(A warning: this is all mansplaining, or maybe geeksplaining. That’s because it’s aimed specifically at men who might need these words and structures. If you feel these words don’t apply to you, they still might, or they might not. If you’re not a cis male, you may find this tiresomely repetitive; you’ve likely been over this ground already. If you don’t know what cis means, some of this might even upset you.
Also: this is written in a sarcastic style that might confuse some of you. These are bad bits of brain programming I’ve found in my own brain, and see in the brains around me. I don’t endorse them, and actively seek to get rid of them. Also: some strong language ahead.)
There’s a strong set of rules underlying our society; strong, dumb, and horrible. These are the Rules Of How To Man. They’re never taught explicitly, but you better damn well learn them, by the time you’re seven or eight, or you’re going to get beat up by other men for the rest of your life.
These aren’t exclusively ‘guy’ lessons, but they interact poorly and purposely with the rest of the hetero-normative structure in our culture. This is on purpose. These are rules that are used by men to avoid feeling certain ways, and to excuse acting in certain ways.
You know how in some stories, the plot only works because the hero acts like an idiot? Otherwise everything would be too easy. (“Don’t go in the basement! Just leave!”) This person is said to be carrying the idiot ball. Sometimes, the idiot ball gets passed from person to person, just to make the plot work. (TV Tropes tells me Hank Azaria coined this usage.)
In other stories, the narrative only works if every single person in the story is a frickin’ moron. Damon Knight called this a “second-order idiot plot“—a story that only works if *everyone* is an idiot.
We’re living in one of those. You’re the idiot, and so am I.
And these rules are why: we get trained to act like idiots, so that a few percent of the population can avoid feeling uncomfortable and introspecting on their sexuality; and so a different, overlapping percent can commit violence and rape with relative impunity as long as they play by the Rules.
Let’s break it down.
Man Rule 1. If you don’t show it, you aren’t feeling it
“Men aren’t allowed to have feelings.” This is, of course, inaccurate—men are allowed to have feelings, provided they show them in some sort of caricatured, over-the-top way. If they don’t show it, they aren’t really feeling it.
Angry? You have to smash something. Punch a wall. Shoot your TV. Hit someone. It’s justified: you were angry.
Upset? You can’t cry; that’s for sissies. Get really drunk and wreck your car. Glower into the darkness smoking your cigarette, making sure everyone *sees* you glowering and brooding.
Attracted to that woman? Better make sure you tell her. In fact, be ridiculous about it, invasive and over-the-top. Stand outside her window and throw rocks, or yell, or hold a boombox over your head. Buy a thousand roses and scatter them all over. Wolf-whistle at her and call her names. Bitches love names.
Rejected? Oh, all bets are off then. You’re angry and upset! Do whatever the hell you want. Beat people up, call them names, get them fired, make up lies about their sexual history, rape ’em, whatever. You’re in the clear—you’re just expressing your feelings.
We’ll all cover for you. It’s in the Rules.
Man Rule 2. You must be attracted to all women
To be a MAN, you have to fuck women. All women. (It’s tiring!) You have to be the Man, which means a penis, and it must be used at all times.
Now, you’re not going to fuck something you’re not attracted to, right? That’d be wrong. Ergo, you have to be attracted to all women. You’re not attracted to her? What are you, some kind of a fag?
This combines awfully with #1. You’re basically required by The Rules to catcall. You have to hit on all women, all the time, especially attractive ones, otherwise you’re not attracted to them.
Since you must be attracted to ALL women, if you accidentally find a woman you aren’t attracted to, either you’re a fag, or you must destroy her. You have to tear down her character, deny her womanhood and very humanity. Make up a flaw and point to it: too fat, too dark, too light, too thin, too smart, too stupid. It’s not your fault. No one could be attracted to that. It’s okay to make fun of her, because she doesn’t really COUNT, she’s not really human. If she were, you’d be attracted to her.
And if you’re not attracted to her, then no one else better be, either! We’ve got to be in this thing together—otherwise we’d disagree about whether she’s human, which is too weird to sustain. So you must tell your friends which women you find attractive, and if they don’t agree, berate them and belittle them until they do.
