Revisioning Masculinity

A report on the growing men's movement

One of the articles in Gender (IC#16)
Originally published in Spring 1987 on page 21
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Shepherd Bliss. Ph.D., teaches psychology at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, California. He edited The New Holistic Health Handbook and currently co-edits The Men’s Studies Review and hosts the "Changing Men" program on KPFA radio. Shepherd divides his time between Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area. This article first appeared in the Yoga Journal (November/December 1986) and is reprinted here with permission.

"MEN ARE SUCH INTERESTING CREATURES," I overhear the woman tell the bus driver in Atlanta, where I’m attending the 11th National Conference on Men and Masculinity. "They’re so mysterious."

"Yes," I nod to myself in agreement.

"Wild without being cruel, angry without being violent, sexual without being coercive, spiritual without being unsexed, and able to truly love" is how another woman, the feminist writer Starhawk, describes the men she would like to see emerging.

"Yes," I nod again in agreement.

Passionate. Sensitive. Unpredictable. Vital. Clear-thinking. Courageous. Willing to listen. Committed. Communicative. Your list might differ from mine. But, whether you are a man or a woman, you probably have your own image of how you would like men to be. Fortunately, more men are becoming aware of their masculinity and learning to develop and transform it, rather than merely inheriting the old masculinity of past generations.

Men in increasing numbers are assembling at local, regional, and national gatherings throughout the country to deal with men’s issues. In 1986 alone I attended such events in San Francisco, Florida, Boston, Minneapolis, and northern California’s Mendocino woods.

Each event has a distinct character: from the 700 men in San Francisco who came to spend a day with the elder poet Robert Bly, to the feminist men in Atlanta, to the smaller support groups that are now proliferating across the country.

In the Mendocino woods each year since 1982, nearly 100 men have gathered to spend a week together drumming, reciting poetry, learning aikido, playing volleyball, telling stories, making masks, listening to presentations by men like Robert Bly and psychologist James Hillman, and dancing a wild samba late into the night. In Florida I was invited to speak about the growing men’s movements to the Franciscans, a men’s community begun in the 13th century to continue the work of Francis of Assisi. These men, who live and work together, listened intently, bringing the wisdom of centuries of male community into the room.

Men are drawn to these gatherings for various reasons: to express their pain and grief, to have fun, to support women (and to complain about them), to improve their lives, to make music and dance, and just to hang out. Young adults, mid-lifers, and elders all participate. At the Mendocino gatherings, for example, the average age is late 30s/early 40s, but the oldest participants have been in their 70s and the youngest in their teens. At some gatherings, such as Atlanta and the annual California Men’s Gatherings, women also attend, although they usually comprise less than 10 percent of the participants.

"I’m here because I feel isolated back home," one man in Atlanta explained. "I don’t fit into the usual mold of what it means to be a man."

"Mendocino offers me a place away from work and women," observed another man. "I can just be myself here. There’s something very primitive about being out here in the woods with all these guys."

NEW IMAGES OF MASCULINITY

The consensus about what it means to be a man in America today is eroding, a development that some applaud and others bemoan. Two factors have been primary in altering traditional concepts of manhood: the women’s movement and changing economic and work situations. Women have demanded more access to traditionally male jobs, thus threatening the "breadwinner" image of men. Women have also demanded that men help care for children and do housework, thus threatening the image of the "king of the castle." Whereas men in America once tamed the wilds, moved West, and worked mainly with their hands, most men today work at jobs in which physical know-how and strength are not primary.

Yet the images of the old masculinity still prevail – from the Marlboro man on billboards to Sylvester Stallone on screen and Ronald Reagan in the White House. The man they assert is supposed to be tough, hide his feelings, and remain in charge.

As a result, many men feel conflicting pressures: on the one hand, to live up to these male stereotypes, and on the other to conform to the more realistic expectations of wives, lovers, and co-workers.

Groups of men first challenged traditional masculinity in the early 1970s, when men influenced by the women’s movement organized consciousness-raising groups, founded men’s centers, and hosted men’s gatherings. Berkeley, California, was the scene of some of the earliest of these pro-feminist gatherings, and many of the founders of this trend, such as writer and teacher Joseph Pleck, remain quite active.

The feminist men’s perspective is represented by the National Organization of Changing Men (NOCM), which hosted the Atlanta gathering. Its publications include Brother and Changing Men, and its activities include organizing demonstrations opposing male violence against women and supporting the rights of gays. NOCM describes itself as pro-feminist, gay-affirmative, and male-supportive.

In the early 1980s there emerged another alternative vision of what it means to be a man: the mythopoetic approach. This approach looks to ancient mythology and fairytales, to Jungian and archetypal psychology, and to poets and teachers like Robert Bly and James Hillman. The mythopoetic approach is advanced by such groups as the Minnesota Men’s Council and the Golden Gate Men’s Council in San Francisco, as well as at the annual men’s gatherings led by Robert Bly in northern California, Minnesota, and Boston. Its voices include Manalive, from Minnesota, and The Men’s Journal, from the San Francisco Bay Area.

