International Men’s Day. A holiday created primarily so us male identifying folk would stop bitching about the injustice of a lack of counterparts to International Women’s Day. We did it guys! We finally have one single, solitary day where we can celebrate our iron grasp over society and our subjugation of the fairer sex. O frabjous day! Okay, let’s take one step back and define what it is to be a man.
There are only 4 things I know to be true about manhood:
We must be swift as a coursing river.
With all the force of a great typhoon.
With all the strength of a raging fire.
Mysterious as the dark side of the moon.
Everything else is moot. Those are the scant requirements of manhood and I’m sure we’re fulfilling the Captain Planet out of them, right? RIGHT?
Seriously, how did this idea permeate society that your gender could be earned through moulding yourself into an archetype? Be a man, grow some balls, man up, that kind of thing. What does that oft spouted rhetoric even mean? To keep your mouth shut and hold in your pain? To put your head down and get to work? To define yourself through a culture of aggression and dominance? How has our perception of manhood become so rigid over the years? Men come in all shapes, sizes and flavours. Saying that specific aspects define manhood is as dumb as saying the only type of jelly beans are buttered popcorn Jelly Belly beans. Love that sugary popcorn fellow all you want, but if you’re myopic enough to negate all the other flavours you’re missing out on a world of possibilities. There are infinitely more types of men in the world than Jelly Belly flavours and there are 50 of those bastards.
I’ve previously described my childhood self as possessing the disposition of a marshmallow. I was a softie, but a sweetie. I was energetic and cheerful and made friends easily. I often got scared or hurt and compensated by crying. I loved hugs and soft toys. I wet the bed. I played with my imagination in lieu of a bat or ball. I was fat, slow and an easy target. I was bullied, to which I had no solution, so instead I would cry. It was my outlet and I used it. I had nothing else. Friends or older kids would come to my defence. I was called a wuss, a wimp and I felt helpless. The more I was teased, the worse I felt about myself. The worse I felt about myself, the more I’d cry. The more I’d cry, the more they’d tease me. This system wasn’t working.
I surmised that if crying would only exacerbate my punishment, then it needed to be the first thing to go. I took their advice and manned up, grew some balls. I refused to cry and instead just took it. If I was hurt or insulted I’d just swallow my tears and remain stoic. If they laughed at me, I’d laugh with them. I’d laugh at myself, take the fun out of it for them. The more I was hurt, the harder I’d laugh. The harder I laughed, the less interest they had in teasing me. I’d developed my first real defence mechanism.
This new system worked. Whenever I was hurt I’d ignore the pain and laugh instead. Lather, rinse, repeat. Then my teenage years hit, angst hit. Feelings welled up and I’d push them down. I had too many feelings and needed an outlet. I found drama, performance. I found community. Still, it wasn’t enough. Whenever I didn’t have company, community I withdrew. I used anime, video games and books as escapism. I played the fool in public and avoided my emotions any way I could while alone. Outwardly I pretended not to care, to brush things off. Inwardly I listened to more Vertical Horizon than I’m comfortable admitting.
I got a little older and humour still worked for me. Performance still worked for me. Alcohol helped more and more. I had good friends, but I didn’t want to drop my guard and appear weak. I drank a lot, often. I drank enough that I started to wonder if it was part of my identity. Sobering as the thought was, it didn’t stop the drinking. I was smart and should’ve graduated with top grades. Instead I coasted through, slacked off through my first year of uni and finished with around a B- average.
Here’s the thing about the way we frequently socialise gender in our society: Females are taught to share their feelings, males are taught to find solutions. In my communications degree, there was a massive gender imbalance. Perhaps a 3:1 female:male ratio. The females in my course vented their emotions and they outnumbered us. The more I was exposed to this behaviour, the more it rubbed off on me. I realised that feelings were something that could be shared and sometimes the action of vocalising them was relief enough. I did it more often. I felt better. I talked with my good friends in whole new ways. I was open, vulnerable, and already firm bonds grew stronger. I felt happier and the effects spread. I realised how much I enjoyed what I was doing at uni and my grades felt the difference. I still drank, but it was less desperately, more amicably. I graduated with a scholarship and direction.
Things have changed all around. I don’t work in radio any more, I don’t live in New Zealand any more and I’m exponentially happier than I ever was. The more I’ve opened up to those around me, the closer people have come. I find a lot of my close friends tend to be female, because of the honest vulnerability those relationships encourage. The good male friendships I’ve cultivated are those that’ve follow a similar pattern. It’s rare that I get truly angry these days. If I get emotionally murky it’s not hard to find a willing helping hand to bring me back.
It’s International Men’s Day, so let’s talk about some things. It’s obvious we need to. The male suicide rate is staggeringly high in comparison with that of females. Rape is an abhorrent act and there’s an overwhelming gender bias as to who’s doing it most. There’s so much conflict worldwide, but which gender holds substantially more positions of power? C’mon guys. Can we talk about these things? Can we perhaps sit down and discuss instead of lashing out? If we’re scared, stressed, lonely or frustrated, why can’t we just say that? Have we bought into too many tales of remorseless gunslingers and unflappable knights that we’re unable to see the reality of the situation? We’re killing ourselves, we’re killing each other and forcing horrifying trauma on far too many. We don’t need to act up or out if things aren’t going our way. We’ve got to learn to appreciate wisdom instead of thoughtlessness. If your heroes are defined by what they take instead of what they give, perhaps you’ve got to adjust your parameters.
I’d tell you to man up and grow some balls, but let’s think about that for a second. Testicles produce sperm, which create life. If you’re gonna grow some balls, use them to create. If you’ve got feelings then write them down and analyse why you feel that way. Discuss them with someone and take ownership over the fact that they’re a part of you. Learn to respect vulnerability as a strength rather than a weakness and maybe we can make it off this planet without destroying ourselves in the process.