(Disclaimer: I am amateur when it comes to gender studies, so please forgive any over-generalizations I make about masculinity or femininity. Constructive feedback to that end is welcome)
Back in my film school days, I took a course on Stanley Kubrick. It was easily my favorite class, as it is rare that you can watch the entirety of a director’s filmography in one semester. Kubrick was a complicated man who made films on a wide range of topics. From Spartacus and the Paths of War to Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick seemed to revel in an exploration of the effects of violence on the human spirit. But there is something more there, possibly best revealed by the director’s ultimate work, Eyes Wide Shut. A bizarre film about a man obsessing over his wife’s sexuality, the film brings into focus that it is not violence Kubrick is interested in as much as what does it mean to be a man. Not what does it mean to be human, what does it mean to a man. It makes sense then that question is often being asked over the backdrop of war or crime. For Kubrick, manhood was a mix of the ability to assert dominance while also being able to balance the pressures of domesticity. What is The Shining if not the fallout of a man who has cracked under the pressure of not being able to produce on a level that will allow him to care for his family properly?
Film scholars talk a great deal about the male gaze. It is, in short, the view that objectifies. Men look at the world as something to be conquered and owned. Easily 90% of the film and television produced is done through the male lens, both literally and figuratively. Men make up the bulk of the directors and producers in the industry and even when women are behind the camera, they are often still challenged to capture the male gaze. Many film scholars argue as to whether or not it is even possible to capture the female gaze through the inherently voyeuristic and violating instrument that is the film camera.
I don’t mean to bore you with film theory. I bring this up because I am thinking about my own maleness and fragility of masculinity as a concept. When I see the laughable crusades of men’s rights activist and the claims to victimhood that men make when they can’t get away with something that a woman does, I wonder at times if the world can much longer survive the male ego.
I was compelled by an LA Times opinion piece that I read recently. The author, Melissa B. Warnke argues that the common denominator in the recent violence that seems to be plaguing us with greater regularity is not race, religion, or culture. It is gender. Whether it is police killing suspects, people targeting police, or violence between neighbors, the perpetrator is always male. Warnke offers up several theories as to why this might be:
There are myriad theories as to why men are nearly 50 times more likely to commit murder than women. Some neuroscientists say testosterone is directly connected to aggression and competition, attitudes that are correlated with violence. Some evolutionary psychologists say that more aggressive men have historically been able to procure more women, food and land. Some psychotherapists have argued that men are raised to suppress vulnerable emotions, which leads them to become overwhelmed and express pain physically rather than verbally. Some sociologists, meanwhile, have found a correlation between violent videogame play and increased aggression in the real world, while other studies find no strong link between these games and violent acts.
Regardless of whether there is a causal relationship, popular entertainment, such as video games and action movies, teaches men from an early age that violence is an expression of strength.
She concludes that whatever the reason, even if it is simply men’s access to power, that the time for serious discussion on this has arrived. I couldn’t agree more and I think it is incredibly important that people of faith do some self examination on the parts our theology has played in this epidemic.
I was proud to see my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), elect two women to the position of co-moderators. It’s reflective of what is happening in many of our congregations. Men are leaving the mainline church and I think it is no coincidence that as the numbers of men decrease, the levels of progressive thought increase. Look at the large, mega-churches in this country, the ones who criticize us as being too liberal. They are largely male lead, hierarchical systems that cling to conservative world views. They tend to imagine a more masculine God, who kicks ass and takes names. Many won’t even allow women in places of real leadership. The same is true in Islam. The progressive voices that I hear coming out of that faith are often the voices of women who have found their own niche, usually in the academy, within their patriarchal structure.
We have to do some serious soul searching about the role of masculinity in our culture. in my own life I can recognize that the fragility of my manhood has caused more more problems than it’s worth. The end of my marriage was directly connected to a time when I imagined myself being emasculated by my wife. Men are taught from a young age to control the bodies of their families, particularly wives and daughters, and so much violence comes from times and spaces when that control is challenged.
I don’t mean to suggest an innate superiority in women. I think the issue with masculinity is that it is so overwhelming tied to power that it has run amuck. What I think our world is in need of is a balance of masculine and feminine energies in all spheres of life, including lawmaking, law enforcement, and spirituality. The male predilection for control can be refocused into service and protection, true service and protection. And as cliche as it sounds, it’s not a bad idea for us men to tap into our feminine sides, the sides that nurture life and process emotions in healthy(ier) ways. There’s no one right way to be a man in this world. We’re allowed to present as masculinely or femininely as we choose. There is, however, a wrong way to be a man and we’re seeing far too much of it in our world. It is time to examine our toxic masculinity and put a stop to it before it poisons the whole world.