Last time we talked, I was discussing this post, “Male Shame,” and how the indoctrination of men into the Christian cult of manly-manliness affected my own life and that of my then-husband, Biff. (And yes, as someone’s astutely noted, that’s not his real name. The pseudonym was chosen quite deliberately; the similarities between him and the movie character are downright eerie.) Today I want to talk more about the fear at the heart of this indoctrination. And I want to make clear that this isn’t something solely and uniquely done by Christianity or even by all flavors of the religion. Hopefully as we go I’ll make my case that Christianity just took this teaching and ran with it.
If I was to to say what is the major emotion of American masculinity, it is anxiety. Why? Because you have to prove your masculinity all the time.
When I was talking about how men defined themselves by how non-female they were, I wasn’t kidding around. Gender roles for men have traditionally focused on how very, very different men were thought to be from women. Women were supposed to be nurturing and soft, compliant and receptive. Men, by contrast, were supposed to be the opposite of all of those things. Virtues for men seemed to revolve entirely around demonstrating how non-womanly they were. Men were strong–unlike women, who were seen as weak. Men were protective–unlike women, who needed protection. Men didn’t care about frilly froufrou stuff like draperies–unlike women who were supposed to find great satisfaction in arranging and caring for their homes. Men didn’t eat things like gelatin salads–unlike women whose digestive systems were seen as needing these light, airy, insubstantial foods.
Building off that black-and-white view, society only offered one life script for men and one for women–and women’s life script centered entirely around their relationships with other people, notably and especially men. Even now, men get programmed to view women–especially women’s bodies–as adjuncts to their own identities as not-women. And that programming depends completely on women to adhere to their scripts in order for men to be able to derive male identities from being not-women. See what I mean? If a woman holds up her end of the bargain by being “womanly,” which is to say weak, soft, and desirous of protection, then men can continue to define themselves as not-women by cultivating identities that are the opposite of those traits.
But women threw a monkey-wrench into the works by pursuing equal rights. Women no longer define themselves as the inferiors of men, and many women no longer see themselves as soft, weak, or in need of protection by men. Hell, they may never have seen themselves that way; they may just finally be brave enough to say so. It wasn’t ever a true form of protection anyway; the idea of men being protective caretakers of women was just a self-serving conceit men cultivated at women’s expense, allow me to say as someone who lived that life for years. Some of the men I knew may well even have thought sincerely that they were protective caretakers, even. But the reality went very differently than the illusion did and I knew many women who suffered under it.
There’s a second element to how men define themselves, as well, and that’s consensus. As long as all men agree that this kind of identity-formation is valuable and necessary, the illusion works to some extent. Culture punishes men who go outside that identity. Even in childhood, boys call each other slurs to keep each other in line and punish nonconformity, while parents tell their sons to “man up” and not to act like girls. And little boys absorb the teaching that being female is a bad thing, and that having traits thought feminine is a bad thing.
You think this is just a magazine, hmm? This is not just a magazine. This is a shining beacon of hope for… oh, I don’t know… let’s say a young boy growing up in Rhode Island with six brothers pretending to go to soccer practice when he was really going to sewing class and reading Runway under the covers at night with a flashlight.
— The Devil Wears Prada
The stakes are high, extending to bullying and even violence for boys who don’t conform to society’s idealized version of manliness. In Bloom County, a long-running comic strip popular when I was hitting my teens, the artist of it constantly inverted and subverted tropes around sexuality and perceptions of masculinity and femininity; one young character in it, Binkley, was constantly getting flack from his super-manly father for not being a hyper-masculine athlete, hunter, car-repair enthusiast, or dating machine like his old man saw himself as. I’m sure the stuff Binkley’s dad said to him wouldn’t sound out of place at all to most men reading my words, nor his constant attempt to pressure his son into more manly behavior by giving him inappropriate gifts for Christmas. (“You expectin’ Bigfoot comin’ after my stamp collection?” the boy asks at one point, gingerly holding up a newly-unwrapped .44-caliber gun that is nearly as big as he is–a strangely prescient gag that works even today.)
As these boys age into men the stakes get even higher. They are taught courtship rituals and dating habits that depend completely on women maintaining a particular conformity to the notion of being soft, weak, and needing of protection. Boys are taught that housework is girls’ work while work outside the home is men’s work, that men’s free time is more valuable than women’s free time, and that their identities as providers, protectors, and caretakers is to be valued above all else–and that this identity must be defended against near-constant sniping attacks by other men. They are taught to think that women were just made to be nurturing and to like clean homes, and to look at women as strange alien creatures who can hardly hope to be understood except perhaps by a few lucky horse-whisperer types–but whose bodies must be protected from other male interlopers, and that any interloper who manages to sneak off with their property must be punished. They are taught that women are foolish little things who can’t control themselves and need a man to help guide them. All of this depends on both men and women to behave in certain ways and value certain things.
