Undeniably, cultural influence goes a long way towards shaping how you think of yourself. Hypermasculine and hyperfeminine ideals are hurtled at us from every direction within a few months of being alive, but it's not hopeless. Humans are relatively susceptible to influence, particularly when we're young, but we're also incredibly curious. We don't have to take anything on face value if we have the interest to dig deeper.
And while you're sifting through all of this new social information, you have two hyperbolic figureheads, your own personal heroes, that let you know how to interpret all that crazy symbology. They have the ability to give you insight to the world around you. Not only that, their acceptance or rejection of any otherwise socially held standard will have a huge bearing on your own opinion of those standards.
Who are those two figureheads? Mom and Dad.
Writing this presents a couple of significant challenges for me. There's a few things I'll just go ahead and say outright, because I may inadvertently come across offensively on these fronts. Let me establish this:
I am not, by any means downplaying the insane struggle of being a single mother or attempting to chastise women in that position.
I am not blaming good men of being bad fathers because they uphold the standards that they were held to.
I am not stating that these people alone are responsible for this kind of pressure on a growing individual.
Your mother and father won't be the only people to assume that figurehead, particularly if your own weren't around for whatever reason, and you don't get to live off of blaming them without making any changes to yourself if you're struggling with your own identity. Your identity is your job.
Still with me? Good.
Being a parent in a monogamous culture means two things: One, the success of your relationship will be a model for your offspring, and two, having two parents provides a more well rounded view of how functional adults should work and what they achieve. You also have both a male and female perspective to help you discern the influx of information about gender.
Loren Eiseley suggested in "The Immense Journey" that we encouraged this monogamy in our earliest origins of evolution because our brains spend so much time developing. Because our childhood is so long, we're able to form neural pathways over a longer span and become more complex organisms. To become that complex requires the protection and resources that a single parent raising its offspring would have difficulty providing. Again, this is evolutionary perspective; developing homo sapiens did not have established shelters, grocery stores, and so on in order to make survival simpler. It was no contest; two parents meant better survival for a long and complex childhood.
We further solidified the importance of monogamy, and therefore, dual parenthood, with agriculture, religion and patriarchy. Monogamy became important in order to keep track of whose offspring belonged to whom, and therefore who was deserving of sharing of a family's resources. Over time, and with our development of agriculture, we further shifted towards our individual interest and systems of ownership, so preserving our resources for our kin, rather than being egalitarian, became even more important as we attempted to distinguish our success from the success of a community as a whole. We established miniature monarchies within households, with the father figure being at the very top.
We built a culture around two parents being successful, and successfully rearing a child, with the dominant male being something of a pack leader. In order to be a pack leader, one had to do what all animals do, defend their territory and establish dominance. Animal nature creeps into our supposedly sophisticated creation of social structure. Dominant males could express this by having more, achieving more, and being better, stronger, smarter and more successful than other rivals. We are no different than any other animal in that regard.
Relating this back to the family, a father is faced with two quandaries: one, how does he demonstrate to his progeny that he is, by social standards, a successful man? Secondly, how does he prepare said offspring for the competitive world in which he must strive to be as close to the ideal standard of manliness as he can? Just like playing music in the womb, the typical solution was to start early. I sometimes wonder if this is leftover from our historically shorter life expectancy.
Little boys were taught to become men, which, as you may recall, means fuck all from an objective manner of speaking, but it means a lot to a developing little boy, and even more when it's something not only desired, but expected from him by his parents. At whatever age a boy is told he's not allowed to cry, effectively, he's told he's not allowed to express that he's in pain, which on some level is telling a child he's not allowed to feel pain. If you're not allowed to feel something as basic as pain, you're going to struggle greatly with openly feeling anything else. There's no wonder there's a rage epidemic.
