Inspired in part by the the #Me Too movement, last night Oprah Winfrey spoke directly to young girls after accepting the prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Gold Globes. She said that, “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.” LSTC MDiv Senior Evan Mayhew, shares a most passionate blog post with us this week – detailing his life-long wrangling with toxic masculinity and depression. On the long walk to gender equality, lifting-up more holistic ways of ‘being a man’ is a crucial step, and Evan attempts to do so here. He is rigorously honest about the way male socialization can lead to abusive behavior. As a woman who has experienced abuse, a pastor who has supported those who have been abused by men, a professor who teaches about abuse and most pointedly, as a mother with a 17-year old daughter, I find hope that Evan takes the crucial step of lifting-up more holistic ways of ‘being a man.’ Indeed, this is public church ministerial leadership. Read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
I don’t think there are two words in the English language that I hate more.
This phrase is tied to so much in my life. It speaks to me of a certain kind of toxic expectation: that we should be able to bury our emotions and just deal with it. But some awful things happen when we don’t deal with our emotions… they bubble up in different ways… in horrifying ways…
I’ll be the first to say that I’ve had a pretty privileged life. I’m a cisgender, white man who was born to a lower middle-class family in the conservative breeding grounds of southeast Wisconsin. Think Paul Ryan, Reince Priebus, Scott Walker… they’ve all been formed or grew up in the place I lived. It’s a conservative utopia. And with traditional politics came conservative morals, and with conservative morals came conservative gender expectations.
I was a “boy”, and I was expected to act as such.
Not by my family, thank goodness. My mother and father were children of the sixties revolution, and therefore encouraged me to do whatever I wanted and got me the toys I actually wanted to play with (except G.I. Joes… my Mom hates guns). My mom encouraged me to talk about my emotions and express myself. My dad didn’t force me to play catch with him and joined in all the fun activities my three older sisters and I got involved in. My sisters dressed me up in coconut bras and we made little home movies complete with dance parties.
And I was never told, “Boys don’t cry”.
But from a very early age, I realized something… I wasn’t like the other “boys.” I didn’t want to play with trucks, or footballs, or tackle people in the yard. I wanted to create epic stories with my stuffed animals, talk about my day, and hang out with my sisters. But these other boys just wanted to act as masculine as they could. They fought on the playground, bragged about their Pokémon card collection, shouted over each other… I was nothing like them.
And as I got older, I saw these same boys become aggressive teens, I heard “locker room talk,” I smelled the horrible Axe perfume, and the fights continued. But suddenly, I felt a pressure I had never felt before… that I should be like them. I should like football, aggressively talk about girls, act cool.
But… I wasn’t anything like them.
As I journeyed with these peers through high school I noticed that the locker room talk was more aggressive,; I heard the bragging, saw the bullying and fighting get more and more serious… and I didn’t know how to relate to them anymore.
As college at UW-Madison came and went, I dealt with depression and began to understand how ADHD was going to affect my adult life. I reached new lows, lost faith in myself, ignored God… I slept through classes, took incompletes, I had to stay an extra year because I failed a class… I did things I’m not proud of just to survive. A professor told me “I would never succeed in life”.
Those years were the hardest of my life. Some of those scars never healed. And all the while, white men who were angry, screaming obscenities at football games, partying every day of the week, making horrible jokes and always asking me the same question… surrounded me
“…Am I right?”
This phrase always seemed to come after some awful statement. Sometimes it was about a woman being attractive. Sometimes it was a subtly racist joke. Sometimes it was after something so ridiculous I didn’t know how to respond, “That’s why we gotta get our pump on, bro… Am I right?”
NOT AT ALL!
These angry men were so drenched in a received personality, I didn’t even know how to interact with them. It was an identity shaped by expectations to be tough, loud, funny, interested in certain things, and above all else, un-emotional. These men had been told that it wasn’t okay to cry, that real men like certain things…
…That “a real man” was even a concept.
I count myself lucky every day that this was not my experience. I can’t imagine what it would be like if my parents told me I had to act a certain way, or scolded me for wanting to do things that fell outside of the bounds of being a “boy”. Of course these men are angry! Of course they do and say horrifying things! They’re told to be a “real man” all their life, a concept that might have made sense 50 years ago, and when they grow up they don’t fit in the world they live in. They’ve never been who they actually are! They’ve never been given permission to have emotions, so of course they express their angry and resentment through a myriad of destructive means.
And since the world is set up for them to do whatever they want, they wreck havoc on everyone else’s. When I see the news, I wonder how many men I met in college went on to commit sexual and domestic violence, who secretly harbored racist resentment, who were in the closet but actively harassed LGBTQIA people out of frustration… You don’t need to convince me that there’s something wrong with white male culture in America. I’ve seen it my whole life!
“Boys don’t cry”
I went through harrowing depression in college. I still deal with depression. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if I didn’t know how to deal with my emotions. The truth is that we all go through these moments at some point in our life, and if we are not equipped to deal with them, we are a danger to ourselves and everyone else around us. I have always believed that all problems in society stem from depression, fear, and low self-esteem.
White popular culture worships hyper-masculinity. Just look at the biggest box-office hits and you’ll see what I mean. Captain America, James Bond… the list goes on and on. Football players, action stars… There’s so much that reinforces that this is what a “real man” looks like. If you can’t live up to the standard, then…
I want to imagine a new vision of masculinity, where men are encouraged to be vulnerable, to cry, to express emotions without fear of being labeled. Or even better, I want to get rid of the idea all together. Just like any other label, it messes with our head. I want to ask parents to buy all sorts of toys when their kids are growing up. Let them find out what they like and whom they like. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll stop hearing stories about the ones who snapped.
But it’s up to me too. Recently I heard a friend say that they want to spread the hashtag #YesAllMen …and I agree. Just because I was lucky enough to escape the hyper-masculinity that so many cisgender white men are born into doesn’t mean I haven’t aided and abetted it. I sat in those locker rooms, I nervously gave high fives after “am I rights?” I watched men refuse to be emotionally open…
It’s my problem too.
For me it all begins with vulnerability. If we do not allow “boys” and “men” to be vulnerable, I believe nothing will ever change. I was lucky enough to be a part of a class in college that discussed issues of race, ethnicity, and gender… The diverse class would read a play about a topic and then sit in a room and discuss. There were no boundaries of what could and couldn’t be said, but there was an understanding that we were to respect one another and keep the conversation open.
What I saw in that class was eye-opening. I saw cisgender, white men ask some of the most horrifying questions I have ever heard, and then a member of the group they were talking about would answer those questions. Anywhere else in the world, these questions would have ended in a fistfight, but because everyone felt safe and supported, the issues were actually dealt with. It was transformative.
Why are you afraid?
I want to give these men a place to be vulnerable. I want them to have space to say and feel all the things they’ve been told they can’t. I want them to know that someone cares about them. But there’s more… As the professor in that class said, “If you stay silent, no one will ever challenge you. But if you speak, you can grow”. As much as these men make me furious, I also know ignoring and abandoning them will only make the problem worse.
So, I resolve to “speak up.”
Evan Mayhew is a seminary student from The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago where he is in his last year of his Master of Divinity (MDiv) and was recently approved for ordained ministry in the ELCA. Last year he served as the Vicar at New Life Lutheran Church in Bolingbrook, Illinois where he began to explore his passions for creative worship leading and interfaith relationships. When not engaged in ministry, he can be found working on film projects, writing and playing music, or laughing with friends.