Tag Archives: Michael Kimmel

Black History Month: Another side of Hip-Hop

14 Feb


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Negative stereotypes of Blacks are a staple of Black music videos that glorify gangsterism. In Rap music and videos, the minstrel-show plantation has been born again as the “hood.” While the setting has changed from an idyllic plantation to the mean streets of urban America, the process is the same: a black culture is being marketed for profit, with black performers portraying negative stereotypes. Performers claim that they represent authentic black America, while critics decry the glorification of ugly caricatures and its effects on Black youth.


I’ve had some things on my mind lately, Black History Month (BHM), and a lecture I attended a few weeks ago, by masculinities author and sociologist, Michael Kimmel. By fortunate chance, I recently came across  The Black Man Can, an initiative to actively promote a positive black male image by Brandon Frame, who has helped immensely with this year’s BHM articles.

I read a couple of posts on Brandon’s site that really grabbed my interest: Is Commercial Hip-Hop the New Blackface? by Sharif Rasheed, who suggests Hip-Hop culture as a caricature of African-American youth, and the fabrication and absorption of the Hip-Hop stereotype in black youth culture in When Posing Goes Wrong: Ricky Rozay is not about that life. 

Now, as a white, Canadian woman of European descent with a love for Sam Cooke, but no understanding of Soulja Boy let alone Jay-Z, I was gobsmacked at what I read in Rasheed’s article: “Commercial Hip-Hop has become the blueprint for the streets for many of today’s youth. The lyrics tell them what to wear, how to talk, what to like and dislike. These ignorant lyricists are the slave masters that abuse young minds by whipping the oppression into them and hanging the glorification right on them.”

Glen Palmer, of The Gentlemen’s Standard, a site for distinctive men of colour, does not believe that the younger generation understands blackface, let alone black American history.

“The blackface concept still remains,” he says,“artists play to the lowest, stereotypical denominator and project an imagery that mainstream, white America believes people of color to be. The stereotypes have changed a little, as “bling” has been introduced into the equation, but the foundation is still there. Ignorant. Hyper-sexualized. Violent.”

It is alarming that young black men allow themselves to be molded into an antiquated stereotype via Hip-Hop, as is their frenzy to prove their manhood – the brand of masculinity devised by white, Judeo-Christian men.


In Michael Kimmel’s lecture, he explains the traditional pillars of manhood that originated in the mid-20th century that has left millions of men unable to feel, positively express themselves, and be genuine.

  1. “No sissy stuff.” In western patriarchal culture, anything associated with the feminine is a sign of weakness (an apparent cardinal sin). In Hip-Hop, rap artists often call each other out and accuse each other of weakness in their rhymes, using offensive language like “bitch nigga”,  keeping rivalries and feuds alive, and feeding the aggression that hip hop demands.
  2. “Be a big wheel.” Wealth, power, and status equals money, ice (bling), and sex in Hip-Hop culture – the spoils of white patriarchy.
  3. “Be a sturdy oak. Be reliable in a crisis/become an unfeeling inanimate object”. Glen suggested I watch Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, an excellent documentary by Byron Hurt. Hurt discusses the projected hardness in Hip-Hop that is ego-driven and encourages men to assert themselves. This  hardness “denies men their own frailty”, and exposes their masculine insecurities, camouflaged by violence, dominance, misogyny, and homophobia.
  4. “Give ‘em hell.”  Be daring, be aggressive, be violent. The projected Hip-Hop image encourages men to threaten and kill each other, abuse women, and endanger and intimidate those around them.

The way Hip-Hop has nestled into these dated (and very unnatural) masculine expectations is startling, but as Brandon says, young black men “lack positive self-identity or  positive identity development, and look for it in other forms like commercial Hip-Hop music. The images created by these artists is merely for entertainment but Black Boys do not see it that way. They see these images as reality…a reality they want to live and embody.”

Little white lies

The scariest concept around all of this stuff is that the Hip-Hop image is false.

