The American Male

Before we begin I should identify myself. I am middle class American Male with an elite private education. I am an African American who was raised by two college educated and loving parents who are still married and were never abusive to me, my siblings or each other. I am a privileged American Male and I have been oppressed by the American patriarchy1 and have been essentialized, dirtied and discarded by it’s rape culture. I cannot escape who am I nor would I want to if I could. Yet it is important that background, that baggage of oppression and privilege colors my lens, gives me a certain language to formulate thoughts and thus influences how I express myself on the page.
After reading Tucker Reed’s harrowing account of a rape that was, in her words, “fairly typical” I found many emotions and thoughts I just mentioned which I had been struggling with for a while come to a head. For those of you reading this article that have not heard of Tucker Reed I suggest, at the very least, that you read this essay . I don’t feel comfortable paraphrasing her ordeal so I will not attempt to now. I will say that even though in her account of her case there is no rational gray area of moral responsibility and reprehensibility it did bother me how many men I knew and respected might think there was. It bothered me that there was a time, not so long ago, before late night conversations with my feminist friends about rape culture that I might have been among them. I distinctly remember my teenage self thinking that girls shouldn’t be able to say no after a certain point.
I am both ashamed of being that teenager and worried that perhaps more of him than I care to admit might still exist inside, misogynistic2 ideas going unchallenged. I have for many years wondered at the extent to which I have banished the chauvinism that my female friends had shown me was so disgustingly ubiquitous. To what extent had my misogyny turned from the undigested male supremacy of boy hood, to the patronizing chivalry in my youth to something I can only think to call nice guy patriarchy? Nice guy patriarchy is when you expect people to give you credit no longer actively and overtly oppressing them. Nice guy patriarchy is like saying “hey, I’m a nice guy. I won’t ever hit you, I understand how me and my fellow men have oppressed you, I’ll march with you at Dike-March and hold your hand when your boy-friend [who is not as enlightened as me] breaks you’re heart…and then you’ll be obligated to have sex with me…but don’t worry…we’ll make love not fuck.”
I have been thinking about that for quite sometime before the idea hit me…Tucker Reed’s rapist probably thought he was a nice guy too. That thought hit me hard. It reminded me of all the times I have done or said something off hand that really hurt a woman I cared about. It brought up emotions that I didn’t want to acknowledge and so I didn’t, for a while. I held it together until one day I had a conversation about masculinity in America and I found that as soon as I began to voice my feelings on the subject I found a deep well of anger and aggression. Anger and aggression that I couldn’t place but had nothing to do with the topic at hand. The following essay is a personal and intellectual exploration of that anger and how I’ve come to understand it. I hope that maybe by explaining how I came to be where I’m at, I can start a conversation or two about moving through male-supremacy, patronizing chivalry, nice guy patriarchy to actual equality.
First of all let me say anger, like all emotion, is powerful. Anger is a universal facet of the human experience but in America, and in many other cultures, it is too often distinctly gendered3. We are socialized to view anger as a masculine emotion that, like farting or burping, is not something women have to deal with unless there male-counterpart is invading their personal space with it. There is probably a very depressing anthropological reason for this but it is unknown to me. This essay is concerned with the here and now. This essay is concerned with my personal journey of understanding The American Male as an unattainable idea that all American males, regardless of  race, religion, class and sexual orientation are socialized4 [in varying degrees] to strive for.
This is not to say that all American men are trying, consciously or sub consciously, to be The American Male. In fact many of the younger generation of men, the author included, are actively trying to fight against. The point is that we have to do it actively because we are still be measured by society, men and women alike, by the standard of The American Male. I have come to see that The American Male is an oppressive force in our society and that all Americans are oppressed by it. American men, through The American Male, created and maintain both the structure of patriarchy and its enforcer: rape culture5 and the act of maintaining this structure and enforcing our place at the top is so oppressive and oppressing that men are either forced to further stunt their emotional growth or, in their refusal to do so, develop a Du Bosian double-consciousness6.
Let’s take a minute to unpack that statement. The American Male is a concept of masculinity that I am constructing in this essay. It is one concept of masculinity, I am well aware that there are others. My argument is that The American Male is an amalgam of the more universal (though not completely universal) qualities of various other masculinities. The ideal white, middle class protestant man is different than the  ideal man in working class Irish Catholic culture which in turn is different than the ideal middle class black baptist man. A man is one of many and is, in American, one of a diverse set. The Male in America, and probably the world, is much less diversified. I am making the argument that their are actually too few ways to be male in America.
