My apologies to those who have missed this series. As much as I’d like to blame it on the fact that I’ve been spending my Thursday evenings with my ladyfriend, she is not to blame for the disruption to my usual writing schedule. I started writing this post literally a month ago, and it sat at 90% completion – I just couldn’t work up the motivation to finish it off. I hope to resume Movie Fridays henceforth and forevermore.
I’d like to think that my suspicion about gender roles started from a very young age. Growing up as I did, spending most of my middle childhood and into adolescence as the child of a single father, I had a good chance to observe up close the abundant reality that men are caring and nurturing. My father was a social worker, meaning that conversations about emotion and the language we use to express it was never hidden from me – I was never exhorted to “be a man” when experiencing sorrow or frustration, I was merely encouraged to talk about it. As a result, the pop culture narratives about men as needing to tough things out or bottle things up never really resonated with me.
Also peculiar to my upbringing was the fact that, for most of my life, I grew up almost entirely surrounded by white people. White folks made up most of my peer groups, my schoolteachers, and the main characters of most of the shows I watched. It has almost always been true that I was more likely to interact with non-black PoCs than I was with fellow black folks, except obviously for family and Caribbean cultural gatherings (and even in the latter case, not always). Similarly, I never really had to grapple with what it meant to “be black”, except insofar as my racial identity was thrust upon me by circumstance. I’ve had few occasions where I felt pressure to “act black” – I just acted like me, and that was my version of black.
However long I have been skeptical of male-typical and afro-typical behaviour memes, I am definitely incredulous when presented with them today. This has made me somewhat insufferable in casual conversation, but I make up for it by having a ready supply of dick jokes. What it also does is make the following story particularly fascinating:
Now obviously this story is heart-wrenching and deeply tragic. The pain in Anthony Griffith’s retelling is readily palpable and visceral. It’s hard to watch without feeling your own sympathetic ache. We could talk about the difficulties facing American families with terminal illness and the need for comprehensive health care reform. We could talk about the chronic underfunding of the arts and how unless you’re famous it’s incredibly difficult to make money in comedy or theatre or whatever (even in the humanities, which is a whole other thing that I could rant about forever). But the thing that I found poignant and heartbreaking is the advice he shouts to himself at the 7:30 mark:
MAN UP, NIGGA!
This is the voice of an intersection between popular notions of black masculinity. It speaks to one of the things that I think is the most toxic element of the masculinity myth: the assumption of eternal competence and strength. Men are expected to be able to intuitively do anything without complaining. To respond emotionally or to break down in the face of hardship like this is not a simple expression of mere human mortality; it is a failure to sufficiently “man up”. It is a betrayal of the fundamental duty of a man, a betrayal of identity, a public social failure.
This is particularly acute in communities that are socialized to be ‘hypermasculine’ – where machismo and swagga are the sine qua non of identity. Failure to “man up” becomes not just a betrayal of your manliness, but your blackness as an added bonus. The damage is not purely internal, although that’s certainly enough for this pressure to be seriously traumatic. Demasculinization and deracialization can be public social punishments as well. Getting a reputation as a “sissy” or “weak” or “soft” drives a wedge between the person suffering and the community from who they ought to be able to derive support. When empathy too is seen as non-manly, when coping and comiseration skills are not commonly available or practiced, expressing vulnerability and a need for help can result in social isolation (perhaps the discussion of the pastoral role of religious leaders – men who are exempted from some elements of traditional masculinity – can happen another time).
Frustration, helplessness, internal struggle, social isolation. Not exactly a recipe for healthy problem-solving. This is not an active harm of a scheming cabal of “racists” or “misandrists” (my brain gags to even use the word), but rather the result of a passive gender-essentialist system that creates rigid roles for black men and women, and then finds a myriad of ways to punish us for the slightest transgressions.
A world where we can walk away from these types of roles is a world that would have been better for Anthony Griffith, I think. It’s a world where seeking help from a therapist isn’t “taboo” or “a white people thing”, but the rational act of a person in pain. It’s a world where the pain of self-recrimination for your baby daughter’s cancer isn’t sharpened by the feelings of extra responsibility of the failure to “be a man”. It’s a world where self-directed anger isn’t the only source of strength, but rather a person can draw from a broad palette of emotions and mutual support systems in which to find solace.
It’s a world where niggas don’t need to ‘man up’.
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Miss_Sapphyre offers some opinions on how we get there.