When Gillette asks men “Is This the Best a Man Can Get?”, what happens next?

Post-patriarchal masculinity has growing pains. But they are worth it … and is there a choice?

Photo: Wil Stewart on Unsplash

The election of Donald Trump created — or perhaps highlighted — a man-shaped-hole at the core of our country. Trump’s election, described by some as the “last gasp of patriarchy”, begs a question I have been asking almost from the day after he got elected: What kind of new man might fill that hole? What does post-patriarchal masculinity look like?

As I have dug deeper over the last two years (partly as a survival strategy) into feminist writing about patriarchy, through my own, sometimes harrowing, personal journey, and through the challenging recesses of my own marriage to a man I love, I am clearer than ever that the root cause of the mess we are in is not men, but what patriarchy has done to them.

Gillette’s ad finally breaks the silence on the elephant in the room waiting to be named: Men aren’t bad, it’s just the way so many of them have gone about it that is.

What I found is that the problem isn’t just Donald Trump’s unabashed, machiavellianism, nor just Harvey Weinstein’s and Brett Kavanaugh’s arrogant denial, nor is it the extremely distressing opioid epidemic among white (cis)men, it’s in the emptiness and emotional numbness patriarchy offers to all men, including the progressive, liberal (cis)men who voted for Bernie and Hilary.

What is men’s journey, through the weight of patriarchal conditioning? How do they come to define their version of Betty Friedan’s “problem without a name”, and find their more authentic voice? What is their story?

Women’s anger and purpose have seen a metoeric rise in the last two years through the Women’s March and #MeToo movements, meanwhile, the man-shaped-hole has only widened. With so many women’s saying “no!”, “enough!”, the blame is slowly shifting away from victims of sexual abuse towards the men who perpetrate, and yet so very little in our public discourse points to what women actually want to say yes to, to what they expect from men … post-sexual revolution, post-four phases of feminism, post-Trump, post #MeToo?

In fact, when people talk to me about how overwhelmed and despairing they are about our current political situation, I want to know about their relationships, about the risks they are taking in themselves, with their partners, therapists and support communities.

Because one of the many important invitations at hand in our current mixed up world is to grow into the kind of humans that can support a future worth living, a future worthy of our children. And the front lines of that growth happen in relationship. However, as with any real problem with deep roots, (say, around 4,000 years old), the solution requires more than a quick fix. It asks us to care… about our own suffering, if not others’, and to follow the thread of this caring inward, to face our gendered-demons, to risk opening up to our losses and to wrestle the dragon of shame to find its wisdom.

(Cis)men and (cis)women are being asked to make a choice that carries deep personal and civic significance. Moving forward, will we choose unresolved conflict, “shut-downs”, isolation from one another, solutions that mandate domination and submission, or — equipping ourselves with a deeper strength and a fiercer knowing — will we choose love?

Here, I’d like to be clear right off the bat about the debt heteros owe to the queer folk who have been at this, doing an incredible job if it, for more than a few decades now. If I refer to (cis)men and (cis)women in this article, it is because, arguably, the mantle for dismantling patriarchy may be getting passed on to the frontiers of hetero-culture where straight (cis)women and (cis)men collide. I say this not to suggest the LGBTQI movement is in the clear, (hardly!), but, as a women who was, myself, a lesbian/queer activist but who is now married to a (cis)man, the work is undeniably here. In Trump’s America, things have heated up. And if this leads to the growth we need, we may have him to thank for it! And with that said, here beings my tale…

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Where the Dialogue about Masculinity IS Happening.

I can’t quite remember now, how I came across the magazine Voice Male some time after Trump’s election. First published during feminism’s second wave, this magazine has been publishing articles by men (and women) about post-patriarchal masculintity for decades. It was started by men who allied with women friends of theirs who were working to open some of the nation’s first battered women’s shelters. These women needed men to begin thinking and writing about the kind of support and transformation men, themselves, needed in order to stop the violence. The post-patriarchal voice in this magazine, leveraged long before any of the current kerfuffle and fury, deserves recognition as one of the first, courageous efforts by men to carve out a more authentic voice and confront the limitations of patriarchal manhood.

This is an essential development: The very engagement of men (and women) in a conversation about what a new manhood actually looks like and what is learned (seperately and in relationship with one another) when they lean into this question.

