The Company of Men

posted in: Gender, Journal, Society | 2
Great Meadows
Early autumn afternoon at Great Meadows State Park, Concord, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 1991

One of my women students told me the other day, with complete conviction, looking me straight in the eye, “All men are just foolish things.” Coming from a Japanese there is a certain cultural bent in the statement, inherent in the meaning of the Japanese version of the word “foolish” (ooroka) which carries the connotation of the Japanese desire for the ideal of humility, which I had to take into account as she said these words. I realized that she did not intend to insult or even criticize me, but still, it got me thinking.

Cody, of Overflow made reference to an article he read by a doctor named Frank Pittman, about What Are Men For Anyway?. It is a question that has often crossed my mind, perhaps because throughout my life I’ve never been able to quite find the right shaped masculine block to fit into the social hole. If I follow the carrot that my genes and upbringing have strung in front of my natural tendencies, I rarely feel chiseled into a masculine ideal, but rather more like a series of whims, powered by an invisible engine that reacts to what is happening around me. Rarely do I limit myself to thinking, “I am a man and so I must…”

And yet so many men around me expect that of me and of themselves. They grow up watching the hero cartoons on TV and the action hero movies and a litany of bells gong silently in their minds about being strong and never showing any signs of weakness, preferring instead to reveal the chinks with anger. It is what I went through for years and years, not knowing how to drift through the net of rage that separated me from the kernel of my consciousness, the inability to shift and loosen the strands only stepping up the growing ire until I could rarely speak without shaking my mane. It was only last winter that I finally realized that I could loosen my grip and sweeten the recipe boiling in my mind enough to refocus on the shy, easy-going, laughing sprite of my boyhood, the unblemished sheet of paper upon which my story began.

Women, especially in the West, have taken responsibility for redefining themselves in the modern world, and have done so by banding together and exploiting their general unity to create a chorus. Perhaps that is the advantage that those who recognize the poverty of their circumstances have; deprivation forces invention. The evidence of the maturity of the women’s movement shows up in so many little daily events, such as the number of women compared to men that you see out in the evenings jogging, or the numbers of women compared to men taking self-improvement classes. Or even, here in Japan, the numbers of women setting out to travel abroad and discover new ways of seeing things.

Men, on the other hand, seem lately to be languishing in nostalgia, looking back on the captains of industry of the 1800’s or the warrior kings of the Mongolian steppe. If you look at the old black and white photographs from before the turn of the last century, there is something hopeful and forceful in the eyes of those men, something lacking in today’s men. Those men knew who they were and thrived on the energy that their world view could translate into their adventures and inventions.

That world view died with the advent of such things as airplanes, conquering Chomorangma (Mt. Everest), settling the American West coast, and stepping on the moon. The world became such a small place that heroes and glory lost their relevance, and even survival value. As today’s men continue to jostle for the elusive head of the pride position (isn’t that all Bush is doing, with his strutting and smirking?), they fail to see how ridiculous their aging attitudes have become and how damaging to their own self-development, and disastrous for the husbandry of the planet.

Men must find a way to stop using the urinals as gauges for their self-worth and learn to talk about and among themselves. Just like with women men must find a way to overcome the drawbacks of their traditional roles and outlooks and discover the advantages and strengths that being a man might be. So far just getting a man to admit that he needs help, without slipping into self-pity and over dependence on women, remains a major hurdle that all us men still cannot even feel past, let alone see. We need more men who can define role models and a valid ideal of masculinity. Finding it amidst a hostile political and social climate makes for an enormous challenge.

Women, though, are as much to blame in the deterioration of male identity as men are, in part because so many of them help perpetuate, personally and socially, the myths of what the ideal man is by indulging in the same old demands on men. They, too, want their heros and their knights in shining armor and their gentlemen, without taking time to evaluate what their desires mold in the hearts of the boys they raise. It certainly doesn’t help when, for instance, in a situation I actually experienced, a woman, frightened, gives me a withering glance when we are confronted by some violent men armed with clubs, in effect telling me that I am not a man if I can’t handle their brutality.

Why is it that men must always be associated, both negatively and positively, with violence? Why is it okay to send young men (many against their will, and many willing because it would be dishonorable and cowardly to refuse) to be soldiers, learn to kill, go to war, and die meaningless deaths? Is it our Chimpanzee-like heritage? Can we not find a world view of men similar to that of Bonobos instead?

Two weeks ago I stepped into a large bookstore here in Tokyo and headed for the toilet. When I arrived the stall was occupied, so I waited for the occupant to finish. As he pulled the sliding door open it slipped off its rail and jammed into an angle that made it difficult to get a hold of the door from the inside and slide it back into position to open the door. The occupant struggled for about two minutes with this, until, wanting to help, I stepped forward and tried to grab the door. The guy inside begged me not to interfere, but I continued to help a bit more. Finally the door loosened and he was able to lift it back to its rails and slide it open. When he stepped out he couldn’t look me in the eyes, so ashamed was he. As he washed his hands he berated me angrily, “You shouldn’t have done that! You had no right to interfere. That was so uncool! So uncool! I’m a man, god dammit!”

God, if we can’t even help each other with a stupid toilet door without falling all over ourselves, how in the world are we going to come to terms with such an enormous macho issue as a war?

2 Responses

  1. Cody

    Yes, men relating with other men walks that perilous path between macho posturing on one side and homophobia on the other. Yet I think we must do it.

    How can we redefine what it means for men to relate to one another? How can we redefine the masculine role for today’s world, a world where the dominant modes of masculinity are sorely out of date?

  2. butuki

    So often when a man tries to speak for a “men’s movement”, skeptics will sneer and paint pictures of an effeminate man or one who must be gentle and be able to cry (though these are not necessarily bad things!) or who lives to appease the women in his life. Why men’s roles must be defined by some kind of measurement with women never really gets addressed. Perhaps it is the very issue of attempting to find any kind of definition at all that lies at the heart of the problem. It is difficult to argue with someone how men or a women might be if that person has already decided in their mind that the ages old stereotypes are the natural order of things. Do we look forward or backward? Either way leaves paths of fog ahead.