This complicated thesis is the stuff of books, literally. It would be silly of me to assume I am the first one to think of this, or that I am even capable of fully distilling the nuisances of my own beliefs. Instead I will try to walk a fine line between my limited intellectual understanding of critical race, gender and sexuality  theory and a few choice moments of my lived experience. I often find that most people, let alone men, have not read the sort of works that deal with gender theory and that this often leads to misunderstandings when people start to use academic jargon colloquially. I hope by telling my story and by introducing some simple academic concepts we can have conversation about how we all act as oppressors in some way because we are all privileged in some way. That privilege might be as Americans, Middle or Upper Class, college educated, Christians, men etc and the act of oppressing others in this way limits our own human potential. It is my hope that all of us, especially white, heterosexual men, can come to the table of humans disabling the patriarchy on more equal ground even if the sum total of our oppression is not the same or even similar.
Let’s talk now about this idea of privilege. I realize that many of my readers have not had the hours of workshops on privilege that me and my friends have. For many Americans privileged is something they get called by liberal activists. What is privilege really? Privilege is basically social, economic and other capital advantages, specifically when those advantages are a result of being part of a demographic. All Americans are privileged abroad because as Americans our nation was able to secure treaties in many (though not all) countries that detail how we should be treated. We also have powerful embassies in most global cities that will help you get home. Not to mention that the U.S. Tends to send in the marines to get their tourist and students out of countries before wars and genocides erupt.
Anyone who discounts this as privilege should study the outbreak of any major modern conflict. Any foreign nationals are generally escorted out when things get tense yet people tend to be a bit more selective when bombs start being dropped. Americans can usually be evacuated by the personnel of any western power while citizens of Ghana might be stuck in Rwanda because they Dutch weren’t willing to risk their soldiers for an African. That is one, very obvious form of privilege.
It is important to note that being privileged in one way does not make you immune to oppression. African Americans soldiers fighting in Europe during WWI often had to come to terms with being privileged abroad and oppressed at home. The important thing about privilege is to recognize it and understand when it works in your favor in order to not like your privilege oppress those around you.
This brings us to oppression and how it will be thought of in this essay. Oppression is a heavy word. German Jews were oppressed, Blacks in the Jim Crow south were oppressed and women are oppressed basically every where. In light of this, are men really oppressed? In short, yes. There are clearly levels of oppression. If blacks are oppressed and women are oppressed by separate though interrelated systems then black women are more oppressed in general than the black men of their class, era and region. I am not making the argument that men are as oppressed as women by the patriarchy or by any other force. I am not even making the argument that they are even remotely the same level, the similarity is qualitative and not quantitative. Oppression is the systematic limiting of the human potential, political and social engagement, OR the accumulation of capital of a group by a society or cultural institutions.
Men are not generally excluded from political or social life and are certainly not hampered in their accumulation of capital. The oppression of men by the patriarchy is focused on the systematic limiting of human potential. Human potential, as used in this essay, is our cognitive, intellectual, physical and emotional capacity to experience life, process life and express ourselves. Men are socialized to be emotionally stunted and hampered in making to real human connections. That limiting of human potential is what this essay is all about.
So, let us start first with our definition of The American Male. The American Male seems, at least conceptually [and possibly anthropologically], a perversion of both stoicism and the red headed step child of consumerism. It is an amalgam in which control of emotion is perverted into emotional repression and you are judged by your unmitigated or challenged possession of objects, especially non-human persons. The American Male is the emotionless father whose wife and child obey him unquestioningly. He is the quintessential Patriarch: a man because he is King and a King because he is a man.
Why The American Male is emotionless and why he feels he must posses his family is unknown to me. It could be a natural, if destructive reaction, to basic human uneasiness with life’s uncertainty [control what is in your control]. Or it could be some base animalistic instinct that we have let go unchecked in civilization merely because we have viewed it as convenient since it places us men on the top of the social hierarchy when we have no legitimate right to be there. Regardless, he is emotionless and he does posses his whole family as objects or non-human persons.
This act of possession varies from family to family. In my family it is best observed by the manner in which my Grandfather and Uncle create rules in their households. I distinctly remember not wanting to have to a curfew as an adult staying with my great uncle. I distinctly remember my great uncle telling me that he bought his house with his own money and as long as I stayed with him I would have to follow his rules. What my great uncle was saying was that he owned this house and everything in it or, perhaps more directly, he owned this house and so he owned me. This idea of property, or that a man’s home is his castle, is based on this idea of The American Male as a consummate owner.
An episode of Mad Men can illustrate how the idea of ownership and masculinity were sold to the American public yet is older than the dawn of mass media. The term  “a man’s home is his castle” is an old saying. It comes from the English common law and the idea that “an Englishman’s home is his castle.”8 The idea of a man having sovereignty over his house is therefore an old and well documented one.
It is important to note that The American Man necessarily objectifies9 his wife and children because, if slavery taught us anything, it is near impossible for one human to feel that he rightfully owns his equal. Thus slavery and other forms of human ownership are always accompanied by systematic dehumanization10 and othering11 of owned people. For The American Male women must become docile damsels in distress in need of a strong man in order to justify this system of ownership. Therefore women are still socialized to be barbies. Even though modern barbie may have gone to college and is now a lawyer she is still a object to be valued by Ken for her high heeled shoes, make-up, inhumane figure and “perfect” blonde hair.