Behind these articles — and sometimes directly in them — we begin to see accounts of the lived experiences that opened our eyes to the distressing reality that what-we-were-raised-with-as-normal has been part of a great betrayal. This deeper work, the work of facing the truth about ourselves, acknowledging the hurts caused by those we have loved, the work of a gender (r)evolution to find ground, resilience and a voice moving forward, this is the story beneath the stories.

How patriarchal conditioning separates us from ourselves and each other.

In Darkness Now Visible, Gilligan and Richards point to the gender binary in patriarchy that “divides human capabilities into either masculine” or “feminine” where masculine qualities align with rationality, intelligence, autonomy and what is “real” and feminine qualities align with emotions, relationships, and “goodness”(DNV, 2) This binary, which the authors persuasively suggest has its roots in trauma, elevates the mind above the body and creates a “loss of voice and of memory [such] that patriarchy become[s] mistaken for nature.” (DNV, 15). Seemingly innocuous and ‘rooted in nature’, these two sides of a pole, (which are identified throughout feminist theory), are far from the innocent descriptors they appear to be. In a patriarchal culture, (which covers pretty much most cultures these days), when boys and girls experience their feelings and behave as children do, adult responses are infused (unconsciously) with ideas about how “boys” and “girls” should feel and behave. Even in the more conscious of us, this conditioning exists.

Because of how deeply sensitive we are as children and the power of patriarchal inculturation (which lives in our fathers AND our mothers), in the absence of waking up from this binary, this “normal” state of affairs becomes the water we swim in: Boys lose their capacity to feel their tenderness and hurt (feminine qualities) and girls lose their capacity for strength and self confidence (masculine qualities).

Perhaps this is the place where I ought to interject that any set of generalizations has exceptions. Many boys also internalize the message that they should not be angry and, girls, the message that they should not have any feelings and needs. The gender-bound norms are prevalent, but there are plenty of children who grow up with a double-layering of patriarchal rules. I should also say that, in the imagined absence of this patriarchal conditioning, I would not suggest that boys would be just like girls or girls like boys. Rather, the outcome of childhood wouldn’t have us feeling quite so starkly different from one another — we would each have inner access to qualities we are taught to deny in ourselves because they belong to an “opposite” gender. A bridge could be crossed where in the current arrangement, it’s more like a cavern.

From this vantage point, the entire patriarchal edifice offers its victors a prized, “real man” identity to defend against feelings of loss, a “victory”, nonetheless, that comes at very high price. By severing men from their inner world, the place where their emotions teach them about what works for them and what doesn’t relationships, patriarchy, betrays the very men it is set up to advantage.

Meanwhile, for women, this system is kept well in order when in facing feelings of hurt and loss, they come to doubt themselves, losing trust in their intuition, they question their worth, and lose access to their clarity, confidence, strength, vitality and voice. Women “step down” in an effort to be good.

When the means necessary for resolving conflict (the capacity for empathy, mutual recognition, gained through a familiarity with our own inner emotional world and the world of others) are taken away, the separations and the misunderstandings, the shut-downs (no pun intended) continue unabated.

(For another beautiful and intelligent (psychoanalytic) inquiry into patriarchy, mutual recognition and gender, see the work of feminist psychoanalyst, Jessica Benjamin, Bonds of Love.)

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Wrestling Shame: The work of un-doing necessary for post-patriarchal humanity

What we can clearly see here, through Gillegan, et al’s work, is that the battle at hand today, is not between men and women. It is between all of us and a patriarchal culture that works to betray our full, human nature. Successfully separating and pitting us against one another, patriarchy serves to perpetuate conflict, division and tribalism in a world we all share that’s quickly careening off its axis. Can we really afford to proceed this way?

The question is, when it comes to shame, do we, as men, women (and all gender identities in between) meet this experience as an opportunity to break out, as a ticket to the future, or do we fall asleep under shame’s powers, shrinking away from our fuller, human, emotional birthright?

Of course, the journey to face and move through shame has been tackled most valiantly in the past two years by all the women who have come forward in the #MeToo era. Before them, (and ongoingly!), LGBTQI’s have demonstrated tremendous courage and creativity through their often treacherous, even life-risking journeys into and through their shame. Every LGBTI, after all, who has ‘come out’ has wrestled with shame about their deepest sense of themselves not measuring up to the norms of the gender binary prescribed by “male” and “female” norms.

