As Humans, we have a tendency to compartmentalize and stereotype, grouping things by labels in order to better or more easily understand them. This is a useful trait: We can have snap-decision knowledge that red berries or brightly-colored frogs are deadly, helping us to survive the wilderness. But we also know that these broad rules have many exceptions, like delicious raspberries or the Allobates zaparo, a frog that looks like a poison dart frog, but isn’t nearly as dangerous. Still, with these compartmentalizing tags available and ready in our brains, we can sometimes ignore reality in favor of the expectation, avoiding any red berry or any bright frog, thinking it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Our stereotyping doesn’t stop at food or frogs. We stereotype people, too. So often I have heard that a “strong man” is someone who’s assertive, even aggressive. Or that men have trouble showing their emotions, or that real men don’t cry. Or take “man humor,” hyper-sexualized jokes or jokes about bodily functions. The idea of being “masculine,” at least in America, often gets associated with a crude, rather aggressive mode of behaviour. People who identify as “masculine” are expected to conform in some way to this behaviour, and if they do not, they may be stigmatized or seen as “unmasculine.”
In my life, I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with being “masculine.” Two object lessons come to mind.
First, as a child at camp, a female counselor asked if I wanted to be her friend. I said that I did. She bent down and plucked my eyebrows. Then she cupped her mouth and shouted, “Look, Luke plucks his eyebrows,” and everyone laughed. I didn’t understand what was so funny about this, nor do I remember the outcome of that “prank.” My mother, however, recalls that I came home from camp asking what “gay” meant, because apparently everyone was calling me that. My mother decided to give me the old-fashioned definition, that of “happy,” and let me work out my own sexual desires without the fear that I was already being stigmatized.
Second lesson. For Father’s Day one year, my best friend and I planned a celebration at our church. Part of the celebration would include a video presentation. My friend and her father were set on the idea that we should use a particular “hilarious” video called “Mandles.” It was about scented candles made by men, for men, without any of those “sissy” scents of lavender and vanilla. No, “mandles” would smell like motor oil, sweat, raw meat, biker jackets, and charcoal.
My friend busted a gut at that video. I, on the other hand, did not. Really, I didn’t understand it. Did men not like the smell of flowers? Why, then, do husbands buy their wives flowery perfume? Surely if they couldn’t stand the “sissy” smell, they’d pick up a scent both husband and wife could tolerate.
As for me, I enjoyed the smell of lavender. I didn’t like the scent of motor oil. I brought this up to my friend and told her that the video wasn’t representative of all men.
“But,” she wondered, “what man would want to smell like flowers?”
I said that I did.
She said, “Well, a real man wouldn’t—oh, you know what I mean.”
In that moment, I was no longer a real man, because apparently I wasn’t “masculine” enough to identify as one.
But I do identify as masculine, and I am sure I’m not the only one who fails to conform to the “masculine” assumptions. I believe we do a disservice to others when we take such broad social categories—such as what it means to be a man or a woman—and create narrow definitions for them. It’s not as if God called men to be aggressive, or to show no emotion, or to disdain the smell of flowers. Take Jesus, who more often responded with gentleness than with aggression, who wept when grieving over Lazarus’ death. I can’t say whether he liked to sniff the roses or not, but he did let his feet get bathed in perfume.
I realize that Jesus’ masculinity probably isn’t the focus for these moments of his life; but it would be foolish to say, “This is what being a real man is like,” without taking Jesus’ behaviour into account. I also realize that Jesus may not be the only version of masculinity to see. Some men are aggressive, and some do keep their emotions to themselves, and they may claim these traits as part of their masculine identity. I’m not trying to push them out of the “masculine” sphere—Rather, I’m trying to say that we shouldn’t assert that their behaviour is the only model of masculinity available.
As for myself, I have become secure in my version of masculinity even when it conflicts with the norms of American society: Pink is, and has always been, my favourite color, even if it’s a “girl color”; I love the smell of lilacs and of seared steak; I used to play dress up with Barbie, and I also made mud balls to throw at the shed door; I am empathic and have been known to burst into tears of both joy and sorrow; I take authoritative stances, and yet I work to make sure everyone’s voice gets heard.
Perhaps I don’t fit all the stereotypes. I say that’s a good thing.
I am the raspberry of red berries, the Allobates zaparo. I am who I am, and I am masculine. Lord willing, people will see me, whether I match their expectations or not.