Masculine Identity is a Myth
It’s time to teach children about power dynamics, not gendered views of what it means to be a man
It seems like a lot of men have the maturity of middle schoolers. I don’t have any empirical evidence to prove so, but when I listen to the young teenagers who live in my house, the things they say sound a heck of a lot like the rhetoric I hear from some of the grown men on cable news.
That means either my kids are gifted, or many adults are stunted. I’m pretty sure it’s the latter. My children still exhibit a developmentally appropriate lack of basic executive function skills — they can’t remember to put their dirty dishes in the dishwasher, to close the front door, or to strap on a face mask before heading to school. They’re far from achieving adult consciousness.
This week they’ve been complaining about “cancel culture.” I don’t know where they heard the term, probably YouTube, maybe Discord or TikTok. I guess an algorithmic internet rabbit hole is a real thing — coercive and packed full of propaganda. My children must be echoing the influencers in their digital bubble.
How else does one make sense of a privileged thirteen-year-old’s concern that a person can be professionally ostracized, or culturally exiled for saying the wrong things? My kids say the wrong things all day long — at school, online, when talking about cancel culture at the dinner table — and each time it’s met with patience, responsiveness, clear feedback, unconditional love, and I’ll admit, maybe a little bit of patronizing exasperation from their proudly feminist father.
For elite white boys like mine, the cancelation bar soars so high that their distress is unfathomable as anything other than peer-pressured conformity. Maybe they’ve heard the absurd notion that it’s a hard time to be a boy — that American culture no longer respects cisgender men. Some people believe that because subjugated and oppressed communities have leveraged digital media to shine a bright light on the inequity of the mainstream social hierarchy, it’s suddenly difficult to be the ones at the top. In her book, For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity, Liz Plank calls this “masculinity moral panic.”
For elite white boys like mine, the cancelation bar soars so high that their distress is unfathomable as anything other than peer-pressured conformity.
It’s not a new phenomenon. There’s a long history of self-help books about the supposed devaluation of masculinity. It’s an easy thing to write. Combine a narrative of victimhood with a call for self-actualization. Advise readers to embrace their authentic, unique selves while simultaneously going all-in on gender essentialism. Tell them to feel good about who they are, be confident, be present, and hardworking. Tell them that they’ve lost their male pride — and with it their innate capacity for service and compassion. Blame a culture of political correctness that refuses to acknowledge a biologically predetermined social order. It’s not your fault. The gods are angry. Your depression and anxiety symptoms are just unconscious compensation for a collective moral failure.
It’s understandable that these ideas resonate with some men. On the surface, the message seems empowering. Who doesn’t want to feel more fulfilled? Who wouldn’t want to thrive? Who isn’t after more genuine relationships? And while it’s true that the anti-woke crowd — presumably drowsy and stuck in the past, like Rip Van Winkle— generally loves to tell others that personal accountability reigns supreme, they seem more than happy to attribute their imagined experience of masculine suppression to supposedly unjust systemic social and political developments.
Many of the men I know, who read popular male-empowerment books — or more likely, listened to the audio editions — stepped out of the car, into the house, and shared their enthusiasm for a new way of thinking. They told their wives about all the positive, transformational messages they’ve embraced. Spine straight and shoulders back like Jordan Peterson’s lobster, they talked about feeling penetrating and orderly, like David Deida’s “Superior Man.”
They were shocked when the women in their lives rolled their eyes, shook their heads, and identified the underlying misogynist posture. The men were confused because they didn’t realize that they were enamored with a version of patriarchal stoicism that’s ultimately just a derivative of colonial-era puritanical thinking: father knows best and he’s excessively proud of his hardened demeanor and persistent work ethic.
This type of moral self-righteousness, mixed with measured efficiency, is what made Benjamin Franklin’s timetabled daily routine so famous — What good shall I do this day? Contrive the day’s business. Put things in their places. Now, the old American exceptionalism has been recontextualized for a new technological and economic paradigm, but the story is the same.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with orderly persistence. The fallacy here is what I call locker room gender essentialism: the immature assumption that biological anatomy determines cultural behavioral conventions, the implication that men are inherently rational, deliberate, and entrepreneurial.
It’s true that the anti-woke crowd generally loves to tell others that personal accountability reigns supreme, but they seem more than happy to attribute their imagined experience of masculine suppression to supposedly unjust systemic social and political developments.
To Robert Bly’s credit, the mythopoetic men’s movement of the 1990s was based on a phenomenological stance. Rather than making a biological argument for the traits of manliness, it evaluated what archetypal psychologists might call “the imaginal man.” Drawing on the work of Carl Jung, the Iron John cohort interpreted ancient myths, fairy tales, art, and literature. They made a pseudo-statistical case that the prevalence of certain gendered images constitutes evidence of psychological essentialism.