Those of us who have done this work and faced the shame, have come to some understanding through our history, have survived its prickly, damning, controlling mandates, have made it through into the fuller, prouder, more mature and complete shape of ourselves.

And at this juncture, there is nothing more important to highlight than the critical role of support in this journey. None of the gains made addressing shame and hardship by, what I will call today’s gender-love-warriors, have been made without support. Like racial stereotypes, patriarchal gender norms are forged in a collective, context, (though built upon many small, micro-aggressions on the soul). They teach us how to be socially. As such, collective/social support is indispensable in the healing of these wounds. The validating voices of the feminist and LGBTI movements, of therapists and support groups, of friends, role models, and elders, (elder women/LGBTQI’s who have engaged their own part of the battle!), all provide the bedrock upon which this hard journey can supportively unfold.

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The Impossible Bind of Shame for Men

Perhaps the most insidious thing about patriarchy is that it privileges men (e.g. appears to be their friend) while taking from them, through shame, their ability to feel the hurts patriarchy, itself, perpetuates against them. How do you free yourself from something that says its your friend and then shuts off your ability to feel the hurt it inflicts on you? We can being to see how an impasse gets created when the very feelings that push for liberation up against the shame are silenced.

Here, we may find some answer to why there is such relative radio silence in the mainstream press about the crisis of masculinity. It is as if, in the man-shaped-hole created by #MeToo, a certain frozenness exists, any further movement forward seems held back by the silencing and restricting silencing of a collective shame.

But consider what might actually be possible if there were more support for men and their shame, or if there were more accounts from men who have found support in working with their shame and have come through the other side.

Overall, what patriarchy has so successfully done to men, is to tell them that in the face of hardship and pain they should not reach out to one another for support, not to recognize or feel their shame, not to unpack the feelings that underlie it. In fact, everything patriarchy has done to men creates a no-man’s-land for them. It turns out that patriarchal shame may bind men more than any of the rest of us.

The victory of patriarchy is that shame it encases around men works so well it keeps them cut off from their own story. It keeps the mainstream press silent, leaving stories about men and their “problem without a name”, unwritten. With little in our power to dissolve this rigidified impasse, we have to ask whether the only option for the rest of us is simply, albeit frustratingly in today’s political climate, to wait? Is there anything we, as women who care, can do to help with this state of impasse? (I cannot help but empathize here with the parallel quagmire faced by people of color who face the dogged refusal of white people to come to see their whiteness. So similar in kind, the recovery from the terrible pain of racism calls on all of us who are white to face the pain of separation we have participated in with our white superiority and to face and process our shame. Another critically important frontier for another article.)

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How are women arresting (cis)men’s development into post-patriarchal manhood?

To be sure, more and more women are stepping up and saying “no” to the self-doubt they have taken on around their sexual harrassment, the self-doubt, which, unchallenged, allows men to avoid their shame. But what about the men in our lives, boyfriends, husbands, brothers, fathers, even, who, if we are to believe what I have written above, have the potential to be more developed, more mature in their skin, more relational, more self-forgiving, more accepting, and more alive in themselves …but who aren’t.

“You and I are both worth more than this, we are worth KNOWING our worth. For us to have any meaningful shot at love and intimacy, you have to walk through the door of discomfort (of shame, loss, healing), the door that takes you back into yourself.”

What if our job is to actively raise the bar.

What makes this so very hard for women is that we have to be prepared to know the boundary within ourselves, trust if we feel we need to walk away, or at least embrace the option and live with the onslaught of guilt about not being ‘good enough‘. Gilligan and Richards site Bowlby’s reference to the “compulsive cargiving” in women, the selfless care-giving that has been held up as the epitome of feminine goodness… [It requires a] women to give up her desire to be herself in a relationship for the sake of having “relationships” (DMV, 64). The culture of giving and self doubt arrests our self-interest.

And what if women are more evolved than men?