The feminist and mythopoetic approaches contrast sharply to the prevailing images of manhood, and they differ also from one another and from the other alternative visions of manhood being advocated within the diverse men’s movement. Feminists want men to learn more from women, whereas the mythopoetic approach emphasizes what Bly calls the "deep masculine". Women and their agendas receive considerable attention from groups like NOCM and the California Anti-Sexist Men’s Political Caucus (CAMP); women are even welcome to attend their events. In contrast, the mythopoetic men concentrate more on their own psychological and spiritual needs, and their gatherings are all male.

In addition to these two primary trends within the men’s movement, other groups also exist. For example, the Free Men Coalition and the National Congress of Men represent the men’s rights advocates, many of whom are divorced fathers concerned with child custody issues. Many of these men are angry at women, whom they see as oppressing them.

Another significant recent development within the men’s movement has been the academic field of men’s studies. The women’s movement spawned hundreds of courses around the country on women, as well as hundreds of books and thousands of articles. Now the men’s movement has begun to influence the development of classes on men as men. About 100 such courses are currently taught in the United States, and a quarterly publication entitled Men’s Studies Review, now in its fourth year, focuses on this emerging field.

THE MYTHOPOETIC APPROACH

In this article, I will focus on the mythopoetic approach, at least in part. The men’s movement has developed from an early focus on political and personal issues to include a cultural dimension and a growing concern with larger spiritual and transpersonal questions.

The mythopoetic approach seeks to learn from ancestors and retrieve wisdom from the past that can be applied to the lives of men today. Rather than exploring rational, analytical, or political thinking, this approach thinks mythopoetically, i.e. using symbols, metaphors, and archetypal images.

Ancient myths, such as those of the Greeks, are studied not for their historical merit or for what they teach about literature or the outer world, but for what they tell us about the inner world of the male psyche. "Mythology is a psychology of antiquity," according to archetypal psychologist James Hillman, who has emerged alongside Bly as an elder spokesman for this approach.

Bly and Hillman are interested in the "deep masculine," the route which takes a man down into pain, grief, and ultimately ecstasy, rather than upward into denial and the abstract realm of ideas. "Grief rather than anger is the doorway to a man’s feelings," Bly asserts.

Bly and Hillman note that many men today act out of the puer aeternus (eternal youth) archetype, which can benefit from being balanced by the archetype of the senex (old man). But younger men now are often very hostile to older men. The puer lives a provisional life, often with a great deal of creativity, but he tends to lack discipline, commitment, groundedness, and the ability to persevere. In a famous essay entitled "Peaks and Vales," Hillman notes that our tendency is to rise up to the heights of the mountains, whereas we can also learn much in the depths of the valleys. Mythopoetic gatherings employ various routes down into the vales, including storytelling, ritual, poetry recitation, drumming, and dancing.

TWO ROLE MODELS

Two of the more prominent ancestors of the mythopoetic approach are Francis of Assisi and Henry David Thoreau. Both were poets, and both present a positive image of manhood within a larger spiritual context. Both the 13th-century communal Francis, traveling the countryside singing troubadour songs, and the 19th-century solitary Thoreau, writing alone in his journal by Walden Pond, contributed to our understanding of what it means to be a man.

Yet the lives of these two nature mystics were quite distinct from what we expect of men today. Most contemporary men seem to be out of touch with nature, which, according to deep ecologists and feminists like Susan Griffin (author of Woman and Nature), has been the basis for many of our problems. Francis and Thoreau, in contrast, deeply immersed themselves in nature. Francis, while living communally with the other brothers of his order, was drawn to the earth. He lived for periods in a cave, spent many hours communing with animals (which he addressed as "brother"), and frequently flung himself upon the earth in ecstasy. A man of great passion, he learned to channel his passion without subjugating or extinguishing it.

Though solitary, Thoreau was also a man of passion, and he frequently celebrated the "wildness" in man. "Give me for my friends and neighbors wild men, not tame ones," he writes, using a term now prized by Robert Bly. "All good things are wild and free," he observes elsewhere. "I would have every man so much like a wild antelope. The most alive is the wildest." And in a statement made famous by the Sierra Club, he prophesies: "In wildness is the preservation of the world."

But the wildness Thoreau recommends is neither savage nor brutal. In fact, when men are in contact with this primal quality in themselves and in nature, they are far less likely to be violent. By contemplating and integrating this wildness, such men are better able to understand and participate in what Thoreau calls the "higher laws:" the universal cycles of life and death, growth and decay.

KEY ISSUES

Men are drawn to the men’s movement for different reasons. I’ve participated in that movement for a decade now, having been influenced by various groups, authors, teachers, and ideas. As I reflect on what I’ve learned about men in that time and concentrate on the future of men in the 80s, a number of issues emerge as primary for the men’s movement to address:

1) The Father-Son Connection. The longing of men for better contact with their fathers is not new, though it seems to have grown worse since the Industrial Revolution, when men left the countryside for the city and the farm for the factory. A mythopoetic approach to men guides us back to ancient literature to better understand this phenomenon. In Homer’s Odyssey, one of the great father-son stories, the warrior-king Odysseus returns and reveals himself to his teenaged son Telemachus: "I am that father whom your boyhood lacked and suffered pain for lack of. I am he…" Throwing his arms around this marvel of a father, Telemachus begins to weep. Salt tears rose from wells of longing in both men. Studies reveal that most men today never have such a healing reconciliation with their fathers.

