Tag Archives: Arnold van Gennep

From boy to man

6 Oct

I hear all of the time from women that they’re glad they’re not men. I’m often saying that I think it would suck to be a man because of all of the social pressures and expectations we have of men, and the constant stress to prove themselves as men.

Womanhood comes naturally to us through our bodies that can create, feed, and nurture babies. Womanhood is never questioned and no one ever doubted it. It just is.

Manhood seems to be more of a challenge. Men and boys need to prove their masculinity to themselves and the world constantly and consistently, and the stress, I imagine, must be so hard to bear. Our culture is lousy with guys trying to prove themselves  – we are endlessly bombarded with the glorified tales and deeds of men in movies, books, and on TV, and idealized versions of men in sports and video games.

Women are also under pressure but in a different way: one could say that we feel pressure to look a certain way while men are pressured to perform a certain way. Example: catalogues – we see women holding gifts or resting their gentle hands on the shoulders of fellow long underwear models – I’m here to be seen, behold me – while men are always in action, “catching” a football, “chopping” wood – even in their y-fronts!

Of course, I’m talking about straight men. I don’t think that open gay men are expected to prove their manhood because their identity falls under a different jurisdiction. Gay men live under very different cultural rules than straight men do, and have other things going on, but once out of the closet, no one ever asked them to prove their manhood, because the need to prove it isn’t in their culture.

What I want to bring to light this week is what boys have to go through on their way to become men, including the rejection of the feminine and the rites and rituals that a boy must endure as he pieces his masculinity together. For this topic, I’m going to be quoting a lot from Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity by anthropologist, David D. Gilmore, who studied cultures from all over the world and found a strong underlying understanding among males is to reject anything remotely resembling the feminine.

Strap yourselves in, it’s going to a bizarre and cringe-inducing ride that may make you squirm.

Rites of Passage

Quoted in Gilmore, French anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep’s 1908 work, The Rites of Passage, explains the theme of passage as the change in status and identity as the boy “dies” and is “reborn” a man, each stage accompanied by appropriate symbolism:

1. Separation: The boy severs relations with childhood, often literally, by renouncing the mother or being forcefully taken away from her.

2. Transition. He is sent away to a new place in the bush or is otherwise isolated while in limbo – a status where he is neither boy nor man.

3. Incorporation. He emerges as a man.

The first stage, being taken away from one’s mother is meant to remove the boy’s dependency on the mother because this is largely understood to mean weakness, and weakness is not tolerated well in the world of men. If you’re weak, you’re a sissy, not unlike a girl (horrors!), and you may get your ass kicked. In some cultures like Spain and Morocco,  “a man must gain full and total independence from women as a necessary criterion of manhood,” according to Gilmore.

This independence begins with the separation from this “source of weakness” and can take many forms, breaking the psychic tie between sons and mothers. For instance, sociologist, Michael Kimmel recognizes the act of baptism as “[t]he old “feminized self” born of a woman is destroyed, and the priest, always a man, brings the new self to life. In a sense, then, the male priest has given birth to the new man. The mother may have given birth, but the child does not become a member of the community until the priest confers that status. Women are pushed aside, and men appropriate reproductive power.”

Kimmel denies any empirical evidence suggesting that boys who stay close to their mothers “become any less capable of manhood than those who reject her in a wrenching separation.”

He says there is good evidence suggesting that the separation from one’s mother has negative consequences for women in his future, where he learns to distrust them and seals himself off from ever showing his true vulnerability and neediness.

“He becomes a man alright – a cold, hard, unfeeling one.”

Rite or torture?

Once the separation has taken place, boys in different parts of the world may be subjected to cruel and brutal rituals to symbolically shed the feminine so that they are “wiped clean of their female contaminants – so that their masculinity may develop.” (Gilbert H. Herdt)

While in New Guinea, Gilmore observed and worked with ethnic groups where boys “were subjected to numerous tests and brutal hazing, some of which involve either physical beating or painful bloodletting – nosebleeds resulting from bamboo canes forced down the esophagus inducing painful vomiting. The boys are also flailed violently with sticks, switches, or bristly objects until their skin is “opened up” and the blood flows.”

Gilmore says that the point of the bleeding is “specifically to remove the mother’s blood and milk and other “polluting” feminine influences from the boy’s body, because these maternal influences inhibit masculinization and therefore adult role play performance.”

Herdt notes that the rites teach the boys to ignore the flow of their own blood and show a stoic resolve. These experiences are said to “explicitly” prepare them fo the life of manly endurance that awaits them.

Bleeding is just one form of this cleansing ritual. Gilmore’s tribe in New Guinea also partakes of ritual fellatio:

“Men cannot help noticing how the child is “too dependent” on the mother and the breast. Apparently, the aggregate response is to wean the boys on their own penises.”

To instill responsibility, independence, and manly strength, the Gisu tribe of Uganda have boys undergo “stressful rites of transition to manhood, including painful bloodletting and circumcision,” and to show pain – even the slightest flinch – will result in ostracization and ridicule.

The young Gisu initiate must stand perfectly still, without the slightest movement, while first his foreskin is ripped open and then the subcutaneous flesh is slowly stripped from around the glans of the penis… the elders describe the degree of pain as “fierce”, “bitter”, and “terrifying”.

The Gisu believe that this terrible ordeal will awaken a fierceness in a boy that makes him fearless, “for he has already experienced the worst pain life has to offer,” Gilmore says.

He sees compelling evidence linking masculine ideology to social and natural environments: “The harsher the environment and the scarcer the resources, the more manhood is stressed as inspiration and goal… it indicates a systematic relationship in which gender ideology reflects the material conditions of life.”

Conditions in central Africa are quite different than in western countries, and without guidance and perhaps without ritual, Michael Kimmel sees young men limping towards manhood in North America, without guidance from their elders, and without rites and rituals to mark their passage.

“Most guys actually do become men – eventually,” Kimmel says, “They may try to convince themselves that they are proving their manhood by torturing each other through initiation, drinking themselves into unconsciousness, watching porn, blowing away virtual enemies, and hooking up with every willing – or sometimes unwilling – woman they meet. But that’s not the way it happens. Most guys just drift into manhood.”

I find it upsetting to think that we as a species are so out of balance that we put men through so much so that they live up to our ideal of what we think a man is. Putting boys through torture in order to become “men” is inhumane and ridiculous. Perhaps if men embraced their Anima, or feminine side, as suggested by Carl Jung, instead of fighting with it, we would be more balanced and less brutal. The journey to manhood is an unnatural construct, and it’s important that we know that we have a choice in how we treat boys and men. Maybe it’s time for reevaluation.

In the end, I still don’t know why displaying one’s feminine side is so bad. I think that when it comes to toughness, women’s bodies are naturally more durable and resilient than men’s bodies, given our monthly menstruation or what I imagine to be the intense pain of childbirth. Mums, like any other mother in the animal world, are often more fierce and courageous than males because they have carried and given birth, and must protect their brood in the world. We don’t actually get any training for this; our toughness is natural.

Comedienne, Betty White, sums up this topic beautifully: “Why do people say “Grow some balls?” Balls are weak and sensitive! If you really wanna get tough, grow a vagina! Those things take a pounding!”