Masculinity is something I’ve always felt I viewed from the outside.
It’s very strange; for someone who doesn’t look back very often and has a rather healthy disdain for nostalgia, for some reason since the pandemic started, I’ve been revisiting my past a lot. I don’t know, perhaps it was triggered by having dinner with an old friend from high school a while back (which also inspired me to write a horribly dark short story); or perhaps it’s because of short stories or novel ideas I’ve been toying with, but lately, I’ve been thinking about my past much more so than I usually do, and what it was like for me growing up. I wrote a Sisters in Crime quarterly column several years ago about the first time I realized, once and for all, that I was indeed different from everyone else–it centered the first time I heard the word fairy used towards me as a pejorative, as well as the first time I was called a faggot. I’ve also been examining and turning over issues of masculinity inside my head for quite some time (most of my life). #shedeservedit was itself an examination of toxic masculinity and how it reverberates through a small community when it’s allowed to run rampant and unchecked: boys will be boys. Some short stories I’ve published have also examined the same subject.
What can I say? My not being the American masculine ideal has played a very major part in shaping my life and who I am; how could it not? I used to, when I was a kid, pray that I’d wake up the next morning and magically be turned into the kind of boy I was supposed to be, the kind that every other boy I knew–from classmates to cousins to everything I watched on television and at the movies.
Society and culture have changed in many ways since I was a little boy who didn’t fit so easily into the conformist role for little boys; roles for male and female were very narrowly defined when I was a child, and children were forced into conforming to those roles almost from birth. Boys were supposed to be rough and tumble and play sports and get dirty and like bugs and frogs and so forth; girls were supposed to be feminine and play with dolls or play house, wear dresses and mother their baby dolls. Boys weren’t supposed to read or enjoy reading (but I was also supposed to get good grades and be smart), and that was all I wanted to do when I was a kid. I used to love Saturdays, when my mother would go to the grocery store and drop me off at the library on her way. I loved looking at the books on the shelves, looking at the cover art and reading the descriptions on the back. I loved getting the Scholastic Book Club catalog and picking out a few books; the excitement of the day when the books I’d ordered arrived and I could go out on the back porch when I got home and read them cover to cover. I was constantly, endlessly, pushed to do more “boyish” things; I played Pee-wee baseball (very much against my will), and later was pushed into playing football in high school–which I hated at first but eventually came to love…which just goes to show, don’t automatically hate something without trying it. But yeah, I never loved playing baseball. I was enormously happy when we moved to Kansas and I discovered, to my great joy, that my new high school didn’t have a team.
One less traditionally masculine thing for me to participate in was always a bonus.
The things that I really wanted to do weren’t considered masculine pursuits, and as a general rule I was denied them as much as possible. My parents forbade me from reading books about girls–Nancy Drew, the Dana Girls, Trixie Belden–which, quite naturally, made me want them more (my entire life the best way to get me to do something is to tell me either not to do it or tell me I can’t do it…either always makes me want to do it). Oddly enough, when my reading tastes became more adult–when I moved from children’s books to reading fiction for adults–they didn’t seem to care that I was reading books by women about women quite so much as they did when I was younger; either that, or they gave up trying as they finally saw me as a lost cause–one or the other; I don’t know which was the actual case. Maybe my embrace of football in high school overrode everything else suspect about me. It’s possible. My family has always worshipped at the goalposts…and I kind of still do. GEAUX TIGERS!
I spent a lot of my early life trying to understand masculinity and how it worked; what it was and why it was something I should aspire to–and never could quite wrap my mind around it. The role models for men always pointed out to me–John Wayne, etc.–never resonated with me; I always thought they were kind of dicks, to be honest. The whole “boys don’t cry, men never show emotions, men make the money and the entire household revolves around their wants and needs” shtick never took with me, and of course, as I never had any real sexual interest in women…the whole “locker room talk” thing was always kind of revolting to me, because I always saw girls as people. It probably had something to do with the fact that I was more likely to be able to trust girls than boys; I had so many boys decide they couldn’t be friends with me anymore because at some point other kids calling me a fairy began having an negative impact on their own lives all through junior and senior high school (to this day, I’ve never understood this; why were we friends before, and what changed? It wasn’t me…I didn’t suddenly switch gears from butch boy to effeminate overnight) it’s little wonder I have difficulty ever trusting straight men…but in fairness, I have trouble trusting everyone. But I never quite understood the entire “boys are studs girls are sluts” thing, but I also never truly understood the dynamics of male/female attraction. Yes, I dated in high school; I dated women in college before I finally stopped entirely. And yes, I also have had sex with women, back then–but never really enjoyed it much.
In all honesty, I still don’t understand masculinity, at least not as it was defined in my earlier decades of life. I’ve never understood the cavemen-like mentality of responding with violence (no matter how angry I get, I never get violent); I’ve never understood the refusal to recognize that women are human beings rather than life support systems for vaginas and wombs and breasts; I’ve never understood the mentality that a man’s desires should trump (see what I did there?) bodily autonomy for women. No man has a right to a woman’s body, nor does any man have a right to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body. Maybe always being an outsider looking in and observing has something to do with my mindset, maybe my difference and always having mostly female friends most of my life is what shaped me into understanding these things.
I also mostly only read women’s books, to be honest. There are some straight male writers I read and admire (Ace Atkins, Bill Loefhelm, Michael Koryta, Harlan Coben, Chris Holm, Stephen King, Jeff Abbott and Paul Tremblay, just to name a few) but I really have no desire to read straight male fantasies that reduce women to caricatures and gay men, if they do appear, as stereotypes; but after I recently read I the Jury by Mickey Spillane, a comment someone left on my post gave me a whole new perspective on how to read such books from the 40’s 50’s, and 60’s; the perspective of reading these books as examples of post-war PTSD…and that opened my eyes to all kinds of questions and potential critical analyses; that the horrors of World War II and what the veterans saw and experienced shaped the development of the culture of toxic masculinity that arose after the war (not that toxic masculinity didn’t exist before the war, of course, but the war experience certainly didn’t help any and it most definitely reshaped what “being a man” meant). I was thinking about doing a lengthier critical piece, on I the Jury, along with the first Travis McGee novel, and possibly including Ross Macdonald, Richard Stark and possibly Alistair MacLean. There’s certainly a wealth of material there to take a look at, evaluate, and deconstruct–and that’s not even getting into Ian Fleming and James Bond.
I’ve also always found it rather interesting that Mickey Spillane was Ayn Rand’s favorite writer. Make of that what you will.And on that note, I am off to bed. The last two days have been long ones, and tomorrow and Sunday will also be long days. I’m planning on driving back to New Orleans on Sunday–timing it so I get back after the parades are over so I can actually get home–regardless of what happens here. It’s not been an easy time here, and I am very tired.