This reality has several immediate implications. One is that the equality of women is anti-thetical to the ideal of The American Male [you cannot own your equal]. Men are supposed to bread winners and deciders. The American Man doesn’t ask for directions or take orders from his wife. Even the idea of a man being whipped or a wife as “the old ball in chain” is sometimes (though not always) an expression of men struggling with equality in relationships. Often when a man is accused of “being whipped” it is when he can’t do something he might want to do because his partner objects. Unless his partner is truly controlling it usually no more than his partner asking for an equal say in decisions.
I can barely recount how many times I have heard a married man talk about his wife criticizing how he spends “his money” as if making more money makes all of it his. Some men, especially older men, often talk about management of household funds as their domain. The area in which they should, as if by a decree of natural law, have the final say.
Another implication of the Patriarch as king idea is that the Patriarch as father all too easily creates the cycle of men trying to become their father’s power without their father’s emotional repression. This desire exists in the son without realizing that that emotional repression is a result of that power and actions needed to maintain it. I have often said that I don’t want to be the kind of father my father was when I was younger. I think most people, of all genders, say this at some point in their life. My father was a wonderful parent but he was, at least in comparison to my mother, not particularly emotionally expressive.
I would later come to realize that my father was much more communicative than my friends’ fathers but as a child I was hurt with the way that my father showed love. I never questioned whether he loved me but it was a rough and tough love. My father showed his love mostly through providing for me materially and by devoting large amounts of energy and time towards me as well as showing interest in my ideas and my safety. My father worked a lot but also spent a great deal of time teaching me basketball, how to use a hammer, how to fish and other traditional father son activities. I think all of those things are phenomenal and were fundamental to me becoming the man I am today. What my father didn’t do was talk about how he felt about me however, and I think that is problematic.
My mother by comparison was very verbally and physically affectionate. We were constantly hugged and told how much she loved us. My mother was quiet without being submissive and tactful without always being subtle. When my mother asked me to do something I usually did it and if not I generally got a look. My mother has way of looking of looking at you with one eye-brow raised as if to say “really?…you wanna go there?” As an adult I realize that all the adults in my mother’s family had this look but as a child it was distinctly my mother’s.
My father on the other hand had a much more violent look. Before I explain my father’s look I think I would be remiss not to talk about violence. The World Report On Violence and Health (WRVH) defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” My father’s look then could be understood as a threat of use of his power for the purposes of deprivation or physical injury. Growing up my father never beat me nor can I remember a spanking that actually physically hurt. I vaguely remember being having memories of childhood spankings that made my bottom hurt but even by my teenage years these were already hazy memories.
Yet my father, 6’4 240 lbs, had mastered what I only half jokingly refer to as “the credible threat of violence.”  My father could put the fear of god into me as a child. I was reasonable sure that my father would never strike me out of anger (which he never did) yet I was physically afraid of him.  For the record, as unhealthy as I think this is, I realize now that I have internalized that as my ideal.
I remember my father once had to confront one my older sister’s principals. I realize now as an adult that this memory is actually an amalgam of my favorite/most embarrassing Tony Goggans moments. My father had been working out in our pasture either rebuilding our barn or unloading a bail of alfalfa. Upon hearing that yet another racist act had been directed at my sister my father says “are you serious?” in his voice that is powerful despite being half an octave higher than you might expect. The extent to which my sister was actually the victim of a some lingering institutional racism was always questionable but my father responded to this report in the only way he knew how. He took a quick shower, brushed his jet black hair and his salt and pepper beard and put on a dark 90’s style suit. Instantly my father went from pioneer to businessman and stopped walking and started striding. My father drove to the school and parked the car and hurried my mother from the car impatiently. My mother probably paused, slowly straitened her colorful scarf and smoothed out invisible wrinkles in her pant suit. This was how my mother let my father know not to rush her.
My mother would caution my father that we didn’t know what had happened and my father needed to calm down. My father would say “I got it Toni, I’m fine” in the way that let you know that he was anything but fine. Me and my siblings would pile out of the car, one of two black families for miles, six deep. My father strode with disproportionately long legs through the parking lot with my mother and I trailing behind and siblings between. There was a specific look that staff members would give my father when he walked into a room in a suit. He commanded respect from teachers in a way that made everyone uncomfortable but I would later imitate as a teacher. His chest was full of indignation and his eyes were clear and focused. His voice dropped closer to what you might expect a man of his size. He spoke clearly but excitedly. Early in childhood he would outright call my siblings’ teachers racist and threaten to go to the superintendent. There was a fear in the administrators eyes the first few times they had to deal with my father. My father’s righteous indignation was often embarrassing but as I realized that they listened to my father and started treated me differently I internalized my father’s anger as means of getting respect.
