December 20, 2011

Tough Guys and Sissies

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:34 pm by sacetalks

I had been meaning to focus on men in a blog for a while, and Christie Blatchford’s article, “Toronto, City of Sissies,” in the National Post has given me an excuse to do so. In her article, she expresses disgust and mortification at the sight of young 10 or 12 year old boys hugging in public. How dare they express affection in front of her bull terrier? Obviously, she and her canine companion are both more “man” than these boys. She boasts that she is often the “toughest guy in the room” to assert how far the situation has gone – she, a woman, is tougher and therefore, more manly than most men, a big problem in her universe. Unfortunately, her universe is very often the same universe you and I live in.

This reminds me of Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity, a film by Jackson Katz that looks at how masculinity is constructed, particularly in popular culture, and what that has to do with violence in the United States. Within the first minute of the film, a voice-over, seemingly a news reporter, states “police say boys, aged 13 and 11 were arrested near the school carrying guns and wearing camouflage…” right after a dialogue associating being a man with being tough. Maybe Blatchford would have preferred to see these boys with their guns than the boys who like to hug. Obviously, she’s not alone in her idealization of a tough guy, seeing as a movie was made about our culture’s fixation on it. According to the film, masculinity is constructed in terms of dominance, power and control – men are tough. If they’re not, then they have to face the threat of being accused of not being a man, like Blatchford did when she called all the boys and men of Toronto “sissies.”

In the film, one of the arguments Katz makes is that the formula [masculinity = tough] can often act as a mask or guise that men “put on” to shield their vulnerabilities from the world. In a recent trial that is gaining a lot of media attention, Dustin Paxton is being prosecuted for multiple offences including aggravated sexual assault and unlawful confinement against his former roommate, a now 28-year-old man. When asked by Crown prosecutor Joe Mercier why he didn’t leave the apartment the two men shared, the 28-year-old said, “I could have, but I would have thought of myself as a sissy for giving up like that.” The fear of being, or being seen as, a sissy informed his choice to stay. The vulnerability of not being “man” enough. Like any victim of violence within an on-going relationship, there are probably many reasons why he didn’t leave, and no matter what, what happened to him was not his fault. The threat of Blatchford’s and many others’ accusatory “sissy” made his experience specifically gendered.

The Christie Blatchford imperative for a man to be tough, the construction of masculinity in terms of dominance, power and control as outlined by Katz, was a barrier to him seeking help specifically because he was a man, and a man is supposed to act a certain way. A man faces those who would attack him. A man does not run to the police. A man is not controlled by another man. A man is independent. A man is not sexually abused or assaulted by another man. A man fights back, he does not run. These are the cultural codes of masculinity that created barriers to him seeking and receiving support.

For fear of being seen as a sissy, how many boys and men are out there who have not told anyone that they were sexually abused or assaulted by their older sister, their coach, their wife, their husband, their best friend, the frat guy after a night of partying? How many tough guys are out there, living in abusive relationships, who don’t seek help because we all have this standard about what it means to be a man? How many men are silently suffering while we perpetuate a notion of tough masculinity?

And how many men, men like Dustin Paxton, have taken on this tough guise and embraced how it legitimates violence? How many tough men are out there abusing other men and women, controlling and dominating, because that’s what it means to be a man? Well, I’ll cite the American stats that Katz uses in his film:

85% of murders are committed by men.

90% of physical assaults are committed by men.

95% of serious domestic violence is committed by men.

95% of dating violence is committed by men.

85-95% of child sexual abuse is committed by men.

99.8% of people convicted of rape are men.

So, a lot of men.

I’m going to guess that men and women who are abused by women are less likely to report, so these stats are likely slightly skewed. However, I believe they are still telling. Telling us that we cannot simply believe it’s the social outsiders, the crazed individuals, that murder, rape, and abuse both men and women in our society. There’s a social context to this violence, and one aspect of that social context is our construction of masculinity. Many people suffer because of how we view men and inevitably shape some men into actors of violence. They are both men and women. Both men and women suffer because of how we’ve constructed manliness as tough, and femininity as implicitly weak.

Those young boys Blatchford spotted who had no qualms about hugging each other in public are not evidence that men have lost sight of their masculinity, as she argues.  Rather, they are a sign that boys in our communities have the opportunity to grow into intelligent, strong, compassionate men with the freedom to show affection in public. It is a sign that the “tough guise” we construct for our boys and men might be losing its directive power so that maybe less of them will act in violence. It is a sign that the fear of being dubbed a sissy no longer has as much power, so if one of those boys ever ends up victimized by another man or woman, he will have friends to turn to for support, who possibly would hug him rather than call him names, be there for him if he goes to the hospital or to the police.

However, it is clear that the masculine standard to be tough still has influence, as is apparent in Christie Blatchford’s violent article directed against men, which would normalize and hold at the highest esteem the “tough guise.” Any boys and men who openly hug in public are engaging in a counter-narrative, in a political act, an act to show alternative possibilities for what it means to be a man. Here are a few links from men who are also opening the possibilities for masculinity to move away from the regiment of a tough guise. Hopefully Blatchford finds her way to one of their websites:

*Please note I am not uncritically recommending these websites, as I am sure there is content I do not agree with, as is true of all of things found online.

By: Meagan Simon