The Good News on Masculinity: There is Another Way

jim harbaughIn patriarchal culture males are not allowed simply to be who they are and to glory in their unique identity. Their value is always determined by what they do. In an anti-patriarchal culture males do not have to prove their value and worth. They know from birth that simply being gives them value, the right to be cherished and loved.
bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (2004)
Lydia Wylie-Kellermann and Tommy Airey, co-editors of RadicalDiscipleship.Net & “backdoor neighbors” in Detroit, are both white and both come up solid INFJs on the Myers-Briggs personality test. When it comes to the Enneagram, Lydia is a 2 with a 3 wing. Tommy is a 3 with a 2 wing. But the similarities may end there. Lydia grew up in Detroit, is in a traditional same-sex marriage, the mother of a 2-year-old, a disciple of the Harry Potter series, an avid gardener and knitter. Tommy grew up in suburban Southern California, is scandalously married to a former student, an avid distance runner and starts every morning sipping on home-roasted coffee, journaling and reading the sports page and academic theology. Below is the transcript of an eDialogue we recently had on the current state of North American masculinity.
TA: I’m not sure if you are familiar with Jim Harbaugh (photo above: in a recent game of shirts and skins). He might be the most popular white guy in Michigan right now. The University of Michigan recently signed him to a $7 million per year contract to be their football coach. He’s coaching football clinics all over North America to try to recruit the best players to play in your native Michigan. I came across this quote last week:

I love football. Love it. Love it. I think it’s the last bastion of hope for toughness in America in men.

Respond. Please!

LWK: You’ve caught me. I’ve never heard of the guy. And I can’t believe you are asking ME to write about sports! I’ve never really spent time engaging the thought of manliness of masculinity other than critiquing it as a perpetuation of patriarchy. I’ll never forget the moment we were told we were having a boy. I hadn’t expected it and I wasn’t sure I had the gifts of experiences to raise a boy. I learned to pass on the power and beauty I received and believed in that comes with being a woman and femininity. It was something I would want a daughter to claim and honor. But for a boy it felt more like teaching a child to let go of rather than taking something up. How to teach him to lay down the male privilege and power and violence that comes with manliness? And a lot of that is true. But I don’t want Isaac to only feel shame and work around masculinity. I want him to in the same way be able to claim and honor his masculinity. But what does that mean? What is the healthy, powerful, and beautiful reality that lies in masculinity?

TA: I know intimately how the All-American Masculinity cult has crippled my emotional expressiveness and open-heartedness, barking out orders to stand tall and be the hero for everyone. A couple of decades ago, Richard Rohr wrote this:

Like many other people I’ve continually wondered why Jesus came to us as a man and why he chose twelve men. I have only my interpretation for this and no proof that it’s right. But I think that if Jesus had come as a woman, and had this woman been forgiving and compassionate, and had she taught non-violence, we wouldn’t have experienced that as revelation. ‘Oh, well, a typical woman,’ we would have said. But the fact that a man in a patriarchal society took on these qualities that we call ‘feminine’ was a breakthrough in revelation. So he spent three years teaching twelve men how to do things differently—and they almost never caught on. And for two thousand years the men in the Church have never caught on. Because we men wanted a God of domination.

There’s Jesus: weeping over the death of his friend, crying over the inevitable destruction of Beloved Jerusalem. Not holding it all together or threatening to kick ass. Just the thought of a 30-something male with 12 really tight-knit and intimate male friends is virtually unfathomable for us 21st century American males! My own compulsion to hide and resist my own feelings and to cope by isolating–these are powerful forces, indeed. It’s just so much less threatening to stay on the surface and talk about sports, movies and the weather. American football (as opposed to the “soccer” popular in every other nation on the planet) is particularly odious. Harbaugh and so many other men are drawn to football because it teaches a brand of toughness that is equated with aggression. Feelings are very important: but it is all about getting jacked up to go out and physically dominate and punish opponents for 3 hours while using misogynistic and homophobic slurs. There is no room for tenderness and gentleness. And it extends far beyond the football field. A few months ago, after students at the University of Michigan protested an upcoming campus screening of American Sniper because of negative and misleading stereotypes about Muslims, the 51-year-old Harbaugh lit up the Twitterverse when he tweeted:

Michigan Football will watch “American Sniper”! Proud of Chris Kyle & Proud to be an American & if that offends anybody then so be it!

BTW: Harbaugh has the most twitter followers of any college football coach on the globe. Bottom Line: What happens if Isaac comes home from school and tells you and Erinn he wants to play football?

LWK: I have never heard that understanding of Jesus and it’s beautiful. How simple and true it is. How can we highlight that tradition and understanding more? I don’t know what we will do if Isaac asked to join the football team. I’ve heard Erinn say it wouldn’t be allowed, but there comes a time when I don’t think “not allowing” works very well. I think that all we can do to prepare for that time is the work of right now. We will let him cry as long as he needs to holding him tight and naming out loud his feelings. Never say “be tough” or be “be a big boy” or “don’t cry, don’t be weak,” and we will call out others when they say it to him.

We will never pretend that someone getting hurt is funny or entertaining.

We will tell a deep and constant reminder that hurting people is never ok. We will honor his feelings, celebrate his joy, and encourage his diverse interests.

We will celebrate cooperativeness and encourage his confidence in the midst of community.

We will give thanks for the men in his wider community who are gentle and kind and mindful of their feelings.

And we will just keep loving him through the growing up. We know that he will be influenced by all the powers and principalities as we all are, but we will love him and trust him to that work. It’s all any of us can do.

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