Men and Emotion

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.

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Mr. Popular in World Lit

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.”football-hooligans.jpg

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.BabyArc001.gif

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.

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ACTUALLY

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.he_man_smash.jpg

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.

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17 thoughts on “Men and Emotion

  1. Excellent and on point. I have 3 sons. The oldest will be entering second grade in the fall. Their father is sensitive and emotional – able to express emotions beyond anger. I know you teach at the college level, but do you have any recommendations on what type of writing/thinking exercises I can try with my oldest (and subsequent sons)? Sharing your article. Thank you for trying to get these young men to think and feel beyond anger.

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    • Thank you for your comment! I find that the two most important things in shaping a healthy relationship to emotions for young men and boys is providing them positive models (which it sounds like their dad is doing!) and secondly open communication. I highly recommend encouraging young boys to keep a “truth” journal in which they write candidly about how they feel about events, friends, and themselves, as emotional honesty always starts with the self.

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  2. Great post! Father of two boys also struggling with these issues. My approach has been neither to suppress nor elevate any one particular emotion over the others. Even if it were possible, I don’t think delegitimizing anger would work any better than has delegitimizing ‘feminine’ emotions.

    At the risk of mansplaining, I have to point out that ACTUALLY the show was called He-Man Masters [plural] of the Universe. He-Man is not the master. Indeed, the most powerful character in the show was a female: Sorceress of Castle Grayskull. She’d often just pop up in an episode and give He-Man a temporary advantage via her magic to defeat Skeletor. Also, you must never have watched She-Ra: Princess of Power, the spin-off based on He-Man’s sister. He-Man ran for 2 seasons, 130 episodes; She-Ra for 2 seasons, 93 episodes.

    Most importantly, He-Man and Skeletor each possess one half of the Power Sword. If you put the two halves together, it becomes the key to Castle Grayskull. Whoever gets in the Castle can obtain secrets enabling him or her to rule the universe – i.e., be the actual master of the universe. Skeletor is the villain and his purpose is to try and get the other half of the sword to impose his will on the universe; He-Man is the hero and his purpose is to stop Skeletor.

    I would argue that this is the problem with hero culture – it works okay so long as men can see themselves as kind of a hero (as a husband, father, etc.) in an everyday context. If that breaks down, the hero culture expresses itself in the basest form: as a fight against some external enemy (which of course is to blame for the break down in the man’s life). Tragically, this ‘fight’ usually takes the form of attacking defenseless people, making the man the villain not the hero.

    I suggest you encourage your male students to volunteer – to mentor underprivileged kids, assist senior citizens, etc. – and write about that experience. The real sense of compassion and empathy that arises from helping someone just one time is worth a thousand writing assignments on emotions. And the best part: they still get to be heroes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great idea for suggesting volunteering! And thanks for all of the nuanced info about He-Man–I know he is not “The Master”–I acknowledge that here, much more to the show than I remember!

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  3. “The universe is for joining, not mastering. The old masculine narrative is a relic, useful to study, not to absorb.”

    Which is to say, since “joining” is of course the feminine “narrative” (“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 old masculine narrative is a relic, the (new?) feminine narrative is the present and the future.

    Note also that, at least as far as the above piece goes, “toxic masculinity” is redundant with just plain masculinity – no other version of distinctly masculine behavior is described or even hypothesized – except that the “toxic” is there to make sure you know it’s a bad thing.

    Politically I guess this is pretty much harmless. But if nothing else, it’s embarrassing that, under the right circumstances*, some people (besides the right, from whom it’s expected) can take seriously the idea that one culture is fundamentally better than another, which is so fundamentally depraved that it’s worthless, except as an intellectual curiosity.

    (* Circumstances: “worse” culture is dominant, “better” culture is subordinate; even better if dominant culture is decadent, which masculinity certainly is, and the subordinate culture is ascendant, which I guess femininity necessarily must be.)

