Sunday, November 11, 2012

Is Manliness Hazardous to Your Health?

"Well, I'm not the world's most masculine man / But I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man"
--The Kinks (singing about a transvestite homosexual lover)

I am not noted as a totem of masculinity.  I don't repair cars.  I let my wife program the VCR.  I eat arugula almost every day.

And yet, when I tore the ligaments in my pinkie earlier this year, I refused to go to the doctor.  Instead, I asked my other basketball playing friends for their advice, and bought a splint at Walgreens.

Just last week, Sean Glass asked me about my splint, and after hearing the explanation, showed me his own mangled pinkies.  We laughed, and not one of the other men at the table said something like, "You know, maybe you should go see a doctor."

Later in the week, I suffered a concussion at work, then drove home afterwards.  I didn't tell my wife until I got home because I figured she'd insist on coming to pick me up if I told her about my injury.

I like to consider myself a rational and enlightened man--practically a SNAG (Sensitive New-Age Guy).  I'm okay with asking for help and showing vulnerability.  Yet even I behave in bizarrely masochistic ways, as illustrated above.  Why?

And while these minor injuries may not seem like a big deal, is our pursuit of manliness costing us in other ways?  I was struck by a recent piece from Michael Schwalbe, "The Hazards of Manhood," about the consequences and politics of manly stoicism:
Most American men know perfectly well the qualities they must display to be considered fully creditable as men: power, competitiveness, and toughness. This turns out to be enormously useful for generating profit. Just give men opportunities to display manhood in these ways and they’ll do things that add to the bottom line, even if it’s to their own detriment.

Like John Henry, a working-class man’s desire to appear strong and tough will often lead him to lift more weight, keep working despite pain, and forgo safety measures that slow him down and suggest fear or vulnerability. To appear competitive, he may strive to outdo his fellow workers, bringing a smile to the boss’s face.

Middle-class and upper-middle-class men do the equivalent. To display toughness, they work long hours and exalt efficiency over conscience and compassion. They compete for promotions, putting work first in their lives, lest they be seen as wimpy or wussy—sexist code words for “feminine” or “womanly.”

This kind of manhood striving is driven by a contradiction: To be a real man in U.S. society, one must have or display power—the capacity to exert control over one’s self and the surrounding world—but the fact is that most men in a capitalist society have little or no power. For most men, striving for manhood status is an attempt to evade this contradiction, to escape the psychic pain it causes.
I'm reminded, curiously enough, of the movie "Sin City."  Mickey Rourke plays Marv, a tough ex-con who helps avenge a murder.  At one point, a voiceover notes, "Most people think Marv is crazy. He just had the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century. He'd be right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody's face. Or in a Roman arena, taking his sword to other gladiators like him."

According to Schwalbe, in some sense, all of us men are like Marv (even those of us who make our living with our words, rather than with our fists).  We still feel the atavistic desire to demonstrate our masculinity with toughness, even to our own detriment.

We can't change who we are; millions of years of evolution are at work.  But we can be aware of the dangers of manliness, and work to ameliorate its effects.

Now if you excuse me, I have to start stretching my pinkie so I'll be able to play basketball this morning.  It gets pretty violent in the paint.


Mike Efron said...

Thanks for this, Chris. Really well done.

Chris said...

It's awesome to hear from you, Mike. I hope all is well. Let me know if you ever pass through the Bay Area--I'd love to see you.