A Conversation on Asian American Men and Masculinity
This is the second installment in a column highlighting Asian American writers/books. It is important that we start acknowledging that Asian American experiences are the stuff of literature, of music, of movies, of culture, and that we start supporting those efforts and spreading word of those efforts far and wide. I read hardly any Asian American writers when I was in elementary school, or middle school, or high school, and it was only in college that I found voices that spoke for the importance of minorities, that made me understand that my experiences were worth something.
What follows is a conversation with the editors of Where Are You From? An Anthology of Asian American Writing, Byron Wong, Valerie Katagiri, and Larry Yu, about Asian American men and masculinity, especially concerning Byron Wong’s essay, “Masculinity and the Asian American Male.” Where Are You From? is an important addition to the literary discussion of Asian America, and is one of the most interesting books I read last year (I should mention that I have an essay in the anthology, but this is definitely not what made it interesting). It’s out now, and is described by the publisher below:
What does it mean to be an Asian American in the twenty-first century? In mainstream America, cliched stereotypes about Asian people as model minorities, asexual techno-geeks, hypersexual dragon ladies, perpetual foreigners, or Yellow Peril “threats” continue to persist — though they are frequently concealed behind politically correct slogans like colorblindness and diversity. Where Are You From?: An Anthology of Asian American Writing challenges these viewpoints. The writings and art in this anthology envision Asian American identity, culture, and politics on our own terms, through our own experiences and unique perspectives. Incorporating a diverse range of personal essays, stories, critical articles, poems, art, and other work, this anthology seeks to express the truth of our lived realities and to give voice to an Asian America that is frequently marginalized by society. The very title of our book — Where Are You From? — questions the common prejudice often expressed by the majority culture that Asian Americans are alien or foreign to the USA. In the words of Lawson Inada, we want to tell people where we come from — where we’re really from.
Matt: Byron, your essay has a lot to say about Asian American maleness. I found it really interesting, but I worried at times that it seems like you’re saying Asian American men should be more like white men, or that the essay values white masculinity over Asian masculinity. I’m curious whether these were concerns of yours, whether you had any misgivings that readers might take the essay that way? And I’m wondering why the kind of aggressive masculinity that we associate with white American men would be a good thing. I’m not sure it’s a good thing even for those who live it. My essay in the anthology is basically the opposite, the story of how I’m a sensitive crybaby writer and need to be even more sensitive to be a better husband, a type of masculinity I’m fine with and that I am trying hard to own completely.
Why not argue that we should accept who we are rather than that we should change or fit some model? It’s hard enough as it is to be different, which we will always be as Asian Americans, and it is harder still to accept that difference, but isn’t that more helpful than trying to be normative in any way, trying to fit in with the majority culture?
Three main questions for you all: 1. Is the argument that Asian American men should be more like white men? 2. Why should we value the “American” idea of masculinity? and 3. Why should we change?
Byron: 1) I’ve seen and read lots of academics decrying “traditional” masculinity, and the problems that come with it. I think in today’s American world, we equate this traditional standard masculinity with White masculinity since White pretty much equals “tradition” in the United States (not really, but that’s the way it’s viewed).
After blogging and hearing from my readership, particularly from my commenter Chinesemom, I reflected on the Asian men that I’ve known both here in this country and in Hong Kong and Japan, and I realized that the ideals of masculinity are the same in all cultures–brave, truthful, and good. It may be more individualistic in American culture, but the root is the same. In recent years, feminism has rightly destroyed old school sexism, but along with that sexism, they destroyed masculinity as well, leaving men of all races genuinely confused. The original feminist ideal was that men and women could be equal in every way, but it hasn’t turned out that way–witness the recent work by Michael Gurian, Liza Mundy, Hanna Rosin, etc. I think the non-masculine masculinity has succeeded in colleges among academics, but outside of academia, it’s failed just about everywhere else.
So I think I’m an advocate for traditional masculinity rather than White masculinity. Not because I want to return to the old days when there was only one societal standard of masculinity, but because this version of masculinity happens to be the model of masculinity which our culture needs most.
2) We should value traditional–I don’t feel comfortable using “American” since it seems universal in most societies–masculinity for a number of reasons.
First of all, men are lost without it. More and more men are dropping out of society. We have an epidemic of school shootings all committed by young men, boys are dropping out of school, and men are failing to be good husbands. Men work best when there’s a structure and they know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. We need to do more for men. This is the problem with just allowing people to be who they are. Some will find a structure–as you have with your writing, Matt–but many will fall down hard without the structure.
