De-constructing Masculinity: Part 1

This is the first part of what I hope will be a continuing series on figuring out what it means for me to be a man.

A little more than one and a half years ago, in late July of 2014, I was in some existential funk: I was broke, working in an unsatisfying job that leads me to compromise myself a few times (more on this much later), a school situation that seemed intractable (I thought I would never finish) and I did not know what I wanted to do with my life. I was going through all of this while still living in my parents” house and being continually implicitly and explicitly (by my father) reminded that I needed to get out and get a life.

“Dodo, you are not a child any more.”
“You will not get a job without a degree. You are not Steve Jobs or Richard Branson. You are not special.”
“Sooner or later I might have to evict you.”

However, I wanted to do it for myself: to get a good job without talking to my better-connected relatives, “Why don’t you speak with your uncles? They won’t eat you.” I did ask them to put in a good word for me somewhere in their vast networks. I never heard back from them. Maybe I was too impatient, but I did not have a choice.

There is a way of living, or rather not living, that will drive you to become your most ambitious self. At some point, I was cold-calling and emailing one of my cousin’s business partners (I do not know if this has ever worked, calling out of the blue). I know what frustration tastes like. Despite all this, I managed to remain amicable with my parents, and we did, and still do, talk about our fears, our hopes, our dreams, and about the past.

Invariably, conversations about the past, especially where “The Devil Drink” is present, will regularly go back to a particular incident. In my officially final year in school, my father talked to one of my uncle’s about getting me an internship. It was at a consultancy firm where all the fun IT work was being done by expatriates while we, the people employed by the company and not just contracted, were left to do documentation and show up at various training sessions to look pretty and eat free conference food.

I hated every minute of it. There was no challenge; there was no growth. Even if it was a three-month gig, I should have had more to show for it, aside from a filled field report.

It was not that I did not have a choice but out of a sense of familial obligation that I took the position. I was in constant touch with my classmates, and one of them had said he could recommend me to a small NGO that needed an extra pair of hands. I had options.

It took me two years to tell my father just what I thought about that place and what I thought of him when he intervened. One Saturday night all my pent up resentment came out and manifested itself as a shout-down. I accused him of never listening to us, and I told him that I could have done it for myself.

He went cold then exploded and called us, my sisters and I, ungrateful and spoiled. The irony that he facilitated the relatively pampered life was not apparent to him at the time. He stalked out of the sitting room and went to the kitchen to get drinking water, and I followed him. I was not the only one harbouring resentments. His came out in a torrent of pain that I had never imagined he could display.

Most of the things he said are too personal for me to repeat, even to my closest friends. What I picked up from his tirade was that he felt emasculated and near-breaking and what I had said was the proverbial straw. I think when I told him that I never needed his help in getting an internship, I inadvertently questioned one of his most fervent beliefs about himself as a man: the ability to provide and take care of his family. In casting doubt upon this, I made him question his idea of what it means to be a man; I questioned the very idea of himself.

That night still haunts me. I have never seen such agony written on a man’s face, someone who in many ways I consider one the greatest people alive. To me, he is the epitome of poise, intellect and, of course, masculinity. My intention was not to insult him. It was to show him that I was a big boy, that I could do something for myself, that all his arduous and patient parenting had paid off. “Look at me, Papa! I did it! I did it!” 

I eventually did go about that in what can be considered the right way. First, I bought him a bottle of Gordon’s by way of apology. I left it in the fridge and dropped a hint about its presence. This was a week after our very dynamic exchange of ideas. Much later, I got this job, another way to show him that I am still a good boy and also, it was a giant loving middle finger to him. Shedding off a constant need for my father’s approval has been one the things I have worked very hard at. And, by “father” I mean men I hold in high esteem.

I have been thinking about all this for a long time and I did not quite have the words to describe the collective of these experiences. A friend lent me a copy of The End of Men by Hanna Rosin. It is an enlightening book despite the alarmist title. In a nutshell it is about the inability of men to adapt fast enough to rapidly changing gender roles and increasingly empowered women (better and more educated, gunning for and getting better jobs than them and taking on what were once considered the roles of men).

Some parts of it come across as anecdotal and the struggles she describes seem to mainly affect the middle classes. It might take a generation or more before the things she highlights become valid concerns in most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia.

My own masculinity has been called to question. One thing I am increasingly aware of is that trying to sleep with any woman with a pulse is not a defining aspect of it. It may get me high-fives from my boys (a very telling name) but living up to that somewhat nebulous ideal of masculinity is vain and insecure, an attempt to cement a sense of one’s self through other people.

I had my fun trying to be a man this way, fitting into the stereotype of That Guydevious, infantile and near morally bankrupt. And maybe this was the root of my self-destructive behaviour in relationships: I blindly conformed to a version of men that is dying out (at least in my circles).

It would be too easy to claim say that I have changed, that I am trying to behave like a grown-up and treat the people around me with decency and respect, that I am working to become a better communicator, speaking about my feelings and my thoughts honestly and openly. I would rather live like I am.

I am still de-constructing my habits and motivations. None of this may be valid and I might just be paranoid and wildly grasping for some meaning. I might even come across as a bit whiny and defensive. Writing this is part of the process of crystallizing how to put my reflections into a viable lifestyle.


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