"The Odysseus myth points to a deep yearning for each other in both father and son, and it contains a lesson for our times," notes Sam Osherson in his book Finding Our Fathers: The Unfinished Business of Manhood. "Like many men, Telemachus spent his childhood among women. He was like many of us – his father was off fighting distant wars." According to Osherson, "For a man to grow up, he must find the good and the strong in his own father – he must find the heroic in the figure he hardly knew. The alternative is to be dominated by vile, degraded images of manhood." Such images, unfortunately, prevail in our culture today.

"We need the father who helps us define masculine strength in a changing world," Osherson continues," what Robert Bly has called ‘the moist father,’ strong and caring." Working on the father-son connection helps men to deal with their fears of each other, grow closer together, and develop deep, lasting male friendships.

2) Male Friendships. Men are kept apart by many things, including fear, competition, busyness, and homophobia. By homophobia I mean the fear of same sex contact, which includes the fear of homosexuality. Men are socialized to compete with and better each other, rather than to cooperate. One of the major accomplishments of the men’s movement has been to provide an environment within which male friendships can develop and flourish. Such friendships can draw men closer, not only to each other, but to women and children as well.

But the obstacles to male friendship are substantial. "Much of our heat had to do with unexpressed/unresolved competition, conditional trust, jealousy, and fear," writes one man of his friendship with another. "Is it that we went too far? In our male, awkward intimate ways, did we frighten one another and blow it?" How often in male friendships the first real conflict becomes the last, and one or both men back out entirely. Frequently the withdrawal is not even openly acknowledged, and the mistrust of male relationships deepens.

3) Men’s Health. In the U.S. today, men die an average of eight years younger than women, for various reasons. As a result, men’s health should be a primary concern to all who care for men. Men can do something about their health, including teaching each other how to stay healthy, learning from women, and taking better care of themselves.

4) Male Modes of Intimacy. We think most often in terms of face-to-face intimacy, such as sharing a meal with someone or making love. But men are also quite good at what I like to call side-by-side intimacy: running together, playing racquetball, gardening, working on long-term projects, or engaging in other activities in which the presence of the other is important, but the contact is not necessarily verbal. Back-to-back intimacy is also common among men, as when one man "backs up" another.

5) Male Modes of Feeling. We have been socialized to associate women with feelings, when in fact men’s feelings are just as strong. Men just express them differently. Men seem to have a tendency to hold their feelings "closer to their chests" than women, to practice what Robert Bly calls "containment," which is quite different from either repression or expression. Women often criticize men for not expressing their feelings openly enough, and although this may often be true, there is also a sense in which men have a unique "mode" of feeling that they must learn to understand and honor.

6) The Male Body. In his forthcoming book The Loneliness of the Male Body, bodyworker and author Don Johnson describes how men learn about their bodies almost exclusively from women – their mothers and lovers – rather than from men. Fathers and male friends seldom initiate men into the mystery of their bodies. Instead, men tend to base their body images on what they learn from women and see in the media.

But men can learn to be proud rather than ashamed of their bodies. And they can also work, individually or together, to change them, dropping the armor, increasing flexibility, or adding strength and self-confidence, as necessary.

These are certainly not the only issues facing the man’s movement today. Other key issues include male-female relationships, homophobia, domestic violence, and men and war. I’ve focused on these six because they’ve emerged as paramount among the many men I’ve encountered in my talks and workshops throughout the country.

The primary forum that men have developed for working on these issues has been the men’s gathering. As author Keith Thompson observes in a recent issue of Utne Reader (May 1986), men have traditionally needed a "lodge" where they can be together, a place of refuge, privacy, friendship, and camaraderie. At these gatherings, which last anywhere from a day to a week or longer, men can establish intimate relationships in the absence of women, dealing in a supportive environment with their deepest feelings of shame, sadness, anger, and grief.

CONCLUSION

My life and the lives of thousands of men in the United States have been permanently changed by the men’s movement. My father was one of the many classically absent fathers, off at work to provide for the family. The men’s movement has helped me to move beyond blaming him to understanding how he lived out the prevailing stereotype of what it means to be a man. As I reflect on my own personal decisions as an adolescent and young adult – such as going into the military and then to seminary – I realize that one motivating factor was my need to deal with my relationships with men. In adolescence, men are drawn to what psychotherapist Gordon Murray calls "buddies." Yet men seldom retain those friends into adulthood. The men’s movement provides a variety of ways for men to interact with each other and develop ongoing connections. Being with men can be healing, stimulating, or just old-fashioned fun.

The men’s movement also has the potential to impact our culture as a whole. If men were to place greater value on their relationships with other men, spend more time with children, have a better connection to nature, work with women for equality, and take better care of their bodies, society as a whole would almost certainly be transformed for the better.

Men are changing today, too fast for some and not fast enough for others. Though confusing to many, ours is a time for revisioning masculinity and redefining what it means to be a man.

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