Fragile Masculinity, and the Mistakes We Make With It

I’ve just started reading a book I borrowed from my local library, Playing Big, by Tara Mohr.  Ostensibly, it’s a book for women, but a) I’ve never really bought in to the whole gendered items scene, and b) I think it’s important for men to read books that are “women talking to women”, and for women to read books that are “men talking to men” – it’s the only way we’ll understand each other.  Socialised distrust of the “opposite” gender means men will never truly be honest about ourselves with women, and vice versa. There’s too much risk, too much at stake.  We’ll keep our secrets, thanks – and blame you for your failure to read a mind we were too afraid to share.

So, I’m reading Playing Big, and I start to get the feeling of uneasiness I often get when I encounter feminism, even good feminism, rather than the shouty, angry, “God, why can’t we just make babies in labs without men, already?” kind.  So, I do what I always do when I start to feel uneasy about something I’ve heard, or seen, or read: I stop reading, and start thinking about why I’m feeling uneasy.

And I realise it’s because I’ve experienced a lot of the same things Tara Mohr is talking about as being women’s experiences. I know my father had those experiences, too. Other men I’ve known, and know now, have had, and do have, those experiences. Men whom I don’t know, but see in action, hear about, read about, act very much from a base of experiencing those same things.

The internal voice that tells you you’re not good enough, that you’ll never be good enough.

The need for vocal, visible praise, and the feeling that, if you don’t receive it, you’ve “failed.”

The belief that said praise is the only valid reason for doing something – that doing something because you enjoy it and it brings you pleasure and satisfaction is pointless and self-indulgent. For men, “praise” is often replaced with “money”, “status”, “prestige” – but it’s the same thing women want to experience: the smile, and the “Haven’t you done well?” of someone whose opinion we value, and whose respect and admiration we crave.

The feeling of being overwhelmed by the anticipatory fear that comes when things are starting to change – including change for the better.

Feminists talk a lot about “fragile masculinity” – usually mockingly. This has always confused me, because something doesn’t become fragile through some deliberate choice: it simply is inherently fragile, even if its constituent parts are not.

Sand is not fragile – but glass is.

Bone is not fragile – but an infant, a puppy, a bird, is.

Wood is not fragile – but a sapling tree is.

When something in nature is fragile, we don’t mock it. We don’t kick it about, smack it, throw stones at it. We don’t punch a bird, or hurl a puppy against a wall, laughing all the while at its fragility.

We are careful with it, and we commit to its protection. We value it, because its worth is partly in the tenuous hold it has on being whole. A glass ornament, for example, is beautiful precisely because it is fragile, and because there are any number of stages of its process of becoming that it could have broken – but didn’t.

So why do we think it’s okay to behave violently and abusively towards fragile masculinity? Why do we feel that we have to destroy it, like some cruel child tearing the wings off of a butterfly, or tormenting a kitten?

We know that breaking something made of glass may well result in us cutting ourselves on the shards – so, surely, doing violence to fragile masculinity could just as easily lead to harm? Especially given the concept of fragile masculinity often being linked to toxic masculinity – we do damage to a fragile outer container, and are splashed with the corrosive, dangerous contents.

If we want men to stop being violent and abusive – if we want to do away with toxic masculinity – we need to show respect and admiration for their fragility.

I, and many men of my acquaintance, have a deep respect for intelligent, independent, successful, focused women – but we don’t experience the same respect for being compassionate, gentle, intelligent and supportive men.

Men and women are complements. We are “opposites”, but opposites which, when combined, create a pleasing and pleasant whole.

I don’t just mean “combined” in a romantic or sexual sense – of course, men can have successful romantic and sexual partnerships with other men, and women can have successful romantic and sexual partnerships with other women. Sex and love are really the least important elements of the combination not just of men and women, but of masculine and feminine.

The world is always better when men and women work together, and people – whatever their personal experience of gender identity – are always better when they allow full expression of both their masculine and feminine attributes and energies.

When women feel they have to be “wholly masculine” in order to succeed, they often fail – think of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, both women who achieved a position of power by deliberately not putting their feminine energies – the energies of respectful communication, the energies of nurturing people and ideas, the energies of creative expression, the energies of serving others before the self – into their roles.  And they are both women who have caused very visceral, violent reactions against their policies, their attitudes, and, in some cases, them as people.

The same kind of reactions that many feminists have to “the way men carry on” – because men, also, take something away from their visible, physical-plane successes by keeping feminine energies out of their businesses. Out of their workday endeavours. Out of their engagement with friends and family.

Fragile things are often beautiful, and they often become things that bring us immense joy, and are a central part of our lives.  Just as we wouldn’t deliberately knock a glass ornament about, or deliberately tread on and kick a puppy or kitten, so we shouldn’t do so with the concept of “masculinity.”

Masculine energies, to my mind, are the energies of protection, the energies of decisive action, the energies of bending situations and people to one’s own will.

Feminine energies, as I’ve already mentioned, are communication, creative expression, the nurturing of people and ideas, and a focus on others rather than the self.

These energies are not specific to male or female bodied individuals, nor to female or male identified people – rather, they should be combined within each person, the way male and female attributes combine to create our unique DNA, with some expressions being more dominant, but all being present.

Someone does not stop being a man because their dominant trait is nurturing people and ideas – I have been privileged to encounter several men who happened to be very good at that, and who had forged it into their purpose and career. One was a teacher, another a member of the clergy, a third a youthworker.

Likewise, someone does not stop being a woman because their dominant trait is taking decisive action – I have been privileged to know decisive women. Some of whom were better people, and made better decisions, than others, naturally – but those whom I didn’t find to be pleasant people weren’t unpleasant to me because they were decisive women – I would have disliked them had they been men. Their decisions would, to my mind, have been poor decisions had a man made them.

We will not build a strong society and an enduring world by deciding that one group can only be “advanced” if the other is beaten back.  Nor, however, can we achieve those ambitions by never challenging a given group, or its behaviours and attitudes.  We develop as people when we are exposed to constructive criticism, and when we are forced to acknowledge and alter unacceptable and inappropriate behaviour.

Human beings are like a bronze sculpture that includes a carefully balanced glass ball – we all, men, women, non-binary and a-gender, combine invulnerability and fragility – and the contradictions, when combined, are what create the whole, and make the beauty that has us admire the sculpture.

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