One of the roles of a father figure, or any strong male role model, is to give an example as to how a member of your own sex treats the opposite sex, to embody the ideals of "masculinity" and encourage and recognize those in you. If your father figure imparts ideals of masculinity as emotionlessness, rage, and violence, and you rapidly begin to notice that you don't embody any of those qualities, you're going to have to wade into whatever your society dictates masculinity is to find it for yourself, and you may find nothing there. You may find that the fact that you have feelings, want to have bonds with men, and have no real desire to express yourself exclusively by breaking things will somehow align you to being effeminate, and therefore gay, whether or not your orientation resides there or not.
Because you have qualities of "the other" then you must be "one of the others," and this has been propagated seemingly forever.
In this circumstance, men wanting male intimacy aren't exhibiting any kind of homosexual desire, they're exhibiting humanity. Human beings are social animals, and having to live in a culture that encourages this suppression leaves them nothing but frustration. Their fathers were raised in much the same culture, and can't provide a healthier example for their children, because so far as they're aware, that's how it works, and no one was ever encouraged to ask why or if it was a good idea.
So where does mom fall into this? Well, she can end up with a number of different masks, we'll find out, which is the peculiar burden of women, because we *are* socially allowed to feel, because we're not expected to run anything.
I should point out that these ways of thinking are becoming archaic, and that these figurehead analogies aren't completely solid. As time progresses, they will break down, because we're seeing the cracks in the system. This is a snap shot for the time we're in, however, and for the people that I've seen raised in it. The more you learn about these kinds of social systems, the more power you have not to become part of it.
At least in my generation, there is a staggering lack of father figures. Interestingly, this has led to a well-deserved increase in attention to the father's role in court cases. Originally, deadbeat dads, while not necessarily a prized role, were at least socially recognized. Mothers weren't offered the same "out" given a woman's biological attachment to a child's development. Men could get scared and leave their families, or be unfit to participate in them. Women had no such luxury.
Mothers play a nurturing role and have a very complex influence over our sense of validation for that reason. If you think of your father as the guardian, the caretaker, the person who goes out into the world and demonstrates how people behave, then the mother, the nurturer, the person who takes care of you as you grow and develop, is the person who demonstrates how you become an adult. She essentially affirms that your feelings are okay, or not, and she has to come up with something to fill the vaccuum of ideals that are associated with your father's role. I don't care how incredible your mom was, having to raise a child, support them financially and play both parental roles is a level of effort that I simply don't think is achievable to the same standard as having two parents in the household. It will, in some way, inevitably effect your psychology not to have a father figure, or to have too many, or negative ones.
If that's not a fuck ton of responsibility for one person, I don't know what is. For some mothers, they have to assume both roles, attempting to nurture and demonstrate development while also providing for the family that has no second contributor. I can't imagine the burden that could place on a woman and her son, particularly the way we're set up socially.
Most of the people I know who have struggled with this particular mental anguish have also had strained, difficult, or even nonexistent relationships with their mothers, and even worse so with their fathers. They had no direction, no way to compare or to feel self assured in themselves versus the fluid cultural definitions they were offered.
This isn't meant to blame either parent for this particular situation, but I think it highlights an important role of adults in our society when it comes to the impact they have on children: If you lack adult role models that help illustrate the kind of person you want to become, you will be forced to discern that information from people your own age, who haven't figured that out yet.
This is just a touchstone of the points I've made: your reaction to how culture views masculinity is going to be compared against how your parents view masculinity, and how they praise or reprimand you based on it will have a lot of value on how you see yourself in that larger context. As you get older, you learn to contextualize your parents based on their own upbringing and experience, but that's barely an option to consider when you're developing during your internment of adolescence. Even if you were able to create that kind of elaborate critical thinking, you're not really in a position to express or exercise any changes based off of it.
I don't know that I could offer any solution to the parental aspect of this. All people are flawed and are often flawed based on their own interpretations and experiences and traumas. You can't blame your parents for doing what they probably assume was the right way to raise someone to be a successful adult. You just have to find other successful adults to model off of. I think this gets a little easier with time, only because you become an adult, and therefore your peers can become people you can both look up to and relate to, and they can help unravel the complexity of your upbringing a little better.
