This is not an easy time within which to know what it means to be a man. I am not referring here to the classical philosophical quandary: “What does it mean to be a human person?”, but to the question of male identity after nearly two generations of feminism. What does it mean to be a man?
Feminism, for the most part, has been a very positive challenge to men in helping sort out this question. It has pushed men hard and, together with other factors, it has helped produce a more sensitive man. The strong “masculine” man of the 50s (who liked his beer and football, was aggressive, and who fought for his country and his women when necessary … and who, at his best, was hardworking, disciplined, brave, responsible, and non self-serving … and, at his worst, was macho and never looked at women’s souls, but only at their bodies) has, for the most part, given way to a more sensitive man.
This change, like most changes, comes mixed. In comparison to the man of the 50s, the man of the 90s tends to be more sensitive, but also more tentative (about his masculinity and about most everything else.) He is more in touch with women’s souls, but less in touch with his own. In the words of poet, Robert Bly (one of the pioneers in area of male spirituality), the sensitive man of the 90s is finely tuned, ecologically superior to his father, sympathetic to the whole harmony of the universe, unwilling to start wars or hurt anyone; yet himself has little energy to offer. Too often he is life preserving but not exactly life-giving.
Bly tells the story of how he first began to notice that so many men, while being sensitive and life preserving, were also for the most part unhappy and devoid of energy. While giving seminars on feminism he would, invariably, notice that the women who attended were strong and positively full of energy. On the other hand, the men who attended radiated little energy. He began to have sessions for these men at which he told stories relating to men’s growth. Usually within 5 minutes a good number of the men would be crying. Their tears, he submits, had a lot to do with remoteness from their own fathers, but they also had a lot to do with remoteness from their own masculinity.
Bly goes on to comment on how in some Greek mythologies, men were asked to flash their sword in the sun when approaching a matriarchal figure. Today, he goes on to say, many men can no longer distinguish between showing the sword and hurting someone … “they have learned so well not to hurt anyone that they cannot lift the sword, even to catch the light of the sun on it! Showing a sword doesn’t mean fighting, there’s something joyful in it.” (New Men, New Minds, F. Abbott, Editor, p.168)
What does it mean to be a man? Rambo type movies, contentious beer drinkers, the military, and the corporate world suggest one answer. Feminism suggests another. A new voice today suggests yet another answer.
Paralleling, in many ways, feminism, a new body of literature is developing today around the question of masculinity and male spirituality. It is not arising out of macho circles, but out of circles of men who, most often, have been strongly influenced by feminism. Its challenge is not one which invites men to return to a pre-feminist concept of masculinity, but one which invites men to move towards a certain post-feminist understanding of themselves, that is, one which reintegrates masculine angels after a certain exorcism of masculine demons.
What this literature is doing is not only criticizing some of the things which feminism is saying about men, but, most importantly, it is highlighting that men need liberation as much as, and perhaps much more than, women.
It is men, generally speaking, who lack the willingness or the ability to express what they are genuinely feeling. It is men, ironically, more than women, who cannot find a concept of God, forms of worship, and a language which does not do a certain violence to their gender. (That is why women outnumber men 4-1 at virtually all religious gatherings and why so many men and young boys who do attend have to be dragged there unwillingly.) Again, it is men, more so than women, who are alienated from their own archetypes and who are unable to find within themselves or with other males positive spiritual energy. That is why, ultimately, all men have female confessors. Finally, it is men who, in the end, feel spiritually inferior.
This feeling of spiritual inferiority lies at the basis of most of what is wrong with men: vicious competitiveness, violence towards women (and especially towards other men), the temptation to set money, power, and career above relationships, a suicide rate that dwarfs that of women (some estimates set the suicide rate of men at 300 times that of women. (See “America” October 7, 1989, p. 209), a life expectancy 10 years less than that of women, a 10 times higher crime rate, and much higher rates than women regarding drug and alcohol abuse.
What does it mean to be a man in the light of the feminist critique of patriarchy and machismo? Feminism is right when it suggests that men should apologize for patriarchal dominance. It is wrong, and tragically so, when it asks that men apologize for being men.