Second, there’s nobility in traditional masculinity. You want leaders who are brave, truthful, and good. Men usually don’t get there unless they have role models, and unless society respects these values. Of course you want the same in women–courage, truthfulness, and goodness–but it reflects itself differently in its expression, which is why we see so many books by both men and women that differentiate between the leadership styles.
3) We should change as a society. I won’t say that every individual should change. Obviously some people–crybaby writers such as you and me!–are fine being who we are. But most men and society in general would benefit from more knowledge of traditional masculinity. They can suit their definition to meet the times, but people should be familiar with it and practice it. Think of some examples of traditional masculine codes in history: Bushido, traditional Southern honor, the Russian scholar-warrior masculinity that we read about in Russian classics such as Fathers and Sons. It would be sad to lose all this knowledge, especially as we see time and time again how the loss of masculinity has affected society.
Valerie: I was asked to contribute a female perspective to this male masculinity discussion. I don’t think Asian American (AA) men should be more like white men unless they want to be like them (whatever they think that is!); we all have to decide who we want to be, given our individual situations and personalities. As co-editor of Where Are You From?, I was interested in how AAs viewed themselves in general, came to terms with their differences as a minority in a white majority culture, and coped with their Asian American-ness, whether male or female. Many of us will try to be normative in order to fit in and be accepted … but it is how we retain our uniqueness given these pressures that fascinates me.
I think that this issue of masculinity is a somewhat complicated one … and maybe made more so because it is currently in flux. In the past when gender roles were more traditional and defined, men knew they had to be strong, aggressive, and able to take care of others to be seen as masculine. What happens to those males who can’t or don’t want to live up to that image? If they aren’t able to handle the rejection or ostracism from their peers/society, will some of them go to extremes to prove their masculinity (e.g., joining gangs, shooting others at malls, theaters, and schools, becoming an abusive husband/father, etc.)? What happens to males who grow into leadership positions and refuse to compromise or “give in” to reasonable demands/arguments because they think that not “winning at all costs” means they are less of a man? What happens to males who idealize war, join the military, become disillusioned to the point of a nervous breakdown, and end up shooting a village of Innocents in the foreign country where they are supposed to be trying to win hearts and minds?
Today, due to the feminist movement’s push for more equality in relationships and the workplace, gender roles have become less traditional, less defined. This is a good thing. People are creating their own ideas about who they want to be given their individual situations and their particular wants/desires. They are working towards lives that fit them more comfortably rather than fitting themselves into lives created for them. I think some people misunderstand feminism. They think feminists reject traditional roles, but feminism is more about choice. It’s okay to adopt traditional roles if that is the life you want to live. BUT if it’s not, there’s nothing wrong with switching roles or creating your own vision for living. Flexible gender roles benefit both males and females. In the past, it was usually the man who was the sole breadwinner even if it was his wife who would have preferred working outside the home instead of being “stuck” at home with the children. Today, it is sometimes the woman who has the better job, the man who is a stay-at-home dad, the single woman or man who chooses to raise a child alone, the married woman who doesn’t want children, the man who wants to be a nurse or teacher, the woman who wants to be a soldier or mechanic, and on and on. In the past, if a man couldn’t/didn’t/chose not to support his family, he wasn’t seen as masculine, but today more of us understand that a woman might prefer or need to be in the workplace, while the male partner might prefer or need to assume care of the children and the home. Today, masculinity is more about bravery to be who you are and want/need to be despite others’ expectations and social pressures to do/be otherwise.
I believe we are slowly evolving into varying blends of the masculine and feminine. This is a good thing. I see the Gay Rights movement as an extension of the Feminist movement. If we can forget the gender issue and focus more on Love in relationships, then we get closer to the larger Humanist ideal. Our gradual shift towards Humanism gives me hope that we may one day be brave enough to be kinder and more humane toward ourselves and each other. Rather than focusing on being masculine or feminine, wouldn’t it be better to focus on our human potentials for good, truth, and beauty?
