When John Wayne rode the wastes of the wild west dispensing justice from the barrel of a six-gun and duking it out with the baddies, he wasn’t behind the wheel of a minivan.
When John McClane refused to die easy and saved the Nakatomi Plaza from a band of Eurotrash terrorists, he didn’t do it from the spacious third-row seating of a minivan.
When I save my family from starvation, brave the elements to secure an education or simply battle the hordes of road-raged drivers seeing my face in the center of a bulls-eye, I do drive a minivan.
This disparity in style often led my 15-year-old son, Hyper Lad, to comment. Vehemently.
“I am not getting in that minivan,” he said, looking in disgust at the newest decoration to adorn my beloved Honda Odyssey. “You put reindeer antlers and a big, red nose on it.”
That is exactly what I had done. It was Christmas. Seeing the other cars similarly decorated, I went red and green with envy. I had a bad case of Antler Envy and the only cure was more . . . antlers.
“Hey,” I said, shoving him toward the open sliding door to the spacious captain’s chairs in the middle row of the minivan. “I’ve seen plenty of cars with these.”
“Yeah,” he said, tossing his backpack onto the floor. “And every one of them lady cars, right?”
“Uh. . .”
“No,” I said. “Not right. I mean, I saw — just the other morning — I saw antlers and a big, red nose on a huge Chevy Suburban, and that’s a rough and tumble car.”
He snorted and slid closed the side door.
“Oh, please,” he said. “That’s not a Suburban; that’s a Mom-burban. The only people who drive them are Moms.”
If only my son could take to school with the alacrity he brings to inventing new vocabulary for mocking me. I let him get away with it mostly because I usually find it funny, I know he is only doing it in friendly jest, and I want him to be able to stand up for himself. I do, on occasion, regret this.
“Okay, fine, yes,” I said. “There was a lady driving, but that still doesn’t mean putting antlers on my car makes me any less a man.”
“You’re right,” he said. “It makes you more of a mom.”
Regret is a stinging blade to the mind. I threw the Odyssey into reverse, slammed my foot on the accelerator and left a smoking trail in my imaginary driveway.
While Hyper Lad and I had been kidding around, the comments still stung. The average American male, of which I’m almost certainly one, does not like being called a woman.
I’ve come to believe an idea not making sense tends to spread it faster. It’s certainly helped spread this one.
In just under half a second, Google returned more than 550 million, that’s 500,000,000, links related to “women weak.” Half a billion links to the assumption that women are weak in general and weaker than men, more specifically. This presumption that women are weak is tied very closely with why you won’t find many American men taking on traditionally female attributes.
A man being told that he “throws like a girl” is one of the worst kinds of insults, despite the amazing arms on just about any girl who plays softball.
Because women are assumed the “weaker sex,” most men will fight anyone or anything linking them to femininity. It’s not that they don’t want to be seen as women, but they don’t want to be seen as weak. And women are seen as weak.
Researcher Brené Brown, in one of the most-ever-watched TED talks, said women feel shame from a multitude of sources and for a similar multitude of reasons. Men? Not so much.
For men, shame is not a bunch of competing, conflicting expectations. Shame is one, do not be perceived as what? Weak. I did not interview men for the first four years of my study. And it wasn’t until a man looked at me one day after a book signing, said, “I love what you have to say about shame, I’m curious why you didn’t mention men.” And I said, “I don’t study men.” And he said, “That’s convenient.” (Laughter) And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because you say to reach out, tell our story, be vulnerable. But you see those books you just signed for my wife and my three daughters?” I said, “Yeah.” “They’d rather me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down. When we reach out and be vulnerable we get the shit beat out of us.
For any ladies reading this, please understand that the gentleman in this story was not exaggerating. Sometimes it happens metaphorically, but sometimes it happens literally. Men have been trained to fear showing emotion and to respond to that fear by lashing out. We lash out to prove that we, unlike that crying girlie-man over there, aren’t weak.
The easiest way of making sure we aren’t seen as weak, is to make sure we’re never thought of as a woman. So no helping with the housework, or rearing the kids, cooking dinner each night, decorating your minivan for the season, or wearing clothing associated with females.
That’s changed somewhat for women. They wear traditionally male clothing, such as trousers, suits, ties and the like, raising nary an eyebrow. In this one area, when it concerns women taking on formerly male-exclusive dress and behavior, they are far more advanced than men.
Don’t believe me? When was the last time you saw a woman wearing pants? Yesterday? Today? Okay, when was the last time you saw a man wearing a skirt? Go ahead. Try and remember. I’ll wait. While waiting, I’m gonna watch some fine British comedy, which consists of mediocre skits performed by men wearing dresses and talking in a high, warbly voice. It’s hilarious.
Yeah. That’s what I thought. Men don’t get to wear anything associated with women unless they want to be thought of as a weak sort of man, almost a wo-man. If you will.
And woe betide any straight man who gets it into his fool head he wants to wear female clothing for anything other than bad sketch comedy. Including cross dressers, but that’s a different column. I know this from experience.
I am not immune to the fear of being seen as weak. The thing of it is, though, I’ve grown a pretty thick skin over the years because of what I do for a living.