Well, that was fun, and we're almost finished, but there's still one last piece to this. So far we've gone into why thinking you're gay based off of your personality and not your actual orientation is a cultural misstep, and it's one that's reinforced by your upbringing. Lastly, we've got to address the cause of why this dismissive approach towards male intimacy and sensitivity exists: a fear (and, as much as I'm loathe to say it, suppression) of the feminine ...
This article is broken up into sections : Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
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This is the story that begins when you are walking alone in the forest at night. You've been warned not to go into the woods after dark because of the witch. She eats children like you. You've been wandering in the dark for hours now, and your light is beginning to dim, it will be burned out soon and all you'll have is moonlight and the occasional, lazy glow of a fire fly. Certainly not enough to keep you from tripping over tangled roots or alert you of the wolves that have been patiently circling you, waiting for this moment.
It's so dark you can barely make out the forms of the trees, but in the distance, there is a warm orange glow, a sunrise all of its own. As you get closer you hear cackling and the singing of a mad woman. Your heart is pounding; you have two options, remain in the dark and risk being eaten by wolves, or go towards this light and see what kind of person has created it.
You decide to find her, and what you see is unsettling. It is a cottage, but the fence surrounding it is made from human bones. The cottage itself is hoisted on two massive chicken legs, and in front of it is a woman perched on the edge of a mortar. cackling madly. She has a long, thin nose that reaches into the dip of the mortar, and through her demented smile you see her iron teeth.
This is Baba Yaga. You've heard of her, and your instinct is to run, but she sees you and you find yourself moving closer.
"Well?" She rasps at you through fits of laughter, "What brings you here?"
"I'm lost, I want to go home." You reply.
"Well, you've come to the wrong place," She snickers. She motions towards you with a bony finger capped with a yellowed nail. "Might as well come closer."
Shit. This is how it happens. This is how you die. You get eaten by a fucking witch.
You are so fucked, you're so stupid, you're walking towards her. You want to run but you walk towards her like she's at the end of a tight rope. There's no ground any more, no sky, no trees, just the long, narrow path towards the crazy old crone that's about to cook you into soup without a second thought.
As you draw closer you see how complicated her old skin is. Its not only wrinkled, it's covered in warts and tree bark, diseases both human and ethereal. Her dark, beady eyes are sunken deep into her bony skull, and you are so close that she whacks you with the tip of her long nose. Her garden hose nose with a mole with a hair on the end of it. By the look of her, she hasn't gotten much sun, but that kind of mole should definitely get checked out. She giggles at you as you walk right up to her. You are inches away and smell her rotten breath, see her dry, mucus coated tongue.
"I can help you get home," Baba Yaga whispers as she clears her throat, "But only if you clean my cottage."
You are taken into the cottage on chicken's legs, which is bigger than your last studio apartment, at least. Most of it is enveloped by a giant, bubbling cauldron, and again, it hits you.
Shit. She's going to eat me, I'm going to die. This is how it happens. I'm going to do witch chores and then I'm going to be soup. I'm so stupid, I walked right into her house and everything. She might ask me to chop myself into little pieces and even though I don't know why, I'd do it without question.
You complete her tasks, but they aren't as ordinary as doing your own laundry would be. In the process, you lose a foot, and in exchange, Baba Yaga offers you a gift: the skull of some poor bastard who didn't clean her house so well. His soul lights up the cavity of the empty skull. She informs you that the light from the skull will get brighter as you get closer to home, and dimmer if you're heading away. She's given you a gift, a way out, and let you keep your life, if not your foot.
The endings of fairy tales always seem kind of lacking in satisfaction, don't they? They always seem to fade out, they're either milquetoast or tragic, or in some rare cases, people get married which is pretty okay given the time period they're written in.
This story is about the Baba Yaga, but the thing is, this witch wasn't just the old crone standing in front of you; she was all of those whispers of doubt and certain doom you had as you walked up to her, as you entered her house. Baba Yaga is scary, but she is also fear. That's what makes her folklore so fascinating; in most of her depictions, she can be maternal and helpful or she can be the cause of your undoing. We will never know what her intentions are. Sometimes she offers good advice or keeps us safe, other times she's there to eat us. Effectively, she plays the role of your amygdala.