While a focus on “tradition” can be more comfortable, being willing to step out of our rigid structures can help us understand what is outside of our comfort zones … can help us empathize with others … and maybe eventually get us to world peace (or at least move us toward more tolerance of those who are different from us, whether male or female). This is what I hoped the Anthology would accomplish for both AAs and those among whom we live. By telling our stories, perhaps we will define ourselves more clearly. Perhaps others will empathize with us and see beyond the stereotypes. I hope for the day we will look for the Truth in our/others’ hearts and minds rather than just see the serendipitous gender and race we were born with. When this day comes, there won’t be any need to change our gender or try to find ways to hide/obscure our race. We can then concentrate on developing better versatile minds and more compassionate hearts. We can use our humanity to build a good and beautiful world.
Larry: Whenever these issues of masculinity and race come up for Asian Americans, I usually think about what Frank Chin said. In his famous essay “Racist Love,” Chin says that “The white stereotype of the Asian is unique in that it is the only racial stereotype completely devoid of manhood. Our nobility is that of an efficient housewife. At our worst we are contemptible because we are womanly, effeminate, devoid of all the traditionally masculine qualities of originality, daring, physical courage, creativity.”
The point that Chin is making is Asian Americans are neutered not only in terms of masculinity but also, more importantly, culture in general. Asian Americans do not have a distinctive style of manhood just as they don’t really have a distinctive culture or voice.
Asian American men who embody “traditionally masculine qualities” are not necessarily trying to be White or even American. In fact, they are going against White America’s definition of Asian American masculinity.
I know a lot of feminists have challenged Chin’s definition of masculinity, saying that it’s sexist and patriarchal, etc. That is true to an extent. But given the emasculation of Asian American men in American culture, it’s understandable where he is coming from.
I get the point that Matt is making about how Asian American men should just be themselves instead of trying to live up to (White) people’s definition of masculinity and all, but I think, for most Asian guys, alternative definitions of masculinity based upon being “effeminate” would not speak to them. How many Asian American guys honesty would consider William Hung or Ken Jeong masculine role models?
Another thing that needs to be considered is that, at the end of the day, talking about these issues is secondary to practical action. It’s fine to discuss and debate Asian American masculinity, but ultimately the most important thing is effecting change in people’s everyday life. I feel that there are often a lot of heated discussions about this topic (and others like interracial dating), but they don’t really change anything.
Matt: “Brave, truthful, and good” is an interesting ideal for masculinity—can you talk about how this idea is applied? Don’t different cultures/different individuals interpret “brave, truthful, and good” differently? I think they mean different things, for example, to a white American than to a native Korean, at least from my experience with my (Korean) wife. I think they might even mean different things to each of us. I like those as values, too, but I don’t think they mean men should be more assertive, for example.
As for Feminism, is it fair to attribute the change in masculine values to Feminists? I would push against that, and I think Val is thinking differently of Feminism than Byron is, perhaps?
I wonder, too, why we shouldn’t try to change the system rather than change ourselves to fit the system. If not, or even if so, how can we effect change in everyday life? Not by words?
Byron: One example of brave, truthful, and good is Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Sure, he’s not exactly nice to the Giant, but he’s brave in facing him, truthful in speaking to his mother, and good in that he takes care of his mother. There are various examples of this archetype in every culture–think King David, Pinnochio, Luke Skywalker, the Bruce Lee character in Enter the Dragon, etc. But overall, I think it’s the same in every culture–”Do what you need to do, don’t be a coward, fight for truth, and be a good person.”
Certain cultures are more assertive than others, but it’s often just a matter of outward cultural style. People tend to be more argumentative in Shanghai than in Guangzhou, but it’s a superficial trait. In Ireland, you’re more likely to get punched in the mouth for saying the wrong thing than in, say, Tibet. However, the values–I think–are the same. We all prize bravery, truthfulness, and goodness.
What do you think? I guess my question would be: how is it different for your Korean wife?
I think it’s very fair to attribute the change to feminism, although I don’t think that that was the primary goal. The primary goal was equality, and the effort was to question whether men and women were really that different. The result was that we questioned and fought against traditional roles for men. This was GOOD…don’t get me wrong…but it also went too far because boys these days often don’t know what they stand for.
I do think that the world has changed. Gone (thank God) are the days when men were sole breadwinners and physical fights broke out over people breaking union lines. I think we’re more civilized these days. But men still need to find their place.
I would agree with Val’s statement above that men need to be who they are. I agree 100%. I would perhaps add however that most men need to find their place within a system, on part of a team. It’s stupid from a logical perspective, but I think that’s just how men are. Men are like dogs–they need someone to follow and they need someone to lead. Bravery, truthfulness, and goodness are good ways for them to find their place.
