I laughed when I read the above phrase, the title of a kind of absurd TIME article by Meredith Melnick on masculinity and male gender identity. It so perfectly captures the contradiction at the heart of patriarchal claims about masculinity. According to complementarians, masculinity is all about being strong, aggressive, independent, attracted to women (and only women), leading and protecting the “weak” (because proper men can’t possibly be weak and anyone who isn’t a man is by definition weak), rational, etc. All of these characteristics are supposed to be inclinations that come “naturally” to men – recall Mark Driscoll’s statement that “Men want to be men.”
At the same time, complementarians constantly obsess over whether men are behaving in a sufficiently “manly” fashion; no detail of appearance of behavior is too trivial for them to assign a proper gender to it (true story: I once heard a pastor say that canaries are not an appropriate pet for a real man). Any departure from conventional masculine gender expression is an “assault” on masculinity, and a disqualification from it. They’re constantly wringing their hands over the inadequacies of modern men, supposedly emasculated by feminism. Driscoll’s derisive claim that “Sixty percent of Christians are chicks, and the forty percent that are dudes are still sort of chicks” perfectly captures both complementarian anxieties about emasculation and complementarian contempt for women and “inadequate” men.
How resilient can such masculinity really be if it’s so easily disrupted? How confident can these men be in their “natural” masculinity if they’re so easily emasculated? How rational is a masculinity that perceives pink nail polish as a threat to its integrity?
This kind of masculinity is the complete opposite of “natural.” It’s a carefully orchestrated performance, a facade that must be constantly maintained (“gender role” is an apt phrase for it, come to think of it). The moment the act of manliness is dropped – or simply fails to be convincing – one ceases to be a “real” man. This explains complementarians’ ever-present anxiety over male gender expression and sexuality, and their constant need to vigorously demonstrate their “manliness” in these respects.
To wit, Mark Driscoll’s latest bizarre, exhibitionist assertion of his heterosexuality:
Mark Driscoll isn’t satisfied with condemning actual gay sex; he must also distance himself from anything that could be remotely construed as implying it, even harmless, meaningless Facebook memes. Mark Driscoll, despite being a 40 year old grown ass man, seems to think “poking” is a serious synonym for sex. And Mark Driscoll really needs you to know that he would never think the idea of “poking” another dude is anything other than gross. This and other public comments by Driscoll betray a terror of being perceived as anything other than 100% straight, a need to be ever vigilant against any and all associations with anything even kinda sorta maybe queer-ish. Even poking other men on Facebook. That’s mature, manly leadership for you.
Of course, this anxiety over gender and sexuality is hardly unique to complementarianism. This is another lie of patriarchal Christianity, i.e., the claim that its definition of real masculinity is “countercultural.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s merely one manifestation of the constant societal pressure that men and people perceived as male are under to “act like a man”:
Manhood is a social status, something a guy earned historically, through brutal tests of physical endurance or other risky demonstrations of toughness that mark the transition from boyhood to manhood. But while that masculinity is hard-won, it can be easily lost.
Once earned, men have to continue proving their worth through manly action. In modern society, that may no longer mean, say, killing the meatiest wooly mammoth, but there are equivalent displays of masculinity: earning a decent living or protecting one’s family. One misstep — losing a job, for instance, or letting someone down — and that gender identity slips away. (from the article linked above; Melnick makes some seriously problematic assumptions about gender identity and expression, but on this point she’s spot on).
Patriarchal fantasies like Driscoll’s Ultimate Fighting Jesus are merely less subtle, more overtly violent and misogynistic expressions of pervasive cultural associations of masculinity with aggression and dominance. Likewise, the perpetual vigilance with which complementarians police masculinity and indeed all gender identities mirrors broader cultural anxieties over and limitations on sexuality and gender expression. The phrase “no homo” is a secular example of this:
The sad and awful irony is that all this angst over acting real makes it remarkably difficult for men and people perceived as male to actually be real, i.e., authentic and true to themselves in their gender expression (and sexual expression as well, not only by making heterosexuality compulsory, but also by insisting that specific gender roles be observed in sexual encounters between men and women).
