I recently wrote a blog post about the limited definition of “femininity” and how it reinforces the gendered stereotypes of submissive women and dominant men. It was a useful exercise, but I realized that there was a huge gap in the conversation – how does the definition of “masculinity” inform what men and women grow up thinking about their identities? “Masculinity never exists by itself. It exists in relation to femininity” (The Evolving Man). With this blog post, I am interested in expanding the limited definitions of both words through the stories we tell.
I blame a lot of things on ‘the patriarchy.’ I want to have someone or something to blame. I want to think that if women had ruled the earth since the dawn of civilization, that things would be different; there would be more racial and gender equality, the environment wouldn’t be in peril and wealth would be distributed, not concentrated. I’m not sure if this if this would be the case, and sadly, there is no way to find out.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. I acknowledge that the social, financial and environmental challenges we face today were built collectively over the course of thousands of years by men and women. Equally true is that our collective successes must acknowledge the influences surrounding every great writer, artist, cook, and inventor – the families and communities which made their inventions possible. Our deeply entrenched patriarchal and capitalist system was built over a long time and can’t just be scrapped for something new overnight. Realistically, we can only start where we are and move from here.
So here we are, consistently filling stories with one-dimensional characters that propagate heartache and subjugation. I just finished reading the 12-page letter of the woman who was sexually assaulted by the Stanford athlete while she was inebriated and unconscious. She is articulate and brave and I appreciate her sharing her nuanced statement with her rapist, the courtroom, and the world. I think our failures, like the one of this young man who believed that he was entitled to her body, have everything to do with the characters we present in our stories.
The reason I work in at Imago Theatre is because I believe that storytelling has the potential to change the way people think. The alternative perspectives presented in successful theatre allow audience members to see the world through different lenses, and there is nothing more powerful than this. I believe that in order to encourage a change towards greater equality of gender, culture, age, class, bodies and species, we need to witness varying perspectives. Stories allow us to do this in a safe way. Let’s start here.
Let’s start telling stories where white men are not the only ones depicted in positions of power. Let’s start telling stories where men are depicted as engaged in a community and family, and are not competing for money and sex. Let’s start telling stories where men express their emotions and reach out to their friends for support. Let’s start telling stories where domination is not sole measures of achievement and where men share, welcome and connect. Let’s start telling stories where being a leader means working with and for others.
Here is a painful example of how damaging male archetypes get entrenched at a young age:
That video breaks my heart every time.
I do not know the answer to the question of – nature and/or nurture, but based on the many men I know in my life, I do not believe that men are inherently aggressive and dominating. I think this is just the story we’ve been telling for far too long, which has allowed some men to think this identity is acceptable. So why do we continue telling stories validating alpha male archetypes?
“The dominant form of masculinity in Western culture embodies men’s social power over women. It emphasized force, authority, aggressiveness” (The Evolving Man). The Vin Diesels will always play ‘manly’ heroes. They will express little emotion in their films. Their heroine counterparts will be rough around the edges, smart, but conventionally hot and still secondary to them. Our heroes will often kill bad guys that get in the way of their heroic journey. These casualties will be justified by their ultimate achievements. The prize at the end will be money, power and hot, hetero sex where tight bodies glisten with golden sweat as the credits roll. I think I’ve seen that movie one thousand times.
So why are we obsessed with this alpha-male character? I think we’re afraid of the alternatives. Firstly, anyone can tell a story about a dominant, white male. This archetype is in the public domain for all to use and overuse while other archetypes lie dormant and waiting. There is a long queue of sensitive, outspoken, collaborative and intuitive male archetypes waiting for their spot in the sun. We know the alpha-male is safe and sells tickets. So why are we afraid of depicting so many other characters? The appropriation of voice? Offending the audience with the unusual?
During the long-table discussion during Her Side of the Story: An Encounter, theatre artists discussed the feminine perspective on stage. I made a comment about the female perspectives in theatre still being considered risky. Why try something different if you’re not sure how it is going to go over? I think this is the justification many storytellers, theatre creators included, use to justify repetitive storytelling. A young theatre artist responded to my comment, ‘Since when has theatre not been risky?’ Implying, in part, that if theatre isn’t shaking somebody, it’s not doing its job. Not that theatre should be gratuitously offensive, but I agree, if people feel uncomfortable along the line of telling a well rounded story, good!
No matter which perspective is in question, we face the danger of telling a single story. Our white, dominant, alpha male archetype has been so prominent it has bled onto various other skin tones, promoting the same type of dominant attitudes and entitlement in men outside of the initial type-cast. The alpha male has its place – sitting in and amongst various other male perspectives. Perhaps the simple act of giving these other archetypes some stage time will encourage a shift in our limited definition of masculinity.
I’m down for an experiment. Let’s try.