There’s a lot of junk propagated in the name of manhood and masculinity. All the old irrelevant cultural expectations, juvenile machismo and chauvinist patriarchalism. You Must Like Sports. You Must Like Tools. You Must Be Good At Fixing Things. You Must Drink Beer In Vast Quantities. You Must Win The Girl. You Must Turn Everything Into A Competition. You Must Keep Your Woman In Her Place.
What does liking sports have to do with the possession of a Y chromosome? Why should my ability to repair my car reflect on my masculinity? What does my capacity for alcohol signify except that I drink to excess? Why does being a Real Man apparently have to involve domination and suppression of women?
And why, why, why should my masculinity be threatened by capable womanhood?
Some of this is cultural. Americans seem to have much more of a gender-based division of labour in their expectations. When Heather and I were getting married, I tried to ease the burden of things that she had to do by phoning the florist about our flowers. I knew what we wanted; Heather was busy with 89 other tasks. No problem, right?
Wrong. Bafflingly, the response I got was universally negative. As in “I don’t want to talk to you.” Unhelpful attitudes, in some cases ridiculously so. My wife-to-be phones the same florists – instant warmth and cooperation. Apparently I was trespassing in a “women only” zone.
America has a lot of unmarked single-sex zones. Cars, sports fandom, any repair work, grilling/barbecue; these are masculine zones. Flowers, weddings in general, the kitchen, childcare, cleaning; these are feminine. You will get weird looks if you cross the boundary.
This is why American barbecue grills are such replacement ovens. Men aren’t allowed in the kitchen, either because of exclusion by women or by the disparagement as “unmanly” of their masculine peers.
The pernicious popular American notion of the “man card” plays right into this nonsense. The Man Card, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is the metaphorical certification of True Manhood; the idea being that if you do “unmanly” things, your Man Card can be revoked, or certainly challenged.
It’s all junk, though. There’s nothing about the Y chromosome that fatalistically determines that you will like football, hunting, fishing and shooting, be able to repair things and be incapable of boiling an egg. If you need even a metaphorical card to prove you’re a man, you probably aren’t.
Apparently my masculinity was forged in a different fire.
I don’t like sports, in general. Never really have; as a child I was probably undiagnosed borderline dyspraxic, so I was never any good at them. And It’s difficult to like something you utterly suck at.
My wife’s the sports fan in our household. I’ve learned enough that I can follow her conversations about baseball, but I did that because I love her, not because I love baseball.
I don’t hunt. I have to get up really early in the morning six days a week for my job; the thought of voluntarily doing it on a day when I don’t have to isn’t that pleasant. Also, I work outside in the heat and the bugs; why would I want to do that on a day when I don’t have to just on the off-chance that I could make a deer go boom?
I don’t fish, either. I’m a redhead, with a redhead’s natural tendency to burn in the woods on a cloudy day. I wear so much sunscreen that I can taste it for most of the evening some days, long after I’ve got home and showered. The thought of sitting for hours on end out on the highly-reflective water with nothing between me and that fiery orb but God’s blue heaven is actually painful.
And I don’t shoot. I don’t hunt for the aforementioned reasons, and I have personal issues as a believer with guns for self-defence. That seems to take away the two main reasons for investing the time and money in learning to shoot.
I’m not particularly good at repairing things. I can do a few things on the car if I need to, but I have little interest in it for its own sake. Cooking is more fun.
I think machismo is juvenile and insecure, and patriarchalism is one of the results of the Fall.
So I don’t really fit much of the American masculine stereotype. And yet I’m fully secure in my masculine identity. I have, in my mind, nothing to prove.
People have asked me why this should be.
Part of it is that I channel a different masculine archetype. America loves the Man of Action: Superman, the Lone Ranger, the high school athlete, the military man. Britain tends more to the cerebral: Sherlock Holmes is a hero because of his brain, not his brawn. Robin Hood was a man of wit and skill more than muscle and strength; that role was taken by Little John.
In Greek mythological terms, I always preferred Theseus as a hero over Hercules. The wily Odysseus was in my personal pantheon of childhood heroes, not the arrogant and petulant Achilles.
In Lord of the Rings terms, I wanted to be Gandalf or Aragorn rather than the straightforward warrior Boromir. In Star Wars, Yoda or Obi-Wan.
In short, I gravitate to the Man of Lore, not the Man of Action. And even the heroes that go both ways I tend to interpret with a heavy weighting in that direction.
But I’ve come to realise that this is only part of the answer to why I can be so secure in my masculinity when surrounded by a culture that doesn’t define manhood in those terms.
CS Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has a little exchange in it between Caspian and Ramandu’s daughter which serves as an apt illustration of why this should be.
Caspian says “In the world my friends come from, there is a story. In it, the prince must kiss the princess in order to dissolve the enchantment.”
“Ah, but here it is different,” Ramandu’s daughter replies. “Here he must dissolve the enchantment before he can kiss the princess.”
Most of us men seem to unconsciously assume that we are in the story of the Sleeping Beauty. That the act of kissing the princess (winning the heart of the woman, as it were) is what dissolves the enchantment of lies we believe about our masculinity. In some cases, it may be that it does. But not in mine.
I had to dissolve the enchantment before I could kiss the princess.
I had a period of a few short months through which I was taken on an inner journey into the depths of my own sense of masculine identity, to confront the lies I had believed about what it is and where it comes from.
I had to deconstruct all of the lies that “Real Men do thus-and-so” and come to the realisation that culture really shouldn’t be defining my sense of manhood at all.
As long as I let some physical trait or thing I do define my masculinity, I am held hostage to it. If my sense of masculinity is rooted in liking sports, or motor repair, or beer consumption, or getting the girl, or some mistaken sense of positional authority vis-à-vis my wife, I will be insecure and react to anything that undermines those things as a threat.
These things are not the roots of manhood, despite what advertisers and our culture would have us believe. My masculinity is rooted in the image of God, just like my wife’s femininity. How that expresses itself is as diverse as the full spectrum of human personality and culture.
And having dissolved the enchantment of lies about my manhood, I was then able to kiss the princess.
However, let the reader understand that I don’t mean “princess” in the vapid Disney sense but in the powerful mediæval sense in which all independent rulers, no matter their individual title, were “princes”.
So I find nothing remotely threatening to in the fact that my wife is at least as capable as I am. Why on earth should I?
I’m more secure in my manhood than to be disurbed by the idea of eating pink ice cream (ridiculous as it sounds, I’ve had friends raise eyebrows and treat it like it’s unusual). Are we really that insecure, men?
When I paint a picture of flowers, I paint manly flowers, because my painting (including subject matter) flows out of who I am rather than determining it. I am free to pick up my wife’s handbag to bring it to her without diminishing my masculinity, because it is defined from within, not by actions. I’m free of all that immature crap.
In short, I don’t need a Man Card, because God says I don’t have anything to prove in that regard. If I can stretch the point a little, it’s rather like the second temptation of Christ, to throw himself down from the Temple. If the first temptation (stones into bread) was about whether Jesus was going to depend on God or himself for his being, the second was about proving it. Ok, you’re trusting God, are you? Prove He cares. Prove He’s really got your back.
Jesus answered: “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to a foolish test'”.
I know He cares for me and I don’t need to prove it.
It’s rather like that with our sense of manhood. My masculinity is rooted in His image. He says I’m a man, and I don’t need to prove it.
In the Sixties, women burned their bras as an expression of liberation from the oppressive and lopsided expectations placed on their gender. It may be time we men do the same with our man cards. It is, after all, the same sort of thing.
If you’re not a man without a card that says so (even a metaphorical one), then you aren’t a man just because you have one.