Modern masculinity kinda often sucks

I’m not sure how nuanced this argument will be, but let me try to paint the edges. I see stuff fairly consistently about “how masculinity is evolving,” and on my main site once, I wrote about how we needed a new definition for masculinity, citing this passage from a University of Michigan business school professor:

Showing vulnerability. Men are socialized to not ask for help or be vulnerable — and they can be penalized when they challenge this notion. An informative set of studies from 2015 finds that when male (but not female) leaders ask for help, they are viewed as less competent, capable, and confident. And when men make themselves vulnerable by disclosing a weakness at work, they are perceived to have lower status. This is problematic, as not seeking help when you need it or admitting areas for improvement inevitably leads to mistakes and less development.

The difference between that first link and my link is that the first link claims a new definition of masculinity is already here. I’m saying it’s not, and I think we need it. You can point to different statistics about men staying home to raise children, or daddy groups, or male friendships becoming an increasing concern — “Men have no friends, and women bear the burden!” — and all those things are happening, and they’re somewhat valid, but I wouldn’t necessarily say those things are at scale.

In fact, just yesterday I was at this church group thing. My church group is pretty cool, but at this point everyone has a kid or is expecting except for me and my wife, so that’s a little bit difficult sometimes because like, is this just going to become a parenting group and we’ll be on the outside looking in? Concerns. Anyway. The sermon from actual church had been Jesus/Peter “lamb” and “sheeps” stuff, which I believe is John 21:15–19 or somewhere in there. My church semi-forgets to post discussion questions, but I have Google on my phone (modern miracle!), so I looked up some. One of the questions related to those passages was about parenting, so I decided to toss that grenade out there.

Basic question is: should you be a helicopter parent (“manage the flock”) or a parent that lets kids fail now and again (“feed and guide the flock”)? Obviously there’s a preferred answer here, but every family and mother-father-guardian combo is different.

We had a good discussion about this, but one interesting off-shoot from the guys was how, when a couple “gets pregnant” (I hate that term, because the dude doesn’t get pregnant), a lot of other guys — your co-workers, your friends — will come to you and say “Well, your life is over! There goes sex! There goes sleep! Welcome to this side, buddy!”

But wait, isn’t having kids supposed to be a true joy of your life, and the inherent point of the species? My sperm numbers personally are low, and that shit is depressing, because it feels like maybe I’ll miss out on this massive part of existence.

But if it were to happen, and I were to approach my x-amount of guy friends (dwindles over time), they’d probably say that shit to me too: “Well, there goes your life!”

Now, of course, a lot of guys say that and love being dads, but negative thoughts and cognition are sometimes how we bond. If you extend the whole side-by-side notion of male friendship, a lot of side-by-side at bars is guy getting pissed about a ref’s call together. So the bond is inherently negative energy, and I could see how that might extend to even newly-announced pregnancy.

Take stock of some other stuff about dudes

Typically you will be viewed as a “successful” male if these conditions apply:

  • Be a provider
  • Virile
  • Make money
  • Nice house
  • Trappings
  • Hot spouse
  • Political involvement / investor class
  • Seemingly semi-large group of friends

I’d actually say if you hit “provider” and “virile,” most women — your wife, your wife’s friends, your mom and grandma, her mom, etc. — will deem you successful. That’s kinda the core path. All the other stuff is nice to have, and potentially more important to some people than others.

If you look at how a stay-at-home dad is portrayed on TV, it’s typically as some pussy with an apron who is beholden to his wife. So while we use that as a narrative talking point that “masculinity is changing,” the fact is that masculinity isn’t changing that much, because we can’t respect or accept the alternative definitions of masculinity.

I lost a lot of friends personally in the last five years at the intersection of divorce, COVID, and my own issues. I think a lot about male friendship as a result, and I’m probably very misguided on some approaches I have. I did write this thing on how to set expectations for male friendships, though, and I borrowed from a Washington Post article semi-heavily. Here’s one snapshot of a male friendship in that article:

  • On a rare night he spent catching up with an old friend in October, a mixture of vulnerability and intoxication led him to pour out his frustrations. “I bet you still have no idea why her and I broke up,” he said to his friend. “I bet you have no idea.” The friend paused, apologized and let him talk for a while about what had happened.

Right. Here’s another:

  • “The goal of adulthood is to find a partner, not to find a best friend,” Way said. “There’s nothing in our definition of success or maturity … that includes friendships.”

Now marry the last two sections together. If you’re a virile provider with a nice house and car, you did it. You did adulthood. You are a man. You have the partner and the trappings. The friends would be nice, but do you need to prioritize the friends, really?

So now add a bunch of stuff up

A lot of guys have:

  • A very narrow definition of success
  • They say generic, bullshit stuff to each other about the biggest moments in their lives
  • They don’t necessarily form, or maintain, close friendships

Don’t believe me on some of this stuff? Think I’m bitter or rejected? Understandable.

As for reading materials: Here’s a little ditty on “male loneliness killing millions,” here’s one calling the whole deal “an epidemic,” and maybe the №1 thing in this canon, a Boston Globe article about how loneliness is a bigger threat to dudes than obesity. You also might enjoy “Why do we murder the beautiful friendships of boys?”

These are big issues, and guys don’t discuss them — either because they don’t have the capacity to, they’re too busy being dads, too busy being providers, or just don’t want to.

Masculinity is beautiful, but also nasty, brutish, and short

I know some utterly boring, generic, single-lane guys in my orbit at different times of life. Those guys get revered by groups of people because they produced three kids, or they make x-amount of money a year, but if you put them in a room and attempted to have a 10-minute conversation, you might start crawling up the wall at Minute 1.5. That’s not success to me, but to each their own, you know?

Masculinity is baked in at some level. There are targets you need to hit. Some of the metrics may shift over time in terms of those — automation will be a huge reckoning on masculinity, you would auger — but I don’t think we’re really going to shift any of this stuff broadly in the next 50 years.

Do you?

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/work-with-me/

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