The caricature of the rough, tough, dangerous gangsta rapper is projected by profit-generating record labels, run by white men in suits who decide who gets signed, and who they can peddle the blackface image to (largely young white men – 70% of Hip-Hop is consumed by this group).

In When Posing Goes Wrong: Ricky Rozay is not about that life, the author outs rap artist, Rick Ross, about the lies he’s been living. Black youth hears music about drug dealing, though many of them “have never even sold candy”, toting guns and murdering, though “a good number of us have never even fired a gun and for sure never killed anyone.

“Our youth listen to these lyrics from these beloved entertainers and take it as gospel. Many take the glorified side of street life as reality and they do not see the dangerous reality until it is too late.”

A new code of masculinity

In researching and writing for this post,  I’ve processed a lot of information and believe I have witnessed the ultimate in insult – the diminishing of human potential. We desperately need a new, healthy, positive definition of masculinity for young men and boys that promotes among other things, self-respect and respect for others.

What is and was needed is a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of one’s unique being forms the basis of identity. Cultures of domination attack self-esteem, replacing it with a notion that we derive our sense of being from dominion over another. Patriarchal masculinity teaches men that their sense of self and identity, their reason for being, resides in their capacity to dominate others.

– bell hooks, African-American feminist

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!”

Men and suicide part 2

15 Sep

Last week, the suicides of two NHL players inspired part 1 of the men and suicide series. In it, I discussed depression, suicide, and the masculine code of silence which ultimately acts as a muzzle on men and boys, keeping them from freely expressing their feelings, and putting them at emotional and physical risk.

In an attempt to cast a light on this topic and begin a dialogue about the way we treat males in our society and hopefully improve support systems for men and boys, this week we’ll look at factors understood to lead some males to suicide, including what I consider to be the abusive treatment of boys in our society, the impact of bullying, and imposed gender roles.

Gender roles

As we saw in part 1, the male suicide rate is an average of three times higher than female suicide rates in most countries, with males using more lethal methods of suicide than females. (Females have a higher rate of suicide attempts than males, their actions suggesting a call for help rather than a sincere desire to die.)

Males learn to emotionally stifle themselves in order to become what society believes a man should be, and should a young man stray from this unnatural masculine persona, he runs the risk of ridicule, shame, and torment, sure to leave nasty, lingering memories and feelings of anger, self-loathing, and depression, sometimes leading to suicide.

When we pressure boys to always be strong, be brave, and withhold their feelings (via a reward/punishment system, for example), this to me, reads as a collective abuse of boys. In allowing this, we are stripping away what makes them human, and I think it is time we began questioning this type of sexist treatment of boys.

In The Myth of Male Power, Warren Farrell sees a pattern in the anxieties that boys experience, a repeating pattern that make boys feel less than equal to girls:

“By addicting boys more to girl’s bodies than vice-versa… [this addiction is fed if not planted by the media that makes the female body very accessible for ready consumption – look on any magazine rack for a plethora of unnecessary feminine body parts]. This reinforces boys performing for girls, pursing girls, and paying for girls to compensate for their inequality. When they perform and pursue inequality – or feel they will never be able to earn enough to afford what they are addicted to, this creates anxiety which in its extreme form, leads to suicide.”


Abusive behaviour common in childhood is bullying. Bullying.org defines bullying as a person or group trying to hurt or control another person in a harmful way.

“In bullying, there is a difference in power between those being hurt and those doing the hurting, bullying involves hurtful behaviours that are repeated and intentional. Bullying is not about a conflict that needs resolving. In bullying, the power is all in one person or a group’s control. People who bully others show loathing and contempt for those they are trying to hurt.”

Bullying can have deeply psychological and long-lasting effects for both sexes and have bearing on the child as an adult; bullying can damage self-esteem and self-confidence, and in boys who are not encouraged to discuss their troubles with anyone, bullying may even lead to violence.

