Why do I insist on writing about gender during such a fraught time period? Sometimes I think about how, if I wanted to write about football or finance, it might be easier. But I’m not trying to navigate football or finance – I’m trying to navigate masculinity. And my society has handed me a giant, maladaptive, poisonous mess in that regard. So here we are.
Before we begin, a disclaimer: an explanation is not an excuse. In some cases I am going to try to explain men’s behavior in my culture (white, American), but this does not mean that I am seeking to excuse or morally justify that behavior when it is hurtful or harmful to others. I’m trying to think about what is more than what is right.
That being said, I’m going to start with an observation and go from there. The observation: there seems to be evidence that men feel their emotions more strongly than women do, on average. Or, if you would like to say the same thing in a way that is more negative about men, you could say that there seems to be evidence that men are less able to regulate their emotional responses than women, on average.
One interesting piece of evidence came from a link in an article about male friendship to a study that seems to show that infant boys are more emotionally expressive than infant girls, and even change their affect more readily to match their mother’s. There was another article behind a NYT pay-wall, but I also found this podcast referencing some of the same research and thinking that seems to indicate what I said above – that boys, before they start, school, are more emotionally expressive on average than girls. As a man who is a bit of a crier (I cry when I’m angry, which sucks as a man honestly) it’s almost reassuring. Hidden amidst annoying ads is this article about a study showing men having stronger emotional reactions to film clips than women. It’s possible that men are born with a brain that is more vulnerable to emotional stress than women’s brains (again, on average).
Really, though, I’m just tossing up some articles I found Googling around. For me, this observation comes from introspection and experience more than anything else. I’ve simply seen men in the grip of overwhelming emotions more often than women, and getting to know men around me I find that they struggle with their emotional life more than women tend to. Whether you call this stronger emotional responses, or fewer resources to deal with emotion, or both, the result is the same.
If we take this premise to be true, a lot of things fall into place, at least in my thinking. The world of men as we see it makes more sense if we are, in fact, the emotional ones.
It helps explain why emotional repression is such a priority for men
It would make sense, if men felt their emotions very strongly, that one way to deal with that would be to focus on emotional repression. From a certain point of view, one could even see that as adaptive, especially when living in a society where you are constantly having to navigate life among loads of strangers. Men who let themselves feel their emotions might be at a significant disadvantage, even leaving aside the cultural taboos around men expressing emotion. Few people want to hire someone, for example, who comes off as emotionally volatile, but a repressed person can seem like the perfect employee.
It helps explain the perceived difference in willingness to discuss emotion between women and men
It’s a cliche that has been part of stand-up comedy and gender anecdotes since The Beginning of Time. (I know, not really) Women want to talk about their feelings, and men do not. Of course, this is not literally true of all men and all women, but it might be true of the majority of men and the majority of women. I can think of a couple of male friends who wish the women in their lives wanted to talk about their feelings more, but in most cases it is the other way around. This makes sense if men’s emotions are more likely to be overwhelming. They would be literally harder to talk about, like discussing a shattered femur compared to a dislocated finger, maybe.
It helps explain men at the top and bottom of society
It’s one of the few interesting points that MRA types have ever made, or are ever likely to make: men are at the top of most societies right now. CEOs and political leaders and millionaires are overwhelmingly men. For many societies, this has been because women have been explicitly excluded from positions of power for thousands of years. So we can’t say a lot without at least a few generations of equality to go by.
In American society, the bottom is also full of men. The homeless are about 60% men, and those who are incarcerated are more than 90% men. In education, there seems to be a trend moving toward women doing better and men doing worse academically. Men are less likely to report thinking about suicide, but are three or four times more likely to commit suicide than women, all over the world. Again, in all of these cases, we have little ability to account for why these things occur without equality.
But let’s say that men are subject to volatile and intense emotional experiences. This is one way we could explain a situation where their ambition and possibly aggression drives them to the top in certain competitive fields, and why that same emotional intensity also drives them to the bottom in greater numbers than women, becoming homeless and incarcerated and dying by suicide more often than women.
It helps explain why men are so dangerous, especially in relationships
Most men are not murderers, but most murderers are men, and most murderers kill people with whom they’ve shared an intimate relationship. If men’s emotions are more volatile and intense than women’s emotions, again, on average, then at the edge of the bell-curve of men you’d find more murderers than at the edge of the bell-curve for women, and you’d expect to find those murderers in situations that are emotionally fraught.
It helps explain a number of historical practices, including dueling
Why have men in many cultures worldwide been willing to fight each other to the death over an insult? Why have intricate warrior cultures and systems of etiquette had to develop to keep armed men from murdering each other in the street with the slightest provocation, so many times and in so many different cultures?
This would make sense if the experience of shame is, on average, more intense for men. It would be more likely for them to experience what feels like unbearable shame; such powerful shame that it would make a fight to the death preferable to feeling more of it.
It helps explain incels
I don’t know a lot about incels, but it doesn’t take much looking to realize that it is a group of young men, a movement if you can call it that, deeply rooted in self-hatred caused by perceived rejection. Culturally in the US, men are expected to approach women sexually and romantically, and so men end up absorbing most of the sexual and romantic rejection that occurs, at least initially. When hetero sex doesn’t happen, it is almost always because a woman rejected a man. When a heterosexual romantic relationship doesn’t happen, it is almost always because a woman rejected a man. And so on. (Clearly, there are cultural issues as to why women don’t approach men as often sexually and romantically, including the murder one mentioned earlier)
Rejection is painful for everyone, and it would make sense that if men experienced their emotions intensely, and as difficult to manage, then that would also extend to the pain of rejection. Given that pain and the fear of that pain, and our cultural conventions as to how the heterosexual folks are expected to interact sexually, and a movement of incels as we see now is a reasonable outcome.
What this means for positive masculinity
Any positive masculinity should take into account the intensity of men’s emotional life, as well as the general lack of cultural resources men have to deal with that intensity. There have to be robust resources, traditions, stories and ways of life that enable men to navigate the intensity of our emotions, and not fall back on dueling or murder or becoming incels or repressing ourselves or refusing to communicate or seeking to dominate others in order to manage our emotional lives.
I personally think that this will be helped by a change in understanding among men – essentially a reversal of the cliche that women are emotional and men are rational, when on average the reverse seems to be true. Or, at least, men’s bell curve of emotional experience trends stronger than we might have guessed. These powerful, unacknowledged and un-managed emotions can be profoundly dangerous and destructive, as even a cursory glance at our society can show.
A big part of positive masculinity will likely have to be positive emotional masculinity, or a way for men to be emotionally expressive, and emotionally literate, that is at the same time recognizably masculinity, and not entirely divorced from the last ten thousand years.
So, you know, easy.