I remember this in isolation, without context. I must have been at that age where time is only counted in a series of nows. Again something had happened. Again I was in tears. My aunt gave me a book titled “Real Men Don’t Cry.” The book was way above my age grade – she didn’t even imagine I’d read it. I tried but the words were too complicated, and harder to focus on through waterlogged eyes.
I got her point though.
I have no idea why tears are a large part of how I define the ideas of challenging masculinity. Maybe because tears mostly represent a pure manifestation of emotion. They are emotion embodied. Then they are gone. Maybe because they present a fragility. They say “this is who I am. This is where I am.” Maybe because I used to have lots of them and then I lost them. Maybe because I’m trying to get them back.
One of my favourite people has me wondering about the real man. The well built, rich, fashion forward, misogynist gentleman that we’ve been told that we need to become to navigate the world. Further, about the “provide and protect” narrative. I’m looking through the entire idea we have built for men, and all that comes to mind is a something year old me, sitting in a living room, struggling to read a book through teary eyes.
All male spaces are not known for their particularly helpful emotional energy. I’ve been in many of them. A large chunk of problems are imagined with the frame of economic. Hard times are solved by your boys giving you a loan. Blind loyalty is a virtue. Then, if calling out is to happen it is often violent and abusive. “He’s my friend. I will insult him to prove it.” “The boys” are often either making plans to make money or talking about women.
Then there’s the code. Even as I write this a part of me feels like it is violating a certain privacy. Breaking a silence that was imposed upon us growing up. It was whispered to us in the corridors “bros before hoes.” We were told to look upon them with disdain “don’t be such a girl.” We were told to disrespect their work “that’s women’s work.” We were told not to tell anyone. To still pretend to be filled with respect then just do it ourselves. To listen but not to hear “she says no but really means yes.” That emotion is for women, and women are weak.
Thus emotion is weakness.
Real men don’t cry,
So we steeled ourselves. Bit back out tongues when that punch in chobo ua came through harder than we thought it would. We ran out of the room when the teachers made fun of us. We fought. Over everything and everyone. We learned to channel our rage into a very particular form of distraction. A large chunk of that emotional energy went to sport.
A place where masculinity in its “purest” goes to exist. A place where whiskey is drunk by the bottle and the real measure of man worth is on man terms. A place where tears are embraced. Blood, sweat and tears. Everything that a struggling masculinity believes in war, hard work and victory. A place where masculinity celebrates/embraces masculinity. Or, should I say, a certain type of masculinity. A James Bond meets Dwayne Johnson masculinity.
Sport, it has been said, is sacred.
I’m imagining sport is sacred because it has been constructed to create a space for real men. Real men, who control the narratives. Real men go there to expend emotional energy. To work off that thing he wanted to do but couldn’t. He wanted to say but couldn’t. Even those who decided to stop playing still throw as much energy into watching as the players would in training. We know statistics: age, weight, speed, acceleration, level of aggression, haricut, favourite move, type of play. For hours on end we engage in these conversations. We like them because they’re pure – and they’re allowed. To say “When the All Blacks lost I cried,” would get you laughed at but still accepted. It would be people hearing you and understand.
And it infiltrates. We feel it running through our veins. We wake up on game day thinking “game day!” We slept in our rugby jerseys in high school the night before a game to get inspiration. We love it.
So we protect it. We make sure that the space of sport remains squarely in its original form. We imagine that it can only exist in that way. And we can’t bear to lose it.
The problem is the space is, largely, toxic. It only imagines/allows certain types of men to exist, It completely unimagines women, and is often quite racist. It can’t imagine the existence of gay men or of transmen. The idea is to be a real man. A cis man. It continues to refuse to be challenged.
I’m trying to imagine what it would mean to have more nurturing male spaces. To have all male spaces that care. That ask “how are you doing” and mean it. That won’t shun you because you are gay. That are not entirely consumed by the neoliberal capitalist dream. That make room for emotion. That cry.
What would that space look like?
What would that space create?
What happens when men imagine that other men feel? When we imagine that the words we are saying/things we are doing could cut? How do we open up the spaces? How do we even get comfortable enough with each other to drop our masks? And how do we get ourselves to accept whatever’s behind that mask? Can we? Should we?
There is very little fragility ever allowed by manhood.
How do we bring it back? Did we ever have it? I’m reminded that the crisis of masculinity can’t exist if the masculinity you’re striving towards never existed.
(If it never existed, is it possible?)
I have yet a lot more to read about experimental male spaces before I can even begin to properly ponder this question. Which is exactly what all this is, a question. What happens when we accept that most of us are a lot more fragile than we let on?
Special thanks to Aisha Onsando for thinking through this with me.