I agree that we should change the system, particularly with respect to education. Actually, that may be all we have to change. If there’s an educational system that supports both men and women, we’ll be happier and more productive.
Valerie: Matt, I, too, am curious how your (Korean) wife sees “brave, truthful, and good” differently than a white American.
I’m not so sure that different cultures/individuals interpret “brave and good” differently. I believe that there are certain “universal” human traits such as bravery and goodness. The difference might be in how we act to show our bravery, truthfulness, and goodness. But the basic human instinct to be brave, truthful, and good is the same. I think I am agreeing with what Byron is saying about this point.
I would disagree with Byron’s statement that feminism went too far because boys don’t know what they stand for. I would argue that no one, boys or girls, know what they stand for, want, need, want to be, etc. This is the existential question all of us face. Being a human is hard! We all need to find our place! Boys, girls, men, women, all of us! I would argue that if we fit ourselves into designated “male” or “female” roles or on a certain team structure or system, then we are not pushing ourselves enough to confront our individual existential questions: who are we? who do we want to be? where do we want to go? why do we want to go there? how will we get there? WHY ARE WE HERE? HOW DO WE WANT TO BE BRAVE, TRUTHFUL, AND GOOD?
We need to change both the system/structures and ourselves. Or perhaps, by changing one, we change the other. We create the system/structures and they create us – a symbiotic relationship. We need to change our schools, yes, but also our workplaces, our healthcare system, our daycare options, our food distribution system, how we form our teams, our politics, the media, the music we listen to, the movies we watch, the words we use, the stories we tell.
Larry: I am not sure how useful it is to employ abstractions like “brave, truthful, and good” as an ideal for masculinity. For instance, why couldn’t this definition be applied to femininity as well? Some people might argue that such a definition of masculinity reiterates traditional sexist ideas that men are courageous and strong while women are weak and submissive etc. I also think that using abstractions like these to define male gender identity doesn’t really jibe with how men actually live and think about being men. For most guys, are these ideals really relevant and do they impact on how they conduct themselves as men? I am not sure that they do. In fact, these ideals might be considered pie-in-the-sky intellectualizing.
Regarding the assertion that feminism went too far because it challenged masculine values and thus caused a crisis in male identity in general, that may be the case, but would that be a “bad” thing? For some feminists, traditional forms of masculinity were patriarchal and oppressive and thus *needed* to be challenged. The fact that some men may have lost their sense of “masculine values” or identity as a result of this challenge really is their own fault (or that of society) for believing and creating these patriarchal masculine “ideals“ to begin with.
Finally, I think some of politics of the “men’s movement” in general is really a disguised backlash against feminism and gender equality. While this movement purports to be simply addressing men’s issues and male empowerment, I suspect that some of it driven by the (perceived) loss of male privilege and power to women since the emergence of contemporary feminism. In this sense, the men’s movement is analogous to the White political backlash and whining about “reverse racism” that has appeared since the Black Power/Chicano Power and Civil Rights eras.
Matt: Maybe we’re saying the same thing, in asking “how” we want to be brave, truthful, good.
I don’t want to put words in my wife’s mouth, but it seems to me that for some, for example, being forthcoming about one’s feelings is brave and truthful and good, but that for others, saying nothing would be considered braver, and maybe better, though perhaps less truthful. If I have some kind of work problem, and my experience is in one culture, it might be bravest and most truthful and “best” to tell my spouse and for us to deal with it together. In another culture, it might be bravest and “best” to deal with it on my own, without saying anything.
Or to pick out one of those ideas in particular, are there situations when truthfulness comes into conflict with bravery or goodness? What about lies of omission, or “white lies?”
I tend to think cultural norms/values, and/or ideals, are always more complex than they seem. My thoughts are more aligned with Larry’s on Feminism and masculinity. It’s hard for me to criticize those in the position of oppression/powerlessness for trying to pull apart that system. Though perhaps I am miscategorizing.
What do you see as ideals of femininity if not “brave, truthful, and good?”
