Dozens of posts on this blog so far, and we haven’t talked directly about what I see as the most pervasively damaging issue affecting men in our culture. It’s the one at the root of many of the other problems we suffer, and is perhaps the most intransigent and resistant to change.
So yeah. Let’s talk about the fact that men aren’t allowed to have a full emotional range.
Yes, okay, “allowed” may be putting it strongly, but I think we here are all hip enough to know what I mean. We can agree that men in our culture are… let’s say “strongly discouraged” from experiencing or expressing most emotions.
The “boys don’t cry” meme is incredibly pervasive, and the most obvious manifestation of this appalling phenomenon. As seen in every action movie ever (and we’re told action movies are the epitome of male values), a Real Man has only two stages of grief. The Big No:
And then FURIOUS VENGEANCE:
The furious vengeance, of course, is driven by the one emotion men are required to have: anger. Anger is manly, it’s motivation, it’s what a Real Man is supposed to feel, especially if someone has touched his stuff. (For “stuff” read “women”.) In many, many situations, lack of sufficient anger is evidence of failure to perform masculinity. Don’t think anger is the healthiest emotional response to a situation? Tough shit, penis-boy, it’s what you’re allowed.
Of course, the substitution of anger for grief is about more than the shamefully small amount I was able to cry over my mother’s death. (Over my lifetime, I may have spent more time choked up by the “Marseillaise” scene in Casablanca. And no, you don’t have to tell me how appalling that is; I’m way ahead of you.) It’s about the obsession with avoiding weakness.
A man is strong, we are told, and emotions are weak. They’re weak because they represent vulnerability, and “vulnerability” is synonymous with “weakness” when you’re talking about being protected.
And men, naturally, must always be protected, so that means that all feelings of fear, sadness, loss, regret, love, pain, weakness, uncertainty, and damn near everything else must be repressed. Expressing any of these is a failure to sufficiently perform masculinity, and this will be enforced. All you’re allowed to feel are anger and, if you must, wry detachment.
It may be impossible to calculate how much damage this repression does to men. Add up all the suicides, the stress-induced heart attacks, the alcohol-induced liver damage, and the deaths in fights between guys who weren’t allowed to not be angry, and all you’ve done is scratch the direct mortality rate. The subtler forms of damage, the loneliness, the uncommunicative relationships, the desperation, the repressed pain and regret and fear that OMG NO ONE MUST EVER KNOW ABOUT… there’s no way to measure all that. There’s no way to tell when someone is suffering in silence.
Sure, we have clichés like “real men aren’t afraid to cry”, but somehow those never quite get the traction of “Chuck Norris’s tears cure cancer, too bad he never cries”, do they? As often as we’re told that it’s okay to show our emotions, that never sinks in as well as all the times we’re told that no, it’s really not okay.
Guys, back me up on this. Picture two guys in a painful situation, and the first guy is openly showing his pain and vulnerability, and the second guy is sitting there stoically, one eyebrow cocked. Notice how you can’t help feeling that the second guy somehow won. Hell, I feel that way, and I know that’s insane. I’m the guy writing this post about how insane it is, and I still can’t disentangle that notion from my psyche.
I don’t know how to reverse this meme. Seriously, picture some kind of “It Gets Better” project where men, the manliest men available, openly confess their deepest pain and vulnerability in YouTube videos. Got it? Right, now picture the comments on those YouTube videos.
If you’re attempting to recoil from your own brain in horror right now, you’re picturing the comments correctly. That’s a hint of how deep and weird this problem is.
What have been some of your experiences with emotional repression or expression? What other problems arise from this root issue? What do you think can be done? This isn’t a strictly-moderated thread, but if you have some evo-psych theory about how cavemen evolved not to have emotions because saber-toothed tigers can smell tears, it would be nice if you’d spare us.