I'm reading
Becoming a man
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Becoming a man
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Becoming a man
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
31 January 2019

Becoming a man

We need to broaden the spectrum of what masculinity—and being a man—means.

Written by Paul Willis

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Some time last year I was struck by an odd realisation. Looking around at my life I saw that I had very few male friends. This was strange to me. I’d grown up in a family of three brothers. There had always been lots of boys hanging out at our house and—as far as I was concerned—I had always felt comfortable with this.

So why was I now so isolated? The more I thought about it the more I realised I was actually quite afraid of men. I was afraid of their propensity for physical violence; their competitiveness. I was afraid of the homoerotic charge I felt in some men’s presence.

Most of all I was afraid of who I would become when I was around them—that same insecure adolescent anxiously trying to win the lads’ approval with facile arguments and humour at someone else’s expense (often my own).

I wasn’t sure what to do with these fears until I remembered a friend of mine who had gone on a men’s weekend many years earlier. At the time I had been quite sceptical of the whole thing and when he invited me to an event where the men reconvened in the presence of friends and family (a kind of passing out parade) I remember being weirded-out by their touchy-feeliness. What exactly were you lot doing in the woods, Dave?

I got in touch with Dave. He told me the weekend was run by an organisation known as the Mankind Project. I looked them up. They had a crappy website but quite an impressive reach, running weekends all over the world, including one a short drive north of New York where I lived. I signed myself up the next day.

Two days before the weekend I got a surprise. One of the organisers called me up, ostensibly just to see where my head was at. I rambled for a few minutes and in passing mentioned something about my girlfriend. There was a pause on the other end.

“You do know this a GBTQ weekend?”

“Er, no.”

He told me that Mankind Project occasionally ran weekends focused on particular demographics, and that this weekend was aimed at the GBTQ community. There was another pause.

“How do you feel about that?” he said.

“Fine.”

I can’t have sounded very convincing because in the next breath he tried to assure me that straight men were also welcome.

“You won’t be the only one.”

I was.

The weekend—known by the rather long-winded title, “The New Warrior Training Adventure”—was taking place a two-hour drive north of the city, at a campground in the Hudson Valley. I drove up there with two other men I didn’t know. We got caught in a go-slow and arrived late. As we pulled into the campground the mood in the car was tense and I felt in need of reassurance. Nothing that happened over the next several hours reassured me, however.

There’s a lot of debate these days about a crisis in masculinity. While the debate is only to be welcomed, what I find misleading is the idea that this crisis is new. Let’s be clear, masculinity has been in crisis for some time now.

The American psychoanalysts Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette wrote about it as far back as 1990 in their book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine.

Moore and Gillette identified the roots of the crisis with the disappearance from the West of ritual processes for initiating boys in to men. Without the kinds of coming-of-age rituals that still exist in tribal societies the western man’s psychological development was stunted and he became trapped in an immature form of the masculine that Moore and Gillette termed “boy psychology.”

“Boy psychology is everywhere around us, and its marks are easy to see,” they wrote. “Among them are abusive and violent acting-out against others, both men and women; passivity and weakness; the inability to act effectively and creatively in one’s own life and to engender life and creativity in others.”

Nearly 30 years on it is clear that boy psychology is not only alive and well, it’s running the show. Moore and Gillette’s book is foundational to the Mankind Project and their weekends are set up as a kind of initiation process into mature masculinity.

Through the course of the weekend you are brought into a confrontation with yourself. You are asked to look seriously at all aspects of yourself and, where possible, begin the process of discarding the things that don’t serve you: Why exactly do I need reassurance after a tense car ride? And what truly is the cause of that tension, anyway? Could it be that it’s not the violence of other men that I fear but my own repressed violence, my own repressed competitiveness, my own repressed homoerotic feelings?

I won’t reveal what happens on the weekend because the Mankind Project don’t want me to. Secrecy of this kind usually provokes suspicion, and if you Google the Mankind Project the first word associated with them is “cult” but there is nothing sinister in their motives. They just don’t want anyone’s experience of the weekend to be compromised by knowing in advance what happens.

In any case, my own experience was quite atypical since it was geared to the GBTQ community. There were a lot more feather boas getting passed around than I expect you’ll find on a conventional weekend. There was also a lot of reckoning with the pain and isolation of growing up GBTQ. Men shared stories of childhood bullying and of family rejection.

Some of the stories triggered shame in me as I recalled my own casual homophobia growing up. When I was at school, “gay” was the standard playground insult. Now I could see close up how the psychological wounds of this climate of bigotry were affecting these men, my brothers, 30 years after the fact. But I was messed-up back then too. Because while I was joining in the playground catcalls, I had a cousin who routinely bullied me for being too effeminate.

When I listened to these men’s experiences and thought of my own past I realised that in a sense it’s all the same story: the damage wrought when you force boys to grow up with such a prescriptive vision of themselves.

Because masculinity has been too narrowly understood for too long, there has been no revolutionary movement to redefine masculinity on a par with feminism. A materialist assessment of this last statement would be that there’s been no need. Men have been on top, after all. So why change a winning formula?

But men aren’t winning any more. They kill themselves more often, they die younger, they make up most of the prison population and their self-hatred is on display for everyone to read about in garish details on the front pages of newspapers nearly every day of the week.

Here’s a radical argument about feminism: that the greatest thing it gave women was not a narrowing of the gender gap but the plurality of vision it offered them about themselves. Because after feminism there were suddenly many different ways you could be a woman. Whereas when I grew up there was really only one way to be a man.

The Mankind Project challenges this narrow, clearly toxic view of masculinity. And this is the best thing I can tell you in its favour.

Paul Willis

Paul Willis is a writer and journalist. Born and raised in north-east England he began his writing career in his mid-twenties working as a reporter on his hometown paper. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his partner – a visual artist – and his young daughter.

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