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Published Date: March 5, 2014

Published Date: March 5, 2014

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Confined to Caricature: Moving past the stereotypes of masculinity that harm both men and women

If violence, abuse, and discrimination against women are the fruits of patriarchy, its seed is the distortion of God’s image in each of us. Patriarchy paints caricatures of feminine and masculine identity, and when these messages fall on fertile soil—a culture that will embrace these images—they grow into the next generation of patriarchy. These caricatures marry identity to injustice, establishing patterns that teach their victims that to challenge patriarchy is to discard your God-given identity and purpose. The last few decades have challenged such caricatures of female identity in the West, but male identity has received less attention. The church should examine its conception of masculinity, allowing the Scriptures to redraw male identity.

For good reason, the primary dialogue on gender justice has highlighted the gender-based violence and discrimination against women and girls, contrasted with entitlement men and boys experience simply for being male. Research has documented the rates of violence inflicted on women by their male partners, family members, and men in general. Women are also consistently underpaid for equal work and underrepresented in positions of influence and power. Meanwhile, social theorists have shown that men experience specific perks for simply being male, including unearned social, economic, and political privileges in both private and public life. While race, poverty, religious beliefs, and many other factors affect systems of injustice and privilege, it is difficult to deny the significant social impacts of gender injustice on our lives as individuals and communities.

Undergirding much of this sad reality are religious belief systems that view gender relationships through a lens of hierarchy. These systems claim to oppose gender-based violence or discrimination, but actually propagate beliefs and values about gender that condone such ends. The Bible is full of references that demonstrate the thoroughly patriarchal environment of the biblical period and place in history, and traditional interpretations have translated these descriptions into prescriptions for the ages to come. For thousands of years, strong voices with huge followings have affirmed patriarchy, advocating (often unknowingly) the privilege of men and oppression of women as the divine ideal for human relationships.

What is missing from the often polarized and radicalized conversation on gender justice is the reality that, though privileged in many ways, men are also victims in this system. While men’s suffering under patriarchy neither compares to that of women nor negates the benefits men experience, statistics on violence, heart disease, addictions, obesity, life expectancy, and suicide rates demonstrate that men’s lives are not free from pain and suffering. How are these issues related to gender justice?

Caricatured identity

The reality is that the messages and behavioral codes that script male interactions with our environment confine us to live a caricature of our true humanity, with grave consequences for ourselves and for those around us. Men are taught that we must take on a disproportionate amount of responsibility for the safety, financial well-being, spiritual development, and overall functioning of our families and our spouses. Men are inundated with messages that our true value is based on competitive and merit-based scales of worth, such as financial success, athletic prowess, leadership dominance, physical strength, sexual conquest, and high-risk feats of bravery. Esteemed masculine demeanor is characterized by aloofness, stoicism, and aggressiveness. The role models for growing boys and young men are those perceived as heroes and winners, such as firefighters, wealthy businessmen, and athletes.

At the same time that masculine value is determined by external, performance-based indicators, male emotional existence is devalued and feared. Socialization of boys and men emphasizes the public, assertive self while undervaluing healthy, broad, and freely-expressed emotional selves. Many men develop an aversion to the perceived “weakness” of their emotional vulnerabilities.

Unfortunately, many Christian voices affirm these ideas. At a recent men’s conference, a noted evangelical leader began his description of what it meant to be a man with the assertion that to be a man means “Don’t act like a woman.” He suggested this means to lead, not follow; to not be the “weaker vessel;” to solve problems; and to be stable, without the emotional peaks and valleys women exhibit.

To define maleness as “not-feminine” and then to characterize emotional capacity and vulnerability as feminine instills in men a fear of our own emotions or of any other normal human trait perceived as feminine. Messages such as “real men don’t cry” warn boys and men that the display of normal human emotional responses to experiences such as loss or sadness must be repressed or at minimum be done in isolation, without the comfort and support of others. The cumulative effect of this ever-exaggerated image of maleness—this caricature of masculinity—is that boys and men are confined to a narrow spectrum of human existence if they are to receive the acceptance they seek.

Familiarity with a full range of human emotions and the ability to express these internal realities are keys to deep, healthy connection and intimacy with others. In Galatians 5, the fruits of the Spirit are described as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, all of which grow out of a surrendering to God as our source of true value and created beauty. There appears to be a glaring conflict between the fruits of the Spirit and patriarchal caricatures of masculinity. Are Christians who continue to promote a traditional picture of manhood really prepared to suggest that this passage is not applicable for the lives of men? Or that these can be a reality in their lives without them needing to exhibit emotion, vulnerability, or other so-called “feminine” characteristics? How tragic that the fear-based assertions of Christians who desire to “take back manhood” exaggerate certain behaviors to the extreme and thus create a caricature at odds with a biblical vision of the fruits of the good news!

So long as patriarchy, rather than the gospel, informs male identity, injustice will continue. Traits perceived as feminine, which our society desperately needs, will be stifled in half the population. Patriarchy teaches men to find their identity in an exaggerated and partial human experience, which precludes the full embrace of the fruits of the Spirit. Is it any wonder, then, that many men fail to recognize or respect the full humanity of others, either male or female?

Casting a new vision

Is there an alternative vision of masculinity and human relationships that can release men from the confinement of this caricature? Can we begin to envision a broader, richer picture of our humanity that welcomes a full understanding of our external expressiveness and our inner contemplations? Can we recognize that our strengths and vulnerabilities are informed by our unique biology and a lifetime of experiences, and that the resulting interplay between these factors is only partially impacted by our chromosomes?

The difficulty with caricatures is not that they are wholly inaccurate—because they are not. Many men are strong and gifted leaders. And we’ve all benefitted from the great feats and discoveries of courageous men driven by competitiveness and curiosity. These characteristics are positive and important. The difficulty with caricatures comes when we start to believe that they are (or should be) wholly accurate. The caricature becomes a script for life, negating other equally true and equally valuable aspects of our lives. It becomes a generalized pronouncement that confines us and condemns others who do not fit the dominant group’s definitions.

The opportunity to release men to respond to their environment, and to God’s calling in their lives, from a full-breadth understanding and comfort with their unique personhoods and gifting, is ultimately life-giving! Moving beyond the caricature of cookie-cutter definitions of masculinity and into a freedom to develop the fullness of our God-given humanity allows all of us to come alive to a new level of relationship with God and with each other.

Despite many claims to the contrary by popular speakers and authors, the Bible gives no five-point model for manhood. But it does give us a lot of examples. The Bible both celebrates and condemns the behaviors and feats of all kinds of men—warriors and poets, leaders and followers, kings and prophets, wise and foolish. And when God took the form of a man, his behavior differed from the patriarchal ideals of both his world and of ours. Instead, acting sometimes as a bold leader, but other times as an emotionally vulnerable friend, he embodied the fruits of the Spirit. Let us all, men or women, do likewise, cultivating the fruits of the Spirit for the benefit of all and for the glory of our Creator.