Sometimes it’s hard being a man.
According to sex educator Charlie Glickman, one of men’s key problems is how they are ‘constructed’ socially to always be trying to fit in the ‘act like a man box’. If only men could free themselves from the constraints of ‘hegemonic masculinity’, then everything would be ok.
I am not so sure.
‘One of the primary reasons that boys and men gay bash and bully queers is that they need to perform masculinity in order to show the world that they’re in the Box. And since very few guys can always be in the Box for their entire lives, the trick is to act like you are in order to cover for any lapses. In effect, the performance of masculinity requires constant vigilance to make sure that nobody sees any missteps. Since the logic of the box is an either/or, you’re either all the way in or you’re all the way out.
I agree with Glickman that gender is very much a ‘performance’. Or rather I agree with Judith Butler that gender is a performance within discourse. I expect Judith would agree to an extent with Charlie, too, that there is an element of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ acted out by men, especially when in groups of men together. But what Butler might point out, that Glickman fails to do, is just how ‘homosexual’ and ‘homosocial’ men can be when they are trying so hard to prove their heterosexuality. ‘Gay bashing’ is the extreme, cartoon version of how men prove their ‘straightness’, the one, it seems most loved by gay rights activists, showing as it does just how ‘homophobic’ straight men can be. But in fact, it is much much more common for men to ‘prove’ their heterosexuality by doing things like this:
Or they might, like the lads mentioned in this article in the Independent, get drunk, get on a bus and start masturbating, themselves and each other. For fun!
I genuinely do not see the picture here, that Charlie Glickman is trying to paint, of this strictly defined, heterosexual ‘man box’ where you are either in or you’re out and you are not allowed any ‘lapses’. If we take into account the ‘homo-erotic horseplay’, as Mark Simpson terms it, so popular in football and rugby teams, the army, student fraternities and other male environments, heterosexuality looks to me like one long ‘lapse’ from the ‘man box’.
Research conducted last year by Dr Eric Anderson and colleagues at Bath University showed that for young men, in this case students at UK universities and FE colleges, same-sex kissing and shows of affection is not frowned upon at all, but is considered the norm. As this article about the research says: ‘forget homophobia’.
So the idea of this ‘man box’ that men have to be all the way in or ‘all the way out’ – i.e. a ‘fag’ or a ‘pussy’ just doesn’t seem familiar to me.
Charlie Glickman is American though, and ‘macho’ homophobic culture does seem to be quite prevalent in the states. But this just seems to mean that in America, straight men appear even more camp, even more ‘homosocial’ and even more ‘into’ the idea of, and often the practices of homosexuality than we are in the UK.
Going back to Judith Butler, who is also American, and so her theories of ‘gender trouble’ come from an American context, she had this to say about how straight men in the military can both ‘repudiate’ and show a very strong preoccupation with homosexuality:
‘When they were debating gays in the military on television in the United States a senator got up and laughed, and he said, “I must say, I know very little about homosexuality. I think I know less about homosexuality than about anything else in the world.” And it was a big announcement of his ignorance of homosexuality. Then he immediately launched into a homophobic diatribe which suggested that he thinks that homosexuals only have sex in public bathrooms, that they are all skinny, that they’re all male, etc, etc. So what he actually has is a very aggressive and fairly obsessive relationship to the homosexuality that of course he knows nothing about. At that moment you realise that this person who claims to have nothing to do with homosexuality is in fact utterly preoccupied by it.
I do not think that these exclusions are indifferent. Some would disagree with me on this and say: “Look, some people are just indifferent. A heterosexual can have an indifferent relationship to homosexuality. It doesn’t really matter what other people do. I haven’t thought about it much, it neither turns me on nor turns me off. I’m just sexually neutral in that regard.” I don’t believe that. I think that crafting a sexual position, or reciting a sexual position, always involves becoming haunted by what’s excluded. And the more rigid the position, the greater the ghost, and the more threatening it is in some way’.
