Positive Masculinity and Feelings

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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.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Bassem Youssef

I haven’t done one of these in way too long, but one name has been at the forefront for a while now: Bassem Youssef. The snapshot – he was wanted for arrest by the authorities in an authoritarian regime (Egypt) for wearing a hat mocking the President, and when he turned himself in, he was wearing the hat.


Before we continue, here is a manly picture of Bassem:

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Bassem Youssef is an Egyptian comedian and political commentator as well as writer, producer, physician and freaking surgeon. He’s like Jon Stewart, if Jon was born in a dictatorship, smarter and more accomplished, while also facing threats to his life as a matter of course throughout his career. (And I love Jon Stewart. But for real.)

Lots of racists and ideologues in the US like to whine about “free speech” and “censorship” whenever someone calls them out for their shitty ideas, but Youssef has had to deal with actual threats to his freedom of speech and actual censorship. In response to this, he has remained relentless funny.

It’s one thing to respond to a violent, repressive regime with violence. It’s another thing entirely to respond to a violent, repressive regime with jokes on television. One thing that Youssef highlights to me is the emptiness of what so many comedians in the United States complain about in terms of ‘political correctness’, whining about how hard it is to do their jobs now because they can’t make as many trans-phobic or ableist jokes or whatever. I look at someone like Bassem Youssef, in all of his manly glory, and it puts those complaints in an entirely different light.

It makes me wonder whether actual humor (and not just vapid alt-right trolling, or mere snark) can insulate us against being radicalized, or reverting to nativism, or falling under the sway of demagogues.

For his combination of courage, intelligence, and humor, Bassem Youssef is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

For more information, you can start with this interview through The Economist from last year:


Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Terry Crews

Terry Crews just got more points at character creation than the rest of us.

A few weeks ago, Terry Crews, bodybuilder and actor, testified before Congress in support of a bill of rights for sexual assault survivors. He did this as a victim of sexual assault. Here, it makes some sense to add a manly picture of Terry Crews – and there are no pictures of Terry Cews that are not manly. Let’s go crazy, though:

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Terry Crews is funny, charismatic, seemingly kind and affable, and also 6’3” of raw, certified Grade-A beef. He’s action-figure muscular; a “force of nature” indeed. You do not pull his man card, his man card pulls you. He is not the person you think of when you think of “victim of sexual assault”, even if you specify that you are talking about a male victim of sexual assault. He is who you think of when someone says, “Hey what if He-Man was recast as black?”

So, one lesson: anyone can be a victim of sexual assault. Assume nothing. Which was, of course, part of Crews’ point in testifying before Congress. Most people who see that testimony have to take a moment and think, “Oh.” Maybe even really think.

One of the few valid-seeming claims of the Men’s Rights movement is that sexual assault of men is generally ignored, even when we are trying as a society to understand and od right by female victims of sexual assault. If we have a problem with women not reporting sexual assault, we have a much larger problem with men not doing so. The same is true with domestic violence – male victims of domestic violence are genereally not taken seriously, even though there are almost certainly millions of such victims.

Toxic masculinity hurts everyone, including men, because it is toxc masculinity that says to men that seuxal assault is just “boys being boys”, or a joke, or something you should get over, or something you should be ashamed to tell anyone about. Terry Crews could pull my arms off, but he describes being humiliated into silence about what happened to him.  He is a popular, recognizeable public figure – imagine what it is like for someone who is not enormously strong and enormously famous, for the millions of victims we never hear from. What keeps them silent? For the most part, I would say it is toxic masculinity.

What can we contrast with that toxicity? The ongoing constructive work of defining and nurturing positive masculinity. In this case, we have Terry Crews using his position of influence for the greater good in two ways. First, he is speaking to Congress on behalf of the millions who will never have a moment in front of a Senate or House committee. Second, he is demonstrating to other men that speaking out is the right thing. In amongst the thoughts men might have, that they don’t want to be seen as weak, or a bitch, or a victim, there is also this kind of ray of light – we would all like to be like Terry Crews.

Be like Terry Crews. Encourage your friends to be like Terry Crews. Support men who are like Terry Crews.


Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Philly Starbucks Guys

A lot of the articles about Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson haven’t used their names, so I didn’t feel like putting them in the title, but I imagine many of you reading this know who I am talking about. Back in April, two black men entered a Starbucks in Philadelphia (near where I live) and asked to use the bathroom. They were told that the bathroom was only for paying customers, so they sat down to wait for a friend to join them. Then the manager called the police and asked that they be arrested for trespassing. They were later released when Starbucks did not press charges.

This story hit a nerve, in large part because it is another example of how just existing while black brings suspicion from white people and unwanted contact with the police.

The response from Starbucks was pretty decent, but that isn’t the focus of this reflection. What I found really interesting was how the two men responded to the incident and what followed. There was some media attention, and they both behaved with a lot of dignity. Ultimately, there was a settlement agreement with the city of Philadelphia. The two men took $1 for themselves, and had the city donate $200,000 to set up a foundation to help high school kids who want to become entrepeneurs.

This is what positive masculinity looks like. Two young men are profiled and then unjustly harrassed and arrested by the police. This is hardly the first time they’ve experienced racism They have a chance to profit from the situation, but instead they make a statement, and take the opportunity to make life better for kids they’ll never meet. Starbucks has a chance to do better, and hopefully will. Philadelphia has a chance to do better, and hopefully will. And high school kids have a chance to learn to become entrepeneurs, and hopefully will.