Byron: Femininity isn’t as culturally well-defined, maybe not as biologically defined either. We tell our boys that they will eventually “become men” that they have to “be men” that they need to “grow into men,” and many times these days, we don’t tell them what that means. With women, we might say, “be ladylike,” but there’s no process, no cultural expectation, and (I may as well just say it) usually few social issues that come up due to a biological inability to mature in a world without structure or defined rules. This is not to say that women aren’t brave, truthful, or good–it’s simply to say that it’s an ideal that men MUST be taught, otherwise the population is in trouble.
You asked (is it just me on this side of the debate? ) what the problem is with feminism going too far. The answer is that men and women are biologically different, and if you destroy structure, if you teach boys the same way you teach girls, if you don’t have the stories and the organization that boys need, they fail. They don’t learn as well, and they get destructive. In addition to the sources above that I mentioned (Hanna Rosin, Liza Mundy, Michael Gurian), there are also many fascinating studies on whole populations with gender disparities. In times of war when large populations of men die, the women survive and thrive. In places like India and China where girls die because of sex-selective abortion, the men create social problems–prostitution, murder, polygamy, theft, etc. We can see some of the issues these days that come with a lack of structure, dangerous issues in America such as shootings, crime, and violent suicide. This isn’t to blame feminists for these problems, nor is it to make excuses for bad men who do bad things, but it’s just to point out that we’re all in this together and that it behooves us to what is best for different segments of the population.
I read the example that Matt brings up about silence vs. speaking, but I think that’s always matter of individual definition. In all cultures, sometimes it’s brave to speak while it’s sometimes braver to remain silent. You’ve got the Japanese concept of enryo and the Italian concept of omerta. You’ve got American police officers and American frat-boys unwilling to rat our their brothers. On the other side, you’ve also got brave people who expose the wrongdoing of others. Brave activists in Japan and China expose their governments at the risk of vengeance. These choices exist in all cultures, and bravery is often a matter of how an individual defines it (and yes, sometimes people lie to themselves and define it according to what they think is most convenient or easiest).
Val: There ARE situations when truthfulness comes into conflict with bravery or goodness. In this context, Truth is not universal, and many times it is based in culture, experience, family/social values, education, self-awareness, etc. This kind of Truth is individual and that’s what makes our world interesting yet contentious. However, I think bravery and goodness are universal. We know deep down whether someone has done something brave or good, even if/when we don’t agree with their action. For example, when we fight wars, we do so for different reasons/motives, but no matter what those are and whose side we’re fighting on, we can recognize if someone (even if s/he is considered our enemy) is brave and good. I think there is something in our human DNA that knows this even if we might not want to acknowledge it.
Now I’m going to show my age … I was raised in a generation where femininity WAS well-defined both culturally and biologically! I was taught that I needed to learn to be a lady and that meant getting married and knowing how to cook, clean, keep a home, and raise children. There WAS a process. Girls in my generation took Home Ec classes and boys took Shop. Girls weren’t encouraged to play sports, while it was assumed that boys wanted to. While my parents laughed when my toddler brother cursed for the first time, they didn’t if I tried it. I was given dolls to play with and my brother was given trucks and guns. These were definitely processes to try to get us to “become women” and “become men.” But I count myself lucky that Feminism was gaining momentum. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to go to a good mainland college to learn not only from professors and books, but from a different world (not just the University of Hawaii, as was the expectation since I was “just a girl”). I think my parents were proud that I got into Stanford, but I think the primary reason they let me go was so I’d find a good husband there. My primary motivation for going there was to begin satisfying my thirst for Truth. What I learned in college is that Truth is ever evolving. There isn’t any real Truth in feminism and masculinity; they are evolving. There isn’t any real Truth in organized structures either; they are evolving. There isn’t any real Truth. Period! My Baby Boomer generation rebelled in the Sixties … against Truths … against the War … against gender roles … against social rules. I believe that if we raise our next generations to want Truth (e.g., an organized structure, gender roles, jobs befitting our femininity or masculinity, etc), then we will stifle our ability to choose and hone the real potentials that are in us.
Larry: I agree with Valerie more than Byron about femininity being defined or not defined. Femininity was most certainly defined in the past and to this very day, I would add. In the West, femininity was part of what was called the “cult of domesticity,” where (middle-class and upper-class) women were confined to the home as housewives, in contrast to the men who went out into the world as “breadwinners” in the family. The very definition of what it meant to be a woman was largely restricted to the home. This can be evidenced even in literature dating back to the 19th-century like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose famous story Yellow Wallpaper can be understood as a social critique of the restrictive domestic roles that women faced in America.
