Man up; Strip down
How would you define masculinity?
I don’t know. I mean, it’s men and the things that make up how we identify as men, how we live up to the idea of being a man. So it’s like a vague list, a continuously amended and decidedly inconsistent list of all the characteristics of the fully-fledged man. So maybe in a couple senses it’s an ideal: both something for males to aspire to and something that doesn’t actually exist. And, sure, maybe the people judging themselves against this ideal sometimes enact lessons learned from good parents, from good fathers by doing things that fall within the spectrum of human compassion, kindness, and equitability. But I think mostly it’s tied in with, is rooted in systems of power, dominance, and aggression. I buried the lead.
But this all sounds like I’m speaking outside of masculinity, pointing to it, but I’m not. I’m a white male and I am representative of masculinity and its many horrors. I don’t get to disown it or distance myself from it. And it is a lie when I try.
How does masculinity hold you back? Or, rather, do you feel like you lose out on anything because of masculinity? Explain.
I would think so. Among the faculties that I think are undeveloped in me is the capacity to listen, to just take a fucking second and listen, even if that’s just listening to myself. And although this isn’t entirely masculinity’s fault, I’m lazy. I’m rarely, if ever, taken to task for having done nothing, for having passively looked on, for having remained silent. For the most part I risk nothing and lose nothing by remaining inert. Of course, this is a bullshit thing to say, my disingenuously wishing I’d had it worse and been forced to fight for what I have. A bit like asking Thurston Howell what he missed the most about civilization or whom he thinks we should eat first when the coconuts run out.
Do you feel like your race or ethnicity impacts your concepts or understanding of masculinity? How so?
Absolutely, and very likely in ways I don’t even realize, but probably most tellingly in the fact that I don’t really have to deal with shit. I go about my life essentially unimpeded. I don’t have to think about my race, or any category that I might or might not fit into.
I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan — Bloomfield Hills, to be specific — that, as a kid, I figured was typical. When I got to high school and college and saw writers like Jonathan Kozol use my hometown as a ready-made illustration of racism and inequality in this country, I was forced to kind of address, or at least willfully ignore the idea that I had it easy.
I mean, my parents injected my upbringing with, if not a leftist strain of thinking, maybe ideas to where I tend to side with the underdog. But that’s obviously not the whole story. This might not seem immediately relevant, but my dad, who was a huge fan of stand-up comedy (I’m pretty sure I’d memorized George Carlin and Steve Martin routines in their entirety before I knew the Pledge of Allegiance), would get visibly impatient when Richard Pryor or, fuck … see? I’m struggling to come up with the name of a woman comic I watched with my dad … Anyway, he would get irritated when someone like Pryor digressed to talking about how shitty things were because of white people. I think what I learned from that, and then had to grow out of, was the idea that, while things weren’t great for a lot of people — people of color, women, the poor — that’s just the way it was and it couldn’t possibly have been any different. That while we could work to be better, the state of things was like the result of some blameless natural process.
If you had to describe to someone what a masculine person looked like, how would you do it? (What celebrities or fictional characters comes to mind?)
My ideas about men, who they are, what they look like, and what they should be, are mostly derived from my father and his father: a professional gambler and a fireman, respectively. To those that never met my dad or grandfather, I would say a summary of the roles played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Maybe also Tom Laughlin from ’Billy Jack’ and Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Indiana Jones.
Considering this description, how do you feel your body compares? Does this comparison influence how you feel about your body?
I suppose my masculine type comes with a leanness to him, but physical form is secondary to thought, speech, and action. I mean, I guess with this, and with the characters and actors listed above there is definitely something like virility, physical potency. In terms of comparison, I come up short in this department. Physicality, confrontation, and violence make me largely uncomfortable.
Um. But with respect to my body, well, my body certainly does not look like that. My body exudes a certain slovenly, white, bourgeois averageness. Maybe what’s interesting here is how little I think about it? I think my first attempt to explain why I don’t think about it is that it just isn’t that important to me. That’s partly because I’m married and I’ve grown into a feeling of comfort with my body. But that comfort was largely accessible to me because, if I’m honest, I see that I’ve rarely ever had to think about it. I guess I do conform to the idea of masculinity insofar as that I present myself to the world very carelessly, very thoughtlessly.
What do you think is sexiest about yourself?
Based on what people have told me: my legs? I like my legs. I spent a lot of time riding my bike or my skateboard around suburban Detroit … so these are pretty well developed. Kind of chunky in a favorable sense?
What do you get complimented on the most?
My legs? I mean, those compliments come from my mom and my wife, for the most part, so take my pride with a grain of salt. My eyes? They don’t work so good, but they’re a pretty sort of hazel.
