Tuesday, February 05, 2019

WHAT MAKES A MAN A MAN ~ Part 1 ~ The Sissy Factor

In this photograph I am five years old, a half awake, sweet natured, yet bleary eyed child, that still survives somewhere in my psyche's back catalogue. That I was, and some might say still am, a bit of a day dreamer, is caught there for all to see. My parents would chide me for living in a world of my own, trying to ground me by stating the self-evident practicalities of life. Though there's little content wise to distinguish dreaming from day dreaming, you are after all simply mulling over possibilities, they are viewed differently, one is seen as aspirational, the other as delusional. Whether children, teenagers or adults we continue to day dream, its how we emotionally engage with the future direction our lives might take. There should always be a place made for it, because as adults we tend to dismiss our day dreams out of fear, insecurity or reductive practicalities.

A young child doesn't know how separate their dreams are from reality. The young boy in this photo appears too soft, too open, too vulnerable, too emotional, too unguarded and too easy a target for being bullied by other boys. At an early age boys discover there's a very easy way to enhance your masculine credentials, to do so at the expense of other boys by tormenting or beating the hell out of them. Boys have to make the choice between fight or flight, and suffer whatever the dents or bonus to their self-esteem may be. These linger off stage like a gremlin whispering prompts into the ears of the adult actor - cheering or jeering at you.

I'd no idea I how to toughen up and never became a fisty-cuff fighter. I became adept at spotting risky situations where there might be a need to defend myself. Being called out across the street for being 'a sissy', was frequently accompanied by the sound of my legging it.  I understood that my masculinity, however unformed, was publicly being called into question. That this ought not go unchallenged, because no one voluntarily chooses to be a 'sissy', do they?, Five year old boys, though only 'proto-men', do sense what they are expected to be like. I instinctively understood that the macho sporty competitive physical type was not me, so I only half-heartedly tried.  I would never be a forward striker in masculinity football.  I actually found it hard to really understand what all that blokey punching, kicking and posturing was all in aid of. Nowadays, I still find it unnecessary, if not slightly bemusing. Back then it definitely wasn't funny.

Girls are not boys. For young boys, girls are where femininity resides.  Keeping your distance from them appears a worrisome thing for  'true boys.' Wherever 'the feminine' is, you are supposed to be wary of it, reject, ridicule, or if you discover you have it, for god sake try to hide or expel it. Any boy who betrays 'feminine qualities' exposes themselves to the fate of girls; driven from the boy's playground, belittled, patronised, teased and made fun of. Playground behaviour lays the foundations for our confidence in future social interactions. It also sets a self-justifying tone for future misogyny and hostility towards, not just homosexuality, but to anyone else who might have the misfortune to be considered 'foreign','alien' or 'different.'

The word 'sissy' itself comes with its own prejudicial baggage, of a skinny, weak muscled male, not willing to fight, whose masculinity is gentler and sensitive, perceived as not robust, flawed by virtue of the feminine traits present. You don't even have to be the stereotypical effeminate man. You simply have to show interest in subjects devoid of physical prowess, such as maths, science, art or culture, and the 'sissy' badge and T-shirt will arrive in the post.

Boys learn its important to demonstrate their manhood, to show what they are and are not. More grown up men than you might think, straight or gay, play along with macho masculine behaviour simply in order to get by unnoticed and unharmed. A strategy hardwired from an early age. All men become trapped within the narrowly defined constraints of what constitutes a man. a few lay siege to it, whilst most loyally defend.  The frustration and anger that unfortunately readily surfaces in men, arises quite often when a self-perceived failing, a falling short of that unattainable male ideal surfaces. This can gnaw away at the core of a man's sense of his own manhood. Violence towards themselves or others becomes a form of cathartic release. How I coped at Primary School was by retreating to the girl's playground, because that was the place where I felt accepted, where 'sissy boys' could safely hide from the brutal oversight of other boys.

There is no guidebook to what makes a man a man, every boy learns the hard way through their missteps. Picking up suggestions from how older boys and the men around them behave, or male role models in comics, art, history, advertising, books or films and TV. These show you strong, tenacious, resourceful men in full control of their lives, oozing self-confidence, cleverness and ambition, able to assert themselves, take risks, holding hard to a sense of their own power and success. This stereotypical man holds mastery over themselves and their world  Few have cause to question whether this is a fraudulent fiction. They keep up the pretence, that they are all of those things and more. Its as though the whole edifice of traditional masculinity is like a house with very few firm foundations, but with a lot of very heavy props and prompts holding it upright.

So, even if they say otherwise, no man is cutting the full masculine mustard. They must, however, still be seen as possessing power, even when life circumstances and their own feelings scream at them that they do not. Their true selves concealed behind the masculine facade, continuing to play the game according to the known rules. Few men will expose you, for fear of a reprisal. But if your are bequeathed a persona that is 'a bit queer', then this is a game changer for adherence to those rules. In order to survive you'll be forced to turn the way you are into an act of defiance, a vivid, visible and often verbal assault on the revered statutes of traditional masculinity. You have to do what Quentin Crisp recommends:

' the time comes for everybody when you have to do deliberately what you used to do by mistake, this is the only way to get the joke onto your own terms'

Boy-men of any age who call someone 'a sissy' or a 'puff', avoid the questioning finger being pointed at them, by being first on the offencive. Domination is the last refuge of a man who is feeling powerless. Men fear being publicly shamed by women or gay men, and shown up as weak. Their cutting banter sees the flaws and punctures with relish the masculine armour. A macho man is ,paradoxically, at his most vulnerable, emotionally and psychologically. Heterosexual men uses banter differently as a form of subliminal control. Disguised behind lighthearted friendly joshing, its ridicule and teasing is a reminder to not step out of line. If a man's masculinity is publicly exposed for what it truly is, it would not be just humbling, but deeply crushing and destabilising. They would truly lose it.

Its like a citadel whose walls will crumble under the stress of constant siege. If life throws a few curve balls at a man, losing control of his life, career, partner, children or home, only then might they start to dwell on discomforting questions about what they have become and who they really want to be. Many men,unfortunately, continue to avoid or fail to find the answers to these questions, and end up opting out on life completely.

Men, speaking very generally, see no need for self-analysis, remain blind to the privileges of their position as a male, and probably when drunk will espouse the self-evident superiority of their gender. They have little reason to question the toxicity or otherwise of their behaviour as a man, because its still kinda working for them. The world, after all, remains largely run according to the male viewpoint. There are few signs of men self-liberating themselves from the masculine constraints to which patriarchy chains them. He who has risen to be the Lord of the Manor finds it hard to say 'It's a fair cop chaps' no matter how many peasant revolts they have had to suppress.

If you are a woman, a person of colour, a gay person, or anything between and beyond these designations, you'll spend a good part of your life having to become more self-aware in order to discover what you really are. Struggling in the face of prejudice, oppression and ignorance, to become a truer representation of you, to the best of your ability. One way or another you'll have to discover how to 'sissy that walk,' of yours




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