With the feminist movement of the 1960s, these roles were especially challenged of course.
While many women are no longer confined to the home to the same degree as in the past, femininity is still defined in fairly restrictive ways today–although most people don’t see it. Just check out all the women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan, Elle, etc and how they mold and define women in terms of their appearance and such things as the need to be thin, attractive, etc.
Today, femininity–and masculinity–are defined by consumer/pop culture, with American media culture from Hollywood to Madison Avenue being the most powerful shaper (or manipulator) of people’s gender identity.
In terms of ideals like truth, bravery, goodness etc., I still don’t get why these qualities should be uniquely defined as male, as opposed to female. Why should these traits be gendered? Because there will be negative social effects if men don’t have a strongly defined identity and place in society? I am not sure that there is such a direct one-to-one causal relationship between some of the social problems that Byron mentions and this “crisis in masculinity.“ Usually, there are *many different* socio-economic factors (e.g., poverty, patriarchal tradition, lack of education) that are behind any type of societal ill.
Also, noble ideals like truth, bravery, goodness often are used in very vague and nebulous ways and can be context and culturally dependent. They are similar to other abstract ideas like beauty, morality, civilization, or even freedom and democracy. They often become nothing more than feel-good catch phrases and propaganda slogans, or what are called glittering generalities (see here or here).
Matt: I guess I’m with Larry again. All of these subtle forms of oppression come out of cultural constructs of what a person is or should be, and I think an ideal world does away with any preconceived notion of what a man or a woman is, or of what a white person or an Asian person is, altogether.
It seems to me that to fight the structural and cultural norms and prejudices that position the Asian American as inferior, or as a collective, easily explained group of people (i.e. good at math, interested in martial arts, etc), in America is not so different from exposing those restrictive expectations and definitions and so on that position women as the weaker or more sensitive or what have you gender. I guess I don’t see how supporting one fight against oppression and condemning another is supporting either.
Would I cease to be a man if I wasn’t told by society what manhood is? Would I cease to be a good Asian American man if those traits were no different than the traits we “traditionally” use to define femininity?
Why shouldn’t we all have the same (or no) expectations on us, is what I suppose I’m asking.
Byron: My issue on this subject concerns theory vs. practice. It’s fine to propose theories on gender, but I think it’s best that all theories be influenced somewhat by practice. Val is correct in saying that the Baby Boomers destroyed barriers, and I think we all appreciate the barriers that they’ve broken down and continue to break down. Just today, they’ve fully integrated the military by allowing women to serve in combat. This is good.
At the same time, it’s good policy to keep an eye on what happens when theory meets practice–and theory has to adjust when practice doesn’t play according to plan. As I mentioned earlier, you can see what happens when we don’t teach boys masculinity and don’t use the lessons of malehood that our ancestors taught us. In a masculine vacuum, boys have trouble learning. They get violent. They have mental health issues. This is why there is a resurgence of interest in tradition–men are lost. This generation, particularly the millennial and the Gen-X’ers, are interested in the masculine ideals and feminine ideals that the Greatest Generation lived, but I think the interest in the masculine ideals are of particular interest because men are lost. Many young women wonder what happened to masculine ideals too. But perhaps this cry for direction is most vehement among Gen-X parents.
I was recently speaking to a woman whose son goes to Cub Scouts with my son. She’s what one might consider an ideal candidate for breaking down barriers: she’s an affluent African American woman married to a White guy. Not only does she break the black stereotype by being wealthy and unapologetic, not only does she break the stereotype by being in an interracial relationship, but she also breaks stereotype by being the rare pair–usually black/white interracial relationships are black male/white female, not the other way around!
Anyway, we were talking about cub scouts, and she told me how her son NEEDS cub scouts. She explained: “We recently moved to Portland. My son has three sisters and me in the house–all women. His teacher is a woman. His father often gets home late at night. He needs to be around other boys more. He needs to participate in activities led by men.”
We didn’t go into a conversation about masculinity, but it was implied. There are certain male lessons that typically only men teach. If you ignore the wisdom passed down through the ages, there is risk involved that your son won’t get the education he needs to succeed as a man. We’ve seen what happens when this chain is broken. Parents these days are saying that they want something different.
Going back to Matt’s question about expectations, again, it’s a practical issue. People are going to expect a young man to “be a man.” Our definitions of “be a man” have probably expanded somewhat, but I do think that the crux of bravery, truth, and goodness has not changed. These days, it’s okay to be sensitive. It’s okay to show emotion. But you still have to “be a man.”
