It’s much easier talking about what it’s like to be British, for example. I’ve spent a good few weeks over here in the United States and interacted with enough Americans to comment either way, talking about what it’s like to be American as well as being British. The same could be said of many other life’s positions I’ve dabbled in in the past and rejected for the path I’m currently following. The same could be said of all of us.
But gender–as with colour and sexuality–is such a subtle and ornate tapestry any threads I try to grasp at all regarding it inevitably turn out to come from my own quilt. When speaking of my own gender, this quilt is all I’ve ever known. I could hazard guesses as to what it must be like to be a woman, but they’ll be as exaggerated and incorrect as if I were commenting on the society of another planet. Maybe it would be easier if men did come from Mars and women from Venus; as we’re all sharing the same clod of dirt it’s easy to look at them and assume their life experience are the same as ours. But for the odd boob and concave genitalia, some of them could pass for us.
Being male I can’t comment on what it’s like anymore than I could review oxygen. I mean, the graphics aren’t much and the sound’s only evident when hurricanes are gusting down houses, but other than that oxygen’s an essential purchase, 10/10–it just doesn’t work like that.
Living in a house of women (“He was a lady fan at heart, it’s clear. He went and found a lady hair.”) puts my masculinity into a new light. Now, I’m not what others might think of as a manly man. If anything, it’s my wife who indulges in traditionally manly pursuits: she’s the one currently in charge of redecorating the house, letting her mum and sister pick shades of paint while she looks for the best sealant to fill screw holes in the wall. She wants to know the ins and outs of her car so when it starts going wubba-wubba-wubba and parts drop off she’ll know how to reattach them and not rely on the expertise of mechanics who see her as a pay-cheque in a skirt. I’m still the heavy lifter but I’m a tool rather than the foreman, designated tasks so she might achieve her goal of placed shelves and decorated rooms.
Me, I prefer to cook. I’m not a precious chef as men tend to be–I like baking, cooking at leisure, finding interesting recipes and giving them a whirl. Neither am I an ‘experimental’ cook, a term overused in shows like Masterchef which means “I like to throw stuff into a pot and see if it poisons me.” My approach to cooking is: if you’re going to feed yourself, you might as well do it with some style. Nine times out ten I’ll drag myself bleary-eyed back into the kitchen rather than admit defeat and call for pizza–which will probably taste like it’s been used as an Italian man’s bog roll. I get excited by sprinkles and hard-anodized non-stick pans. I am not a manly man.
Yet when cooking some of these recipes I become less of a tool and more of a god, summoning flavour combinations from the beyond. I can cook cake in a mug in the microwave, for God’s sake–you show me someone who wouldn’t be impressed by that.
In our house I am the domestic goddess; I just happen to have a winkle.
Still, I’m the a heavy lifter–the Aliens power-loader in human form. I move mirrors, lift bed frames into the attic, scrub away wallpaper debris and all that jazz. At the same time I’m cleaning up after three monsters and cooking up a storm. I’m supposed to be planning the menu for this Thursday’s Thanksgiving feast but never having celebrated Thanksgiving before I’m not sure what I should be cooking. Last night my mother-in-law was suggesting brines and stipulating the exact kind of turkey to immerse in them. Maybe my position on Thursday will be like the staff at a seafood restaurant who plucks the lobster the customer’s chosen from its tank, then kill and cook it (not necessarily in that order) to order. Maybe I’m an electric mixer as well as a power loader.
In the past men have very much been at the top of their game. In many parts of the world they still hold all the power, and the very idea that any woman might take it away is laughable. This has changed to some degree in the US and especially the UK in recent times. The majority of adverts treat men as incompetent laughing stocks while their knowing better halves weather their meddling with eyes rolled skyward. According to my wife this is a recent development over here, with adverts treating women as idiotic lesser beings for the longest time. It’s been a while since the Super Noodles advert in which a man’s dog ate from his plate, before he offered it to his girlfriend who simpered and said “You really love me, don’t you?”; meanwhile the ad where a woman has her boyfriend catapulted out of the window for daring to be male while she’s suffering her period is still running. It’s perhaps in bad taste to suggest that men becoming laughing stocks isn’t the best way of redressing the balance between the genders–for some the women the adverts are aimed at, it probably is. I view it as being akin to the white man’s guilt which has seen black people painted with a brush of inverse racism, whereby they’re all cool, they all have rhythm and they all own large cocks. It’s hardly surprising there are so many people taking offence at this stereotyping to proudly fly their rhythm-less nerd flag–if not their penises. Making one side of an argument–even one as important as racial or gender equality–pay reparations to the other doesn’t promote equality so much as prolong it. So long as one side’s paying an idiot tax there will always be a divide.
Not going in for traditionally male pursuits and not treating women as either a thing of beauty on a pedestal or inferior airheads, I’m not sure what constitutes my own masculinity, only that I have it: I’m a guy, plain and simple. It’s an indefinable quality that nevertheless shows up on occasion. One of my wife’s friends is undergoing gender realignment surgery, but when looking at his musical tastes I can’t help but feel he will forever be a she–no straight male would own such a collection of angry female recording artists.
“It’s nice for Mikey to have a good male role model in his life.” Mikey’s our nephew, a rambunctious ball of video game addiction. His mother–my sister-in-law–is currently undergoing a prolonged divorce from his father who is by all accounts a no good son-of-a-bitch. I’m smart enough to realise I’m only getting one side of the story here, from people who are all going to take their sister/daughter’s side in any argument–if I were to ever split from Lindsay I’d expect them to run my name through the mud as well. Still, some of the things I’ve heard about him–including his reactions to having his son raised in a house full of women (“Even the dog’s a girl”) haven’t done much to help his cause. I’m no gentlemen, but if I have the strength to move furniture about by myself when women I live with have to work as a team to shift it, I’m hardly going to sit on my ass because “How did you do this before I moved in?”. His legacy, created when he lived here some years earlier, is something I’m continuously trying to avoid. Though his image has no doubt been distorted in the retelling he seems to me the nadir of male laze and privilege, coasting on undeserved goodwill, looking down on the women supporting as being inherently lesser thanks to their lack of Y chromosomes. He routinely pays less attention to his daughters than he does to his son, and even though Mikey’s five he’s made numerous attempts to toughen the poor kid up, half-scaring him in the process. It worries me to see Mikey’s demeanour turn from sweet to increasingly violent; this morning he threatened to beat his older sister up if she told on him for some crime he’d committed. His father’s bravado is starting to taint the little man in ways I don’t approve of–but then, he’s not my son. I’d like to think I’d do a better job of being a father if he was.
Maybe that’s the only touchstone any of us have when it comes to our own masculinity: our fathers. Whether they were absent or abusive or in loving attendance we all struggle to fill their shoe–or escape them, as the case may be. The only yard stick we have is the one they left us with.
Before I left home, my father warned me that one day I’d look into the mirror and see his face staring back. Since I’ve been growing a moustache for Movember I’ve been looking increasingly not how he is today but how he was back then, when I was a little boy and he was my hero. I can’t clone his look exactly–his moustache was always full, bristly and dark, so suited to his face I felt sad when he eventually shaved it off–but I’m approximating it as I type.
And as much as I look like him, it looks wrong. I feel unworthy of impersonating him, a grown man, a strong man who saved countless lives. I’m still a kid at heart–as evidenced by my spending so much of our limited food budget on candy. I’ll never be that hero, never that grown-up, never as masculine as he was, and is, and will continue to be for a very, very long time.
But maybe that’s what it means to be a human male. Maybe we all struggle with knowing our place, which is so grand and omnipresent, among all the identities hard fought for ours–easily given–is next to meaningless. Whether we long to fill his boots or outgrow his shadow, maybe the drive to be the strongest, the tallest, the most loving, the most heroic is the one that keeps us going.
And maybe, trying to reach that impossible height, with all our forefathers looking down upon us and all our sons looking up, a father’s love is all we need to be not a boy, but a man.