Now that I am older and find my self fighting to be heard I find my self channeling that memory of my father more and more. I want to be respected unquestioningly in the way that my father is in my glossed over amalgam memories. I want my kids to listen because I told them to and not because I gave them a good reason. In fact, I have internalized this overwrought image of my father so much that the first thought that crosses my mind when I see a disrespectful child is “someone needs to slap some sense into him.” Basically I subconsciously believe, as my a friend of mine once said,  “a boy should fear his father.”
Unfortunately for me and my hypothetical kids, The American Male’s inability to express non aggressive emotion is at odds with a child’s need for emotional support. Thus patriarch as king mentality also means that women must then become the emotion care givers of the family in order for civilization to have even a meager chance at survival.  The damage that this forced emotional labor does to women is beyond both my intellect and the scope of this essay. It is important to note though that this fact, this de facto role of the mother, becomes viewed as the only relationship in which The American Male can express non violent emotion. It is the only relationship in which The American Male does not seek to set himself above [until his father dies or is otherwise out of the picture].
I have always found it interesting how having a father leave or die changes many young boys relationship with their mother. While it certainly changes with culture, family structure and cohesion and class, the young boy often tries to fill his father’s shoe’s in whatever way he feels most important. I once had a close friend whose father had left his mother when he was fairly young. Once his older brother left home my friend started working to help out around the house. His relationship with his mother seemed, at least by this disinterested observer, to be almost like equals. He contributed financially to the household and felt that meant she should have less say over his life for that reason.
Perhaps a clearer more universal example is adult sons taking care of their elderly mothers. Often these sons have very healthy relationships with their mothers when their fathers are alive. Yet as soon as they assume responsibility for their mother’s care either through their father’s death or incapacitation their relationship to their mother changes. Some of this change is due, quite simply, to the added stress of being a care giver. Some of the changes though are the son taking the Patriarchal role or enveloping their mother into their existing mini-patriarchy. They become controlling and possessive of their mothers even if their mothers are still mentally sharp. When they bring their mother’s into their home they no longer feel obligated to allow their mother’s to have any say in their life. We often think of this a natural part of growing up yet upon closer examination something else is happening. We envelope our mothers into the sovereign law of “A Man’s Home Is His Castle” and instead of our mother’s being equals or guest in our house they become subordinates. Men tend to be more controlling and domineering of their mothers when their fathers have left the picture. This doesn’t mean that they are suddenly abusive only that the relationship is fundamentally changed.
Continuing on with aspects of The American Male, The American Male is inherently heterosexual. His heterosexuality is due to his need to control women as the other and to have no equal within his little kingdom. The reason that The American Male is so uncomfortable with homosexuality is manifold and will not be discussed here thoroughly admittedly more due to the author’s personal ignorance than space or time. Suffice it to say that homosexuality as men think of it intellectually reminds The American Male of the absurdity, oppression and limiting nature of maleness. Americans are notoriously uncomfortable with things that lay outside the realm of the boxed and categorized. Homosexuality as a cultural idea or stereotype is a different and more nuisanced issue because Gay culture is a reaction to the oppression of maleness in much the same way that the blackness of the sixties is a reaction to the oppression of whiteness of the sixties. Homosexuality in theory, that of two men sharing some deep romantic emotion, is an offense to the very idea of how men show emotion. The idea of expanding the limits of non-violent emotional reactions beyond the familial mother-son relation is hard enough, expanding into romantic relationships is actually rather new but to other men is truly paradigm shattering to American Maleness. It also shatters The American Male’s conception of sex.
Sex is not about emotional connection for The American Male as that would a be form of emotional expression. Sex is about power and therefore possession. I am hesitant to say sex is rape, if only because it conjures up misquoted images of Andrea Dworkin12, an intellectual powerhouse to whom this essay should not be compared.
I use the word rape to mean the use of violence to invalidate, disregard or otherwise eliminate consent for sexual acts. Violence again is, briefly, the use or threat of power or force to harm or deprive someone of something. If you objectify someone in order to allow yourself to not have to deal with them as an equal you are raping them regardless of if they say yes. You are raping them of their humanity by depriving them of their humanity in your eyes. More importantly, because men have a greater amount of social control by depriving their partners of humanity in their eyes men are contributing to the overall dehumanization of female non-persons. In this construction sex for The American Male is rape and the sexualization of the public sphere is the rape culture that enforces the will of the patriarchy.
In short, having a one-night stand with a girl you just met but recognizing that she is human with human needs and desire is not rape. Sleeping with your wife of twenty years who you feel exists to fulfill your sexual needs or perhaps with total disregard to her sexual needs is rape. Again, I am not arguing that all American men are rapist but that the way in which The American Male conceptualizes sex is rape. Rape culture, defined as such, will be further discussed later in the essay.
