I’m a woman writing a book about men—or more accurately about what women want from them, and I’m having a hard time admitting the truth: We want our men to be heroic.
But as someone raised in the era of 1970’s ‘Hear Me Roar’ feminism, I balk at the idea of a heroic masculine (because in my mind, a hero implies a damsel needing rescue). In fact, my writing muse had a hissy fit the other day brought on by words from a man whose pro-feminist, stereotype-busting work I had often lauded. Those inciting words?
“One of the things that I figured out is … to appear to challenge other men, to turn other men into the kind of boyfriend material, father material, or husband material that women so desperately wanted. Most women have a lot of disappointment in men. And I very deliberately want to go to the place where that disappointment lives and present to them a counter-narrative of something possible.”
So said gender studies professor, male feminist and former Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer in a Daily Beast interview published days after his now infamous twitter confessional, an hour long rant in 140 character text bites, in which he napalmed his reputation in a stunning display of brutal honesty and, according to Schwyzer, a manic episode.
When I read this post-melt-down Schwyzer admission about catering to women’s desperate wanting, my first reaction was distaste: Here is a man telling the world exactly how he manipulated females into his fan club.
Next came the sad realization he is right. Most women I know are disappointed in men. Not all women, of course. But a large majority of smart-minded, innovative, creative and strong women routinely express a dissatisfaction with the men in their lives that goes beyond the typical nag fest women are stereotyped for—he doesn’t take out the garbage, he never remembers our anniversary, he leaves his socks on the floor.
Deeper than domestic discord, the disappointment some women experience is an existential despondency. It sounds like this, “I don’t feel met by him,” “I can’t count on him, I can only rely on me,” and “I wish he would just man-up” or “I need a man who is manly.”
One clue we women (some of us) are disenchanted by the face of modern manhood was an article I wrote a year ago that went mini-viral.
A Call to the Sacred Masculine, Ten Daring Invitations from the Divine Feminine was shared 17,000 times on Facebook in little over a month and has to date been viewed nearly 90,000 times. From the comments section it seemed women were gobbling this piece up and sending it to their men as a message. (And from the comments, those men were in large part pissed off at an article that seemed to be telling them how to be in the world.)
When I wrote A Call to the Sacred Masculine it was from a nostalgia for a noble masculinity that could be called heroic, that I had not seen in real life, only in mythic fiction and film. I was writing from a place of yearning, and to some degree, disappointment in the men I had known intimately.
And more recently, the mega hit article The Lost Art of Masculinity, clearly struck a similar chord in women readers, a piece that seems to outline, in Schwyzer’s words, the kind of boyfriend material women so desperately want. Writer Lasara Allen itemizes three missing ingredients to most men’s manliness as strength, chivalry and romance.
Beyond that, she also boldly declares:
“These desired things have come as a surprise to a generation of women who were raised with slogans like, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” batted around. But under the stratum of fear and distrust lies a substrata of desire. A desire to be desired. A desire to be seduced. A desire to be taken care of. A desire to be matched and met. And, most surprisingly, a desire to be stood up to, while being stood up with and stood up for.”
Perhaps that’s the heart of it. That while we want to be equal, independent and strong we also have a deeper desire to be those things in the company of men who meet us there from a place of ‘masculine strength.’
But here’s the kicker. No man, no matter how heroic, noble or manly by any definition, will ride in on a white horse and heal the disappointment (and confusion) some women feel. Because our discontent often stems from more than how a man fails to show up. It emerges from how we receive a man so that he can show up.
If as women we are wanting to create a union in which our man engages us and the world ‘heroically’ then we are first going to have to look at what it is we are offering that either invites heroic qualities or slams the door on them.
And yes, what defines heroic will vary from woman to woman. For me, the heroic masculine looks like a man on-purpose in his life, making a contribution to the greater good, laced with kindness, fairness and passion.
For another woman, it will be a whole different beast. In fact, when I asked a friend to define what makes a man heroic, she listed qualities not even on my radar, such as valiant, funny and vulnerable.
The point is, we women need to look at ourselves too for what is apparently missing in the guys we choose to be with.
A favourite expression of a marriage counsellor I know brings this idea of accountability home. In therapy, when one partner complains the other has let them down, this counsellor often counters that “What is missing in a relationship is usually what you have failed to bring to it.”
When it comes to looking for our men to act heroically, I would add: What is missing in our men is perhaps what we have failed to invite in.
And so it is with that possibility I am leaning into myself, looking more deeply at how my own actions and attitudes might in fact hold the heroic masculine at arms length.
If there is indeed a Lost Art of Masculinity, then to that I am ready and willing to learn the the Lost Art of Femininity.
I’ll let you know how that turns out.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise