Perhaps nothing about Mike the Broken GI Joe was so noticeable as his masculinity. Mike was in many ways the masculine ideal put forth by our society. Before I go on, a few disclaimers about this post. One, this post isn't really about him so much as it is about me. Two, (and I really hope you haven't closed the window in disgust yet at the words "masculine ideal") this isn't some sort of horseshit gender theory treatise. If you want gender theory, you can read a book by CJ Wilson any day of the week (who incidentally isn't bad, if a little biased towards feminism). Three, I have yet to meet a single guy (myself included) who was very comfortable talking about this. Clearly this is a sensitive topic, but one that must be addressed for my narrative to continue.
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I have long had a difficult relationship with my manliness. My mother was a sex-negative radical feminist who really wanted a daughter, and when I turned out to be a boy, she intentionally tried to raise me without gender roles. At the same time, she often refused to socialize me at a young age, and following a series of coincidences, I wound up thrust into a predominantly blue-collar Italian-American neighborhood on Long Island to start kindergarten. My relationship with my mother deserves an arc of its own, and so I'm not really going to comment on it beyond what I've already said. More important to this post is how I got along at school, which was not very well.
I have always struggled with my emotions. I have Bipolar Disorder and a long history of both Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and dissociative phenomena. I feel things very strongly, often overwhelmingly so. Compounding this, my parents made little or no effort to teach me how to regulate my emotions as part of their raising me. This was not without benefits, by the way, and I can't exactly fault them for it because it is an important part of who I am now, but it also did come with significant drawbacks. Crying was rewarded in my home. This is a real problem in a rough-and-tumble school system. Again, don't get the impression that I think this was wrong or even really disagree with it, at least not totally. It solved a lot of problems, but caused a lot of others. This is not really the skillset one needs to grow and adapt socially through childhood and going into adolescence. I fell behind. I was a wuss. I cried in public over bullying and teasing. I could be pushed, and I'd snap and lose control. It was actually a testament to my classmates and friends that it didn't go further than it did, at least until I graduated to middle school. By the time I was in the sixth grade, however, I was not just a faggot, I was THE faggot. The word was carved into my locker repeatedly. I was spat on. Every time I was punched or thrown against a locker served to further disconnect me from reality. I grew paranoid. I grew suicidal. There was talk of pulling me out of school. Then, just as it was all entering its crest, we moved out of state the following summer. But the damage had largely been done. I don't think I fully recovered from it until my twenties.
Whether it was the dissociation, my mother's influence, some other part of my illness or experience, it was hard to consider myself masculine after that. Then my body began to change. I was freakishly skinny and effeminate as a child. I was frequently mistaken for a girl, even with short hair. Then, in the summer before the eighth grade, my body very suddenly became very broad. Compounding this, I was put on a medication that caused me to gain a lot of weight. I went from 86 lbs to 195 in only two years. Since I got so little exercise, it was almost entirely fat, not to mention that it was all out of proportion given my pubescence. In my mind, however, I still felt like I should be skinny and effeminate. This was about when Jennifer and the alter who would become Emma started to separate from me, which only made things worse. I had been raised to be an intellectual; brainy, and now my illness was taking even that away from me. I'd lock myself in my room all day and live my life through my computer. It was really only when I started writing in earnest when I was sixteen that I finally found an outlet, and even that was an expression of my femininity far more than it was my masculinity.
All of this sort of makes me wonder what exactly it is that men are trying to be. The boys I grew up with, and most boys in general, I've gathered, were very focused on destruction. It's a compulsion towards violence, something very primal, and reinforced by society. Whether it was nature or nurture, I never shared it. This actually caused a noticeable change in the way my teachers treated me, consistently lumping me in with the girls instead. The girls policed this too. So this is not just limited to men. Where I grew up, physicality was everything. You were masculine based upon what your body could do, and how dirty you got in the process. The dumber you were, the cooler you'd be, it seemed. In their documentary The Merchants of Cool, Frontline labeled this character the Mook. They cited Tom Green of turn-of-the-century MTV fame as a shining example. My friends' favorites were Opie and Anthony on the radio (first on WAAF in Boston and later on Sirius Satellite Radio). For girls, the same documentary offered The Midriff (epitomized by Britney Spears), but girls always seemed to have an easier time breaking that mold than boys did theirs. Give modern feminism a lot of credit: it works. It is regrettable that what few attempts there have been to do this for boys (such as my mother's) garnered mixed results at best, if not an abject failure.
I never really grew comfortable with my body until very recently. Going from so skinny to so overweight (and ballooning back and forth a few more times similarly, first because of medication again and later due to an eating disorder) made it very difficult for me to be aware of my own body. Part of my walking meditation has evolved into teaching myself about my body and what it can do. As my relationship with my body changes, my sense of masculinity changes as well. But there's more to it than that, of course.
There is also a requisite rigidity that I notice in all my more masculine friends, this kind of self-reinforcing refusal to compromise. A harsh and highly compartmentalized system of judging others, as well. The only thing that can seem to truly overcome it is shyness. In the media, and even in books, heterosexual men are so often portrayed with these strictly hierarchical world views, and the more egalitarian men are almost always portrayed as homosexual, submissive, or in some other way not masculine. These concepts become as self-reinforcing as the rigidity, especially in group situations. I highly dislike hanging out in large groups of other men for that very reason. Yet there has seemingly been little or no attempt to study this phenomenon, let alone make an effort to change it. Male college attendance lags far behind females, and boys' high school grades are very often much lower than their female counterparts. The male response in government and in society seems to be to try and subjugate women as much as possible in order to force things back to the way they used to be, but that's no more of a solution than throwing a hissy fit: the legislative equivalent of running around with your hair on fire. There can be no self-reflection, because self-reflection is a supposedly feminine trait. Emotions are the enemy: a sign of weakness. Not only that, society's expectations of men haven't changed. In fact, there exists a frightening double-standard these days. Men are supposed to provide and be mature and all of these things they used to be, but women seem to want to have it both ways: the benefits of this system without the responsibilities. One of feminism's great failings is its failure to address this. If you ever wondered why men feel so threatened by homosexuality, this paragraph contains all the answers you'll need.
So where does that leave me? To be honest, I'm not sure. Emotional mastery should be the goal in life, not emotional denial. To that end, I think I've succeeded. I can see my body for what it is now, and it can do lots of things I would have been far too afraid to try even a year ago. The more confident I feel about my body, the more confident I feel socially, and that's really where the conflict ultimately lay. And what about Mike? Mike ran away from his anger and fear, which only allowed it to dominate him. I take this as a cruel lesson in self-awareness. Acceptance is impossible without awareness. That's just as true of oneself as it is one's relationship with the world. This at least is my goal. The consequences of failure are immense.