It is also important to note that many men do not divorce emotion from sex yet it is important that most American men have, at some point in their life [consciously or subconsciously], felt that they were expected to. The trope of men leaving right after sex and debates over how long are men required to cuddle and the “hit it and quit it” mentality are well known. The extent to which men who orchestrate these tropes in the public sphere [writers, actors, directors etc]  are aware that they are divorcing emotion from sex specifically as a way to reinforce maleness, patriarchy and their role in both is open to debate.
The last of the qualities of American Maleness I will discuss is perhaps the most bizarre, The American Male is incapable of non aggressive non-sexual physical affection. The reason for this phenomena, like many others, escapes me. Perhaps it is has simple as affection equals emotion and therefore weakness. Perhaps in some way, the act very act of removing emotion from sex causes us to view human relationships and actions in black and white.  This black and white thinking is then transferred to all forms of physical intimacy in such a way that all touch becomes sexual and personal non-emotional connection is always only verbal. In this way, human connection is factual and verbal “you are a good guy” and not a hug.
This is a bold statement I know but I think that while all men in America may not be incapable of separating sex and touch The American Male makes many have difficulty separating the two. Outside of their family members men tend to not touch people in non aggressive non-sexual ways. What this looks like in real life is that men stop hugging children after children reach a certain age. After that age men tend to touch people aggressively. We pat children on the head and ruffle their hair (a lighter form of the nuggies we would give to bully them) or we might toss them into the air playfully. I would argue that we feel comfortable rough housing with children because it subtly shows our power over them.
In many families fathers and sons rarely hug and in general men tend to not hug each other often. How times at a family event have you seen men, likely the older men in the family, hug all the women and shake hands with the men? It has become fashionable for younger men to do the “black hug” or the shake hands and then transition into a one armed aggressive back slapping hug that African-Americans have been doing for sometime. Men tend to feel awkward when they are too close to each other. This awkward feeling is usually diffused either by either man making a community about something being “gay” or by over-sexualizing a brief touch for comedic effect. It is almost as if all touch operates on a spectrum between sexual and violent and men feel uncomfortable with any touch and is not clearly either or both.
This is an opinion I formed long ago during my first forays into understanding The American Male’s relationship to emotion in men. I would be apt to write it off as some Freud-like projection of my own insecurities if I had not witnessed it first hand as a teacher. I think that any one who has observed an older man in a mentor role with a younger man has witnessed this. The moment when the two males look at each other and the younger man is unsure of whether he wants to hug or punch the older man. In some cases the older man realizes that a hug is necessary and often finds a female staff member to provide the physical non-sexual affection. Most men, like most humans, crave non-sexual physical affection but maleness sexualizes everything.  I often wonder if by making all affection sexual and by making sex by definition emotionless The Male has allowed itself to not have to deal with any emotion other than anger and still be a sexual if repressed being.
Now that we have, to a small extent, detailed the features of The American Male it is necessary to asses how men are oppressed by striving to live up to it. In order to understand this oppression it is first necessary to know that this standard is unattainable both for an individual and unsustainable in a society. Humans cannot become emotionless nor does not communicating emotion allow for productive communities to form. The heart of this oppression of The American Male to American males is that the idea that emotion is weakness leads to a lack of emotional maturity. American men tend to be unable to express the emotions they spend their whole childhoods repressing in non-violent ways. Men who swear to be better father’s than their own find themselves swearing out their kids because of this inability to process emotion without violence.
This is not to say that when any man feels sad he will punch his wife, though they sometimes do. Violence, understood as the threat or use of force or power, is the language through which men express emotion.  Basically I have found that many men cannot express emotion without a threat of force or a show of power that is equal to the weakness i.e vulnerability emotion makes them feel. This may take the form of outright abuse but most often this takes the form of an increase in aggressive behavior when explaining how they feel. Perhaps the man says something to a friend about how he really appreciates a birthday gift the conversation will often be either initiated or punctuating with a disarming punch in the chest or an aggressive slap on the back. Even the hand shakes men give each after emotional statements are firmer and more competitive.
Some less emotionally stunted men avoid much of the vulnerability of emotion by phrasing emotions as objective facts. A man might say “when my mother died it was hard” as opposed to “I was really hurt when my mother died.” Yet even these statements are usually said with oddly puffed out chests as if to say “I trust you but know that if you challenge my masculinity after I say this it’ll be a fight.”
The inability to speak about emotion contributes to our inability to process it as well. Unprocessed emotion builds and builds until we need emotional release. It is this emotion release of unprocessed emotion that makes the America man operating within the paradigms of The American Male his most destructive. When forced with the conflict of wanting to express emotion but not wanting to seem weak the flight or fight response kicks in and men either lash out violently or escape the emotion through drugs or empty sex [both of which often lead to different forms of violence].