This causes many men to grow up thinking that specific people are attractive even though they themselves are not attracted to those people. It makes it hard to figure out who you do like, swamped as you are by the consensus around you. This sucks, both for the women who can’t figure out why they’re thought to be unattractive, and the men forced to feign attraction to people they don’t like.
Man Rule 3. You must find men disgusting
Men are disgusting. Women are beautiful, men are disgusting. This is how our culture works, right?
This is, of course, homophobia—the fear that you might be gay—inculcated.
Men are disgusting; and this must be demonstrated (see #1). When you’re disgusted with something you have two choices: you leave, or you try to destroy it.
Guy standing too close to you at the urinal? He is demonstrating that he is attracted to you; he is asserting that you are a woman; you must destroy him. Or leave, if you’re a coward. You and another guy accidentally brush fingertips when passing a cup of coffee? Eew! You better wipe that hand off! You might have guy cooties! (Worse, you might like it!)
Wait—guys are allowed to be attracted to precisely one guy: themselves. You’re somehow allowed to prance in front of the mirror, talk about how amazing your dick is, flex in front of other men, hell, suck your own dick if you can bend that way. It’s not gay, it’s onanism!
But being attracted to men? Gaaaaaay. And gays must be destroyed, of course. They’re disgusting, because they’re men, but they’re doubly disgusting because they are attracted to disgusting men.
(Side note: men are told they are disgusting so often that many men end up reveling in it, either proudly or shamefully. “Smell my fart!” “I dragged my balls on that present before I gave it to you.” “I didn’t change my clothes for a day before I showed up at her door; I know she likes it.” Often this is expressed as humor, phallically and/or anally fixated: balls, farts, shit, assholes. This makes these topics safer to explore, when otherwise they’d be taboo or gaaaaaay.)
Disgust at men combines especially poorly when interacting with trans women. You were required to be attracted to her (#2), whether or not you were, because she was a woman. You had to show that attraction (#1). Then your puny brain sees or imposes man-like qualities, or listens to others doing that. Now there’s a disgusting thing (#3) at very close range!
And so, to prove your disgust (#1 again), you hit it. You kill it. You destroy it. Anything to avoid the awful truth that, hey, maybe you were briefly attracted to a man, or to something you consider a man. You must feel disgust—that’s a GUY according to you—and you must demonstrate that disgust, or you don’t really feel it.
This story gets repeated over and over. Violence against trans women is a huge problem. This isn’t just idle chat.
Man Rule 4. Women are for fucking, men are for fighting (and friending)
Finally, the crux of the matter. It’s almost a corollary to #2 and #3. The plots of so many movies depend on this. “I thought I could be friends with her, but then we fucked.” “Bros before hos.” “Inside of a man, it’s hard to read.” No. Wait. Not that one.
Disrupting this rule is very challenging. Folks watching a male-female friendship cast aspersions and doubt on it. “I don’t like my husband having close female friends. I can’t trust him.” “When are you going to do her, dude?” “He’s only after one thing, Hermione.”
Trans men run smack into this; violence against them can arise from this Rule. We were bros—and now I think you’re a woman? I can’t fuck you—you’re my bro, and I’m not gay, so I don’t know what to do with these feelings. So we’re done, and either I have to:
- fight you (treating you as a man), or
- I get to beat you up (treating you as an unattractive woman), or
- I get to rape you (treating you as an attractive woman).
Any way that comes out, the trans man is losing awfully, and probably losing a friend at the same time.
Genderqueer folk also end up bitten by this, because some men (and many women) are always trying to collapse their waveform: trying to figure out whether to fuck them or fight them. This leaves precious little breathing room for them to actually be.
And of course, cis men lose out too. This rule leads to the stereotype of the lonely man: if you’ve just eliminated half your potential social circle as friends, and you must find the rest to be disgusting, your options dwindle quickly…but at least you’ve got an excuse to brood!