In their article, Suicide by mass murder:  Masculinity, aggrieved entitlement, and rampage school shootingssociologists Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel discuss the relation between young men who take assault weapons to school and go on shooting sprees and bullying:

“Nearly all had stories of being mercilessly and constantly teased, picked on, and threatened. Most strikingly, it was not because they were gay (at least there is no evidence to suggest that any of them were gay), but because they were different from the other boys – shy, bookish, honour students, artistic, musical, theatrical, non-athletic, ‘geekish’ or weird.”

“For some boys,” Kalish and Kimmel say, “high school is a constant homophobic gauntlet, and they may respond by becoming withdrawn and sullen, using drugs or alcohol, becoming depressed or suicidal, or acting out in a blaze of over-compensating violent ‘glory’.”

To get a sense of what it is like to be bullied, the authors quoted the work of fellow sociologist, Ralph Larkin, known for his analysis of the 1999 Columbine high school rampage that saw 13 people killed plus the suicides of the two murderers at the scene. Larkin was interested to learn about the power of bullying and interviewed marginalized boys who experienced the pain of ridicule and torment. Here is one such experience:

Almost on a daily basis, finding death threats in my locker … People … who I never even met, never had a class with, don’t know who they were to this day. [When I] walked home… every day when they’d drive by, they’d throw trash out their window at me, glass bottles. I’m sorry, you get hit with a glass bottle that’s going forty miles an hour, that hurts pretty bad. Like I said, I never even knew these people, so didn’t even know what their motivation was. But this is something I had to put up with nearly every day for four years.

When bullied boys have nowhere to turn because society expects them to play the “manly” role, what choices does he have? Kimmel says, “Young men are socialized to embrace a set of behaviours designed to prove or assert their masculinity, and taught to use violence, especially in response to threats against one’s manhood.”

The suicide class

Shame, inadequacy, and vulnerability all threaten the self, and as Kimmel says, “[v]iolence is restorative, compensatory.” He and Kalish suggest that young men who grow up in a world where they are socialized to see violence as a way to prove their manhood, violence becomes a legitimate response to the perceived humiliation. (It’s the socialized theme of every Western that was ever made – “American men don’t get mad; they get even.”)

So when their nascent masculinity is challenged or threatened, young men who have been stripped of their right and possibly their ability to communicate, may feel isolated, dark, sullen, and hopeless, sometimes turning their anger outside to violently punish those who tormented them like the bullied young men at Columbine, or turn their anger inside, where feelings of worthlessness and self-hatred can turn against the self.

When the boy grows into a man, he does not necessarily leave threats to his manhood in the school yard. Men’s identities, their sense of what it is to be a man, is often associated with their work, and if there is a loss of work or threat of loss of work, it can have devastating effects.

With the loss of work/identity/manhood, Farrell says that men can feel “humiliated, violated, helpless, angry, guilty, self-blaming, depressive, lower in self-esteem, and suicidal. Their vulnerability leaves them feeling powerless, as if the whole world were an elephant and they were an ant.”

He maintains that until we hear men communicate their suffering, men “will be rough, tough cream puffs: the suicide class.”


I have attempted to provide some reasons to understand the condition of boys and men and how and why they might turn to violence or suicide to deal with their problems. I certainly don’t want to gloss over anyone’s individual story of depression or suicide, but the findings in the research suggest a common core in men’s depression and suicide: stunted or damaged self-esteem.

To begin to change things for the better, Warren Farrell suggests that we begin in child-rearing to “counter boy’s socialization and the socialization of girls who love boys who pay, perform, and pursue; to stop subsidizing male child abuse in the form of football and calling it “education”, to develop programs to prevent men from being 95% of the prisoners, and 85% of the homeless; to do for men what we would do for women.”

Of grown men and suicide, he says, “The single biggest solution to male suicide is making men feel needed as humans. Not just wallets. When men feel needed primarily as wallets, they are more likely to commit suicide when their wallets are empty. Many men have a deep need to send warning signals, but their belief that they have no right to ask others to rescue them from a disaster they feel they must have brought upon themselves, keeping them from even letting themselves know they have that need.” (Italics mine.)