More sinisterly, men are taught to view women’s bodies as an entitlement, and to consider their own own sexuality as a raging beast that can sometimes be provoked beyond all hope of control. And these teachings, too, depend completely on women accepting their position in a rigid hierarchy, and on men to continue wishing to keep women in that position.
If suddenly men don’t want to hold women in that position (and many do not, indeed), or women simply refuse to allow themselves to be placed there, then the hierarchy itself stumbles. There’s herd immunity involved here–a self-correcting mechanism that keeps many men and women in place. But if too many people escape from the herd, then the whole hierarchy starts to disintegrate like wet toilet paper.
When I see the hierarchy that gender-policing enforces, I can’t help but think of another ideology that enforces that kind of hierarchical thinking: Christianity. Locked in nostalgia for a never-never land past, unable to face change, fighting progress and dreaded “liberalism” every step of the way, and seeing that as society and culture grow less religious it grows freer of those gender roles, the worst parts of the religion seized upon this teaching and began promoting it with ever-increasing fervor.
When I was Christian, the popular conceptualization of an ideal family and society involved an umbrella. The illustration we saw in the original “Male Shame” post was something I lived with every single day. I’ve reprinted it here. The idea was that Jesus was in authority to all the parties below him in the hierarchy, and then after that husbands, who were in authority over all the people below them in the hierarchy, and then wives, and last children. Unmarried women were considered “children” even as adults, subject to the authority of their fathers until they were handed over to their new
owners keepers masters husbands. And to keep us compliant, we women got lots of sunshine blown up our butts about how valuable and important we were to the general paradigm. Yes, I’m sure we were very valuable and important, in the exact same way that a fast-food cashier is important to a restaurant owner’s bottom line.
This whole idea was presented to me as an easy-to-understand diagram with easy-to-understand concepts. This > that > this other > this last thing. A woman was never allowed to move up past a man in the hierarchy, ever, for example. But the reality was a lot different. In truth, this diagram doesn’t include a wealth of other factors that went into deciding who had authority over whom, like race, socioeconomic status, length of membership in the church, any past scandals, familial relationship with the pastor, popularity with the denomination’s big names, and more. If someone were to sit down and really accurately represent this “easy” diagram in the real world, it’d start looking a lot more like an English Order of Precedence than a single little picture like this one here. But I don’t think most Christians would ever admit this to be the case.
When I became Christian, this hierarchy was already set in stone. My church believed that it was not only the very best life script possible for all human beings but that altering or changing it would cause a great deal of harm to society itself. It goes without saying that they thought that their god had handed it personally to them. Feminism, with its frightening demands of equality, is called “the curse of independence” by a great many Christians–it’s not hard to find the term in searches, along with prayers that the Christian god demolish this curse so that women will meekly, happily traipse back to their previous gender roles and it’ll all magically go back to the way it was before feminism reared its head. We didn’t use that exact phrase for feminism back then, but we did actually say that women’s perceived freedom was really slavery. I know, it’s kind of creepy to think about even now.
And I perceive that this teaching has only gotten more ossified and strident since I deconverted. As women gain more and more independence, the hierarchy gets more and more precarious and the chances of getting women back under control get more and more remote. In the next quote, notice that the Christian who wrote it even directly states that if men would only “love Jesus” again, they would automatically become “real men,” who presumably never visit strip clubs or engage in “oversimplified” spirituality. And notice that he’s pretty sure he knows exactly what the definition of a “real man” is. I’m sure it’s the same definition his god uses. (Isn’t it striking how often Christians try to seize the right to define what a “real man” and “real woman” are?)
For years I mocked that bumper sticker that reads “Real Men Love Jesus.” I considered it an oversimplification and evidence of slogan-driven spirituality. I once saw it posted on a billboard strategically situated over a gentlemen’s club. It seemed a foolish gesture. Are we to believe that Jesus can save us from the brazen immorality in our culture? Yes. We must believe it or there is nothing to believe. The more I’ve peered at manhood through the cross, the more I’ve come to admit the truth of this simple statement. If men would love Jesus they would be real men. If men would love Jesus they would find a power over the most notorious sins.
