Cullen Blathers At Length: Masculinity and the Tough Guy Paradox

In my continuing (and sporadic as ever) attempts to be a little less analytical while still overthinking things to the maximum, here’s me just talking about my perceptions of, um, maleness. Now, I’m 23 and I don’t have a stable career or a long list of ex-girlfriends to prattle about. I believe by most current measures this means I’ve failed as a man and should resign myself to a lifetime of weeping self-doubt and living in my parents’ basement. Now, I could do that, but why waste time on such lamentable nothings? I’ve got stuff to do! Books to write, swords to render, lots of exposed concrete in my own basement which has yet to be consecrated by the repeated impact of my knuckles against it at high speed.

Now, I’m not going to talk exclusively about myself, but I’m going to bring myself up a lot. All present evidence suggests I’m a male, but I’m also an Autistic male who dodged the normal range of macho integration options in high school and college. I’ve got an outsider’s perspective to work with and damned if I’m not going to. I do have a thesis this time, and that is this: a disconcertingly large number of men suck at being men. They’re awful at it because, first and foremost, they spend so much time worrying if they qualify as men or not. Sexual success is the big one, of course, and as I said a field to which I cannot speak.

Obviously I do conventionally “masculine” things. I lift work out by by lifting weights and swordfighting. I maintain my collection of slicey implements, I play violent video games. HOLD IT! Stop. Yes, that last one is a “male” activity for some fucking reason. Sitting in a chair or on a couch and making pixels fly into other, bigger groups of pixels until the big pixels fall over is a tough thing for manly men now. Bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but I thrive on hyperboly.

When I got into gaming with Warzone 2100 and Bungie’s Myth strategy games on PC (yes, that’s right, Bungie actually did interesting things before Halo!), gaming was for nerds. Plenty of people gamed, but it was perceived as this lame pudge-pillow hobby for asshats with no lives. But now that it’s gone mainstream (and after horrendous amounts of marketing expenses), playing games is a MANLY thing for MEN.

That’s dumb. I mean, leaving aside the obvious issue that pretty much anyone can do it, so treating gaming as inherently masculine is a particularly brainless form of elitism. We can debate whether the idea of masculinity is flawed in itself (and I would argue for the latter) but it’s supposed to be based on power. Strength, endurance, will, all that brotastic fare. Actually, not so much will. Iron will for its own sake gets less press than it should, probably because a certain cult of Swastika-bedecked ne’er-do-wells poisoned the concept. Gaming does not take power. At the higher levels it requires remarkable speed, reflexes and cleverness, but physically demanding it is not.

But then, as I said, the whole concept of masculinity is buggered over the moon and past the Kuiper Belt, so what’s one more issue? Quite aside from which, the expression of masculinity is often as not dead opposite its logical nature. Real men make their own rules! Except when literally any of their buddies suggest that they’re being unmasculine, in which case they’ll either stop painting that vase or fly into a rage to prove how tough they are. If the essence of manhood is doing your own thing and damn the rest, neither option makes sense. When you scream at a mountain, the mountain does not scream back. Punch it and you’ll hurt yourself. Push it and it’s not going anywhere. That’s the ultimate expression of power: when those trying to act on you are so negligible that you change nothing and show no response.

Here, then, is my interpretation of masculinity: there is no single way to be a man. If the essence of manliness is forging your own path and conducting yourself as you see fit, then conformance to others’ idea of manhood for the sake of conformity is right out. If you WANT to conform, excellent. That’s your choice, unless you’re conforming to toxic masculinity in which case you can go to hell. Also, if you’re a woman reading this, obviously none of these “yous” are for you, as such. Generic second person is just easier for me. Back on the subject, though, a man should be no one’s man but his own. If I let someone pressure me into forming a stoic mask and acting a certain way for fear I’ll be seen as unmanly, then I’ve succumbed to the Tough Guy Paradox.

The Tough Guy Paradox is, quite simply, imbecilic. By far its most common expression is that of a man who calls another a coward for refusing to do something. Let’s dissect that a little bit: if I truly fear nothing, neither death nor pain nor whatever else, then what difference should it make to me that some pitiable asshat calls me a coward? The only reason for me to do something because I’ll be thought a coward if I don’t is that I’m afraid of being thought a coward. Everyone feels fear, but a coward is ruled by it. So, if I act to prove to others that I’m not a coward, I become a coward. If I don’t do as asked, then it’s assumed that I’m a coward because I didn’t rise to the challenge.

The thing is, this is only a paradox if I feel I can only be masculine by proving it to everybody. And if that’s the interpretation someone comes up with, then I suppose that’s fair enough. I, however, do not believe that the opinions of other men about my masculinity are inherently valid. What matters to me is not that someone thinks I’m lazy, but that I know I’ve done nothing but work for the last ten hours. That the work was unpaid is irrelevant. I don’t care if they think I’m tough, I know from ample experience that I’m equally indifferent to scalding, cuts small and large, joints smashed on tables and essay-induced headaches. I don’t care if someone calls me a coward, because I’ve stared Death in the fact twice and learned that he’s just misunderstood.

As often as I put myself down for humorous effect, that paragraph above contains a snippet of how I actually perceive myself. I can put myself down constantly because I know it’s not true, and if I lose face with others then who gives a damn? Well, they do, that’s fair enough. I just don’t. I prefer to come across as self-effacing and goofy most of the time because I find it more enjoyable, and since I have nothing to prove to others I don’t understand why I should get their hackles up by promoting myself in testosterone-fueled bellowing.

None of this is to say that I don’t feel doubts or that I don’t have things to prove. But my doubts are my own, driven by introspection and a desire to improve myself, and I only try to prove things to myself, not others. Most of the time, anyway. Humans are social animals, and I occasionally give in to the instinct to justify myself to the group. But it’s an instinct I keep a tighter lid on year by year.

I want to close by saying that I don’t think all men or even any men should try to emulate me. That would mean conforming to my ideas, and I don’t advocate that either no matter how much I like my own ideas. I’m afraid I won’t be offering much advice on femininity. I think most of us can agree that there’s already too much input from men as to how women should act. But, regardless which gender or mix of genders you identify with, in my view this much is immutable: The goal for each person should be to push for the best version of themselves, not the version other people envision. No one knows you as well as you do.

As long as you’re honest with yourself and do your damnedest to improve, the rest will fall into place.

Say something, darn it!

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