A third resource I came across in my search after Trump was elected was a self-published book I found on Amazon when, one desperate night I searched under the words: “post-patriarchy”. There, I found what I was looking for in a book with the ambitious title, Beyond Patriarchy: Women and Men in the Evolution of Post-Patriarchal World. It was written by Patricia Kraus, a retired female therapist, PhD, in her 80s (e.g. a woman who’s done the rounds). This small book is a magnum opus coming from a woman who’s childhood long preceded first wave feminism and who was chronicling the call for a post-patriarchal turn, most critically, pointing to the obstacles we will face in getting there.

Kraus suggests that, based on research conducted by her and her colleagues, women, on the whole (not all women, by a long stretch, but perhaps the majority), are more developed, or more ‘evolved’ than men, but they are holding back men’s development through deep-seated, codependent patterns inscribed in them by patriarchy.

This isn’t an entirely new argument, but what Kraus was adding to the mix were the findings from her and her colleagues on adult development. Findings that, if you take them at face value, validate the tongue in cheek joke familiar to women (and some men!) that women are in fact wiser and more developed than their male counterparts. (Hold on men, I’m not talking about all of you, but there’s something in here, so I hope you read on.)

This is because either women end up doing the emotional work for the men in their lives (over-functioning) or, by compromising themselves, their desires and needs, (and their self esteem), they stay in relationships that are no longer working for them.

What Kraus’s work suggested to me is that as women begin to truly accept their value, to own the maturity in their relational capacities, they need to see these capacities not simply as something they do as women, but as personal and cultural assets, hard earned through their growth and development. They also need to be willing to raise the bar for men, set their self-doubting and care-taking aside in favor of a tough love that asks for more. By making excuses for men, by accepting their resistance to self-reflect, turn towards the difficult places in their lives, their emptiness, by not being clear about the expectations we have, knowing more is possible for them, women play a part in perpetuating the very impasse that keeps patriarchy’s sorry state of affairs in existence.

This is not about blame. Not about making women responsible for it all. It is, however, about the power we, as women, can start to claim simply by taking a stand in our own maturity, capacity and development and from there, raising the bar.

Two years ago, my husband and I reached a point of potential no return in our marriage. The stuckness that existed in our inability to resolve conflict with anything other than blame had reached a level I could no longer deny. It was the wisdom in Kraus’ book, coupled with my own work coming to see and accept my value as a women that allowed me to sit down with my husband and say to him, through a veil of tears, that I loved him, but I could not live in a marriage that did not include his ongoing willingness to self-reflect. Other women may be able to do this, I said to him, but I can’t move forward loving myself as I am coming to, without his being willing to open the door to unearth the feelings I knew were contributing to a dissatisfaction with life he only let himself be vaguely aware of. What followed in subsequent months was more than I had ever expected. My husband learned to listen more deeply, he stayed with the hurt he felt as I told him how much had happened through the course of my marriage that had hurt me so much. At one point when we had found enough ground to stand on together in vulnerability, I asked him, “What has this all felt like for you?” “I’ve felt ashamed,” he said. “Ashamed of how much I’ve hurt you. How much I haven’t seen, how much I didn’t listen.” There were tears in my eyes and between us; they spoke to a far deeper, more mature love than the love that first brought us together many years ago. There, also, before my eyes, post-patriarchal masculinity began to take shape.

So, if not best, what IS a man to be?

And so, while women’s journey through shame often leads to discovering a larger, fuller, experience of herself, and for men it can bring them a sense of coming down to a right size, a deflation that, nonetheless brings them closer to themselves, through that work the opportunity arises for us to meet eye-to-eye. For both, (cis)men and (cis)women there is no way around the turn inwards to begin to face the losses, large or small, that we were taught not to feel and heal. But through this journey, in opening to experience our hurt, we are able to see beyond ourselves, and with deeper understanding and mutual respect, work through the impasse to love again.

These hard circumstances in a country I love have pressed on me to grow into my value as a woman. I ask for men, of all ages, races and political persuasions to stop disavowing your vulnerability. Risk becoming “not a man” in order to become yourself.

On The GoodMen Project website the day Gillette’s ad was posted, I read the comment written by a man I would describe as on the post-patriarchal path. He wrote:

Writer/student of the truth. Lives at the intersection of philosophy, the gender (r)evolution, politics, psychology and art of parenting. karinswann.life

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