—“Real Men Love Jesus”
When Christians talk about re-adherence to gender roles as something that will “save” them from “immorality,” what they’re really talking about is a terror of change, of the future, of what it will mean for their own entrenched privilege if women can’t be re-chained. I seriously think Christians like this carry around in their heads an idealized version of the Happy Christian Society, a gauzy notion of a good-parts-only 1950s Mad Men-by-way-of-Mayberry culture where men were always manly and protective and had good jobs and wore suits, where women were always pretty and docile and stayed home to care for the house and family, where kids ran around the whole neighborhood and rode bikes, where everybody had a nice tract house and went to church every Sunday, where crime didn’t even happen and rape was unheard-of, where every woman wanted babies, where women never had trouble from men, and where, if LGBTQ people or non-Christians existed, they sure kept quiet about it.
And the Christians who value this idea of the Happy Christian Society are angry. They are downright furious at women for taking away all their toys. There’s a palpable sense of revenge-lust when you hear Christians talk about putting the genie of women’s rights back in that bottle and when they talk about their desire to see women brought low and punished for their daring and uppity ways. They chortle with glee when they hear women talking about having trouble finding good mates; they point out at every opportunity the punishment women are getting for demanding men treat them with respect. This is why men aren’t getting married much anymore, women are told. You did this to them. They’re being mean to you because you deserved it. You wanted too much and flew too close to the sun. Now look what you made them do. I’ve seen Christian men themselves point out to feminist women that they don’t find them attractive or marriageable like it’s something those women should find deeply worrisome, as if those women had indicated the faintest bit of interest in being these men’s partners. This next quote doles out considerable “I told you so” schadenfreude, blaming the two things its writer sees as having destroyed that Mad Men/Mayberry fantasy:
Unlike my mother’s generation where gender roles were uniquely defined and respected in America, the 1960s feminist movement and the offspring of liberalism has led to the death of masculinity in America today. Gender roles have eroded to non-existence. . . It’s time for men to man up; women to be feminine again and America to reject the lies feminism is built upon: abortions and career women.
— How Feminists and Feminism Has Destroyed Masculine and Feminine Roles (sic)
To authors like this one, respect and autonomy are zero-sum games, and a man’s respect and autonomy are valued much more greatly than that of a woman. So if anybody is to get respect and autonomy, then it is absolutely going to be a man. Otherwise, society falls apart. Masculinity itself–defined as being not-female–starts to get threatened if the definition of female-ness changes too much. Her solution is for women to quit redefining themselves and wanting the things that men have. She wants women to start playing along with the fantasy again.
If women don’t play along, then how are men supposed to define themselves?
See, this way of defining maleness–by how un-female it is–a false definition. It rests entirely not only on women’s subjugation but on women’s adherence to their own gender roles. A man can only define himself by what it is to be not-a-woman. But now women define themselves using many of the same terms men use, or even with a more universal, gender-free vision of a progressive, enlightened person with traits valuable for both men and women. Both genders are stepping outside that hierarchy and are no longer confined to those rigid gender roles. Women are claiming–and slowly starting to get–the same perks and benefits men get in the workplace and in society.
And with every single gain made by women, insecure men will feel that much more diminished and threatened. Every advance is a slap in the face to everything they were taught, and another toy ripped out of their grubby little hands. That the toy was there unfairly to begin with hardly even matters to them. How are these men to define themselves now? Of what value is this construct they have been taught to revere their entire lives? And oh, there are all these new rules to learn and mores to internalize. It probably does look daunting, and they just don’t want to do it–or even see the necessity of doing it. I’ve seen more than one prayer issued to “God” to just turn it all Back To The Way It Was. If that happens, then nobody must go to all that trouble, after all.
It all boils down to this: a mind that suffers from indoctrination into dogma–whether the dogma is religious or not–is the least able to master those new skills and ideas. That’s exactly why often you’ll see someone deconvert but still cling to the gender-based programming Christianity teaches–and why at this point you’re really guessing 50/50 about what religion a raging misogynist follows. This teaching is like the “Deep Magic” from the Narnia series–the undercurrent of quite a lot of the worst things going on in Christianity and in our Christianity-dominated society itself. It is a trumpet call that controlling or insecure men hear like a spaniel hears a dog-whistle.
This false definition of gender has led to some downright heartbreaking impacts on not only individual people’s lives but on society itself. And we’ll be taking up next with some of those, examining what those undercurrents are forming into above the water.