American psychiatrist, Dr. James Gilligan, is an expert on violence. Dr. Gilligan works with men in prison and says that the best way to rehabilitate is through love, through nurture, and through education, not through punishment.

“The human soul, the human psyche, needs love in order to survive, just as specifically as the body needs oxygen in order to survive… prisoners were like people whose oxygen supply had been cut off, but it was their love supply. And I realized that without love, the soul dies. That’s what these men were telling me – their souls had died; that’s why they were capable of killing other people.”

From Toronto’s The Work of Men, relationship coach, Owen Williams, offers this advice for supporting men: “The most important relationship for a man is the one with his father and then the quality of his friendships with other men. A depressed man usually has a poor support system in the realm of male friends. A man needs at least five other men in his life who will challenge, love and champion him to be his best. Men need to be supported in their greatness. We love to rise to the challenge of life and we cannot do it by ourselves.”

When it comes to depression, Williams asks men to look at depression as an absence of joy.

“A powerful area to explore would be to look at where joy is missing from a man’s life. Real joy that is! Not what a man thinks he needs to have in his life to gain the approval of others, what he needs to have to gain his own approval. In short, the most effective cure for depression is action. When a man steps up despite the feelings of inertia that inevitably accompany depression, he will liberate himself from the condition.”

From my work in the gay men’s outreach program at the AIDS Committee of Toronto, I know that when people feel badly about themselves, they are more likely they are to harm themselves or put themselves at risk. I also know from working with men and their image, that when a man feels good about himself, he treats himself well and his relationships improve, so I see image work as a harm reduction model because it builds self-esteem.

There are a variety of ways to make life better for men and boys, but ultimately it begins with us. Think about what you’ve read here today and decide what you want to do – sustain masculine anxiety by allowing an abusive and unfair gender system that mistreats males, or will you choose to help men and boys build their self-esteem through kindness and nurture, appreciating them for who they are and what they can do?

It’s up to you.

Men and suicide part 1

8 Sep

The hockey world has been rocked by the deaths of three players in the last four months. In May, 28-year-old New York Ranger, Derek Boogaard, was found dead of an overdose of alcohol and painkiller, oxycodone. August saw the deaths of former Winnipeg Jet, Rick Rypien, 27, and 35-year-old forward/defence man and former Maple Leaf, Wade Belak. Both apparently hung themselves. All young men made their livings as NHL “enforcers”, also known as “tough guys” or “goons”, and at least two of them suffered from depression.

The deaths of these three young men have sparked today’s difficult and complex post. There is so much to discuss that I have chosen to break it up into two parts. Today, I will attempt to discuss depression, suicide, and the masculine code of silence. Next week, I will examine the treatment of boys in our society, socialized sex roles and gender behaviour, and possible ways to support men – a stride to improve society at large.

NHL “enforcer”

Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak played unofficial NHL positions whose job it was to “deter and respond to dirty or violent play by the opposition. When such play occurs, the enforcer is expected to respond aggressively, by fighting or checking the offender. Enforcers are expected to react particularly harshly to violence against star players or goalies.” (Wikipedia)

The life of an NHL enforcer “involves hard hits and playing a role that may seem unnatural,” says Ross Bernstein, a sports journalist whose book The Code details the culture of fighting in the NHL.

“[The enforcer is] the toughest job in sports because 99 per cent of the battles are for other people, they’re constantly injured … and they know there are 10 guys willing to do their job,” he told the Montreal Gazette.

The Globe & Mail  reports that these three untimely deaths have led to calls to “ban fighting in hockey, to monitor concussions more closely, to address the abuse of prescription painkillers by athletes and to provide more post-career support to former hockey players,”  but something is missing from this list, something very important.

Rypien suffered from depression and took two leaves of absences in three seasons. Wade Belak’s mother has reported that her son suffered from depression as well. Both of these young men suffered in silence, a silence that for some reason is expected of men; an imposed silence that is very much to our society’s detriment.