What parts of your body are you really comfortable with or really appreciate? And why?
Really comfortable with? I don’t know. Like in terms of the way they look? I don’t want to say legs again. Can I say legs again? My forearms? They seem to connect my upper arms to my hands real good.
Compare those parts of your body with parts of your body that you’re less sure about; parts that maybe affect the way you get ready for the day, i.e. getting dressed, maintenance, personal hygiene, etc. Stuff that maybe you’re self conscious about other people noticing because these are parts of your body that compromise your sense of your own masculinity or appeal.
Ah. Here we go. Well, to anyone still reading, I can note that I already said I face the day, get ready for the day in a “fuck it” kind of way: lots of t-shirts and the same pair of jeans. Cat-gnawed boat shoes. Hats. But okay. Self-consciousness. I have a frog face. I have bushy eyebrows. Yellow teeth. I have ear hair. I have a bit of a gut, which makes a lot of those aforementioned t-shirts roll over my tummy in the same way a bath towel fits over a large child who’s bad at hiding. Big, hobbit ears. Also, those legs, those chunky legs are thick to the point where they rub together and ruin pants in weeks’ time. I burn through the crotches of pants. An eight-year-old’s upper body paired with a cartoon strong man’s lower body.
Yet even though I’ll go out thinking to myself that I look like shit today, those days are never really debilitating in any sense of the word. I have the luxury of not giving a shit; of not having to deal with the broader implications of realizing my pants don’t fit anymore. My wife and I both put on weight after the wedding, and pants suddenly not fitting is an entirely different experience for me than it is for my wife. There are emotional issues, self-confidence and self-respect issues. Not to mention the options open to me in reacting to my spouse’s reaction to ill-fitting pants: I can call her reaction overreaction. I’m not saying it was, but that was an interpretation open to me that, had the roles been reversed, would not have been open to her in any “domestically” or culturally intelligible way.
Have you ever felt that society pressures you to look or act in certain ways? If so, how?
In terms of action, there is this expectation of potency, of effectiveness I’ve never lived up to. My father used to get on me about my lying; I used to lie for little or no reason at all. Like this time he overheard me quitting this shitty job I had over the phone by telling my boss my mom had been in a car accident, instead of saying, as diplomatically as possible, that the job was shitty and I didn’t want to work there anymore. No discernable reason to tell that lie. Well, I mean, there were reasons. I was often scared, even terrified by what people, usually men might say in reaction to what I’d said or done. I’m not saying I feared a particular response: chastisement, rejection, ridicule. I didn’t think that far ahead. I needed, I think, to control situations. I had no faculty, no mechanisms for accounting for myself. So I used pathetic stories to save myself the trouble of filling in blanks or accounting for my smallness, my ineffectiveness. I think what I learned from my father and grandfather about what a man should be was something I didn’t know how to get to, something I didn’t know how to do. I didn’t know how to affect the quality of my day, so to speak. This desperation helped create a few problems in my life, among them a lack of the vulnerability and openness requisite to intimacy.
What do charged terms like “patriarchy” or “privilege” make you feel? Why do you feel that way?
That I need, or that I want to be more mindful of how I move about in the world and how I engage people: Logging what I say and do, and then holding myself accountable. Some of this is cribbed recovery speak, but my point is that it’s become increasingly important to me to do better, but I have to be careful and pay attention and ask questions and try to improve. Just speaking generally, I think I’m working towards being a more decent human.
Not to shit on good-intentioned people, and at the risk of sounding self-righteously indignant, I don’t want to advocate for feminism like one of these “enlightened” celebrities who go on shows like Ellen or who write op-eds for like Salon or whatever and who point out, who catalogue the reasons they identify as feminists. And then they go on about their moms or their wives or girlfriends and maybe get out of the exchange without letting it slip how they think a man really ought to treat his lady. I’m not saying the answer is silence — I risk nothing, I lose nothing, as a man I am invested in being silent — but when I speak up, and I’m speaking only of myself and my half-assed understanding, but when I speak up I hope I’m usually speaking to men, questioning men, especially myself. Because I don’t know shit and I’m only just now learning how to ask questions. And I’m certainly in no place (and maybe until the whole thing’s torn town I should never be in such a place) to even consider my bona fides as an ally, as an earnest advocate for those who got the raw, brutal, violent end of things when we were setting this whole thing up: sitting across from Ellen or, like this very interview, across from a woman and trying to express to her that I’m a true-blue ally, that I “get it”? Well, I don’t. I don’t “get it.”
Shit. I need to actually answer the question. What do I think when I hear those terms? Guilt. Shame. Urgency. I think, holy fuck, what did we do and how can we work together to make things better?