can distance itself from the raw emotion and contemplate whether the emotion in question should be absorbed and cultivated.  What does this look like?  Basically it is keeping one’s cool in order to respond to a situation in the most thoughtful way despite what one is feeling.   I don’t think it much of a stretch to imagine a situation where a man is feeling fear or extreme sadness but chooses to not share the feeling in order to protect his family and take necessary action.

It would be helpful for both men and women to look at the Man Box with a more discerning perspective instead of simply accepting the simplistic narrative that the concept of a real men is an artifact of an earlier age.

Double Standard?

The other day I was watching the Ali Velshi & Stephanie Ruble show on MSNBC.   As Ali was explaining some point he misspoke and mangled a few words.  Ali, a seasoned journalist, was taken aback by his mistake and clearly embarrassed.  Stephanie, quite spontaneously without consent, gave Ali a quick hug to let him know that his stumbling over a few words was no big deal.  It was a natural gesture and to me exemplified  a close working relationship between the two reporters.  There was nothing remotely sexual about the encounter and it demonstrated a moment of intimacy that was generous and purely platonic.

However, what came to mind is what would the reaction have been if the situation were reversed.   Let’s say Stephanie had misspoke and Ali was the one giving the hug without  permission.   I truly feel that  it would have unleashed an unrelenting media backlash.  I can easily imagine the image of the hug going viral coupled with a “Me-To” diatribe against another sexual predator – Ali Velshi.   His actions would be labeled as a further example of men, especially in positions of power, dominating and patronizing women.    MSNBC, a progressively slanted station, would be receiving countless emails and tweets demanding that Ali be fired from the network for his thoughtless and biased behavior.

What comes to mind is how much our increasingly myopic perceptions of male-female interaction has missed our common humanity.   Men and women can comfort and relate to each other with a spontaneous touch that has nothing to do with gender inequality.  Rational dialogue about gender issues requires understanding context, nuance and a rejection of instant over reaction.   There are clearly instances of sexual misconduct that require immediate condemnation but let’s make sure that we don’t continually rush to judgment.  Rather, we need to take a pause to be certain that we got it right and fully understand the circumstances of the alleged misbehavior.