The Cub Scouts/Boy Scouts is a very good example of how traditional masculinity lives today. Back in the day when I was a Cub Scout, it was a Christian organization–you had to pledge to the Judeo-Christian God. It was anti-gay. There was a cloak of silence that unfortunately let some grown men take advantage of vulnerable boys. It was very much a product of its time back then, something that is to be expected in an organization with a hundred-year history. But the goal back then was the same–teaching boys to become men. You learned how to tie knots. How to engage in teamwork. How to use your creative powers. How to pitch a tent. You learned values about defending your country. Respecting your elders. Knowing the “law of the pack,” i.e. following rules and structures.
Today it’s a little different. They’ve removed God, respecting all religions–telling parents that it’s our duty to speak to our kids about our religions (or lack of religions). My son was actually recruited by a father who is Sikh, and who proudly shows his religion by wearing a turban. Our pack is open to gay members. They’ve got team supervision rules that prevent parents from abusing kids. Just about everything else, however is the same. My son still recites the Cub Scout Oath and the Pledge of Allegiance. They still do camping, tying knots, and team-building. They still learn service to their country and their communities and how to act like responsible men.
Val: I really don’t think that men are violent and have trouble learning because they are in a “masculine vacuum.” There’s something else going on with these “lost men.” There might be a resurgence of interest in tradition, but i think this happens whenever things are in flux. People reach for what is “comfortable and defined” to make sense of life. But change is inevitable and part of living; thus, what we should be teaching our children and helping the different generations learn is how to cope with change so they don’t feel that their only option is to resort to violence and other inappropriate responses.
We should all have the same human expectations of each other. We should all try to be the best men and women possible. We should all try to reach our potentials to be good and brave – and truthful to ourselves so we can then know how to be in the world. We should all strive to make the world better in our own ways. The only time we should have “no expectations” of each other is when it comes to who we are and how we should be because of things we can’t control in our lives such as the race and gender we were born with.
Larry: Byron, not to pick on you or anything, but the Boy Scouts of America is not the benevolent organization that it likes to masquerade as. Have you heard about the court case where the Boy Scouts were found guilty of covering up sexual abuse of their scouts for years and ordered to pay punitive damages of over 1 million dollars and possibly higher? Interestingly enough, this case began in Portland, where the Boys Scouts of America allowed a convicted sex offender names Timur Dykes to lead scout troops and activities.
The broader relevant point here is that I would be very skeptical whenever “glittering generalities” (like truth, bravery, goodness) are thrown out. They often are used as nothing more than feel-good slogans to hide an uglier reality. The Boy Scouts (with their rhetoric about duty, honor, etc) are an example of this. And to be blunt, America in general is an example of this with its propaganda about freedom, democracy, liberty, etc.
On another note, one thing about feminism in general that needs to be addressed is the conflicts within feminism itself, particularly along race (and other issues). Many African American women and other women of color, for instance, have made the compelling argument that even though feminism claims to represent the interests of all woman, in practice it only serves the interests of White middle-class women. Though feminists claim that “sisterhood is universal,” in reality, not all women are equal sisters within the feminist movement.
In fact, Black “feminists” like Alice Walker in the 1980s developed an idea called Womanism, which focused on the empowerment of Black woman or other women of color in reaction to the failures of White feminism to address racism and White supremacy in their movement. And these issues continue to have relevance today.
Matt: Thanks, everyone, for this fascinating conversation. A couple of last questions:
Are men fundamentally prone to violence and mental health issues? Or is this societal–what is at base, I mean, rather than the exacerbating circumstances?
And to bring us back to Asian American men, how can stereotypes of maleness, i.e. “traditional maleness” be helpful and/or hurtful when we are simultaneously trying to fight stereotypes of Asian Americans and Asian American maleness? How can we pick and choose? Why not do away with these “models” altogether, as a form of oppression rather than a useful guide?
Byron: No worries, Larry!
About the Boy Scouts: No organization is perfect. Especially one with as long a history as the Boy Scouts. This year, they’re celebrating 103 years of scouting. 103 years! 1910 was about fifty years before the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X all hadn’t even been born yet! Sure, they had problems with adults molesting kids, but there are now firm rules in place that prevent that. Your scout can never be alone with a single adult. Sometimes change takes time. Horace Mann had the same problem, but that shouldn’t mean that everything related to Horace Mann ought to be condemned.