These emotional outbursts are often done in sanctioned social events like sports, exercise or sexually aggressive dancing. This leads us to often associate violent tendency with typical male behavior and thereby sanction it.  Sometime these outbursts are less sanctioned but still common like  instigating physical or emotional fights. The escapism of The American Male is equally disruptive. Many men turn to alcohol, drugs or sex to escape their emotions and often end up being more violent as a result.
Other men deal with The American Male by simply trying to ignore the pressure to become him. Yet many of these men struggle to find a standard of manhood that is unrelated to The American Male thus described. Most still deal with the stress and self doubt that comes either from having no standard or not living up to the one they have. This too is oppression. Just because it is something these men shrug off or transfer the stress to other areas of there will does not mean it doesn’t limit their human potential.
Even the most well adjusted men who decide to become lawyers instead of teachers, play football just to not be called effeminate and avoid the opera so as not to be called gay. This subtle limiting of available options may not seem like much oppression and when compared to the trauma rape culture inflicts on women it certainly does not, yet it does mean that even men would be better off without the Patriarchy.
I know that many readers might say “I know a lot of guys who can express themselves emotionally.” This is true, many can, but I personally think that most of them are probably not as comfortable with it is as you might think. I cannot speak for how this uncomfortableness will play out in all men though I can say how I experience it.
Lets say someone says something that hurts my feelings. A coworker insinuates that I’m lazy and I feel sad. Eventually one of two things happens to me. I either wallow in sadness for a few seconds before I say “fuck them!” I don’t care what they think of me. Or, more likely, I realize that I do care what they think and I know that I will have to be an adult and talk to them about it. I then know intellectually that I have to process my emotion so that I can communicate it. As I began to stew on my pain I start to imagine expressing my emotion and immediately feel weak. This fear of weakness almost immediately creates a defensive chain reaction.
I start to worry that if I say I’m hurt that someone will confuse kindness and vulnerability for weakness. I start to fear vulnerability so much that I begin to think of the conversation as a conflict and eventually as a fight. Within a few seconds my feelings can go from sadness, to fear to anger. Once it reaches anger am I usually more comfortable because I know how to deal with this form of intellectualized anger. I began to envision fights, brawls and arguments that allow to spend my of intellectual anxiety. By thinking about fighting I am able to remind myself that I can fight and I am being non-violent  by choice and not being weak.
I think it is important that I have convince myself that I could beat the other person in some sort of violent altercation [usually physical with men and verbal with women] before I even think about dealing with the situation non-violently. I have deal with my emotional vulnerability and shallow feelings of being sad making me weak before I can express my emotion as anything but anger. This process isn’t always conscious, in fact I’m usually unaware that it is what I’m doing, but through years of introspection I’ve realized that is how I process pain. I don’t imagine that this is how all men process it but I do think that at some point most men who express their emotion have to come to terms, even momentarily, with a feelings of weakness or effeminacy. I think that in doing so men end up being more aggressive and violent than they would like to be.
Coming from this, for the vast majority of men the most oppressive facet of The American Male is simply the inability to connect with people on a human level. The more outwardly aggressive men may cause the most trauma to other people but even less aggressive men are still limited my the perversely Stoic American Male. Since The American Male sexualizes everything and avoids emotion it becomes difficult for him to form healthy relationships, especially with women. In fact we have skewed of vision of what a healthy relationship is. In a study done by Glamour magazine in partnership with National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDV) and other organizations nearly 30% of girls said they had never been in an abusive relationship but then reported that they have experienced abusive behavior like yelling, slapping or choking at the hands of a partner. Other studies say that as many as 1/3 of all women in America will be in an abusive relationship at some point in their lives. Intimate partner abuse is a very complicated subject with a variety of contributing factors so it would be overly simplistic and unsupported to say that all of this abuse is a result of The American Male. That being said, I think that it would naïve to not consider it a significant contributing factor.
For most men, The American Male prevents them from connecting with people on a more human level because it teaches them to be aggressive which automatically keeps people at a distance. No one wants to open up to someone and get close to them only to have them hurt you. It also teaches men to objectify women either as sexual objects to be owned or as fragile little idols that should be worshiped and protected. Either form of objectifying simplifies and essentializes women in a way that would make it impossible for men to see they whole woman and thus limit how he can connect with her.
By now I know that many readers are probably thinking, well okay, that’s some men but I still know men who are able to be completely comfortable with expressing non violent aggressive emotion. I even know men who don’t have to deal with emotional insecurities every time their feelings are hurt. What about them?
For those men who were either raised to ignore the trope of The American Male or have come as adults to free themselves of it are forced to have a Du Bosian double-consciousness. Yet unlike the negroes of Du Bois’ era, the two irreconcilable strivings are the man they want to be and the male their society expects them to be and assumes they are. Just like African-Americans around the turn of the previous century, modern men see negative images of themselves all over: rapist, philandering politicians or movie characters who treat the women like garbage. Yet they also see mass media images of these macho men being successful, getting promotions, being the hero and getting the girl. By adulthood many of these men realize that this images are false but they also know that men in their family or co-worker often call them pussy or bitch simply for suggesting that they shouldn’t go to strip clubs or they should treat women with more respect.
