Unbundling Manhood: A “Woke” Razor Blade is Only the Beginning

While the much talked about Gillette ad has done a stellar job of raising awareness about “toxic masculinity” and asking whether men are really being the best that they can be, it would be silly to believe that an advertisement has all the answers. It’s great that people are applauding the ad, especially the men who are doing so. It’s telling that so many men seem to be proving the need for the ad with their reaction to it — threatening the company that made it with boycotts, and more chillingly, doxxing the woman who directed it. But “woke” ads are not enough. Where do we go from here?

It’s natural that men grappling with the issue of toxic masculinity have questions about it. When men ask the question “what’s an example of a man NOT affected by ‘toxic masculinity’?” the question I hear, the one that I hear them actually asking me, is “How do I define myself as a man if I don’t use the definitions and role models supplied by the Patriarchy?”

As infuriating as that question is on some levels, (after all, why is it my job as a woman to tell you who you should be as a man? Shouldn’t you figure that out for yourself?) it isn’t entirely without merit. We don’t live in a world that provides many good models of full equality. We can provide some examples of men that feminists admire for being strong allies and who have embraced the idea that women are their equals, but there aren’t many. Misogyny runs deep in our socialization so that even guys who have spent a lot of time trying to be “woke” make mistakes and have trouble rooting out the “factory installed programming” of misogyny completely.

But there’s another question that is layered in with this question as well, one that embodies the toxic masculinity that is lying just underneath what is usually a very sincere attempt to make change. (The psyche is very much like an onion. It has lots of layers, we don’t often understand how many, and peeling them away can cause many tears.) And that question is: “How will I know I am special?”

Men have a vested interest in “being a man.” Much of a man’s sense of whether he is successful as a person is wrapped up in that need to understand what a man is, and whether he is living up to the things he has been taught that entails. Culturally, “be a man” is a very loaded term.

And as much as that term can feel like a box, a trap (I acknowledge borrowing this concept from the work of Tony Porter, you can get the short version in this TED talk.) it is also often the source of what makes a man feel special, how he knows that he’s someone in this world. We all of us want to feel like we are special — that our way of being and moving in the world is worthy of note, makes us deserving of respect, admiration, and love.

If you tell a man that he can’t be what he believes a man should be, that doesn’t just eliminate the things about “being a man” that he knows are probably harmful, it raises questions about whether he still gets to be the things he values about his manhood, the things that he is proud of in himself, the things which others have told him he should aspire to, and which he admires in other men. How will he know that he is special if he can’t fulfill that ideal he carries in his head of “being a man?”

I can understand how a man sees the problem that way. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s okay.

Because you see, underlying that whole way of looking at things is a very simple equation: Man = Special. And if that is a core truth for you, it too easily implies the obverse principle as truth, that Not Man = Not Special. Look at that very closely and consider how holding that as a core truth, whether as an individual or as a society, impacts women. How that impacts people who are genderqueer or genderfluid, how that impacts anyone who does not meet the societally prescribed definition of what a “man” is. The socialization that men receive teaches them inherently that fulfilling the definition of “manhood” can make them special, and thus also teaches them that those who cannot achieve “manhood” are lacking this specialness. Welcome to the dark heart of Patriarchy.

The instinct on the part of men who want to keep their sense of “manhood” relevant is to helpfully point out that “Woman = Special” can be simultaneously both different from “Man = Special” and no less true, and isn’t that equality? Actually, it isn’t. First off, as we all know, separate but equal isn’t actually equality. It’s equivalency, and it’s a convenient way to pretend at equality without actually providing it. But more to the point, specialness by definition is exclusive. If everyone is special, then as a practical matter, no one is special. For being special to matter, and yet not be a means to work injustice, specialness does not need to be automatic, but the same kind of special does need to be available to everyone without regard to gender identity.

So if you’re really serious, men, about helping to dismantle injustice, about being part of the solution and not part of the problem, you need to get over the notion that “manhood” in and of itself is what makes you special, worthy, or lovable. It doesn’t. “Manhood” is a social construct, a set of traits and behaviors and values that have been bundled together and taught to us as being applicable to, and associated with, the male gender. It’s a shorthand that humans have used over millennia to put ourselves in neat little boxes so that we may identify ourselves and each other more easily.

We need to unbundle the idea of Manhood. Along with it’s more toxic elements, manhood as we traditionally understand it does have some worthy traits — responsibility, protecting those who cannot protect themselves, a sense of honor, a willingness to sacrifice — that’s just a few of the many traditionally “man” traits that are super awesome and worth perpetuating in our culture and in generations of men to come. But the fact is any person, of any gender, who possesses those traits can and should be considered special. Your specialness does not lie in “being a man.” It doesn’t lie in fulfilling some external idea of what your gender is or should be. Your specialness can come from anyplace that you want it to. It can come from being able to sing really well. It can come from having a good fashion sense. It can come from being a first rate cook. And it can come from being a good provider. None of these traits actually rely on gender, none of them need to be part of “manhood” or “womanhood” or any other ‘hood.

That’s not to say that men have to give up identifying as men, or women have to stop identifying as women. The truth actually, is more exciting than that. Men and women get to choose what traits the idea of man and the idea of woman includes for them, and even whether they want to use those labels at all. Sure, if you’re one of those people who needs bright lines and rules and is comforted by structure, this might feel a little too loosey-goosey to manage. But like all uncharted territory, eventually if you hang out for awhile and keep your wits about you, you learn your way around, and you stop being so scared of what feels unfamiliar.

What will that territory look like? Honestly, I can’t tell you. This isn’t about a bandage that papers over a problem, it’s about a real solution, one that re-imagines the world as a place where the problem doesn’t even exist. And that’s going to be an amazing world to live in. But that’s not a world that any one person or single gender gets to dictate. For this to really work and be real, we’ll all have to invent that world together. And that’s probably the most exciting thing of all.

A believer in magic and justice and the right to be exactly as you are. Anything passing for wisdom here is likely the product of surviving my own stupidity.