Your amygdala as an organ is crazy complex and handles more than just fight or flight, by the way. It receives input from just about everything, it's responsible for emotional learning and development and also handles memory. It's a complicated little thing, and it's also greatly responsible for your fear, which I imagine is why people suffering from mass anxiety find it seeping into pretty much everything; the control room is kind of the same. The important thing to remember is that fear instinct isn't inherently bad, in fact, it's necessary; it's what kept you out of the mouths of the wolves, remember them? "The only thing to fear is fear itself" is a fun fortune cookie mantra but entirely untrue. Fear is to be trusted with discerning.
Calling it Baba Yaga instead of fear can make that big emotional concept seem more definite. You can look a witch in the eye because it has a face. It's hard to internalize looking your fear in the eye, seeing yourself and your big, complex chambers of consciousness without becoming confused. Her cryptic motives and often terrifying tasks that may leave you maimed are also good parallels for fear; usually, the objective of being afraid is to get into a situation where you don't have to be any more. How that happens is up to you and your brain. Learning to identify what is your fear, the witch in your head, can help you face external anxiety or fears more rationally.
If you don't know what Baba Yaga looks like, you'll be terrified of everything. You won't learn the difference between a witch or a tree stump, and you'll become the kind of person who is afraid to leave their house for fear of getting lost. Remember, you know what happens when you run, or avoid her altogether, but you can't know for sure what happens when you confront her. She may even be the only one who knows how to bring you to safety.
I am telling you a fairy tale. This is the story of the witch in the woods.
Before I do, I should tell you that this fairy tale is also a true story. To some extent, they all could be.
There's a distinction between a myth and a fairy tale that could offer a little more context. Myth was the early cosmogony; the stories of gods fighting with seemingly human emotion arguably illustrates the birth place of such. Myth gave meaning to the world. The divide between science and myth is arguably more subtle than "one is provable and one isn't" because myth wasn't established to be proven, it was accepted on faith. Myth focused very much on why, whereas science was concerned more so with the how, and by examining the how, the why was presumed apparent. Both were seekers of truth, and both were understood to be true.
Fairy tales on the other hand, are taxonomy of expression. They can't be believed to be true in the material sense, but they're apt psychology. For some people, fairy tales are childish, and immature ways to express themselves. They prefer to be well read and have an understanding of their issues; in this instance, I don't. I want to name them, but I found that attempting to find their roots in order to rip them out wasn't very useful; my problems seemed alive, and the life they had made them monsters.
When talking about fear or anxiety, or other feelings that are harder to process in the moment, it's hard not to visualize them as demons. We can name them clinically and medicate them with pharmaceuticals, but doing so seldom helps us feel like we understand them. Some people go to a counselor who reads a lot of textbooks and learns the steps to dismantling a feeling to help you understand them. It treats them as inorganic mechanisms. Our minds are engines that are built, damaged and repaired.
Our brains aren't machines, they developed in a nature, and finding ways to translate our thoughts into material expression is easier when you're surrounded by an environment that behaves the same way. In the classic fairy tale, the woods represent your mind, and there's a lot of interesting shit in there for your protagonist, Consciousness, to explore. Once in awhile, your protagonist will run into a demon it has to figure out and subdue, or a puzzle it has to solve. Quite often, a walk in the woods will lead you to the home of a witch.
The woods are a fantastic place and I'd highly encourage you to find some because the parallels to your brain are uncanny if you look long enough. The mutualism between systems seems to operate in the way of organisms (trees and fungi for example) try to protect and operate within a system (the forest itself). It makes it easier to understand your own internal struggles through these representations; in most relatively healthy systems, no one organism is attempting to deconstruct the rest of it, even if it's interpreted that way at first.
But I digress. I promised you a fairy tale ...
These articles focus more on psychology or how individuals function in a society. They're about as well thought out as anything else on the internet, and there's probably typos.