I am thinking about masculinity.
About the mantle of maleness.
I turn to the dictionary - to confirm the spelling of mantle - and as I open to the “ma-” section, I scan the page and fall upon male. The first definition is that of adjective: “of the sex that can fertilize or inseminate the female.”
The second is: “having to do with men,” which offers little new information, but the first is a description in relation to the female.
While in the neighborhood, I look up masculinity: “the quality or condition of being male,” which refers us I suppose to the above.
Masculine offers: “relating to men. having the qualities or appearance traditionally associated with men.”
Here’s where it gets good, though. There is a bordered box beneath offering synonyms for masculine. Here we go: virile, macho, manly, male, muscular, muscly, strong, strapping, well-built, rugged, robust, brawny, powerful, red-blooded, vigorous.
This father I am thinking about in this story I am working on, leaves. It is not clear to me yet why he does or when (before the daughter is born? when she is still a child?), but I know that he leaves.
What compels a man to leave? Lazily, I ask the question to my search bar. Why do men leave their families?
I find an appallingly bad article in a pop psychology column that walks through a hypothetical scenario in which this man’s wife of many years has grown fat and undesirable and withholds sex. He meets a younger woman who is beautiful and willing. His affair is discovered and he is shamed roundly by family and friends, so that the only way in which he can maintain dignity – at least as the author of this article would have it – is to leave, even though he may not want to.
It is very difficult for me to imagine that any situation is ever so simple. And even for the purposes of illustration, did we really need to make the wife fat and sexless? As if that is the only possible trigger?
My own father didn’t leave. He was asked to leave, compelled to. My mother was not fat and sexless, although my father’s later assertions that she did not take much pleasure in sex were confirmed by her own accounts. “It was as if to her, I was not a man,” he once said. I was in my late teens. It was not something I was prepared to discuss with him.
Throughout high school, I spent many weekends at the home of my best friend. Her mother was a rather high-strung, anxious woman who I only ever saw cooking or cleaning. Her father held some office job the details of which were never clear to me. He sat at the head of the dinner table and would occasionally ask a question we would each try to answer. If he was not speaking and if we were not responding directly to his question, there was silence. Except for the forks and knives scraping across china.
My friend had an older brother. It would be easy, knowing what I do now, about his recent struggles with anger and violence, to point to the tightly-coiled rage that seemed to have its own weight and texture in that house, that sat with us at the evening meals. To describe the wild-eyed way in which her mother vacuumed the deep-pile rug beneath the dining room table. Fast and frenzied. How when the meal ended, her father would ascend the stairs to his office in silence and how, once we were all certain he was out of earshot, the boisterous exuberance of late adolescence would fill the house once again.
I try to think of archetypes. Of characters and worlds unfamiliar to me. I find Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes on my bookshelves and read the first chapter. In the early pages, there is a scene in which the protagonist is looking through the Sunday newspaper magazine, at the scantily-clad women gazing up from the ads in their pages and he describes feeling a “gleeful detachment” when, in his imagination, he violently rapes and murders them (“bashing in their lovely faces with a spiked club.”)
“On the internet,” M. tells me over coffee, “you are probably only going to find representations that affirm stereotypes. You are only going to find the archetypes. It depends on what you want this character to be.”
Perhaps your lack of models can be a strength, he suggests. You can build more fully from imagination.
On the evening of my birthday, I found myself in Hartford at a panel discussion called “The State of Women 2012,” where Gloria Steinem and Ashley Judd, among others, offered commentary and reflections on the topic. Someone from the audience asked a question about Fifty Shades of Grey. The response of one of the panelists included a comment that women who are comfortable with themselves, with a healthy self-image,know that they do not need to subjugate themselves in a sexual relationship in order to derive pleasure.
So, here I have: violence and sex and power and women who let themselves get fat after marriage and women who either do not derive pleasure from sex or require violence to do so and men who derive pleasure from violence and men who are masculine if they are powerful, red-blooded, and vigorous, and I fear all of this really has gotten me nowhere.
Some days, you find yourself running in circles, chasing (your own) tail.
Until tomorrow. xoxo