I have always loved books. I don’t remember what age I was when I learned to read, but I remember being surprised when I started school that there were kids who couldn’t. For as long as I can remember, I have read anything and everything I could get my hands on (Note: There IS a short list of books that I have tried and could not finish for one reason or another.)
Not all books are created for the same purpose, obviously. Some I read to acquire knowledge, either general or applied. Some – most – I read because it gave me pleasure to read. A very short list of books I read because they elevated my soul – they made me realize something about the ways of the world and they altered the path of my walk through life. There is a difference between Conan the Barbarian and Of Mice and Men.
Books can change the world. While Upton Sinclair never was able to convince Americans that capitalism necessarily brings out the worst in men, he was able to get some health and safety standards implemented in the meat-packing industry. Ayn Rand, whether you like her or not, continues to have an impact on American politics. Even a book like Farenheit 451 has impact on the world, if only to bring up a yardstick against which our world and our society can be measured.
The thing I’ve learned from reading so many books in so many genres is this: Everyone depends on stereotypes. Even if a character is built to specifically challenge a stereotype, it still depends upon that structure for its existence. Stereotypes are nothing more than expectations of individual behavior based on group membership. They make the world predictable, and we couldn’t function socially without them. To do so, we would have to build an understanding of every individual we meet from the ground up without reference to how other people in society behave.
The problem with stereotypes is that, because they are accepted as true and accurate, they can lead us to misjudge people. In exactly the same way, we can misjudge ourselves because we believe the stereotype to be “more of what we should be” than what we are. Stereotypes are hurtful, to other people and to our selves.
For example, I was referred to this page on “alpha male” characteristics by an acquaintance of mine on Twitter. I responded by saying that it was simply reinforcing toxic gender roles, and he explained that he thought it was still a good resource for writers to base romance characters upon. As I look over the page, I have to admit that it is the stereotypical basis for A LOT of literary characters across every genre. To that extent, my acquaintance is correct – it’s a good resource to understand how many successful characters are put together.
My point still stands, however. Taken as a whole, the characteristics add up to a stereotype of masculinity that is toxic. Conan, Tell Sackett, and Sherlock Holmes would all score highly on this scale. But they are characters in books and any problem they encounter is, almost by definition, surmountable. These are huge, heroic figures, so they can overcome challenges no one else can – but they can only do it because the author is pulling the strings behind the page.
Real life isn’t like a story book. Take, as an example, the very first characteristic of an Alpha Male:
An Alpha male is very comfortable with himself. He always radiates confidence. He does not fear anyone – and MOST IMPORTANTLY does not really care what people think of him.
It’s always good to be comfortable with yourself. But does that make someone an alpha? If there is a pecking order in society (there is, but it isn’t this clear cut); then there are people who are not on top. They must either be comfortable with it or live a life, as Thoreau said, “of quiet desperation.”
Being comfortable is not always a good thing, either. Prison is full of people who are comfortable with who they are. Call them a “jerk” or “asshole” but one of the reason people find it difficult to get along with narcissistic people is that the narcissist is fully comfortable with who they are.
Anyone who always radiates confidence is either not being challenged or a fool. I’m a very confident person. But there have been times when a whole hell of a lot was riding on the outcome of my actions. I was nervous. I accepted it and worked through it and did what I had to do anyway, but I wasn’t always confident. There is a big difference between confidence and arrogance, and a big slice of that difference is in understanding the implications of one’s actions and that almost necessitates a level of doubt.
Of course, it is possible to radiate confidence without actually being confident. I’m pretty sure that isn’t really a desirable trait in most situations.
No fear? Only if you live such a sheltered life that nothing bad could ever happen to you. My grandfather survived the Bataan Death March and when I joined the military he told me, “Be afraid of the man who has no fear. That son of a bitch will get you killed.”
Doesn’t care what anyone thinks of them? That person only lives in a state of denial. If that person were real, they would surely not be reading an article telling them how to behave so that people will think better of them. I doubt they would even write an article to tell people how to behave so that people will think better of them. I mean, if you don’t care; then you don’t care, right? To paraphrase and alter the aim of Catholic Priest and addictions specialist Father Martin, “If you didn’t care about green beans; then you’d stop talking about them.”
I don’t care about green beans, really, but I do care about toxic gender roles. I write FemDom erotica, and I do with a political purpose (this is explained here by someone much more talented than I). I want to destroy these toxic gender roles, and I try to do it one pleasurable story after another. I attack them head-on in this forum, and through the social science teaching that I do. But American society doesn’t change because someone said something that made them think – at least, it usually doesn’t.
Art, at its best, nudges society along by showing it where it is wrong. Television is the primary art form in American culture, and I don’t have access to any input in that medium. The same is true for movies. I can’t draw, paint, or dance to save my life, and most Americans are immune to fine art anyway (and confused by modern art). But I can write, and I do so with an eye on overthrowing toxic gender roles.
I don’t believe I will ever write a best-seller that makes me wealthy and opens a society-wide dialogue about masculinity. I don’t believe it is my path to change the world in such a way. I do, however, believe that I might say something in just the right way that someone’s life is changed. Perhaps that person, or perhaps that person’s son or daughter, will then change the world because there was a voice in the past who whispered, “You don’t have to be like that.”
And I’m saying you don’t have to be like that – not because it doesn’t matter what people think of you, but because it does.