At the heart of all of these rules is an anxious, powerless feeling. The net effect of the rules is to make men out to be rampaging, blameless raping machines, who are simply acting out of uncontrollable urges and can’t be help responsible for raping and beating people up.
This is, of course, bullshit. You are powerful. You can be calm without being a push-over. You are capable, and in control.
Passion can be strong, whether it is to fight, or fuck, or run the hell away. I get it. I’ve been there.
But we men, we’re not helpless, and we’re not blameless. We have the choice, and we can train ourselves to shed these rules.
Unwinding the Rules
First, believe in your own volition. Believe that you can make a good choice even in the heat of passion. It takes prior preparation; you need to set up the system so that, when you are triggered, you do the right thing.
A few years ago, I hit an icy patch of road while coming around a corner, with a steep gulley and icy river staring me right in the face. The tail of my car swung out, and I started to spin toward the gulley. My conscious brain noticed this as my hands were already counter-steering, bringing my front wheels into the skid and allowing me to regain control. Shortly after that, I freaked out a bit, but at that point the car was already pointing straight.
How? Well, it turns out a few thousand hours playing racing games (mostly Gran Turismo) actually trains you! My eyes, brain stem, and hands knew what to do ahead of time, because I’d trained, in something that is a pretty good simulation of the real world.
In that exact same situation, many years back, I saw a friend completely freeze up. He’s got faster reflexes than me. But this time I was stuck helplessly in the back seat, yelling at him to turn into the skid, while we careened off a guardrail and somehow managed NOT to go down a snowy slope. He hadn’t trained, and so in the moment of passion, he didn’t know what to do; instead, he froze, and we crashed.
The Rules train us to do stupid things in the moment of passion. Upset? Lash out. Confronted? Push back, fight back. We get bad training, all our lives.
Train yourself to do not-stupid things. Mentally rehearse. Talk it out with someone. What would you do if someone called you a fag, and shoved his finger in your chest, and dared you to take a swing at him? What would you do if you were kissing a woman and suddenly discovered her breasts were removable?
Think about it now, and you’ll have something to draw upon when the situation arises.
As an aside, computer games are usually very bad training for social interaction. For one, protagonists tend to be psychopathic, as required by the plot. In most games, everyone around you exists solely for the purpose of your story; they’re there to be used, abused, rescued, or discarded. That sets you up for failure in the real world, in the precise ways the above rules outline.
This is sad, because games have the possibility to be amazing teaching tools. I hope game designers continue to move in a direction that teaches you to treat other people as people.
You know this one. You got this one. Do it.
This is a tough one. We like predictability and understandability in our world. It makes us feel in control.
This is an early ‘survival’ skill; we have to learn how to navigate the world of being beaten up / beating up people. Knowing what to expect out of someone is necessary to feel comfortable with them; are they going to beat us up? Kill us? Rape us?
But we take it too far, and way too far into adulthood. We want too much control and definition out of ourselves and the people around us. It really doesn’t matter very much whether that person over there is into dudes or not, and whether they’re presenting as one. It’s a level of detail that isn’t really necessary to decide whether or not they’re going to pull a knife on me, or ruin my work reputation, or whatever. There are a whole host of other things that are way more indicative.
As an adult, you have all sorts of tools at your disposal that you didn’t have as a kid, including “Figuring Out Their Frame Of Mind”, “Using Your Words”, “Leaving The Fucking Playground” and “Calling The Cops Without Being Labeled A Pussy”. Exercise those grown-up abilities.
Finally, remember that you have the all important “I Don’t Give A Shit What They Say” card. Seriously. They called you a fag. How old-fashioned! We’re called queers now. I can get you a copy of the newsletter if you didn’t get it.
Tolerate the feelings unspoken
You’re allowed to have feelings. You’re allowed to feel them, and you don’t have to prove it to anyone. You don’t even have to prove it to yourself. In fact, it’s often healthier to examine your feelings, to feel them, and move on. You don’t have to act it out like an eight-year-old having a tantrum; you can have feelings on the inside, and they’ll still be important.
In summary: I love you all, and hope this provided some food for thought.