Men’s depression

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) sees depression as the most common mood disorder, affecting 10% of us. Depression can bring on feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, constant tiredness, an inability to have fun, and thoughts of death or suicide.

“Experts in the field suggest that a suicidal person is feeling so much pain that they can see no other option. They feel that they are a burden to others, and in desperation see death as a way to escape their overwhelming pain and anguish. The suicidal state of mind has been described as constricted, filled with a sense of self-hatred, rejection, and hopelessness.”

Depression can be bleak, miserable, and dark. As someone who experiences depression from time to time, I can tell you that it is NOT a nice place to be and it is a very deep hole to dig oneself out of. As a woman, I will experience and express depression differently than the way a man will because if I decide to talk about it, it is more socially acceptable for me to express my feelings and ask for help, and I probably won’t be labelled as “weak” for it. In our present society, men are not granted the same empathetic response that a woman in crisis may receive, and sadly, he may be ridiculed or otherwise mistreated for what he cannot control.

National Post columnist, Aaron Sands, wrote an excellent piece this week discussing his own depression and the stigma attached to Wade Belak’s mental illness, which Sands believes is Belak’s true cause of death. If we want to take a step forward in masculine social support, it is imperative that we take men’s mental health seriously and give men a voice to express themselves. This should not be thought of as a sign of weakness, on the contrary, it should be thought of as being human.

“Men have a hard time with depression because it is seen as weakness,” says Owen Williams, relationship coach at Toronto’s The Work of Men. ”In the world we live in, despite all the technological advances that we have made, the one area that we fall short on is redefining masculinity. To be a man still means to be strong, having it all together and fighting the “good fight” which in short, means to suck it up. We are still in the dark ages here.”

Sociologists Michael S. Kimmel and Jeff Hearn, in Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities, describe men’s learned or socially-imposed stoicism as violence toward the self: “stuffing” their emotions and trying to reach a traditional masculine ideal that rejects feminine emotionality. Young men are discouraged to express emotion (with the exception of anger, which I believe has become a default emotion for males because they have been taught to recognize few others), and “they often fail to learn the language with which they could describe their feelings, and without language it is hard for anyone to make sense of what he feels.”

During the men’s movement of the 1990s, the Iron John period when men were encouraged to (re)discover masculine archetypes, go to the forest, beat on drums, and unleash their Wild Man, Warren Farrell wrote a book called The Myth of Male Power. In it, he challenges men to be responsible for themselves and their actions, including the responsibility of helping themselves to express their emotions and depression.

At least at the time the book was written, Farrell unfortunately did not see a lot of men taking this initiative.

“Men are still most likely to buy adventure books, financial journals, and sports magazines that teach men to solve problems, overcome barriers, or repress feelings. There are few men’s shelters, “masculinist” psychologists, men’s crisis lines, or men’s centres.”

I think the world is a little better for men since Farrell wrote his book, and men’s services, from spas to image consulting to psychotherapy are taking hold and offering men freedom and safety to explore and appreciate themselves. The world is slowly recognizing the need to take men seriously, but the shame of reaching out for help still burns within so many.

Depression can lead to suicide

Globe & Mail columnist, Andre Picard, recently explained the stigma attached to mental illness for men. Picard recognizes the social expectation of boys to silently internalize their pain, act tough, and not show their natural feelings.

“This silence can be fatal,” he says, “Yet the continuing carnage that results – more men die by suicide than in motor vehicle collisions – is largely hidden away and invisible.”

The Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention (CASP) says that suicide is one of the top ten leading causes of death. In 2005 in Canada, suicide accounted for 3,743 deaths in 2005 with a male to female suicide ratio of 3:1. The World Health Organization’s international suicide rates reflects this trend and reports that in some countries, male suicide rates are over 6 times higher than women’s. It has been noted that elderly and very young men (15 – 25) constitute these high rates of suicide.