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    • Thank you for your comment! You’re right, I only discuss toxic masculinity here, not the healthy masculinity which is by far the norm in most men I have met in my life. Absolutely not trying to conflate the two, just as I would never conflate misandry with feminism–one is disordered and the other is healthy. I’m trying to argue *against* gendering emotions and push back on the idea that men shouldn’t be regarded as sensitive and full of feelings, a perception some men fiercely resist because it is associated with femininity–all of which causes great harm to them and everyone around them. Women can also have all kinds of unhealthy relationships with emotions too, and that is for another post.

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  4. >The truth is, of course, there is no master of the universe. The universe is for joining, not mastering

    Yeah, like joining with disease-ridden jungles and watching your skin melt off. Or freezing and starving to death. Or “joining” with nature and living as an illiterate psychotic savage. Nauseating.

    “Emotional rationality” is also a pretty pointless goal if you don’t have a formal theory of emotions (hint: they are second-order after values). Especially since you clearly aren’t very rational. Not to mention emotionless rationality… is also completely valid.

    You also might want to rethink your distrust of power, anger, arguments, etc. There’s a difference between Machiavelli and whats comes out of the socket on your wall. And destructive emotions are NOT illegitimate — it is not possible for anyone in this world to be happy in it if they are genuinely and solely concerned with morality and justice. Hatred is a destructive emotion just as love is a constructive one. But construction is not good, and destruction is not evil.

    There are no good or bad emotions. Only good or bad values.

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    • Thank you for your comment! This is a PERFECT example of a highly emotional response masquerading as rationality. There is so much fear in your description of the world, and so much aggressive hatred in your comments about my observations on my students. “There’s a difference between Machiavelli and whats (sic) comes out of the socket on your wall”–indeed! I am literally an expert on the subject! Literally! “There are no good or bad emotions”–yes! That is MY point! I am so glad you agree. I will show your comment to my students as an example of how feelings like fear and hatred interfere with common sense and rational thinking. “This post brought up a fearful image of the world for me and a lot of anger towards the author” would have been a much more straightforward, time-saving, and healthy approach to articulating your emotional reaction to this post. Thank you for reading it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • >“This post brought up a fearful image of the world for me and a lot of anger towards the author”

        Yes, exactly. The problem is that you’re incapable of judging between good and evil. Like your shallow love of the universe. The universe that is entirely and overwhelmingly evil. Aside from humanity, which is *uniquely* capable of goodness. Or “common sense”. The same common sense that wants to let the majority of humanity freeze and starve to death so as not to disturb Mother Earth.

        YOU might not be able to comprehend why anything you believe is worthy of destruction, but that’s not much of an argument, is it? Maybe you should reflect on the emotional reaction that occurred when I questioned your supposed wisdom?

        If you want to work on intellectual honesty, you should maybe question why exactly you think the sphere of legitimacy for destruction is so small.

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  5. Wow, great article! Definitely resonates with my experience of a lot of straight and gay men both. I’ve known a lot of women and men who believe that men don’t have emotions–this belief is hegemonic for many and comes at a very high price for all of us. I’ve lived and travelled in places where men do show a wider range of emotions more freely. (North) American men seem very shut down except when they are angry–shut down to expressions of happiness, sadness and a wide range of other feelings. It’s not like they aren’t there, but the misrecognition/repression leads to such bad outcomes. When in Brazil, for example, I loved that many Brazilian men would laugh, cry, hug and have good, open relationships with other men. It’s not that there aren’t violent emotions in Brazil, but American men seem exceptionally concerned with power and rank and often have great difficulty relating to others.

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  6. Reblogged this on A Philosopher's Take and commented:
    An excerpt:

    “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.”

    Thought-provoking and seems to me to be SPOT ON!

    Like

  7. Hi Professor Brodak,

    This is Jinseon! I happened to come across your blog after wondering about you because you were in one of my dreams last night–and surprise, surprise, it was about poetry. Haha.

    I LOVE THIS POST SO MUCH BECAUSE IT’S SO SPOT ON ABOUT SO MANY THINGS. Just want you to know how much I appreciate this post!

    Like

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