Monday, February 24, 2014

The Porcelain Man

For my first post, I wanted to dive straight into the main topic this blog will be centered around: Masculinity. More specifically, I want to examine just how fragile society's current concept of masculinity is, how it got to be that way, and why we need to redefine it for the current day and age. I'm going to try to keep this as concise as I can, and I realize there will be some points that may not seem immediately obvious. Rest assured I plan to explore them individually in future posts, and in the meantime you can feel free to send questions and topic requests to

The Porcelain Man

Today, masculinity defines what I call the Porcelain Man.

Porcelain Man
Yeah, kinda like that.
photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

Porcelain seems sturdy enough at first. After all, we use it in construction to make things like bathtubs or toilets, which are designed to support a fair amount of weight and keep water contained within it. Similarly, a traditionally masculine man seems strong and in control of himself and the situation around him. This hypothetical man eschews anything feminine, choosing action movies over chick flicks, red or blue over pink or yellow, and only drinks malt liquor on the rocks, none of that fruity shit thank-you-very-much. This man also maintains a stoic expression and never acts emotionally, seeks sex but cares little for intimacy, and relies only on his own strength at all times. His achievements define him, and his demeanor is aggressive and homophobic.

However, much like porcelain, it doesn't take much to chip away at, or completely shatter, the masculine facade. Men are expected to live up to impossibly macho expectations and hide any aspect of themselves that may not align with that masculine ideal. Acknowledge that the flowers in that yard look nice? Admit to tearing up while watching The Notebook? Got a drink with an umbrella in it? Let some other guy so much as smile at your woman?1 Hand over your man card, you're clearly unworthy of it.

Sad boy
What, you gonna cry about it?
photo credit: vale ♡ via photopin cc

Naturally, living a life where everything you say or do is up for review and can be used to immediately strip you of your very gender identity leads to all kinds of problems. We feel that we can't express our emotions for fear of appearing weak. A grunt or a bro-fist are expected to be the extent of our approval responses, and if we're sad or hurt we aren't allowed to show anything but anger. In fact, anger and aggression are pretty much the only emotional expressions we're allowed if we want to maintain our masculinity. We aren't allowed to process any of the other emotions, just push them down and pretend they don't exist, which leaves us incredibly emotionally stunted.

Having no way to develop an emotional processing scheme, we're left completely unequipped to handle emotional problems. This is why there's such a prevalent stereotype that men aren't capable of understanding women's emotional communication. We're literally prevented from developing the empathy we need to relate to the emotional struggles that women are raised to embrace. They've actually done studies measuring brain activity of men and women while having them form facial expressions, and it typically takes relatively little brain power for a woman to exhibit a wide range of expressions, while a man's brain activity will, in general, be much greater in magnitude to form the same expressions. This is because men are not trained as well as women in expressing their emotions.

Man with raised eyebrow.
Commence eyebrow raise in 3... 2...
photo credit: Simon Collison via photopin cc

Why All This Hyper-masculinity? How Did We Get Here?

Super macho dudebros are often quick to assert some Evopsych2 explanation for the current state of masculinity. They claim that without aggressive masculinity to separate "Alphas" and "Betas" then weak genes would have killed our chances for survival thousands of years ago. The fact is though, the current way of looking at and defining masculinity in the western world is a relatively recent invention. In Ancient Greece, it was actually considered more manly to cry when saddened, for example. The idea being that true strength comes not from hiding vulnerabilities, but from being able to show them and defend oneself from attacks against them. Even today in some parts of the world, such as in South Africa, it's totally acceptable for two men who are good friends to hold hands while walking down the street.

So if it's not something innate, where did this macho-ism come from? There's a popular theory that it's because of a considerably violent shift in culture over the last century or so. Namely, the idea that women are equal to men and deserve equal rights, and all the cultural shifts that came along with that movement. Essentially, after millenia of men being in the role of provider and protector, we suddenly find that there's nobody who needs our protection and support to survive. As women climbed closer to men in social status, and adapted their ideas of femininity along with it, men found themselves floundering to find their new role in a more equal society.

Desperate for some kind of identity, they reached for traditional male values, amplified them, and distorted them. Ron Swanson is a character created to satirize the hyper-masculine identity, and has instead been adopted as a sort of role model, a patron saint of manliness. Where once we had gentle support and protection, we now have possessiveness and insecurities related to income disparity. Our professional success no longer defined us as potential partners as it once did, so we filled the void with masculine traits like sculpted abs or intellectual superiority. Basically, rather than developing new role models and adapting to a changing world, we panicked and grabbed hold of our old security blanket for comfort.

Baby with blanket.
Ahhh... Traditional male values!
photo credit: mahalie via photopin cc

What is a man?

Regardless of how we got to where we are, it's clear we need a new definition of masculinity. A definition that's secure enough in itself that it can't be taken from us by others, and robust enough that it fulfills our need for a role to fill. Masculinity should define the values we want instilled in our sons and in ourselves, and should eschew weak ideals like the Porcelain Man. As men, we need to take back masculinity and bring the concept up to speed with the world, but it's not something that any one of us can do alone. It's going to be a long journey, and one with plenty of obstacles and trials along the way, but I believe we can get there together.

Through puberty we grew from adolescents into adults. Now it's time we grow out of being boys and become men.

1 Because women are subservient to men, don'tcha know? /sarcasm
2 Read: Bullshit

1 comment:

  1. Nice post! look forward to following them. I agree with most of what you said. You have me wondering now, if maybe the reason I don't have as many problems with expressing my emotions now and trying to be "porcelain" is because my wife does fill more of a homemaker type role... Maybe the reason I can be more open about all of this is because I have the security of being the "bread-winner".

    Or maybe I have always just felt that the hyper-masculinity was a thin facade to hide behind and wasn't worth the effort, I can say though that i have often felt the urge to try to be overly "masculine" in front of people so that I feel like more of a "man" but at the end of the day I'm quite happy with how "manly" I am.