The Hazards of Being Male
When I was in college, feminism was becoming a powerful and transformative force in our society. Women at that time explained to me that “Women’s Liberation” was really “People Liberation,” and that the movement opposed rigid gender roles for both men and women.
In this spirit, I have been reflecting lately on what it was like to grow up male. In those days, the draft for the Viet Nam war was in effect. Dulce et decor est pro patria mori, wrote the Roman poet Horace: sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country. It didn’t strike me that way at all, especially about a war that had so many questions surrounding it. I felt a deep shock realizing that my country could require me to serve as cannon fodder, to become a victim and to victimize in a war that, we now know, even president Johnson knew was unwinnable. As males, we could be called upon to put out bodies on the line in ways females would not have to.
You could see this in high school gym class. While the girls were shooting arrows at targets, we had wrestling. Sadistically, the gym teacher always pitted me against my best friend. I remember when one classmate’s arm broke with a sickening sound. I remember it hanging from his shoulder in a way that it wasn’t supposed to hang. This was different, I knew, from the experience my female classmates were having.
We were taught not to cry or be vulnerable, that this was weak, bad, and somehow too feminine (which implicitly therefore was also bad and weak). To this day, many men not only hide what they feel, but often don’t even know what they feel.
Roles are less rigid now in some ways. But often these old attitudes are still with us. Boys are still raised to hide feelings, to always be strong, and never show weakness or vulnerability. Sometimes men are still expected to pay for things more than women are. In my own marriage, my wife, a staunch feminist, still found it objectionable that I earned 20% less than she did.
Buddhism teaches that everything is profoundly interconnected, sometimes called the teaching of interdependent origination. Because of this, when we stand up for women, for their right to equal pay and not to be touched inappropriately, we are also standing up for men. And when we teach boys that they, too, can have feelings, can cry and feel vulnerable, and don’t always have to be strong or rely on the one traditionally acceptable male emotion of anger, we are also standing up for women. To help one helps the other. To free one frees the other.
The good of both genders is inseparable. And if it is difficult in our culture to be raised female, it is no picnic to be raised male either.