The Male Gender Crisis
Memorial day is suppose to be a time where we, as a nation, remember the men (and women) who died in the violent theaters of war; the socially acceptable way to harness and direct the violent capacity of mankind.
This Memorial day weekend is different. Man’s capacity for violence is under the microscope thanks to a shooting rampage in Santa Barbara. The man pulling the trigger in this latest episode of horrific gun violence is Elliot Rodger, a 22 year old autistic rich kid who turned his inability to connect with women into a shooting spree that left 6 people dead and over a dozen injured. In the wake of this tragedy, the digital footprint of this disturbed young man has sparked a firestorm of criticism toward the mens rights movement (and subcultures of that movement, like pick-up artists). This from Slate:
On Friday night, a gunman killed six people in Santa Barbara, and the killer himself was found dead with a gunshot wound to his head. Soon after police began investigating the crime, 22-year-old student Elliot Rodger emerged as the main suspect. Like many modern mass murders, this one left a robust digital trail, including a video Rodger recently posted to YouTube where he parks his BMW in front of a bank of palm trees and describes his plan to seek retribution from the women who have rejected him. Rodger calls himself the “perfect guy” and a “supreme gentleman” who’s been overlooked by women who prefer “obnoxious brutes.” Then he lays out his plans to “enter the hottest sorority house of [the University of California, Santa Barbara], and … slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up blonde slut I see inside there.” To “all those girls I’ve desired so much,” he says, “you will finally see that I am the superior one, the true alpha male.”
Rodger’s language is familiar to anyone who’s spent time exploring the Pick-Up Artist or Men’s Rights Activist communities. Rodger was a “Nice Guy,” a man who feels he is entitled to sex based on positive personality traits known only to him. (“I’ve wanted love, affection, adoration. You think I’m unworthy of it. That’s a crime that can never be forgiven,” he said). He aspired to be an “Alpha,” the most attractive, dominant man in his group, but felt he’s been wrongly dismissed as an inferior “Beta.” Pick-Up Artists, by the way, refer to women they would like to have sex with as their “targets.”
On Twitter the hashtag #YesAllWomen quickly emerged as a way to catalogue the pervasive harassment women experience. Here’s a quote from the author Margaret Atwood:
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” ~ Margaret Atwood #NotAllMen #YesAllWomen
Though the criticism of much of this men’s rights movement is very warranted, there is a longstanding crisis with the male identity that needs some more honest engagement. I think that engagement started happening with a book by the poet Robert Bly, titled Iron John: A Book About Men (1990). This book helped spark the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement:
Because most men no longer perform masculine rituals, mythopoets assert that men have mutated into destructive, hypermasculine chauvinists, or, in the opposite direction, have become too feminized. The mythopoetic men performed rituals at these gatherings, which were meant to imitate those performed by tribal societies when men initiated boys into a deeply essential natural manhood. The movement emphasized the importance of including multiple generations of men in the rituals, so that the men could learn about masculinity from those who were older and wiser.
Characteristic of the early mythopoetic movement was a tendency to retell myths, legends and folktales, and engage in their exegesis as a tool for personal insight. Using frequent references to archetypes as drawn from Jungian analytical psychology, the movement focused on issues of gender role, gender identity and wellness for the modern man (and woman). Advocates would often engage in storytelling with music, these acts being seen as a modern extension to a form of “new age shamanism” popularized by Michael Harner at approximately the same time. The movement sought to empower men by means of equating archetypal characters with their own emotions and abilities. For instance, Michael Messner describes the concept of “Zeus energy” as emphasizing “male authority accepted for the good of the community”. Beliefs about the emotional system based in archetypes of great men, mythopoets sought to channel these characters in themselves, so that they could unleash their “animal-males”. This group primarily analyzed the archetypes of King, Warrior, Magician, Lover and Wildman.
Here is a quote from Bly’s book:
”During the fifties, for example, the American character appeared with some consistency that became a model of manhood adopted by many men: the Fifties male. He got to work early, labored responsibly, supported his wife and children and admired discipline. Reagan is a sort of mummified version of this dogged type. This sort of man didn’t see women’s souls well, but he appreciated their bodies; and his view of culture and America’s part in it was boyish and optimistic. Many of his qualities were strong and positive, but underneath the charm and bluff there was, and there remains, much isolation, deprivation, and passivity. Unless he has an enemy, he isn’t sure that he is alive. The Fifties man was supposed to like football, be aggressive, stick up for the United States, never cry, and always provide…. During the sixties, another sort of man appeared. The waste and violence of the Vietnam war made men question whether they knew what an adult male really was. If manhood meant Vietnam, did they want any part of it? Meanwhile, the feminist movement encouraged men to actually look at women, forcing them to become conscious of concerns and sufferings that the Fifties male labored to avoid.”
Masculinity is not a de facto negative trait, but as the roles of providing and protecting are compromised by the ravages of late-stage capitalism, the angst of not being able to fulfill the conventional masculine roles seems to breed anger, resentment, and violence. While feminism has made impressive strides in redefining the role of women in society, I think the biggest failure of feminism has been the reluctance to acknowledge what that redefinition means for men.
By focusing attention on the negative aspects of masculinity, the gender reset that needed to happen but didn’t may actually be pushing men into seeking hyper-masculine identities to compensate for the confusion of a perceived cultural impotence, especially when it comes to the economic role as provider.
As the father of two young boys, I get to model my interpretation of masculinity for them. For me, that means making sure they understand it’s ok to experience the full range of emotions, especially those that make us cry. The relationship I have with my wife is also critical, because how my wife and I work together provides the social cues that our boys will take with them in their interactions with the opposite sex. It’s a tremendous responsibility.
It’s unfortunate that tragedy seems to be the driving catalyst for these conversations. I’m interested to hear what others think.