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What is masculinity?

August 17, 2012

We debated that question at a men’s group I sometimes attend where I used to go to church. The discussions are held under Vegas rules (what happens there, stays there), so the ultimate solution to that question, which we found, will stay forever sealed.

It’s a useful question to ask when developing a character. Masculinity, in early twenty-first century America, is a difficult and contradictory thing. On one hand, you are expected to be the man. He’s expected to be the rock, the provider, to be stoic and steady in the toughest of situations, and to deal with whatever comes up. He’s the protector. If someone threatens the family, he’s the terminator.

Put my son’s bike back in the garage by high noon and there’ll be no questions asked.

But ever since Alan Alda’s eyes first teared up in M*A*S*H, that’s not enough. A man’s supposed to also be appropriately sensitive. He’s supposed to care about others and show tenderness and be emotionally available. But he’s not supposed to be too emotionally available, because he has to be strong.

He’s supposed to play by the rules and show honor in everything he does. But in doing so, he must remember–to misquote Vince Lombardi–that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

What I meant to say was “Winning isn’t everything. The will to win is the only thing.”

In a lot of cases, those things can’t fit in the same person. And trying to figure out which of them takes primacy–stoicism or emotional availability, honor or winning.

In building characters, there’s more than just their response to what happens outside them–something at which masculinity excels. There’s also what’s going on inside. There are the personal battles, the regrets and the doubts, and the places where he traded integrity for success–if only to pay the bills or pad the college fund. There are the times when he purposely created emotional distance to get through something until emotional distance became his standard operating procedure.

And there are the things he did to help salve the wounds caused by those trade-offs and emotional isolations. Booze, cheating, all that, aren’t fueled by lust. They’re fueled by pain and emptiness and distrust that what is sought can be found where it ought to be found. “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” Paul was, if nothing else, a man.

In crafting a guy, if you aren’t one, there are easy things: we tend to like The Three Stooges, sports, and we’ll nurture the kids by roughhousing with them. But then there’s the harder things. Those are where the gold exists.

One Comment
  1. August 17, 2012 9:07 am

    In all my discussions with my critique groups, I understand men have an easier time writing a female character than women have writing a male character. Maybe there is this missing link, the inner monologue in a man’s thoughts. But then again, I don’t like wimpy, emotional, female characters either.

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