I teach at a university that was, up until recently, a polytechnical college before it was eaten up by a larger state school. That means on a daily basis, I work primarily with men. In a typical writing or literature class that I teach, there are often only one or two women, sometimes none.
And I’m working with men at, what is for most of them, the most vulnerable and emotional period of their lives—18-24, full of raging hormones, struggling through school while facing a lukewarm job market at best, the squeeze of competition rougher than ever as more and more people exactly like them fill college classrooms, with scarce dating prospects for the straight ones on campus, while the authority figures in the liberal arts classes (which are already approached with distrust and distain) are more and more often women like me.
I see a lot of feelings in my classroom.
An excess of feeling—I mean an almost terrifying excess of feeling among these men.
Of course, emotions themselves are nothing new, nothing exclusive to gender, and nothing to generally fear. Still, even just acknowledging that word—emotion—among these young men seems fraught with anxiety and danger.
The kind and quality and position of those feelings in these men are, furthermore, often dangerous.
In our World Lit class for example, students get to pick one of the universal themes we identify in works across time and cultures, things like love, heroism, wisdom, etc, for a project in which they write in depth on that theme. Over the past few years, I’ve been keeping detailed records of which themes are chosen, and by whom. I’ve been startled by one result—one theme stands head and shoulders above the others when it comes to popularity, and that theme is power.
Sometimes more than 70% of the class would independently choose that theme in one semester. All by men. Power was never, not once since I have taught this class, chosen by a female student.
Men across the board shied away from the themes that seemed to have a superficial emotional association—love, family, friendship, even art. After power, they chose social order, heroism, wisdom.
I asked them about this. “Why is power the most popular theme in this class?”
They looked puzzled. How could it not be? The acquisition and maintenance of power is the main thing in life, many of them seemed to claim in their projects. Everything else is a minor concern.
“We’re dudes?” one guy finally offered.
“Women care more about love. Because they’re mothers,” another helpfully explained.
“Women,” another started, emboldened by the other, “struggle to contain themselves and their emotions in a man’s world.” Heads nodded.
I struggled to contain myself. “Are men less emotional than women?” I asked.
A nervous titter in some corners. “Oh definitely. Obviously. Look at ‘chick flicks,’ they’re all tear-jerkers,” one replied. There were no differing views forthcoming.
“So it’s socially acceptable for women to cry, especially in the company of other women. That’s one kind of emotion. What about the other emotions? Happiness, anger?”
“It’s all the same. Women are ‘hormonal’,” one responded, using air quotes around the word as an expression of some kind of disgust it seemed.
“If y’all want to talk about hormones,” the lone middle-aged man in the class offered, “let’s talk about testosterone.”
I nodded, and many of them looked at me with the oh-here-comes-the-feminism look, or turned off their listening completely. “Prisons are full of men who committed crimes out of emotion.” They thought for a beat. “Yes, our prison system is overburdened because of is forces of disenfranchisement, poverty, cycles of abuse in families, but a lot of these crimes, if you get down to it, are caused by getting carried away by feelings. Fear, revulsion, anger.” They thought and thought.
“Anger isn’t…what emotional means though,” one said. Ah-ha, I thought, now we are here. Now we have come to the place of splitting up emotions and gendering them. This, I think—besides the obvious factor of men generally being taught to subduct, to repress rather than express feeling—is why men think they are less emotional than women.
Anger—fearful anger, aggressive anger, snarky anger, all of them—are such high-status emotions in toxic masculine culture that they are hardly considered emotions. They are almost assets in competition. I don’t mean their actual practical use on the battlefield or on a professional sports arena, where most men will never step, but something as banal as conversation.
Mansplaining does exist, absolutely, but have you have heard macho men talk to each other? The toxic masculine culture of one-upmanship, of escalation and competition even in conversation is markedly different from how I talk to my girlfriends on girls night, which often turns into rounds of listening to each other and offering support or ideas. The condescending and argumentative “actually” tactic of mansplaining has its roots, I suspect, in how many men routinely verbally compete with each other, not how they view women. I watch it unfold in my classroom daily. My male students “actually” each other constantly, on topics ranging from politics to video games. In fact, in a world of reddit subthreads and heated online comment debates it may be the central mode of competition among men at this point, dueling now no longer a respectable option.
Evidence of more serious forms of many men’s disordered relationship with emotions are all around us. Gun violence is a good example. Macho one-upmanship takes no more deadly form than turf wars and the compulsory tit-for-tat honor code of violent escalation when rival groups or individuals perceive transgressions on the street. These are feelings—invisible, inchoate—not order, not logic. But even suburban machismo harbors dangerous expressions of toxic masculinity based in irrational emotionality.
Buying a gun, for example, is not a logical choice, it’s an emotional one—for the average household, it does nothing but raise the odds for a gun-related accident or suicide in that house, especially if children are present. “I just want to protect my family,” a person adding a gun to his household might argue, paradoxically. There’s almost nothing in that reasoning but pathos. And maybe that’s fine. But I think it’s time we acknowledge what is really going on here—the fear and anger and defensiveness in an action like rushing out to buy a gun after a mass shooting in this country is a tragic expression of emotion, not rational thinking or “rights” that need be protected by generous gun laws.
I grew up idolizing male heroes just like the students in my class did, because that’s what there was, primarily. Bugs Bunny, Peter Pan, Robin Hood, Batman, and later, Hamlet. There are so many stories about special men and boys, you can take your pick. I watched He-Man, Master of the Universe. Look at those words for a minute, Master of the Universe.
Yes, power is the most popular topic to write about in my World Lit class full of men, because of feelings—fear and anger made treacherous by mismanagement, and what the repression of emotions does to one’s self-esteem. Power is the main thing that seems to offer a vision of stability—of final mastery over the universe to resolve secret struggles with emotion and self-esteem.
The truth is, of course, there is no master of the universe. The universe is for joining, not mastering. The old masculine narrative is a relic, useful to study, not to absorb.
I know it’s late to work on changing the men in my college classes now. Indoctrination into toxic masculine culture starts around second grade, when things like crying or even expressing joy begin to be labeled as unacceptable, tease-worthy, feminine. I try to imagine what it is like for them to live in a world where anger is the only acceptable emotional presentation. I shudder, and grieve. I plan new writing exercises for them: safe, private encouragement for tenderness and self-compassion. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I try, and I will never give up. I imagine an America full of teachers and parents doing the same for our boys and men now, and I feel hope.