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Weekend reads: In defence of masculinity
There is nothing wrong with being male - and it should not be controversial to say that.
For months now, I have been wanting to write a defence of masculinity but have not known where to begin. Should I open with the many men I’ve interviewed over the years, next to none of whom have conformed to cartoonish stereotypes of so-called toxic masculinity? How about with the generosity of the men who have mentored me, or that of fellow writers, who have given of their time and energy and insights? What about with male readers, who have lifted me up more times than I can count? Perhaps I should instead open with my male family members, my male friends, my partner, all of whom I would be lost without. How does one articulate an appreciation for the many facets of maleness that is so core to my being, so essential to my existence, as to be difficult to put into words?
There is no good place to start. So let me start here, with a story.
In the early days of the pandemic, I found myself under water. I felt drugged and dissociated much of the time, and walked around in a trancelike state, stunned. The current affairs radio show that I was a producer on, in normal times, covered a wide range of stories, from news and politics to arts and culture. But in early 2020, we did one story and one story only.
As borders closed and schools shuttered and streets emptied out, I spent my days on the phone, absorbing the anguish of my city. I spoke to nurses who broke down sobbing, their small children in the background attempting to comfort them, and to school board trustees alone in their cars, speechless from exhaustion. I talked to truckers, and doctors, and Covid patients and personal support workers and heads of local food banks overwhelmed by need. After these calls, I could not eat. I could not sleep. I could not text with friends. All I could do was walk and walk, and wait for all that collective sorrow to wind its way through my body.
What gave me comfort, what allowed me to keep breathing in and out, was listening to loud hip-hop music.
I have thought about this a lot since. Why, during a once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic, in some of the bleakest moments of my life — why did I turn to hip-hop? What was it about those beats and rhymes that gave me the courage that I needed to keep going in the face of an avalanche of human suffering?
I started my career in hip-hop and spent years writing about it. I have always turned to hip-hop. But why did I need it most then? Why was it my must-have for the bunker?
It’s not an easy question to answer. At least not without acknowledging that the comfort that I needed was distinctly male. That, in an emergency, the aggressive alpha-maleness that society tells me I should look down upon was, in fact, what made me feel most safe.
Hip-hop is about telling the truth, however ugly it may be. And, by and large, rappers are no strangers to hardship. Many have grown up under siege conditions, in neighbourhoods that are in a constant state of crisis. I know this because many rappers have told me so, many times.
Here’s the thing: Rap music, with its hyper-masculine street codes, finds victimhood abhorrent.
It’s not healthy to see all vulnerability, from crying to falling in love, as weakness. I know how destructive this can be; I’ve sat with men as they’ve talked through it.
But this ethos does serve a purpose if you’re in danger.
To be a fighter, you must convince yourself and others that you are invincible. You cannot tap into that tenacity, that strength, that power, if you see yourself as a victim. In order to fight, you have to believe you can win. And, in an emergency, it you want to live, you have to fight.
Hip-hop triumphs over despair because it rejects victimhood. It demands agency.
That may be why, in the spring of 2020, my favourite rappers were able to push me out of paralysis, and flood me with energy. My life felt under threat. My body was in fight-or-flight. These men shouted in my headphones: FIGHT!
And so I did.
You should know that I spent my formative years interviewing young men. Many faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles — poverty, violence, discrimination, incarceration, alienation — but the vast majority of them refused to give up. I admired their grit and determination, their ingenuity, their hustle and hope and heart. I was moved by the art they created. And so I learned, early on, that society could be very wrong about an out-group, and equally mistaken about a whole orthodoxy, in this case The Patriarchy.
Perhaps you can understand, then, why the progressive discourse around masculinity has always left me cold. And continues to leave me cold, now that the out-group encompasses pretty much all men, at least in some circles.
The idea that masculinity is a form of original sin — a brutish, backwards force that men must constantly struggle against, and atone for — is now prevalent among a subset of both men and women. In this context, gender norms are not just outdated and dangerous, but scornful. And subscribing to them in any way is patently absurd.
I can recall reading a profile about an American author who’d written a semi-satirical book about manhood, the name of which now escapes memory. In the interview, he said that he often joked to his wife about the tropes of masculinity. “Like, what, you need me to protect you? Where, in the grocery store?” The idea that his wife might ever need him to defend her seemed ridiculous to him.
But such a view only makes sense if you live out your entire life in a certain kind of sterile, sanitized environment.
In my own life, however, I have occasionally found myself in places where my safety depended on the protective instincts of the men around me. In barracks in the mountains outside Caracas, say, sleeping in a dorm surrounded by male police and firefighters, on assignment to cover a global hip-hop summit. Or out reporting in the José Félix Ribas barrio in Venezuela. Or at a concert in a Johannesburg township, as the sun began to set. Or in Tokyo nightclubs, Bangkok recording studios, Manhattan streets before sunrise, riding around in an SUV with a rapper’s entourage that I had only just met.