For me, the only man for whose perspective I can speak from authority, this double-consciousness is still limiting. Whenever I interact with a woman I am interested in romantically I am often torn between being the macho manly man I think she expects (and who I semi-consciously respect) and being wary to not be perpetuating the patriarchy. Do I pay for diner, go dutch or let her pay? Do I open the door for her? I was taught that was just common courtesy but I know now that it stems from objectifying women as fragile idols. God forbid someone makes a comment or some drunk idiot grabs her butt. Do I have to say something or do I risk putting her in more danger by starting a fight? If it my responsibility to keep her out of danger? What about my pride?
Even more perilous are navigating physical intimacy. As a child I was taught two very important lesson about sexual consent. One was that no always meant no but another was that sometimes guilt or societal pressure could turn a yes before and during sex into a no the next day. My parents came from age in which it was much more common for Black men to be arrested or violently injured because there was an allegation of sexual misconduct between him and a white woman. Often that white woman wouldn’t even need to say she was raped, her father could just easily say she was even when she said she was in love.
My parents were raising two African-American sons in an all white town, rural and sexually repressed, with this knowledge and history. They were hyper-conscious that their sons would always lose in a he said she said situation. As a result I was warned to avoid situations in which misunderstandings might arise. Keep in mind my parents were well aware that very few false claims of rape are ever reported but they also knew that sometimes perception and innuendo mattered just as much as police charges. I remember very clearly a time when my brother threw a paper plane in the classroom that landed in a girls hair. She was very upset and later said that my brother raped her hair. My brother was suspended and the school contacted my parents letting them know that due to their zero tolerance policy on sexual assault they would be seeking to expel my brother.
My father, needless to say, didn’t allow that to stand. He put on a suit and strolled and my brother was allowed to return to school. Later it would still be unclear why the girl said what she said. My father thinks that she didn’t come up with the word rape on her own. My brother would letter tell me that she didn’t expect it to go as far as it did. Regardless of why she said rape, from this experience I internalized the idea that the world sees me as The American Male but worse, The Black American Male whose maleness means he is sexual and aggressive and whose blackness means he is dangerous and craves white women.
This double-consciousness, of knowing what my Maleness might mean to others is always present. Even when I am speaking to black women I am aware that even if they don’t fear my blackness  my Maleness speaks volumes to them. They have expectations of me and fears too that are both fabricated and justified. Fears and expectations that I must combat non-violently, overcome, avoid or ultimately decide to live up to.
While I can’t speak from the same authority about other men as I can for myself, I do think that my white, Asian and Latino friends who have attempted to come to terms with being both oppressor and oppressed have a similar experience. Working in shelter with many women are coming from domestic abuse shows me that other men are also aware of this. The white men who live with me are all too aware of how the women we live with tense up when we walk by them. They can sense the need to be as non threatening and non-aggressive as possible. They have to deal with anger and know that their expression of it is amplified by their maleness.
Just like Du Bois’ second-sight this double-consciousness is both a gift and curse. It is gift because it allows those men who sees how their maleness effects those around them and, armed with that knowledge, prevent them from using that maleness to maintain the patriarchy. Yet it is a curse because it causes these men to either second guess whether or not their actions add or subtract to some abstract moral mathematics or to just suppress the guilt of trying to act without societal context.
So, we have gone through how living up to The American Male as an ideal or being expected to is oppressive, now it time to illustrate how Rape Culture, or enforcing the patriarchy, oppresses women and men alike. First let me say that nothing I say here should be taken to mean that women are not primarily the ones who are harmed by rape culture nor should the fact that most men participate in Rape Culture without realizing it absolve them of their moral culpability. I am, as stated earlier, speaking merely from my lived experience and from very limited understanding of the intellectualized lived experience of others. I will not speak very much to the oppression of women through Rape Culture because I feel very strongly that it is not my place. It is my place, and my obligation as a man of conscious, to speak to my role in it.
Again, Rape Culture is the inevitable result of a Patriarchy in which men sexualize everything. Let me further clarify my use of term since it is a loaded term used by people more scholarly and educated than myself. The term Rape Culture as used in this essay is the systematic way in which women and girls are objectified into non-human persons in order to thought of and treated as the property or potential property of men. This is a broader definition than that of a culture that condones rape. Rape, in this construct is a tool as much as it is an act. Rape is the way in which women are deconstructed to be purely sexual creatures whose sexuality only serves men. If these objects like sex it is because men  pleasure them, essentially they are totally passive objects devoid of will thought not necessarily intellect.
