The Northern Male Man
Of all the experiences in my life, I feel like I can speak with the most authenticity about my maleness and the pressures of male behaviour I have felt over the course of my 40+ years. This experience has been heightened during my time in northern BC; the area’s resource-based economy, history and ‘frontier’ sensibilities seem to exaggerate mainstream maleness to extremes.
I encounter a lot of defensiveness and even anger when I broach the subject. The “male code” is an ancient and deep thing that resists tampering. Even though I am discussing my own personal experiences and opinions, there are those who assume I am critiquing their behaviour and invoking some sort of moral authority. These are not my intentions; I write to work out my own identity and stand on no authoritative ground since I have engaged in the very behaviours I identify.
As a male-bodied individual, I have become more and more sensitive to oppressive behaviour that I would categorize as a kind of compulsory or normalized “maleness.” I am beginning to see these activities and responses not as “natural” or “biological,” but as centuries-old codes of conduct passed from father to son, patriarch to patriarch, school buddy to school buddy. As founders of Western thought, Aristotle and Plato both held deeply misogynist views. For example, Aristotle wrote that women were “undeveloped” and “deformed” men. It is a tradition I want to challenge and reform.
I also see this behaviour as a system of thought that was privileged in a number of ways: it granted freedoms and fulfillment to men at the expense of others, namely those who are not white, male and heterosexual.
This “male code” is very intricate and, of course, not universal; I am not denying that there are many men who resist this system in a variety of ways. What I have noticed though is a few key components of this code that are strong tendencies and that I see as oppressive. The most common and clear of these is the ‘male gaze’ and subsequent objectification of women. These ideas are fully explored in feminist texts but not often taken up by men.
The idea of the male gaze is one I have seen in many different environments. I have spent much of my life studying the idea of “looking” (my grad-school research was on the ‘freak show’ and why audiences are so attracted to this). I myself have spent a lot of time watching people look at things; as a result I have spent a lot of time watching men watch women. I first encountered the theoretical idea of the “male gaze” in a film theory text by Laura Mulvey, who noticed that mainstream film caters to a certain audience position that she argued was male and it created a sense that women were to always occupy a place of “to-be-looked-at-ness.” I have noticed this influence on my teenage daughters and it is disturbing and ubiquitous. I do not want my daughters to feel that they are (only) to be looked at.
Related to the male gaze is the logical outcome of that gaze: the objectification of women. This occurs when the sexualized male gaze reduces women from full humans to one-dimensional objects of desire. In our increasingly visual culture this process seems more and more common. How often in media are women represented just as an object to look at? At the base of these dehumanizing forms is an ancient misogyny and a continuing lack of respect for women.
What I find in locker rooms, hallways and other all-male environments is that I cannot address these issues without being silenced or shamed. The first rule of the male code is that you don’t talk about it. But I want to talk about it, and many young men I meet at UNBC want to talk about it too; they are confused and conflicted about how they should behave as men. We need to explore new ways for men to be strong and fulfilled, standing next to strong and fulfilled women, without replicating the old codes.