Kimmel and Hearn say that “[o]ne explanation for boy’s higher rates of lethality from suicide attempts is that males adopt more traditionally “masculine” methods (i.e. guns or knives) and psychological postures (e.g. aggression, goal-directedness, passion to succeed, and denial of feelings) when attempting to kill themselves.”

Masculine silence is one of our key problems in trying to keep men and boys healthy. This rather bizarre and unnatural practice of teaching boys not to recognize and express their feelings, insisting on their constant strength, and not allowing them a voice is not doing anyone any favours, especially the boys themselves. By supporting the idea of keeping men stoic and silent, we’re expecting men to fend for themselves in a world they were not properly trained to operate in, a world that denies them the outlets and the support they deserve. If a more supportive system for males existed in our society, our three late enforcers might still be with us.

“We really need to offer men a comfortable and empathetic environment to express themselves,” Warren Farrell says, “Anything less is a crime against masculinity.”

The crime of emotional silencing

29 Dec

Sad news this week. While on holiday in Jamaica, Cathy-Lee Martin’s throat was slashed by her husband. The couple were experiencing marital problems and reports reveal that Ms Martin told her husband that she wanted to separate. The 43 year old Ontario school teacher decided that slitting his wife’s throat was a solution to their failing marriage and he intended to kill her.

That horrendous act of violence was the vocabulary that Mr. Martin communicated his hurt. He’s one of so many men who have not had the opportunity to explore and express their emotions in a healthy way, turning instead to violence.

I have looked up some extremely disturbing statistics for this week’s post to illustrate the catastrophic numbers of violence against women by men who cannot see another way to cope with their problems. From the Amnesty International website:

  • At least one in every three women, or up to one billion women, have been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in their lifetimes  (L Heise, M Ellsberg, M Gottemoeller, 1999)
  • Up to 70% of female murder victims are killed by their male partners (WHO 2002)
  • In Bangladesh 50% of all murders are of women by their partners (Joni Seager, 2003)
  • In Pakistan 42% of women accept violence as part of their fate; 33% feel too helpless to stand up to it; 19% protested and 4% took action against it (Government study in Punjab 2001)
  • In Zambia five women a week were murdered by a male partner or family member (Joni Seager 2003)
  • In the USA a woman is battered, usually by her husband/partner, every 15 seconds (UN Study on the World’s Women, 2000)

Here in Canada, the Canadian Women’s Foundation cites half of Canadian women (51%) have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16.

These numbers are frighteningly high. Why is this happening?

Marc Lepine, the gunman who murdered 14 women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique before killing himself wrote in his suicide note that “feminists have ruined my life… The feminists always have a talent for enraging me. They want to retain the advantages of being women… while trying to grab those of men.”

Anthropologist David Gilmore finds that there has always been a tendency for men to fear and hate women: “Most men need women desperately and most men reject this driving need as both unworthy and dangerous.”  This love/hate dynamic, says Jed Diamond in The Irritable Male Syndrome, “is rooted in men’s unique dependency on women: boy relies on mother, and later relies on his wife for food preparation, domestic care, emotional support, and nurturing.”

Sociologist Michael Kimmel suggests that while “psychologists and feminists and the entire [US] legal system see male sexual aggression as the initiation of violence, guys describe it in a different way – not as an initiation but as retaliation… against the power that women have over them.”

In other words, some men are threatened by women encroaching on “their” territory, and there is a perceived inadequacy for a patriarchal / macho man to need and rely on a “weaker” woman in a society that demands male self-reliance and stoicism.

The Montreal massacre sparked concerns in Canadian men and in 1991, The White Ribbon Campaign was born, addressing violence against women (website here). To support the group and to wear a white ribbon is a personal pledge to never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women and girls. The White Ribbon Campaign sees the future having no violence against women. As it should be.

However, it is one thing for a man to say that he will never be violent against a woman but it is completely another thing to nurture boys from birth, encourage them to communicate their feelings, and simply allow them to love. And so I turn to a brilliant feminist thinker, bell hooks, author of The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love.  I was overjoyed to read her book because I found a kindred spirit in her way of thinking about men.