The Boy Scouts are now on the verge of allowing gay members. This is progress. All they have to do is replace the NRA with a more responsible gun safety organization, and they’re home free!
As for Matt’s question, I think it’s probably both physical and societal. It’s indisputable that men, on average, have higher testosterone levels than women. Even among normal men, our behavior changes when we inject ourselves with more testosterone. Look at some of the guys in the UFC.
I think we’ve tried to do away with models. I think we’ve tried, tried, and tried again. It just hasn’t worked. Even though we’ve changed in terms of the workplace, aspects of courtship behavior, and equal rights, we still value the wisdom of our ancestors, and we still run into problems when practice doesn’t agree with theory. In those cases, it only makes sense to compromise. Use the wisdom of your ancestors, apply it to your current situation, and see what works. Sometimes theory will win, sometimes practice will win. But there’s no reason to throw out history or the collected knowledge of thousands of years.
I’ll close with a quote from a gay friend, a successful lawyer who was responding to gay stereotypes during a discussion about how people see gay men as flamboyant cross-dressers who talk with high voices. He said, “I’m a man. I love other men. I have a serious relationship with another man. But I’m not a woman. Make no mistake. I am a MAN.”
Val: I think society tends to group and stereotype people in order to help make sense of those who are different from them. It’s easier to say, “He’s gay … that’s why he’s a flamboyant cross-dresser who exhibits feminine ways in the way he walks, talks, etc.” or “She’s an Asian American woman so will be an obedient wife” (very few of us are!) or “He’s an Asian American male so he should be good at solving math and computer problems” (I know a lot of AA men who aren’t!). I also think as we become more educated and understand that differences don’t have to be threatening, we are able to see differences as interesting. It is not “models” or the wisdom of our ancestors that we should look to for answers but rather quality education that teaches critical thinking skills. “Models” limit our thinking (we need to think “outside the box – or model”) and the “wisdom” of our ancestors does not take into account all the new information that has complicated our world/lives. The more educated we are, the more tolerant we become of things/people we don’t understand because we know that we cannot know everything. We become learners. Our curiosity opens our minds to endless possibilities. The best educated among us are willing to continuously test our assumptions. We aren’t afraid to listen to each other – truly listen – and sometimes admit we are wrong or at least not completely right. When we close our minds and assume men are violent because they have lots of testosterone and women are soft and weak because they don’t, we don’t allow for our deeper differences. We just look at the superficial attributes and don’t see beyond hormones, gender, color of our skin, height and weight, slant of our eyes, etc.
Larry: In closing, I would just add that, whatever “model of masculinity” you ascribe to, it’s ultimately about putting your idea into practice. While it’s fine to debate or discuss the benefits or detriments of various masculine role models, the most important thing is make it an integral part of people’s everyday lived experience. Otherwise, debating for its own sake is like debating how many angels dance on the head of pin. The proof of any theory or abstract idea is in its application.
Finally, thanks to everyone for participating in this discussion and letting me take part. It was interesting.
VALERIE KATAGIRI is co-editor of Where Are You From?: An Anthology of Asian American Writing which was recently recognized out of 800 entries as one of five finalists in Shelf Unbound’s award for “Best Self-Published Books of 2012.” Where Are You From? is available on Amazon.com in both book and Kindle formats. Valerie is also an award-winning author of several Writer’s Digest entries, including “Love Tales” and “Nine Lives.” She was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s short story contest and was also a Special Award cash prize winner in the “A Brief Message from the Heart” letter-writing contest. She was a monthly contributor to a senior newspaper in Portland, Oregon and is currently ghost-writing a parenting book as well as working on a book of her own.
LARRY YU is the communications coordinator for the Thymos organization of Oregon. He is also a regular contributor to the Seattle-based International Examiner newspaper and has published work in New America Media, Dissident Voice, Amerasia Journal, Journal of Asian American Studies, and the API Movement blog. Larry teaches in the Ethnic Studies Department at Oregon State University and has a Ph.D. in English from Brown University. His interests include Asian American media, film, and radical politics.
BYRON WONG lives in Portland, Oregon. He helped co-found Thymos in 2004. He blogs and podcasts at bigWOWO.com and is a former blogger at thefighting44s.com.