They considered the longevity and ubiquity of symbolic images and tropes to be empirical evidence of an unconscious, primordial truth. The trouble is that they failed to acknowledge that the dataset was bound to be skewed. Societies tend to be motivated only to preserve the narrative artifacts which reinforce their existing assumptions. History is how we reframe the past to normalize the present, so we’re likely to bury a body of evidence that contradicts the status quo.
More recent iterations of “men’s work” have completely bastardized any small measure of legitimacy that the mythopoetic perspective might’ve held. They try to fortify traditional masculinity with a blend of archetypal spiritualism, evolutionary psychology, and an unhealthy dose of speculative neuroscience. It doesn’t hold up to philosophical or scientific scrutiny.
It’s philosophically invalid because it’s grounded in a chaotic composite of contradictory theories. When Edmund Husserl developed phenomenology in the early 20th century, he was reacting to the world’s extreme dependence on scientific objectivity. Husserl opposed the way the predominant worldview overlooked the importance of first-person perception. He called for a renewed focus on the structures of consciousness, the ways in which we experience meaningful phenomena.
Husserl would likely find it absurd and paradoxical that so many popular authors try to anchor a positivist argument for biological determinism in a phenomenological study of ancient symbolism. It’s even sillier when folks try to support our current cultural gender norms with a hypothetical pre-history. They claim, for example, that their theses about male promiscuity and female nested-commitment are substantiated by evolutionary theory. Really, it’s all just projection and fantasy. The fossil record doesn’t concur with sexist origin stories.
The science is clear. The American Psychological Association (APA) has stated unequivocally that biological sex has no bearing on cognition or personality. And as Tel Aviv University neuroscience professor Daphna Joel explains, “Certain brain features do differ, on average, between women and men, but as a rule, features that are more common in women don’t consistently add up in women’s brains; nor do features more common in men consistently add up in men’s brains.” In other words, the human brain is not gendered. Joel says we should think of it like a mosaic of attributes and traits, no combination of which is exclusive to genital, hormonal, or chromosomal categories.
Still, a mistakenly naturalized version of manhood mythology thrives. That’s what enables the narrative, “It’s a hard time to be a boy.” What makes it hard? Supposedly, social restrictions prevent cisgender males from freely expressing their “true masculine identity.”
Of course, there’s no such thing as true masculine identity. And even if there were, this way of thinking would still be problematic. After all, there’s a credible argument that society is dependent on self-censorship and social taboos. This is the core principle of psychoanalytic theory. Sigmund Freud argued that we all feel anxiety because we’re forced to suppress certain impulses. That’s what it takes to live peacefully in community with others.
The goal of psychoanalysis, from Freud’s perspective, was not to allow all the repressed material to flow out unencumbered, but rather to receive respite from our suffering. How? By acknowledging that we sometimes misinterpret our emotional responses to valid social conventions. Or, as my kids would say, “Sorry. We get triggered by some of the rules. We just really want to break them.”
Furthermore, if Freud was correct that social taboos — along with the super-ego censorship that prevents us from acting on instinct — creates psychological inhibitions that yearn for catharsis, it’s presumably a universal dilemma. Which should make us all wonder why some men are so concerned with masculine devaluation but not the devaluation of others.
In my experience, the cisgender men who shout the battle-cries of essentially masculinity at weekend drum circles and wilderness retreats rarely argue that cisgender women should be allowed to talk freely about menstruation, breast-feed in public, or speak openly about their sexual desire without fearing an onslaught of slurs and insults. “Slut is a word that men invented, like witch,” Melissa Febos writes in her fantastic book, Girlhood, “to maintain power over women and keep them in service to men.”
The cisgender men who shout the battle-cries of essentially masculinity at weekend drum circles and wilderness retreats rarely argue that cisgender women should be allowed to talk freely about menstruation, breast-feed in public, or speak openly about their sexual desire without fearing an onslaught of slurs and insults.
How do I teach my kids to recognize that long before cancel culture became a hashtag, the majority of people lived in fear of being ostracized and exiled by a white supremacist cis-hetero patriarchy? It’s not easy. The struggle of today’s adolescent transformation, especially for privileged kids like mine, is not only about developing the executive function skills necessary to take responsibility for the logistics and mechanics of adult life. It’s also about incorporating a mature, critical awareness of societal power dynamics into your worldview. For that, the old tough-love, sink-or-swim approach to fathering won’t cut it.
If there’s anything today’s teens need specifically from their fathers, it’s certainly not more manhood. Instead, dads need to let the kids know that “real men” have a healthy relationship to gender.