I know this seems extreme given that I am making the argument that all men participate in Rape Culture. It would appear if I am saying that all men are rapist or dehumanizing women in their mind just in case they ever say no and need to be raped. That is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that all American men participate [actively, passively or tacitly through inaction] in the sexualization of women as a means of robing them of power for the specific purpose of removing them from competition for power and perpetuating the Patriarchy. Men do this most often subconsciously but benefiting from it and not actively trying to stop it makes you partly morally responsible.
What does this sexualization look like then? One clear example is when a female colleague at an accountant firm assertively asks men to use double sided printing to save paper and one of them makes a comment about her breasts after she leaves. Her opinion, though valid, is automatically undercut by reducing her to a sexual object. Another common comment might be that she is a bitch who “just need a good dickin” as if she was not just being assertive like a man would be but, as a sexual object, is robbed of the penis-in-vagina effect that would make a complete non-bitch. Remember, that for The American Male sex is about power and therefore to many American men sex has an inherent power dynamic. Every man in the room when the comment is made who doesn’t challenge that statement is complicit in that woman’s objectification and directly benefits financially from his co-workers assuming she is anything less than a consummate professional and therefore not a viable candidate for advancement.
This might not seem like a big deal but multiplied over a life time these moments of sexualization rob women of equal standing in the exchange of ideas. Repeated objectification of women also makes it hard for many men to see women as people. This is not a rehashing of “When Harry Met Sally” but it is saying that sexual objectification means that women lose some of their autonomy and become ideas that men project themselves into. You cannot truly know someone if you are pre-occupied with them as a sexual object. We see this often with opinions teenagers have about women. If they only know of female sexuality through porn or t.v.  They might think that all women want to be dominated. These ideas often go unchallenged into adulthood despite all evidence to the contrary.
One of the ways we see these unchallenged ideas is through comedy. Any causal reader of Jezebel has not doubt read some comment about men in comedy and more specifically “rape jokes.” A common underlining argument against censoring rape jokes is that Comedy is inherently abstract in its subject matter and therefore not about real people and that a joke about rape is not an endorsement of it. There implicit argument is that female non-persons have no place in comedy. It is my opinion that this belief that comedy is a male endeavor is the male holding on to what can be seen as the last emotional outlet for the non-physical male.
Comedy has long been a way for people to work out their own insecurities and to turn ones insecurities into strength. Black comedians have mastered this technique by transforming what used to be seen as the stability, security and practicality of whiteness into absurd rigidity and non-nonsensical close mindedness. In turn, black comedy has become a way for white men to deal with their white guilt  in a non-threatening way. I would argue that the same has happened with Male Comedy [not to be confused with men in comedy]. Male Comedy allows for men who understand some of their role as oppressor and oppressed to turn it into a joke therefore translate it into a language that we are familiar with.  Male Comedy allows for men to express emotion beyond anger but only in sort spurts and still only violently. The Male Comic might be self-deprecating and poke fun at his powerlessness but the use of words like pussy and f@%t is just verbal violence that conjures up images of rape and homophobic violence which is why their emotionality on stage does not make the male uncomfortable.
Rape Culture is so prevalent that has become the way standard way that we seek romantic relationships. Have you ever wondered why the standard line at a bar is “can I buy you a drink?” This  action is about two things 1. having the financial means to provide for a her as a female non-person/wife and 2. getting her drunk enough to negate consent. The bar and club dating scene is the ultimate example of The American Male’s use of Rape Culture. The cycle is supposed to be man shows women he can afford to take care of her, he gets her drunk enough as to where she is actually not able to think autonomously and they have sex without emotion. In the morning the girl is supposed to mean nothing to him she is an empty vessel for him to project upon and attempt to fulfill a basic human need for intimacy. The fact that she often does mean something to him just causes the man to go out drinking again to forget or obscure that fact. This cycle is very destructive but so ubiquitous that it just becomes what young men do.
In recognizing how truly destructive this whole idea of The American Male I have to come to realize that we need to end patriarchy. Yet how to do that? I think that what is a needed is a national conversation about what it means to be a man. This national conversation doesn’t need to be on Oprah, or series of nationally televised events. I think this national conversation can be an on going one where men reach out and start challenging all of those little things we’ve known are not okay. It is when men acknowledge that commenting on your co-workers breast after she says something you dislike is not appropriate. It is when you stop telling our sons that they need to play sports to be men. Instead we tell them that sports have intrinsic value is team work, hard work, physical exercise etc but aren’t something they need to do to prove themselves to their father figures.
We need to start having those awkward conversations when we people accuse us of being misogynistic or patriarchal. We need to listen and explain our actions while acknowledging any destructive assumptions or agendas. Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, we need to be reflective. We need to start being intentional on the words we use and the ways we interact with people.
These are the person to person things that we need to do to end the part of the patriarchy that is most insidious and the hardest to route out. The patriarchy that we cling to, that we replicate and that we impose on ourselves.

3 thoughts on “The American Male

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