“Feminist thinkers, like myself,” hooks writes, “who wanted to include men in the discussion were usually male-identified and dismissed. We were “sleeping with the enemy”. We were the feminists who could not be trusted because we cared about the fate of men. We were the feminists who did not believe in female superiority any more than we believed in male superiority.”

Male superiority, or patriarchy, is the exclusive social system that puts men in the dominant position above all else, and what hooks goes on to describe as a convention that “endowed [men] with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”

She says that the patriarchy keeps men from knowing themselves and experiencing their emotions, from loving. “To know love, ” she says, “men must be able to let go the will to dominate.”

She also says, “Patriarchy demands of men that they become and remain emotional cripples.”

If any of you have read Bukowski’s Ham on Rye, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that it’s easy to create a deeply hurt and seethingly angry, violent, self-loathing man by mistreating him as a child. On top of this, add a heavy-handed expectation to conceal his feelings and swallow his natural emotions. And if he slips, let him have it.

“For many men, anger is the only emotion they have to express themselves,” says Jed Diamond, author of the Irritable Male Syndrome, “men are taught to “do” and as a result, men keep their emotions under wrap – they cannot show hurt, fear, worry, or panic.”

Hooks speaks at length about her experiences growing up with a brother just one year older, and how their gender roles were literally beaten into them by a patriarchal father who refused to accept his gentle and passive son and also refused to have an aggressive and competitive daughter.

“Something missing within” was a self-description I heard from many men as I went around our nation talking about love,” hooks explains, “Again and again a man would tell me about early childhood feelings of emotional exuberance, of unrepressed joy, of feeling connected to life and to other people, and then a rupture happened, a disconnect, that a feeling of being loved, of being embraced, was gone.

“Somehow the test of manhood, men told me, was the willingness to accept this loss, to not speak it even in private grief. Sadly, tragically, these men in great numbers were remembering a primal moment of heartbreak and heartache: the moment that they were compelled to give up their right to feel, to love, in order to take their place as patriarchal men.”

This idea is so sad to me. Manhood sounds like a sentence this way. I cannot imagine not being able to feel – it seems to me that I would explode. Young men can explode into violence and grown men explode in heart attacks and high blood pressure, both under serious stress, coping with a deafening and imposed silence, and no outlet to express themselves.

I see a lot of men walk around beaten, confused, abused, and bullied into patriarchal submission, and it breaks my heart. I think of this a crime against humanity.

We need to examine this social practice and start to heal from our patriarchal wounds, and to heal says hooks, we as a society need to stand by men and love them and support them, “offering a love that can shelter their wounded spirits as they seek to find their way home, as they exercise the will to change.”


4 Nov

Hockey captures the essence of Canadian experience in the New World.  In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the chance of life, and an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.  ~Stephen Leacock

I am well aware that many people in Canada and around the world really like hockey, but I am not afraid to tell you that I have absolutely no interest in it. As a matter of fact, I have negative experiences with the game, or rather, the way the game affected men in my life.

When I was a kid, Saturday nights during the fall and winter were scary because I could hear my father yelling at the TV, but I didn’t know why. (Sat. nights were also irritating because of that nasal-voiced 1970s  CBC sports announcer. Gainey… Gainey… Gainey.” )  As an adult, I lived for a few years with a man whose father had been drafted into the NHL, and consequently, my guy, who we’ll call Vincent, essentially grew up in a locker room.

Vincent was and probably still is obsessed with hockey. Obsessed. So obsessed that it became masturbation. During hockey season, he watched every game and dove into the Toronto Sun ‘s sport section on hockey day when the weekly hockey statistics were released, studied them, and recorded them into the binders he kept full of numbers. When his family and friends called long distance, they didn’t talk about their lives or how they were doing, they’d talk about that week’s hockey game.

As I was new to Toronto, I wanted to go out and explore, so every weekend when I’d ask him to go out, his response was, “nah, I’m going to stay home and watch the game.” (Hello, sports widow.) Eventually I stopped asking him and because I needed more attention, I went outside of the relationship for it. (Shrug.)

