Updated on Monday 14/11/2022 – Please as this is unpublished work, mention me as the author if you are using part of this blog post elsewhere.
I was touched and pleasantly surprised watching a Netflix documentary today. The documentary is called “Beyond Men and Masculinity” and it is a 2020 production.
In order to better explain how I define ‘psychological masculinity’, I define it here as how both men and women have internalised patriarchy, the ideas of what power is and the need for a very hierarchical structure that holds everything together. I believe that as we evolve as a species the need for collaboration and co-creation becomes ever more important where very stereotypical understanding about what power really means might actually be holding progress back.
As an explanation to this point, I want to refer to an organisational consulting experience I had years ago where I was training a management team how to work together. As I was trying to explain how leadership is the ability to create leaders, I had the person who held the privilege of the leadership position in the organisation (and apparently who had the most difficult relationship with everyone else as he was remote and was keeping sure he was the leader through creating distance) had the following view on what leadership is:
“Well, a leader is born. It is an inate characteristic that I was born with. As far as I can remember even as children, I always told other boys what to do and I was running around ordering everyone. That is something that comes naturally to me”.
I must confess as a young trainer at the time, I was shocked but didn’t quite challenge the perception of leadership which stems rather than from nature (a quality we are born with), from nurture (a skill we learn and develop). It might well be a result of how this white strong and fit boy was seen by parents and teachers, more admired for how well-adjusted this boy was to expectations and to what was considered stereotypically alpha-male. These were assumed by the environment he was brought up as the best qualities to lead or rather boss people around. It is a concept of leadership brought into the world from an internalised view of patriarchy and what strength is. Thus leadership, stereotypical psychological masculinity and sometimes bullying are unwittingly grouped together and can go unchallenged.
However, the ideas around the structures that are required to keep everything together is changing and I think we can see it everywhere with the dysfunction caused by regimes which are held by usually older men who are clinging into power for many years.
How is psychological masculinity related with privileges and stereotypical views of society while growing up?
I will let a different client explain better than myself the reasons why this felt very relevant and appropriate.
I identify as a cis-gender male. What this means is that when I came out of my mother’s womb, people saw a baby boy because I had a penis. And after 44 years of living on this earth that is still how I see myself (i.e. as a man with a penis) – thus I am cis-gender.
I don’t mention sexual orientation in this post because sex, gender, gender expression and sexual orientation are currently viewed (and rightly so) as seperate in order to be better explored. We tend to make generalisations and assumptions based on our biases, so I will ask you to just stay with what is being written and avoid “interpretations” (easier said than done).
What does being born a baby boy means in a partiarchical, misogynistic and alpha-male worshipping society?
Being born a baby boy at least in my culture meant that I had to be tough, self-reliant, individualistic, strong, not depend on my mother (or women) and take my father’s competitiveness on the chin. This usually is followed by certain expectations like not expressing certain emotions, exposing vulnerability and so on.
That is a great example of how both men and women create together what masculinity is and what isn’t and creates a lot of unnecessary suffering for a lot of people in this world. You see privilege sometimes comes at a great cost.
Here is this boy’s experience as I can remember it now (using present tense):
I remember being around 5 or 6. I think it is before going to school. I find that I like playing with dolls because it is very creative. I find that I can imagine people saying things when playing with dolls and I can relate to that. They look beautiful and they can talk to each other. However my parents (and other parents and kids) don’t want me to play with dolls. It upsets them for some reason. I think it has to do with the fact that I seem to be playing more with girls than boys. It might be more than that. I should be playing more with boys who seem to prefer chasing a ball around the playground. I don’t find that very interesting though.
Fast-forward to another memory:
I have wounded myself with an old rusty nail in my grandmother’s house. It has gone through the forehead – only a few millimetres from hurting the bone of my skull as the doctors said. I cannot watch TV because the doctors said that the radiation coming from it might harm me. I have to be alone for many hours of the day and keep myself entertained. I need to find something to fill my time. My brother who is six years older than me plays with tiny soldiers. (My parents allow that – it is not shameful for them as dolls seem to be). Somehow I try to imagine myself as a general commanding soldiers to fight against each other. I don’t like it that much but other alternatives are not available (or have been taken away).
Being a Gestalt therapist and a coach, I tend to see social patterns and structures. And I find that those two events show a lot about our western society and how it creates gender socialisation which in turn creates inequality, grandiosity, violence and separation.
Here are some observations I would like to make now on as I will be using my consulting hat to address some of the issues that we have been discussing with the client.
- Relational games are seen as girls’ or female activities (tea parties, cooking, sometimes teaching, playing with dolls and even using crayons used to be discouraged from boys at least as I was growing up).
- Games that involve domination or some kind of dominance are seen as male activities. Even team sports tend to focus on the leader and “who plays the game best”.
- Competition is encouraged for boys
- Cooperation is encouraged for girls
- Identifying with one of two groups based on a gender binary is appropriate and parents encourage that identification because they don’t want their kid to “suffer” (being excluded from other kids their own gender and being shamed by teachers)
- Violence is appropriate for men/boys
- Vulnerability is appropriate for women/girls
- Comforting a boy or a man by touch is inappropriate (especially if you are a boy or a man). You can’t show affection to another boy/man. My assumption here is probably that homoerotic terror is just too great and men are too vulnerable for that. [If you see the documentary I mentioned in the beginning of this post – that might explain the #nohomo tag that is used on twitter to allow affectionate responses from a man to another man.]
Back to memory lane and fast forward to another memory when I was in high-school...
I am part of the choir. I used to enjoy the rehearsals more because it was a networking and connecting experience. I am not enjoying that anymore – especially because it keeps me from enjoying myself with other students from my class as they are having fun and sharing experiences and seem to be connecting more as a class than they used to. I will start skipping some rehearsals to enjoy myself more.
Unfortunately, I just ran into my choir tutor during a break. And what comment does he make? “What are these womanly things you are doing skipping classes like that?” (apparently that is a way to dismiss someone in the culture I was brought up). I dropped out without a goodbye (and I still feel quite justified in doing so).
I think I could go on this subject for many pages but I will stop here. I will finish with what felt like a short poem inspired from the documentary and the therapist there (Terry Real) that touched me.
To all men:
You have a ton of feelings
Anger is the most accessible as this was deemed more manly than the rest
Some anger is the result of oppressing your sadness, your fear and your pain
Know that having those feelings and expressing those feelings breaks the rules
But try to remember: it takes courage to be vulnerable
And that makes you more of a man – not less
I want you to feel the power of the circle of all men
I want you to feel the power of community with other men
Real community from the Power of the Sacred Heart
And I want you to imagine what miracles that can bring.