Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
––Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”
I’ve identified as a feminist man for almost as long as I’ve had any idea what feminism was. I think women should given the same opportunities as men; I think the analysis and deconstruction of gender is a positive thing, I am critical of our tendency to lean very heavily on the unsubstantiated importance of biological differences; I think people who choose not to play a strong gender role in their life, or to play multiple, deserve as much respect as anyone else; I think sexual violence towards women is a big problem that needs to stop.
But I’m over criticism of “masculinity,” whether or not it is prefixed by “traditional” or “toxic”. It is too vague to be meaningful, and yet simultaneously aggressive toward half the human race. Maybe there is some secret feminist definition of that word that does not boil down to criticizing men in general––whether or not there is, words continue to carry their associations. Just as almost all English before fifty years ago would use the word “he” as a pronoun when the gender was unknown, it makes the reader think of a man, and thereby marginalizes non-men. The same thing is going on here––when a bunch of negative qualities are bundled together under the heading “masculinity”, well, a woman certainly isn’t the mental example I’m using to comprehend them.
Please, continue to criticize aggression as a problem-solving technique, emotion hiding, physical dominance and sexual promiscuity as status symbols, and whatever other qualities you have in that bag. I would just prefer you use words like these instead of “masculinity”. Because to me, an attack on masculinity is an attack specifically on me and my brothers, and continues to be even after I go digging to find that we do not embody the qualities under attack. It still makes me feel defensive, and feel more and more like feminism is my enemy.
Masculine qualities are incredibly valuable to me, sometimes in fact essential to ethical behavior. The masculine is what I summon when I have had a hard day, but need to show up tomorrow even though it all the signs say it’s going to be just as hard. When I am feeling hurt, but someone needs my support, my masculine mobilizes the strength to make their problems more important than mine for a few moments. Masculinity protects me and people I care about from being taken advantage of, permissive of just enough aggression to hold a strong boundary. Masculinity keeps me healthy; it’s where I find my love of exertion, where deep satisfaction is found in hard work. I think all of these qualities, in proper proportion, are worth nurturing, not criticizing.
We want people capable of playing a healthy masculine role––we want to go inside masculinity and take apart the bad stuff, and keep, even develop the good stuff. Which turns out to have nothing to do with men––we’re just talking about what it means to be a good person, regardless of gender, which is the kind of thing I feel like feminism could get behind. So next time you take out “masculinity” for a whipping, please, for all of us, take a little time to investigate precisely what human qualities you are criticizing. Then we can all take steps to improve ourselves without feeling like enemies.