Real men don’t get all touchy-feely with their emotions. How many times have you heard that said in one way or another? Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. Maybe a better question would be why is it that men can’t get emotional without it being a flaw?
Whatever way you frame the question, it’s hard to deny that there’s an unspoken taboo when it comes to men expressing emotions. A man who gets emotional is seen as weak. He’ll get called a sissy, a wimp, or a pussy. Their ego takes a hit. Their reputation and sense of worth takes a hit. As a result, men have little choice but to suppress their emotions, which is objectively unhealthy.
Conversely, a woman who gets emotional tends not to get criticized. For them, showing emotions is normal. We don’t think it’s wrong for a woman to cry during an emotionally distressing experience. We don’t see that as a sign of weakness. If anything, we would be more concerned if they didn’t show emotion.
It’s a strange, but impactful dynamic. One gender is allowed to express a wide range of emotions without ridicule. The other is expected to suppress those emotions. For men, the only acceptable emotion, it seems, is anger. Men being angry is the only emotion they can show that isn’t entirely taboo, although even that is changing.
The same regressive attitudes that create meaningless terms like “toxic masculinity” adds even more constraints on men’s emotions. Now, a man isn’t even allowed to be angry anymore. His anger just identifies him as another member of a toxic culture that hates women, despises minorities, and wants to create a patriarchal world where they’re all Don Draper.
I hope I don’t need to explain why that notion is wrong, misguided, and just plain asinine. That’s not the purpose of this piece.
I bring this topic up because, as a man, I’ve felt the impact of these attitudes on a personal level. There are a lot of stereotypes about men and masculinity that don’t bother me because the effects are usually overblown or exaggerated. This is one issue where I’ve felt genuine distress.
As I’ve said many times before, I’m a big romance fan. I love romance in comics, movies, TV shows, and even video games. I’ve been a fan of all things romantic since I was a teenager. However, a young man who admits that enjoys romance is likely to get a lot of odd looks from men and women. Nobody ever told me that it’s uncool for men to like romance, but that’s the impression I got.
As a result, I was downright secretive about my love of romance. I wouldn’t mention romantic sub-plots in movies or TV shows among friends or family. I often had to seek out romantic media covertly. There were even occasions where I would be watching something with heavy romance on TV, but change the channel as soon as someone entered the room.
At times, I treated hiding my fondness for romance with the same tact as most men would in hiding their porn stash. If anything, hiding porn would’ve been easier because most people expect men to enjoy that. A man admitting he watches porn won’t surprise anyone these days. A man admitting he enjoys romance doesn’t have that luxury.
That sounds melodramatic on my part and in hindsight, it probably was. However, being a man, I didn’t want to deal with that extra scrutiny. Growing up, I already had other personal issues to deal with, including a terrible acne problem that killed my confidence for most of my youth. The last thing I needed was another reason to feel like a freak.
Eventually, it helped when I found online communities full of romance fans who were men, women, gay, straight, bisexual, and everything in between. That finally gave me an outlet and it’s a big reason why I started writing sexy stories. While I’ve come to appreciate that outlet, it was still frustrating having to hide the fact that I liked romance. If I weren’t a man, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.
As hard as that was, the cost of managing emotions as a man can get much higher. Just this past year, I’ve felt the extent of that cost in ways I honestly can’t put into words. It started with the passing of my grandmother. Saying goodbye to her was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done before.
I had to go through so many painful feelings during that process. I couldn’t tell you whether I handled them well. I like to think I did, but I can’t say with a straight face that I successfully managed my emotions through that whole ordeal. There was a lot I had to either temper or suppress.
It wasn’t because someone was stopping me. There weren’t a cabal of other men actively shaming me for feeling sadness, sorrow, and grief. There weren’t teams of women questioning my masculinity because I dared to show unmanly emotions. As a man, I just didn’t know how to express these feelings. There was just a sense that this wasn’t something men did.
I think it’s only getting harder as masculinity, itself, faces more scrutiny. Nobody can seem to agree on when it’s okay for men to get emotional or how they should go about it. We just know there’s a high price for screwing up. Think about the kinds of criticisms men face if they don’t put on the tough, confident poise of James Bond.
A man who shows too much anger is just a product of toxic masculinity.
A man who cries openly is overly sensitive.
A man who is overly romantic is either whipped or domesticated.
A man who shows sadness is weak and incapable.
A man who tries to talk about his feelings is either mansplaining or whining.
Given all these pitfalls, how is a man supposed to go about expressing his emotions? Just being strong isn’t enough anymore because strength has steadily become more gender neutral. While I think that’s a good thing for men and women alike, I also believe that dealing with emotions is a major blind spot in the world of gender politics.
That’s not to say this issue is being ignored. In wake of the anti-harassment movement, there has been some efforts to re-evaluate how we think about men and emotion. A few tech companies have even formed private men’s groups where men can get together and do more than discuss these issues, among other things.
I can already hear some men saying those groups are for wimps. Some might even doubt the masculinity of the men who participate. That’s understandable. These kinds of attitudes don’t change overnight. However, between the growing suicide rate among men and the impact emotions have on mental health, this is an issue worth confronting.
I won’t say yet whether these groups will be effective at helping men with their emotions, but I believe it’s a start. I also believe that this is one issue in which men and women can come together on. Other parts of the anti-harassment movement and modern feminism are bound to be divisive. This can actually be a unifying force.
Human beings are emotional creatures. No matter how masculine you are or how feminine you are, you’re going to experience a wide range of emotions over the course of your life. If one gender can’t even figure out which emotions are socially acceptable, then how can we hope to forge emotional bonds with one another?
I don’t doubt that emotions are difficult to deal with. I’ve learned that the hard way this past year. I know plenty of other men who are going through the same struggle. In the end, being able and comfortable expressing feelings should be one of the most gender-neutral aspects of the human experience.