In March, I wrote about the social trope of the “nice guy”: the form of masculinity displayed by many cis men and boys that attempts to counteract the mentality of the “meathead” and his alleged inherent violence, while ironically producing violent and sexist reactions of varying degrees. I marked the “nice guy” trope as a locatable point of a new masculinity that has greatly developed in recent years along with the Internet and terms such as the “friendzone.” What the “nice guy” points to is the necessity for many cis men to preserve the entitlement and privileges they hold while attempting to come off as a knight in shining armor and get the girl they feel they deserve — akin to “having your cake and eating it too.”
I ended the last article with a call to explore what new masculinity can mean when it becomes more “human,” meaning it is less centered on the subject of being a “man.” Is it possible to identify a form of masculinity that is inherently disassociated from stereotypical and often deserved negative connotations of “masculinity”? In this second installment of my series on the new masculinity, I want to explore that question through a discussion of my own experiences growing up as a cis boy heavily influenced by both men and women in my life.
I grew up in a house with my father, my mother, and my two older sisters. From a young age, I was taught by the women in my household that I had to treat women with the same respect that I would treat men. When I was around the age of five and old enough to know what “cuss” words were, my sisters started telling me to never, under any circumstances, call a woman a bitch. My mother did not shame me when I tried on her makeup (granted, it was only foundation), and my sisters did not ridicule me when I used one of their razors to shave my legs (granted, I did a horrible job and any commentary was directed at the patchiness of my efforts). My mother and sisters made sure, in their own ways, that I would grow up to be respectful and a decent person. I was not raised to treat women as objects. I was raised to treat them as human beings and to talk to them without inherently sexualizing or demeaning them.
My sisters were especially willing, in many ways, to help make sure I did not become one of the “meatheads” or the “nice guys” who plagued their high school experiences, even if they did not realize their impact on me at the time. I was socialized around women constantly, especially when each of my sisters became cheerleaders in high school. There were plenty of times, during my sisters’ birthday parties or sleepovers, that I was around their friends and they talked to me. I was shy, of course, but I did not run away from those situations. These experiences translated into how I interacted with the girls at my middle school. Many of them were simply my friends, and one of them was my best friend until we graduated and went to different high schools. I was a lot more comfortable around the girls at my school because most of the boys were way too aggressive. A lot of them bullied me because I hung out with girls in the first place.
Because of the influence my sisters and my mother had on me, I saw masculinity differently than a lot of the boys in my high school. Not to say that I had — or have — all the answers to solving the problem that is masculinity. I just knew that my upbringing had differed from that of a lot of my male peers. I became more vocal in calling out the shitty things a lot of guys would do — at least when talking to others, but not really ever to those guys’ faces. I knew that I wanted to be different from those guys — the “meatheads” and the “nice guys” — and I wanted to treat everyone the same. I probably would not have admitted it then, but I was trying to be a feminist — or at least a feminist ally.
I like to think that I have grown up a lot since high school, and that I have figured out what it means to avoid embodying the more inherently violent versions of masculinity. But I am also still learning that there is much more to purging violent masculinity that calling out the “bad guys” and exclaiming “feminism!” in the face of patriarchy. I am still understanding that I am a cis man (at least, that is what I am most comfortable identifying as), and that I therefore benefit from patriarchy.
This privilege became very apparent recently after moving to Metairie (a suburb just outside of New Orleans) and starting to work alongside my fiancée part time. While we have both noticed some things that have played out in favor of me because I’m a guy, there was one situation with a volunteer that shifted how I thought of myself and my supposed feminist mindset.
We gave this volunteer a ride home in my fiancée’s car, and he did not say a word to her for the entire 30-minute drive. He said various, random things to me, like complementing me on my voice and saying it was good enough for radio. He also started saying some concerning things about his past and why he was in New Orleans to begin with. These things, paired with some of his actions where we worked, made my fiancée very uncomfortable.
After we dropped off the volunteer, she said she felt unsafe with him in our car. I agreed that he seemed a bit sketchy, but I did not understand why she felt unsafe. She talked about the fact that, the entire time, he talked only to me. When she would talk, he would nearly ignore what she said. She also brought up the concerning information he divulged to us and said that those things were the main reason she felt unsafe around him. She reminded me of another time that I had offered to drive a couple to the French Quarter after they had volunteered with us. She said that they had already been acting strangely around our facility and that she did not want to give them a ride. Her discomfort with these folks did not register with me the same way at all.
We continued discussing it, and I finally came to the conclusion that I was not afraid because I had been conditioned to not be afraid in those situations. My lack of fear could have been dangerous for me, let alone both of us. I realized how easy it is to be a cis man giving someone a ride, because cis men are hardly ever the targets of spontaneous violent crimes. I also began realizing how differently I was raised than my sisters. My parents constantly told them to be careful and to never go out alone, whereas they were far less concerned with telling me the same. I saw how this is a problem, and that despite what distance I had attempted to put between myself and traditional, overtly violent forms of masculinity, I was still a product and am still benefiting from patriarchal ideologies and their associated microaggressions.
So, with my own reflections out here for everyone to see, I want to say that I do believe there is a new masculinity that can be identified. That form of masculinity rests heavily on the foundations of feminism, focusing on the necessity to treat all people, especially women and other folks who suffer under patriarchy, with the respect and dignity they deserve as human beings. But the new masculinity has to go far and beyond that. For masculinity to truly transcend its inherent violence and microaggressive tendencies, a man — or whoever seeks to embody this form of masculinity — must be willing to look at how they directly and indirectly benefit from patriarchy as well. I know I have a long way to go, but I hope someday that this idea will be a norm rather than a utopian dream.[Headline image: The photograph features a person leaning over a railing and staring off into the distance.]