I was young, I was female, I was often alone in groups of men. I was headstrong and obsessed with getting the story and thus probably a bit reckless. And yet, no one ever took advantage of that. Sure, there were comments and come-ons; we were all in our twenties, after all. And, yes, the sexism aimed at me online could be demoralizing. But on the ground, when it really counted, the men around me consistently looked out for me. And I cannot escape the reality that I owe my current well-being to the fact that, decades ago, these young male strangers upheld one of the best aspects of masculinity — the protective instinct.
I thought of all of this again several years ago when I interviewed the war reporter Sebastian Junger, who has written extensively about masculinity, including in an essay “The Anthropology of Manhood,” which does an excellent job of complicating the post-MeToo narrative. In that piece, Junger writes that “a common definition of manhood throughout history has been a willingness to put the safety of others above one’s own,” and quotes the anthropologist Joyce Benenson as saying, “the definition of a man is someone you can count on when the enemy comes.” Women understand this, and seek this quality out, he writes, often demonstrating in studies “a preference for partners who can protect them.”
Whatever radical transformations modernity has wrought, most women still want to be able to count on men in an emergency, from the bigger emergencies in life, like random attacks on the subway, to the smaller ones, like rent coming due.
Which brings me to another important point. During the years I spent covering hip-hop, I witnessed the pain of those for whom an aspect of traditional masculinity — the provider role — had not been upheld. The men I interviewed often had single mothers, as did I, and the ghosts of absent fathers haunted many of our conversations. In no universe could the lack of a responsible adult male in their life possibly be construed as a positive thing, or even as a neutral fact. None of us would have ever dreamt of interpreting it this way.
And while we are facing politically inconvenient truths, here is another one to consider: The traits that we modern women say we want, and what we actually choose in romantic partners, are often two very different things. We may say we want total equality, but, as Canadian comedians Ryan Long and Danny Polishchuk poked fun at in a recent comedy sketch, we don’t mean manual labour, or dangerous jobs, or sole breadwinning, or even physically-difficult household tasks. (Or, in the most extreme example, fighting wars.) Most of us, if we’re honest, still subscribe to gender norms in our private lives, and still value traits associated with traditional masculinity.
We value leadership and ambition. We value mental toughness and emotional stability. We value responsibility and self-sacrifice and a sense of duty towards women and children. And why shouldn’t we?
We need the unique talents and gifts that men contribute to society. We need men — and it should not be controversial to say that.
On that note, this week Lean Out guest Christine Emba published a timely, thoughtful, empathetic, and widely celebrated essay on the masculinity crisis in The Washington Post. In that piece, she highlights progressives’ failure to offer a positive vision of masculinity. “To the extent that any vision of ‘nontoxic’ masculinity is proposed, it ends up sounding more like stereotypical femininity than anything else: Guys should learn to be more sensitive, quiet and socially apt, seemingly overnight,” Emba writes. “It’s the equivalent of ‘learn to code!’ as a solution for those struggling to adjust to a new economy: simultaneously hectoring, dismissive and jejune.” Against this backdrop, Emba warns, influencers like Andrew Tate rush in to fill the void.
But I would argue that there are plenty of alternatives to be found outside the stark far-left/far-right binary online.
I have been lucky enough, through my ties to Ireland, to have spent time around men that have preserved some of the best qualities of the masculine ideal. These are men who find meaning and purpose in serving those around them, who are hard-working and reliable and kind, and who are actively involved in raising their children, in collaborating with their spouses, and in making their communities better places.
These men, it must be said, seem a lot happier to me than those that the dominant Western culture has set adrift — whether that’s the rudderless right-leaning men of the Manosphere, who turn their frustrations against women, or the rudderless left-leaning men of Woke Twitter, who turn their frustrations against their own sex.
Obviously Irish culture is not perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination. But it is significant, to me, that the relationship between men and women there does not appear to have totally broken down. At least in the pockets I have spent time in, this crucial bond still seems to function well, and in some cases, thrive.
The Irish communities I’ve spent time in still seem invested in the idea of the common good. They do not fetishize individualism, and they do not seem compelled to tear down all the old rules, abandon all the norms. They have, at least so far as I can tell, taken a more sensible approach, incorporating increased female autonomy and increased female work outside the home, but preserving respect for sex differences, for cooperation between the sexes, and for a shared focus on family and community.
This experience shows me that there is a middle ground to be found here — that it is possible to step confidently into the future without abandoning the past.
Before I sign off, I want to send a special congratulations to two-time Lean Out guest, Reverend Christopher White, who has recently retired after 36 years. I was honoured to attend his final service last Sunday at Kedron United Church, and to celebrate to his remarkable contributions. Reverend White’s deep empathy, strong moral compass, and commitment to economic justice has made a difference in my life and in the lives of so many others — many of whom we heard from during that joyous, song-filled Sunday sendoff. One local civic leader made a tearful comment that stayed with me all week, as I was writing this essay: “Christopher helped me to see that as important as my job in the community is, it pales in comparison to my job at home.” Another good reminder that our relationships to one another are precious, and that we all have crucial roles to play in maintaining them.
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