If it wasn’t obvious from the fact that I drive a minivan, I was and am a proud stay-at-home dad. All three of our boys grew up knowing that when they skinned a knee, it would be dad who yelled at them to rub some dirt on it and get back into the game.
Things in our house were. . . different.
Because their mom worked so much as an obstetrician/gynecologist, she wasn’t able to participate in many of the boys’ school events. For the most part, they were okay with it. They knew their mom loved them and would have been there if she could. But not every time and not for every son. There were times when I had to step up. In her high heels. Metaphorically speaking. Sort of.
When Hyper Lad was younger, his pre-school decided to hold a Mother-Son Breakfast. It was expected that every child’s mother would be there, as this was a conservative church-sponsored school and women just did not work outside the house. So, it was assumed, they could be counted upon to appear at the breakfast. Unfortunately, Hyper Lad’s mom already had a surgery scheduled for that day and couldn’t postpone it.
Hyper Lad was crushed. I got an idea. An awful idea. I got a wonderful, awful idea. I ran into my closet and began rooting around behind the dress shirts I no longer wore and the shiny shoes gathering dust while I traipsed around in trainers.
I scrounged up an old wig, with long, very fake brown hair, a pair of scrubs too big for my wife, and a towel with elastic around one side I could pretend was a skirt. I was ready. I could only hope the world was as well.
Because he was still in pre-school, Hyper Lad didn’t have the stamina nor leg length to outrun me. I quickly caught him, bundled him in the Odyssey’s predecessor, a Toyota Sienna, and headed to school.
I will admit it. I’m a rabble rouser. An inciter. I was, thus, in my element. The ladies, dressed in their nicest outfits, many with pearls, stopped to stare as I pulled Hyper Lad into the room. I quickly nabbed a name tag from the deathly silent assistant (HI! I’m Not Hyper Lad’s MOM) and headed to the buffet.
Eventually, conversation restarted and breakfast was eaten. Well, eaten by the kids. Most of the ladies didn’t often eat in public. I didn’t have that problem. One mom I’d been friendly with sidled over and stood nearby. No one else had joined our table.
“Oh my God,” she stage whispered. “Oh my God! Are you wearing a skirt?”
I looked down at the wearable towel wrapped around my waist and gestured toward it with the hand not currently occupied by shoveling bacon into my churning maw.
“This old thing?” I asked. “Can you believe? I got it for half off!”
She stared at me.
“It’s a towel,” I said. “I couldn’t find a skirt that fit.”
“A skirt that fit? A real skirt?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But it’s rough. I’m in between sizes in most skirts.”
“Aren’t you afraid people will think you’re a woman?” she said, lowering her voice even more and leaning in closer, “You’ll be lucky if any of the other ladies talk to you after this.”
I did my best not to laugh too much. Mostly because the bacon was really good and I didn’t want to waste any.
“Do I look like a woman?”
I did not. I’m six feet, weigh near two hundred pounds and have a muscular physique. I’m also bald and bearded. I look like many things. A woman least among them.
But I got her point. I had stepped outside the traditional boundaries of the American male. I had, even if only for a morning, and mostly for fun, embraced my more feminine side. Which wasn’t really a problem. No, the problem was I’d had the bad taste to do so in public.
My friend was right, though. Other than the occasional sniff-and-look-away, I didn’t really communicate with any of the other mothers the rest of the year. We moved Hyper Lad to a different pre-school the next year. I think we all were happier.
Here’s the thing, though. I hadn’t changed. I still was the same person; still loved beer, football and screaming at televisions. Yet because I dressed up and pretended — badly — to be a woman, I was ostracized by people I had considered friendly, if not friends.
The stereotypical red-blooded American male, is strong, silentish, rugged, emotionally stunted so that he shows only anger, and sees the world through a friend-or-foe-fueled haze of tactical assumptions. To be otherwise is to be seen as weak.
I challenge that assumption. I’m just about as male as they come. I look the part. I sound the part. But I also cry at sad movies. I hug people who are in bad moods and could use a bit of cheering up. I don’t believe in winning at all costs. And I’m hoping that, by my words and my actions, my sons will come to believe that they don’t have to grow up to become emotionally stunted testosterone junkies.
I’ve always considered women to be strong and capable. For this, I blame my mom, who was both and quite vocal about it. I feel no shame in losing a game of H.O.R.S.E. to a woman who’s simply a better shooter than me. It’s about the ball, not the balls.
Men need to grow up and realize stereotypical behaviors are not predetermined, they are socialized. Raised in a society where masculine emotion is prized, men will cry openly. And they will feel better for it.
Ours is not that society. But it could be. It only needs men, who will become fathers, to understand and to lead the way. Understand that to be a man, to be the best man, is to be hu-man and embrace the full spectrum of behaviors.
But that’s going to be an up-Everest battle.
Even knowing I am the manliest dad by whom he’s ever been reared, my son kept insisting only a mom would decorate a minivan like I had. He wouldn’t let it go. Eventually, I stopped listening to him. Whenever he brought it up, I either flexed my arms, made some pretty impressive muscles, and growled or lovingly smacked the back of his head.
Yes, I am a man. Thankfully, I’m strong enough in that knowledge that I can survive being seen as weak. As the great philosopher once said with such flair, to be the man, you gotta beat the man. And, man, I am the man.
Even behind the wheel of a minivan.