For me, although Glickman and Butler are both talking about what is in effect the same thing: straight men ‘performing’ heterosexual masculinity in order to reinforce it, they talk about it in such different ways that it seems like they are discussing two completely different things. I am much more drawn to Butler’s idea of people being ‘haunted’ by what is excluded from their own attachment to a specific sexual position/sexual identity.
Glickman’s article was in part inspired by this research reported in Time magazine, about how masculinity is a ‘delicate flower’. It includes studies whereby men were asked to braid hair and then given the choice of doing a puzzle or punching a bag, and they punched the bag. I find this kind of ‘behavioural’ psychology particularly annoying to be honest, because it makes out that how people behave in laboratory type conditions has some meaningful relationship to ‘real life’. I might feel like punching a bag if some psychologist in a white coat got me to braid some fake hair. The participants in another study were also given scenarios in which they were asked to explain acts of violence by men and women. Men tended to say that men might be violent as a result of external factors, whereas women and men tended to say that women might be violent due to something to do with their ‘character’.
But this does not fit with how I see the constant glut of writing by feminists about how men commit sexual assault and sexual harassment against women, simply because they are ‘men’.
Indeed, Glickman’s own article states:
‘The Box is one of main reasons why men harass women on the street and why catcalling and violence tends to escalate when men are in groups. Since the Box is hierarchical as well as performative, the guy at the bottom of the heap is at risk of being cast out. So each guy has to compete with the others in order to not be the one who’s outside the Box.’
Whilst Glickman is referring to a gender construct: ‘the box’ he is still relying on the idea that men are somehow fated to harass women, simply by being in groups of men. Groups of ‘unenlightened’ men that is.
And there’s the rub.
According to Glickman:
‘I reject the entire notion of the Box. I’ve learned to pick and choose what aspects of masculinity work for me and which ones don’t, since some of the things in the box are positive or at least dependent on one’s relationship to them. In effect, I’ve queered the Box but to the guy who’s stuck in it, the only place he can imagine me being is outside the Box’.
So despite the fact he says he does not believe in ‘real men’ or in fact in ‘the box’ as an actual thing, he is making a clear delineation between the men ‘stuck in the box’ and men like him who have learned how to ‘perform masculinity’ in a healthy, positive way. If he is not constructing an idea of a ‘real man’ he is at least constructing the idea of a ‘good man’ or a ‘healthy man’. And this needs an ‘other’ – an unhealthy man, a bad man, an unenlightened man. It is a ‘therapeutic’ version of performing masculinity that seems to be so popular in America at the moment. It also verges on the evangelical sometimes: if only they could see the light, like me, they could be ‘saved’ from the constraints of the ‘man box’.
Talking of bad men leads me to the quote that Glickman ends his article with, by Melissa McEwan:
‘I don’t have slack to offer men. What I have is the alternative to a life spent swallowing one’s emotions and feeling a constant anxious insecurity where one’s contended self-esteem should be—and that seems a lot more valuable to me than “slack.”’
Melissa McEwan is known for misandrist gems like this:
‘Rape culture is the objectification of women, which is part of a dehumanizing process that renders consent irrelevant’.
She thinks women are so objectified in culture, by men, that women are ‘dehumanised’ to the point where they cannot consent to sex. This is a variation on the theme of ‘all men are rapists’.
So it is no surprise to me she won’t cut men any ‘slack’.
I think Charlie Glickman should, though. I don’t see the vast majority of men, in the picture he paints of the ‘act like a man box’. I think masculinity is changing, and it is discourses like his, that are actually the ‘reactionary’ ones in many ways. Discourses that involve clinging on to an idea of men as macho, homophobic, misogynist and potentially violent. And also that involve the contradictory notion that (heterosexual) men are simultaneously ‘privileged’ and ‘constrained’ by dominant models of masculinity.
Glickman and McEwan see themselves as the enlightened ones, the teachers who can show men how to change their relationship with masculinity. But they, in my view, are the ones stuck in a box.