Far from encouraging realness in masculinity or any other gender identity, our society actually punishes people for being real. Even men who buy into the act are harmed by the severe limitations it places on their emotional expression and behavior, the impossible standards of godlike dominance and control it imposes on them, and the damage it wreaks on personal relationships. Such masculinity is by nature fragile and constantly under threat.
As I was writing the previous post, I kept wondering if I was being overly harsh in comparing mainstream conservative Christians to Fred Phelps – who is, after all, universally disliked, unbelievably odious, and, in my opinion, downright evil. The man is by all accounts a controlling, angry, and extremely abusive husband and father, who has brainwashed his family into thinking he is practically God, and who believes some very strange and dangerous things (the documentary Fall From Grace gives a pretty chilling picture of Phelps and the WBC – also on Netflix streaming. If you’re beginning to think that everything I watch is on Netflix instant watch, you’re not too far off).
Obviously not all conservative Christians are like Phelps in these respects – and I’d venture to say most are not. Most have good intentions – like most people in general. Many conservative Christians I know are loving parents and spouses, good neighbors, great friends. So I’ve been pondering whether the comparison was hyperbolic, or unkind, and pondering how it would come across to the people in my life – friends, family, all of whom I love, many of whom are lovely people whom I trust and respect – who are conservative Christians.
When I criticize conservative Christians and their beliefs, I’m not claiming that they are all or mostly evil people, nor do I believe that. That goes for any major demographic, really. But I hesitated to add a bunch of disclaimers about how Christians can be nice people to my previous post, because I didn’t want to water down the power of my point.
On further thought, I think this is actually quite an important point to address. In way it’s the central point: good people can, despite good intentions and sincere beliefs, despite doing much good in most other aspects of their lives, believe and say things that have horrible, awful implications. They can do terrible things that have devastating effects on others without intending to. Hardly anyone is mostly or all bad, much less consciously or deliberately evil; most people, I believe, are just trying to do their best to live decent lives. Most people don’t set out to do evil. Yet hardly any of us manages to avoid doing or enabling evil in one way or another.
Fred Phelps hates gay people. He makes no secret of that. While there are mainstream conservative Christians in this country who share his overt, conscious hatred of gay people, not all do. Probably most don’t. Many truly believe they are being loving by telling LGB people their orientations or lifestyles are wrong, by opposing marriage equality, etc.. But people don’t have to be conscious of hatred (or fear, contempt, self-loathing, and any number of other emotions that can fuel homophobia) for their beliefs about and actions towards LGB people to be hateful.
When I say conservative Christian beliefs on homosexuality are no different from Fred Phelps’, I’m not talking about the conscious intention behind those teachings. I’m talking about their implications. Their practical, real-world effects.
This is how oppression works. Systemic oppression cannot be sustained without the complicity of otherwise good people – through beliefs, actions, and inaction. And it cannot be sustained without the myths about human nature and behavior we buy into as a culture. We pretend that only bad people do evil things, and that it’s really easy to spot such people – as if there were some obvious marker distinguishing evil people from good. We desperately want to believe these things, because the reality that we’re all capable of doing and enabling evil is frightening, and requires that we scrutinize ourselves more closely than we’d like.
We all want to believe we’re good people who do good things, myself included; that’s understandable. But the idea that “those people” over there are the real bad people, and we’re all good, is an incredibly dangerous one. It’s what allows systemic injustice and inequity to survive and flourish.
This is what Christians who are puzzled and offended by accusations of homophobia and comparisons to people like Fred Phelps need to understand. Sure, it’s a good thing that you don’t picket funerals or scream at people about how they’ll suffer an eternity of torment in hell. But in the grand scheme of things, your beliefs about LGB people aren’t made any less harmful or hateful by the fact that they don’t act on them the way Westboro Baptist does. Your beliefs still fuel homophobic speech and behavior, and enable and support wide-scale denial of rights to LGB people. This is why claims that you “love the sinner and hate the sin” ring hollow. The implications and effects of your beliefs are not loving.
And really, this is what anyone called out for enabling oppression of any kind needs to understand. Being called out is not a comment on who you are. It’s not a comment on your intentions. It’s a comment on what you said, and what you did. We’re all capable of doing and saying things that support and even promote oppression without intending to do so, and without being evil. It’s unjust and enabling of oppression to demand that people evaluate us based on what we intend and not on the actual, tangible effects of what we do.