"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What Men Can Do: Support Other Men

One of the things that has struck me as I've begun to enter middle age (I'm thirty-seven, I'm not old!) is that several of my male friends are experiencing some intense worry and stress over being the 'primary breadwinner' in their families. These are fairly socially conscious, intelligent men who are mindful enough about traditional gender roles to know that conversations must be had around who ought to be the primary breadwinner, if anybody--and they are nontraditional fathers in the sense that they are extremely conscious of being partners in raising kids in various ways.

And yet, having taken on the 'primary breadwinner' mantle, they see themselves as carrying the burden independent of the fact that they have support from their partners. They feel like they are carrying the burden alone, even though they are being supported emotionally (and financially, to some degree) by their partners--even though their partners 'have their backs'. The mortgage payment, while paid with money that both partners earn, feels to him like it's his alone; he feels that if he doesn't produce, then the entire family will fall.

Conceptions of traditional masculinity help to shape men's identities so they feel that their main contribution to any relationship is what they can provide financially. There are infinite complexities involved that I won't go into, but it's relatively clear that men's self-value is inextricably intertwined with doing work that provides financial security, not just for themselves, but for any family they are a part of. Add to this conceptions of traditional masculinity which limit the other ways that men may be important to others, which limit the ways in which men may relate emotionally to other people, and you end up with men who value having a job more than they value having the family which they think they must work to provide for.

Susan Faludi, in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, points us to one logical conclusion of this conception of masculinity when she discusses a man who has been part of a large group of layoffs from McDonald Douglass. He spends most of his time at McDonald Douglass' 'job placement' center, with the only community he knows, that of other men who have been laid off and haven't found work. Then, one day, he gets into a car accident that he has caused, and is arrested. Thing is, he prefers prison to looking for work, as Faludi reveals when she and Don's friend Steve go to prison to visit him:
"The phones by which we were to communicate didn't work for five minutes, and so we held up signs, telling Don that he was missed at the center. He smiled and nodded serenely. For once, there were no tears behind the smile. The phones were finally switched on and I asked Don about the accident. But the accident was old news for Don; he was far more eager to tell me about his life in jail, especially his position as a prison trusty. He was working in the clinic and in the cafeteria. He wore a different-colored shirt as a trusty, a cut above the inmate masses. "The deputies say to me, 'We don't know why you're here!': They "respected" him, he said. "It's not all bad here."

I reluctantly handed the phone over to Steve Williams, who even more reluctantly took it. He peered at his friend through the smudged glass barrier. "Since you saw me last, I have not had a position," Steve began hurriedly. "In fact, I'm looking at poverty in January." Then he hastened onto the common ground of news about the center moving, about who hadn't found a job, and what changes had been made to the decor. "Were you there since they put the new wall in?" Steve asked Don. The inmate shook his head. "Yeah, well," Steve said, "It's a pretty good arrangement. It makes it more like an office.

By the time Steve finished recounting the details of the center's home improvements, our twenty minutes were up and the phone went dead. I scribbled down a last question on a piece of paper and held it up to the window. "Is going to jail worse or better than being laid off from McDonnell Douglas?" Don pointed at "better," smiled, and then vanished.

Later, Don's wife, Gayle, told me that he could have applied for release two months earlier for time served but had declined. "He wants to stay in jail, " she said, marveling."(pp100-101)

Again, there's a lot going on here--I think people in general like to work, like to feel like they are contributing to their own lives, the lives of their families and friends, and to society at large, and these desires exist across all gender lines. But I also think that men are taught that there are only certain ways that they can contribute--and financially supporting a family is one of the few. What men can do is remind ourselves, our friends, our family, and our fellow men in general that we bring a lot to the world aside from financial security.
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