- Debbie Dougherty
What is Going on with this "Man Thing"?
Updated: Jan 27
Debbie S. Dougherty
When my son turned 12, he wanted a birthday party with his closest buddies. I suggested that we take his friends to Indian Food (his favorite) and then play laser tag. My car fit five people, so we piled in 3 of his closest friends, my son, and myself, and headed toward town (remember, we live on a farm so this is a bit of a journey). I bet you can guess what they talked about during our car ride. Yep. Their favorite novels. To be more precise, they were entranced with Percy Jackson and the Olympians, a series by author Rick Riordan. I am not kidding. I don’t usually get this look into the inner world of boys, but I was grateful for the experience. They had this amazing enthusiasm for life, for conversation, for books.
I asked them if this is what they usually talked about and they said “yes. What else were they supposed to talk about?” “Sports?” I asked. Only one of them played sports, and they did not have common ground there. “Girls?” I asked. They immediately jumped into a discussion of which girls in their class liked the Percy Jackson novels. They then segued into a conversation about which girls liked to play video games, and then they jumped back into a discussion of the novels. Why, after all, would they talk about girls when they had these amazing adventures offered in these books? Why indeed. That does seem to be the question.
With so many interesting things in the world to talk about, and so many important problems to solve, why are so many men hyper focused on misogyny and masculine purity? I will write about femininity next week, but for now, let’s chat about what the heck is going on with the “man thing.”
What do These Young Men Face as They Grow Up?
I started thinking about this topic based on some (mostly) men’s responses to two previous blog posts. First, a few weeks ago I posted the blog titled Andrew Tate does not Care About Your Politics. Here is a relevant quote:
Take Andrew Tate for example. This person describes himself as both "absolutely a sexist" and "absolutely a misogynist." He is famous on TikTok and YouTube for his misogynistic, women hating posts. Worse, he racked up between 11 and 13 billion views on TikTok, had millions of Instagram followers, and made millions of dollars in ad revenue from his YouTube videos before he was banned. Is anyone really surprised that Tate, his brother, and four other predators were arrested in Romania this past week for the human trafficking of women?
That post received a lot of positive feedback, but intermixed were comments by both women and men suggesting that Tate really is a good guy. That he did not mean to be a bad person. That he helped men become more savvy investors, etc. Two questions come to mind. First, why are people attracted to Andrew Tate and others like him? Second, why do men say such alarming things about women?
Second, I posted the blog post titled Women in the Big Tent. Here is a relevant quote:
To understand my vision of the women’s big tent, you need to understand that I do not limit “women” to biology. Although Wikipedia generally defines woman as biologically determined, I find that definition to be limiting. Honestly, doesn’t it seem like “woman” means more than having a particular set of parts? I also do not limit “woman” to those people I like, to those people who look like me, or to those people who view themselves as women. Instead, I view women in the big tent as anyone who feels like a woman, wants to be a woman, is treated like a woman (regardless of their parts), and faces discrimination because of their gender or their sexuality. In other words, lots of people belong in the big tent.
Once again, the comments were mostly positive, but on Twitter (of course) there was a small contingent of people who were very emotionally negative about my blog. The blog is not about transwomen, but the comments zoomed into that aspect with a weird sense of desperation. Men cannot be women, they exclaimed! Women are biologically able to bear children, they declared! If men pretending to be women go into the big tent, then trees also go in the big tent (this one was a bit more weird than the others). Again, two questions come to mind. First, why do transwomen inspire such hatred in some men? Second, what is going on with the pressure for male purity?
Put these three things together—my Son and his friends curiosity and enthusiasm for literature; Andrew Tate and his misogynistic minions; the male gender purists who so narrowly define and defend masculinity, and we have the makings of what I am calling traumatic masculinity.
The Mythical Ideal Man
To understand traumatic masculinity, you first need to understand the mythical ideal male.
Have you ever seen the movie Rescue Heroes? You should watch it. This movie has been tremendously impactful for emerging men, at least in the United States. Here is the premise: Very large and powerful men with super big feet save the world against impossible odds. These rescue heroes represent one version of the mythical ideal male. As I write in Chapter 5 of my book, Sexual Harassment in Organizational Culture:
The mythical ideal male is imbued with social power and force. Because it is a mythical representation of an ideal male, it is physiologically unachievable by a human person. However, although no person can achieve the ideal, all men are judged by their proximity to the ideal. Think about the masculine ideal in Rescue Heroes. First, note the unnaturally large bodies and muscles. At one time in my life, I frequented a gym where I was the only woman who lifted weights. I made friends with a number of men who struggled to achieve the rescue hero body by constantly working out, by taking anabolic steroids, and by “working through the pain.” The combination of anabolic steroids and working through the pain meant that many of these men not only had significant personality changes, but that they also were more prone to life-altering injuries. They worked to achieve an ideal body that is physiologically unachievable, often with devastating outcomes.
What is Traumatic Masculinity?
Sadly, masculine purity is a predictable outgrowth of the mythical ideal. To be a real man, one needs to be born with particular body parts, be extra strong, be the ultimate heterosexual, be in control of women and feminized men. This is the purist notion of masculinity. While some call this toxic masculinity, I personally view it as traumatic masculinity. It is traumatic to the men asked to achieve this unachievable ideal. It is traumatic to the women who interact with these men. It is traumatic to a culture that believes in equality.
My son and his friends are grown now and on their own. I watched each of them struggle with traumatic masculinity. They all dropped their interest in literature. They struggled with their grades. They stopped singing and performing music. They stopped being in plays. One felt like he needed to hyper focus on sports with the expectation that he would become a pro (he didn’t). One expressed misogynistic beliefs. One struggled with being intellectually inclined, but explained to me that he did not think real men went to college. I ache for these young men. They so wanted to embody the mythical ideal. But, of course, they didn’t. They never have and they never will. Not even close. And that is the point. As boys grow into men, they will judge, and be judged, based on an unachievable ideal of what and who they should be—an ideal that can only exist in mediated and cartoon images.
I am pleased to report that despite the struggle that is masculinity, all of these boys have become admirable men. I still love them all. But I wonder, how much better would life be for them now had they had the opportunity to be men in a way that suited each of them. Trauma changes people. It changes how they communicate. We are faced with generations of men who have experienced trauma due to the mythical ideal of masculine purity. This traumatic masculinity radiates into the larger culture, impacting all of us. This generational trauma will continue until we make a collective decision to end this nonsense.
Please let your sons explore their unique talents, even if those talents don't align with what you learned about masculinity from the larger culture. Please stop judging men based on the mythical ideals of masculinity. Finally, please do not amplify messages that support misogyny and other forms of traumatic masculinity. Instead, amplify men who are putting good into the world. There is no pure masculinity, so let's stop asking people to achieve it.
The personal story in this week's post was approved by my son.
Next week: Damned if you do/Damned if you don't. Women and the Paradox of femininity
Debbie S. Dougherty is a Professor, Author, Consultant, Farmer