A guy sitting on a bus observes a father handle the emotional upset of his five year old son by telling him only queers cry – it’s a critical injunction: a shaming exercise designed to humiliate the boy and to teach him that sadness and hurt are not emotions for a boy to have. It reminded me of an exchange I had with a client recently.
Here, a man in his 40′s was struggling to come to terms with the loss of his father and the struggle he was having with tearfulness. Men don’t cry it seems in his world, not even when a deep and painful loss is experienced: no exceptions. I explored his thinking on this – he had two children, a boy 7 and a girl 9. I asked him what he did when the little girl got upset about stuff – he could easily relate to this: quite naturally and openly he gave an illustrative example of a recent incident and explained how he’d given her a hug and comforted her.
I asked him what he did if his boy cried. He paused for a moment, and then related by way of comparative example how his son had been playing football in a local junior tournament recently when an older lad had bad tackled him, elbowing him in the stomach and tripping him up somehow beyond the sight or interest of the referee. The boy had landed face down in the mud and started sobbing. His father, who’d been watching the match from the sidelines ran over to his boy, hauled him to his feet and told him: “Don’t cry you poof, revenge is sweet, now go get your own back”.
And in this innocently recounted exchange, the father has communicated so much about gender rules. Firstly and most significantly of course is that ‘poof’ refers to both effeminacy (ie: don’t be like a girl) and injuncts with the idea that being in any way like a girl is to be lesser, (cultural misogyny) and that a lack of maleness equates to homosexuality (cultural homophobia) and that this is the ‘ultimate insult’. And then, darker too, an unconscious but important social convention is offered – that when a man is hurt or upset this must be converted into anger and aggression and then acted out in vengeance – go hurt them back only bigger and better – then they won’t try it on again.
Sadly I see this pattern acted out all too often within intimate heterosexual relationships – a class of men who have been led to believe that women are lesser and that if someone hurts you then sharing your upset is weakness: the ‘manly’ approach is to act out with vengeance – convert the hurt and sadness in to anger and use this to dominate and overpower the other.
Despite over thirty years of second wave feminism we still raise boys in this culture to see maleness defined in opposition to femaleness and to see femaleness as a lesser or weaker identity.
And we still have a society where two women per week are killed by their partners.