Masculinity is a highly sophisticated, and highly delicate experience. Being a human being is a complex and subtle experience in itself. So many aspects of our sensual engagement with the world, and our emotional development are left unsaid, are mysteries even to ourselves. That is why a culture that oversimplifies our experience is not only destructive and dangerous, it’s outright abusive.
The challenge of being a man in a post-feminist world is about not just the struggle to articulate our desires and needs and fears in new ways, but to heal the damage done by a culture that has conditioned us into rejecting the complex, rejecting the mysterious in ourselves.
Gender normalisation works through a relentless series of over-simplifications. External expectations condition our behaviour towards the routine and mundane. We act like machines, even though we feel like anything but.
The real damage happens though when we internalise these conditioned patterns. When we start neglect the numinous and mysterious, the complexity and sophistication of our inner space. It’s one thing to behave in socially conditioned patterns, it is quite another to think, and conceive of ourselves in this way also.
Most men probably try to live according to a dubious compromise. They tell themselves that they can live life undercover, that they can ‘play the game’, and hold onto their inner sensitivities and vulnerabilities in a way that avoids exposure, that defends them against the shame of not conforming to the spurious virtue ethics of masculine culture.
This is why so many of our cultural memes around masculinity involve archetypes of duality and double-lives. All super-heros share the same feature of living a life that is grossly schizoid. We are obsessed with gangsters, and spies, stereotypes of men who hide themselves as part of their daily work. And this hiddenness is exactly what makes them heroic to us.
The thrill of super-heros is their sudden change from vulnerability to strength, the defiant and vengeful turnaround when the underdog stands up to the bullies and bad guys.
As worthy as some of these tropes can be, particularly as allegories for development and emotional growth, we would do well to question this hero-making of the hidden, this tendency to raise up dysfunctional self-suppression as a kind of ultimate virtue.
The message here is that you must hide that which doesn’t make sense, suppress your true self for the sake of a higher goal, eliminate the extraneous and complex emotions of your sensuality and vulnerabilities for the sake of... duty.
It’s difficult to know what the world would look like without this insidious messaging. However, a culture of masculinity that allowed for an unconditional, and unconditioned experience of one’s inner space and inner world, where we were content to experience our masculinity as something unknown, and something that continually shocked and surprised us with its revelations, would be a culture free from much of the violence and rage normally associated with male archetypes.
In sexuality for example, not only would men be free to express vulnerability in multidimensional ways, but they would become less fearful of their own sexuality. Less fearful of the child-like innocence and playfully sensual, less terrified that their instincts and curiousities would lead them to violate oversimplified and rigid ideals of masculine worth. Homophobia would disappear, and as a result, so would misogyny. Men would learn to let go of self-suspicion and the need to repress their unruly sensualities, and the shame that forms the root of our socialised masculinity would have no more power. As a result, we would all be much better lovers, and the experience of engaging with the instincts associated with our gender would become a source of creative power, rather than a cause for splitting our personalities in two.