Red ice sells hockey tickets.  ~Bob Stewart

The language used in sport is interesting to me as a non-competitive person because it’s all about one being better than the other: me / my team against you / your team, I beat you, your team sucks, etc. One against another can only breed hostility, and the terms that are used in association with hockey are reminiscent of war and conquest:

  • the Vancouver Canucks obliterated  / axed / annihilated / shellacked the Calgary Flames
  • players can be enforcers, snipers, attackers, or goons (whom I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley)
  • “fight straps” are worn on hockey jerseys to keep from being pulled over a player’s head during a brawl

Now admittedly, it’s hard for me to follow the game because I’m not sure what they’re doing except trying to slide a piece of rubber into a net, and it’s hard for me to follow, let alone find the puck on the screen. Until I see blood on the ice, I don’t understand what’s going on.

During my research for today’s blog, I watched some terrible visuals and read about some horrifying injuries from slashed throats to ruptured testicles, and collected some startling statistics about concussions in hockey:

  • 759 players have been diagnosed with concussion since 1987
  • concussions rose by 41 % between 2005 – 2007 in the NHL
  • 17 players suffered a total of 21 concussions in 52 games in Ontario Junior Hockey last year

Try as I might, I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the appeal of this game.

How would you like a job where, every time you make a mistake, a big red light goes on and 18,000 people boo?  ~Jacques Plante

Despite the fame, the glory, and the salary, I imagine that playing professional hockey would carry a huge amount of stress for various reasons. Hockey is pretty big business – Forbes reports that the average NHL hockey team is worth $223 M and NHL league revenue is $3 B (source), so imagine what rides on a player’s performance – the fans, the merchandise, the bookies, the kids, all that money. That’s a lot of pressure for a young guy to shoulder. What about the shame of making a mistake on the ice and the people without anything better to do making humiliating Youtube videos of your screw-up, setting it to music, and sending it forth to forever float through cyberspace.

Though a professional player has plenty of time to plan for his inevitable retirement from the game with a well-padded bank account,  knowing that after a certain age, his sports career is over and his body, now toothless and battered,  can never be restored to its once prime condition. Sounds terribly depressing, though probably much more bearable if you have tens of millions of dollars in the bank.

Sports are a chick flick for guys. ~Michael Kimmel

In Guyland, American sociologist Michael Kimmel explains how important sports are to men individually and in the company of other men, suggesting that “Guys like following sports partly because it’s a way to talk with other guys without having to talk about your feelings. It’s a certain conversation starter in any uncertain social situation – walk into a party, a bar, a classroom, and say, “Hey how ’bout them Mets?” Instant bonding.”

I interviewed some adult league hockey players and they mentioned bonding and “hanging out with the guys” as part of the appeal of hockey. I personally support any opportunity for men to spend time together, even if they’re not talking about their feelings (though I think there is a chummy, affectionate relationship between sports buddies). I think that men get a charge out of being amongst their own because like dogs – pack animals, they thrive in groups and they’re happy together.

I expect that playing a game of hockey is one hell of a workout and I know guys enjoy the physical challenge and the exercise. Gets the blood flowing. Hockey is also a healthy outlet for stress, one of my interviewees tells me (“I leave my problems on the ice”), and another fella says he skates off his aggression. Oh, and Jim, one of the players who spoke to me, said that he plays in a “beer league” – “I play hard so that I deserve beer later.”

Now that I’ve looked a little further into the game that unfortunately became the vehicle of Vincent’s emotional inarticulation, I kind of understand the appeal of hockey, though hockey obsessions won’t do anyone any favours. Hockey should not be used as a way to avoid your emotions; time with the fellas is important,  but there must be a balance between hockey time and non-hockey time, especially if there are women present. If Saturday nights are reserved for Hockey Night in Canada, don’t neglect your women and maybe make Friday nights a date night – we’ll love you for it.