Boxed in: the fragility of men

This article is authored by David Leser and is originally published by Sydney Morning Herald.

Eve Ensler, the American author of the era-defining stage play The Vagina Monologues, had every reason to fear and despise men, and to be reluctant to hear what ails them; from a young age, she was beaten, bruised, choked and nearly murdered by her father. Yet her efforts to survey the ruined landscape of female suffering – visiting rape camps, establishing safe houses for women across the world, creating a global movement to stop violence against women (first V-Day, then One Billion Rising) – ultimately took her into the heart of male darkness.

In her 2006 book Insecure at Last, she described meeting a soldier in Kosovo in the late 1990s who seemed both physically and mentally paralysed. His name was Agrim.

“He looked at me, threw his arms around my neck, and started weeping,” she wrote. “No, it was more like wailing. I have never heard a sound like that. He would not let go. Then his weeping wailing began to build and release. It could not be controlled or stopped. It resounded through the neighbourhood. People from the village began to gather around. I held on to Agrim, but, honestly, I wanted him to stop. All these years I had told myself I wanted men to be vulnerable, to have their feelings, to cry. All of a sudden it felt like a lie. I did not want this man to be so destroyed, so out of control. I wanted him to have answers and be tough and know the way and make everything work out.”

Ensler understood how part of her was terrified of men being lost, how she needed them to be tough and assured. She also understood how many years she’d been carrying men’s “invisible pain” in order not to see their weakness or shame. Holding Agrim in her arms, “this weeping liquid man” – as she described him – was her undoing, pulling her “out to sea in the wild waves of his crying”.

“It was as if I were holding the secret story of men in my lap,” she wrote. “Centuries of male sorrow and loss, centuries of unexpressed worry and doubt, centuries of pain. I suddenly understood violence and war. I understood retaliation and revenge. I understood how deep the agony is and how its suppression has made men into other things. I understood that these tears falling down Agrim’s face would have become bullets in any other case, hardened drops of grief and rage directed toward a needed enemy. I saw how in fighting to live up to the tyranny of masculinity, men become driven to do anything to prove they are neither tender, nor weak, nor insecure. They are forced to cage and kill the feminine within their own beings and consequently the world.”

I first read this passage more than a decade ago, and the words have remained with me. That’s partly because they were delivered by a strong feminist, but also because they spoke to what it is in men that causes them to inflict such monumental hurt on women, other men, children and themselves. They are forced to cage and kill the feminine within their own beings and consequently the world.

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst renowned for his theory of the collective unconscious, called this feminine within a man the anima – the “unconscious woman” that contains all the feminine personality qualities inside a man that can either be expressed, if allowed, or repressed and removed. These are the qualities of tenderness, compassion, vulnerability, friendship, relatedness, creativity, imagination and intuition.

Conversely, he called the masculine within a woman the animus – the “unconscious man” that holds the archetypal masculine traits of courage, assertiveness, analytical thought, decisiveness and a drive for achievement. (The Chinese describe this polarity as yin and yang, the complementary female and male principles operating in nature.) In Jung’s world view, all of us carry these archetypal qualities inside us – feminine and masculine – but from childhood we create gender identities and roles, consciously or unconsciously, to conform with the often-crippling sexual stereotypes society imposes.

Girls wear pink, and isn’t that a pretty dress? Boys wear blue and play with Lego and trucks, and aren’t you strong? Women are nurturers. Men are providers. Women are sensitive. Men are tough. We all know the drill; and we all know that identity politics today is, in part, a furious backlash to these oversimplified and limiting concepts.

For men, these stereotypes are particularly destructive, as Tony Porter, an internationally recognised American author and educator, pointed out in his inspirational 2010 TED talk in Washington DC. “I grew up in New York City, between Harlem and the Bronx. Growing up as a boy, we were taught that men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, dominating, no pain, no emotions, with the exception of anger, and definitely no fear,” he said. “[We were taught] that men are in charge, which means women are not; that men lead, and you [women] should just follow and just do what we say. That men are superior and women are inferior; that men are strong, that women are weak. That women are of less value, property of men, and objects, particularly sexual objects.”

Porter later came to describe this collective socialisation as the “man box”, a term first coined by Paul Kivel in his 1992 book, Men’s Work: How to Stop the Violence That Tears Our Lives Apart. This “man box” contained all the ingredients for how men came to define their masculinity. Some of those ingredients, Porter said, were “absolutely wonderful”, others were so “twisted” that it required deconstructing and redefining the very concept of manhood.

Porter used his own parenting to illustrate the point. When his daughter Jay was little, she could come crying to him anytime she liked and Porter would comfort her. “Daddy’s got you,” he’d say. With his son Kendall, the opposite was true. Whenever he heard him cry, a clock would start ticking in his head. His son had about 30 seconds to stop before he’d start saying to him, “Why are you crying? Hold your head up. Look at me. Explain to me what’s wrong. I can’t understand you.” And then through sheer frustration, together with a sense of responsibility for building his son into a “man”, Porter would say, “Just go to your room. Go on, go to your room. Sit down, get yourself together and come back and talk to me when you can talk to me like … a man.” His son was five years old.

Porter was mortified. “My god, what’s wrong with me?” he’d ask himself. “What am I doing? Why would I do this?” And the answer took him back to his own father.

He then related a story from his teenage years. His brother Henry had just died and the burial was being held in Long Island. Porter’s family was about to be driven home from the cemetery to the Bronx – a two-hour drive that first required a toilet stop.

“The limousine empties out,” Porter recalled. “My mother, my sister, my auntie, they all get out, but my father and I stayed in the limousine, and no sooner had the women got out, than he burst out crying. He didn’t want to cry in front of me, but he knew he wasn’t going to make it back to the city, and it was better [to have me there] than to allow himself to express these feelings and emotions in front of the women.

“And this is a man who, 10 minutes ago, had just put his teenage son in the ground, something I just can’t even imagine. The thing that sticks with me the most is that he was apologising for crying in front of me, and at the same time, he was also giving me props, lifting me up, for not crying.”

I said to myself, ‘God, if it would destroy him to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?’

Tony Porter

This fear of expressing emotion, of being seen as weak or feminine, Porter said, kept boys and men paralysed – just as Eve Ensler noted with her Balkan soldier, Agrim. They are held hostage inside the “man box”, from which there is often no escape.

“I can remember speaking to a 12-year-old boy, a football player,” Porter finished, “and I asked him, ‘How would you feel if, in front of all the players, your coach told you you were playing like a girl?’ I expected him to say something like, ‘I’d be sad, I’d be mad, I’d be angry,’ or something like that. No, the boy said to me, ‘It would destroy me.’ And I said to myself, ‘God, if it would destroy him to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?’”

Continue reading this article here.

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