photo by Swedish Carana This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.
Recently, my good friend Moya Bailey sent me the following post via tumblr:
The post, written by a person named Liz, raised some important points that often get dramatically overlooked within the context of emotional justice and masculinity.
She questioned the idea that men sharing their feelings is an inherently feminist act, ( a concept that has been running through many feminist and pro-feminist circles as of late) and that she, or women in general, should care whether or not men learn “how to cry.” Liz also challenged the idea that men struggle expressing their feelings and that gender as a whole plays any part in this challenge. Lastly, Liz questioned whether it was true that men did not know how to express their feelings, or if it was more likely that we did not know how to express our feelings in a manner that was not manipulative or abusive.
I’d like to share what Liz’ piece brought up for me.
1. Men Sharing Feelings As A Feminist Act
Men share their feelings all the time. We curse. We rage. We scream. We read. Most of us really don’t have any problems publicly expressing our rage, frustration, or anger—which are all definitely feelings. So, is the sharing of (those) feelings always a feminist act? Hell no. And I would have to agree with Liz on this, because the idea that simply sharing feelings is feminist is downright laughable. In my opinion, it is not the expression of feeling that is feminist, but the dynamic through which that feeling is expressed.
Allow me to explain what I mean by feminist, because my understanding of the term may be a little different from how it is normally used. When I ask if a dynamic is feminist, I’m wondering if the act in the question is one that promotes an equitable engagement. Is it taking place in a spirit of sharing, connection, and honesty? Is it considering all of the power dynamics at play (gender, race, ability, sexuality) and taking steps to address them? Are all parties involved given an equal space to convey their perspective?
For instance, expressing emotions in a way that violently attacks, assaults, or belittles another, to me, is not feminist. An emotional dynamic where someone is being used as an emotional dumpster is not feminist. An emotional dynamic where someone is being ridiculed or demeaned is not feminist. It doesn’t matter who the agent is in the situation. These nuances and many more point to why a discourse that states that men expressing their feelings is a feminist act without context is dangerous, and in my opinion, ultimately irresponsible.
SIDEBAR 1: There are ways to express how we are feeling that do not rely on vengeance and violence. Those methods are largely foreign not to just men/masculine folks, but the culture at large. Instead, we all too often use the tools we have been given by this system. Consequently, we “other” those who hurt us by dehumanizing and/or erasing them altogether.
SIDE BAR 2: Methods that do not reciprocate violence are not the “right way” to do things. They are simply methods that potentially help end the cycle of harm. When we make choices to respond to our external reality aggressively, we are not “wrong” in that choice.
The non-violent, moral discourse that asserts we are “wrong” to respond with aggression when attacked is part of the same ideological discourse that needs a perfect victim in order to justify accountability for those who have created harm. Therefore, I feel we need to be cautious about attributing judgment to all acts of aggression or acting like violence will disappear one day into a vapor of MLK quotes.
While it is my desire that we work consistently towards embodying an ethic that does not perpetuate violence, given the current psychological and social state of humanity—a more useful endeavor may be to employ the harm reduction model. A harm reduction model would help more of us recognize that in this global context, we are never able to stop participating in harming others. However with practice, we can lessen our harm a great deal over time. This is a model used in many sectors of healing work, from working with intravenous drug users to Buddhist theory and practice.
2. Men having a harder time expressing their feelings
I’m very clear that part of my life’s work is striving to help expand the emotional lives of men and masculine embodied individuals. In my opinion, it’s very difficult to dismiss the reality of how intentional the emotional castration of men has been and continues to be in this country. This is a place where my thoughts with Liz diverge.
I am also clear that every individual in this country has internalized our dominant emotional scripts differently. Thus each of us enacts/resists/expresses in a manner that is inconsistent with the shallow, un-nuanced “men don’t work with their feelings” and “women are more emotionally healthier” dichotomy—a dichotomy which is ultimately ridiculous, sexist, and often virulently transphobic.
One tool that I find useful in acknowledging how we each interact with the dominant emotional narratives differently is psychological astrology. Psychological astrology is a discipline that is a blend of depth astrology (the study of behavioral patterns) and psychology. One of the many gifts it has given me is the ability to understand that not only do we experience our life through the lens of our gender, ability, race, etc., but also through our own unique psychology. For instance, a basic astrological analysis shows that a Taurus and an Aquarius will process, interpret, and respond to their lived experiences in very different ways. This theory of psychological difference becomes a useful tool to query how each of us—not just based on our birth date, but our life history, as well—will respond and are responding to the dominant narratives about feelings as it relates to gender, and many other things, very differently.
Our emotional bodies are always at work in our lives. The question is whether we are working with them, or if in our absence of attentiveness, they are working against us.
What’s my point? That there are other factors, especially in our internal lives and our responses, that complicate how we act emotionally or even pay attention to the dominant emotional scripts. Women don’t have an easier time expressing emotions by virtue of inhabiting a body marked female. Even if the culture allots more space for it, in many instances, women’s internal psychology may just not be conducive to that mode of expression. While less complicated ideology would have us believe the opposite is true, the reality is we actually embody the gendered norms in a number of nuanced ways. And perhaps the only constant is how we project them to be the definitive reality when they are not.
3. Expressing Feelings Versus Expressing Feelings Equitably
One of the things I love about Liz’ piece is how she makes a much-needed distinction: that men don’t have any problems expressing our feelings in a manipulative and abusive way. Most of us don’t have any problems expressing ourselves to women—or to other men, when the feeling is not hurt or sadness—either, which Liz’ piece clearly illustrates.
I also respect that Liz, and many women and feminine-embodied people, will make the choice not to be involved in “helping men [learn] to cry” or develop emotionally. Good.
There are plenty of us who know or can learn, and I feel that part of addressing sexism is relieving women from being the primary (if not sole) emotional caretakers of our communities. (This is not to suggest some biological essentialist mode of emotional relating where all “the men” do their emotional processing separate from “the women,” but instead a hope that ongoing work can lead to more equitable spaces.)
At the end of the day, Emotional work is social justice work. And when it’s between people of different abilities, genders, or races, all sorts of inequitable dynamics appear that are difficult to shift. Yet to make that shift—and we can—we have to do the work ourselves. That work is messy. It’s nuanced; it’s not always nice. It’s irrational, it’s not always clear. It’s us in our totality—as complicated, troubled people in an increasingly troubled and beautiful world.
(Thanks to Liz for posting!)
*(Even as I understand that the context of “men crying”.feels somewhat patriarchal and homophobic. Whenever conversations about emotions and men comes up, the first thing people say, in a patronizing manner is, “Who cares if men cry?” There’s something troubling there.)