By Monica Rivero  (El Toque)

Photo: Sadiel Mederos.

HAVANA TIMES – “Don’t cry, you’re a boy” is a phrase I’ve heard a teacher or teacher’s assistant say, more than once, at primary school when a boy was crying. Sometimes when they cry, they even stop being a little boy for their fathers and mothers, and quickly turn into buddy.

Not crying or expressing some emotions is still one of the first lessons too many young boys learn. It’s an essential condition to being or becoming a real man. But what does this mean exactly? What are the standards that society tells men follow?

Voces de Matria (an El Toque podcast) took this question and others as the basis for its conversation with feminist lawyer Alina Herrera in Mexico and historian Maikel Colon Pichardo in Barcelona, the latter being the author of Is it easy to be a man and hard to be black?

Alina mentions “hegemonic masculinities” that stem from two core ideas: one in a horizontal sense, of men against their male counterparts, and a vertical variant, of men against women.

The activist explains that these views are first established in the home, as it’s the “first place that men learn that women have to take charge of household chores.” In touch with this “free, invisible, ‘non’-work”, children gain their first notions of hierarchy, where men don’t take an equal part in housework and are placed above women. “It’s where the first oppressions are established.”

Between men

When it comes to men’s relationship with their male counterparts, there “is a kind of oppression among them, that stems from pacts to prove their own masculinity, proving their virility, strength.”

Other men’s requirements might be hard to satisfy “and even extremely oppressive.” Herrera talks about a study that was called “The Man Box”, which sought to prove, with an exercise, that the men inside the box were the ones who felt most pressured to be what is “a man”.

The box is made up of many pillars, Alina explains. Rigid masculine gender roles, linked to participating as little as possible in tasks that traditionally assigned to women; self-sufficiency, the ability to solve their problems without anyone’s help, which implies weakness, incompetence; both physical and emotional strength, not crying, or showing any weakness at any cost; being physically attractive but without people seeing that you take care of your appearance because you would otherwise fall into feminine stereotypes; prove your heterosexuality at all times, even your hypersexuality, which means not accepting “no” as an answer, and never refusing a woman if she offers herself to you. As well as aggression and control in any kind of conflict.

Questioning behavior models

It has to do with the book Macho, varón, masculino by the Cuban Julio Cesar Gonzalez Pages. The notion of “male honor”, linked to being “tough, strong”, unlike women who are pure and innocent. “Masculinity depends on keeping calm and being a rock in a crisis, with emotions in check. In fact, the way to prove you are a man is never to show any emotion. Boys don’t cry!”, he explains in his guide Masculinities in Motion.

Over the past few decades, both the academic world and gender diversity movement have called into question and broken down this single vision of being a man. “They suggested questioning these behavioral paradigms, which have a negative impact on society in many regards,” Colon says. One of the symptoms of this is directly manifested as the role of “provider”. Likewise, the image of being “risk takers”, which can put men’s health at risk. Men normally behave as if their risk perception were lower. Or they go to the doctor too late, in order to hide pain or weakness.

“We are all affected by patriarchy’s oppression, but oppression isn’t equal for men and women.” We women suffer the consequences more, Alina explains; men are more prone to being violent. This is encouraged by their childhood, social and cultural education. “We aren’t equal when it comes to violence.”

So, is being a man easy? Maikel admits the question “is a bit of a trick question.”

“Patriarchal culture tells you that being a man is easy.” Because society is structured so that it’s easy for men, who abide by its patterns for success.

He explains that, “later, in every man’s development, in the public and private space, we are constantly forced to stick to certain roles and paradigms that make it hard for men’s lives to be full in every aspect.”

Defectors of machismo

Maikel says not all men “are open to leaving this space that they hold in society, which gives them privileges.” This, even if it means they free themselves from some pressure. “They aren’t willing to negotiate these spaces and create a face off between demands from the feminist movement and what many men believe to be symbolic spaces that belong to them.”

Herein comes the question of men’s space within feminism. Can you be a man and feminist? Alina says that this is a “sensitive issue”.

“I don’t believe that a man can be a feminist, but he can be an ally of feminism,” the expert says. “Those men that propose changes to their own machismo. (…) Within this hegemonic masculinity, they can be an ally of feminism or not, depending on how they work on their own toxic masculinities (…) and their ability to break down these notions.”

Meanwhile, Maikel says that he knows men who are feminists. “It’s a movement that defends women. It also pushes the reconstruction of this idea of what it is to be a man. (…) Some people might be willing to break away from these privileges and others not so much,” he admits.

“I like it when we talk about defectors of machismo, and the patriarchy,” Alina says. “This oppression is what has triggered these movements, led by women in this case because we are oppressed. Not led by men because they are the ones who benefit the most from the system.” It’s not only a matter of interpersonal relationships, but also socially visible relationships. Every historic structure is designed for them to dominate.

Maikel insists that men are also “subjected to this patriarchal configuration of society, (even though) women continue to suffer the most.” These movements are what have “dealt with masculinity as a plural concept.” And they contribute to the idea that there is more than one way to being a man, being discussed in certain spaces. It’s a lot more liberating than the pre-established historic standards.  

Read more feature articles on Havana Times.


6 thoughts on “Is Being a Man Easy?

  • Stephen, presumably you would agree that masculinity is physiological. But, you also appear to assume that it is identical in different societies and unaffected by different cultures. Being macho in Cuba, is not a consequence of the repressive economic conditions imposed by the communist regime, it is cultural and existed for centuries prior to the imposition of communism. Anyone who has had the good fortune to travel widely, knows that cultural differences are not merely substantial, but ingrained.

    You and I see the world through male eyes, and as one in what is described as old age, I have observed the changes that you describe that have occurred in western society – from the thirties when men were the breadwinners and women the homemakers and children minders, through to current times. The Second World War had a major effect in that women in the Allied Countries, gained experience of both minding the home and working in jobs previously performed by men. The patterns of relationships changed. Some men have found it more difficult to adapt than others.

    As for some forty years, the employer of both men and women, I have had opportunity to note the difference in behavioral patterns when working, and the assumption by men that they ought to receive higher rewards than women – an illustration perhaps of masculinity although illogical.

    One does not question that economic opportunities are greater in Canada, than in Cuba, or that in Cuba, employment is largely directed. There is little if any difference between the “basic economic opportunity for the young male” and that for the young female in Cuba, but as I described, 65% of professional positions in Cuba are occupied by women. I am told be a very well informed source, that male students between the ages of 16 and 18, concentrate in pre-university schools, upon demonstrating their competitive macho images to both their female and male classmates. When resident at home in Cuba, I observe the lack of application by many males of that age group. Clearly, the girls apply themselves and on average are more successful, some men resent that. As I indicated, despite the figure I gave, in Cuba it is men who are in control, and the women who have to strive for recognition.

    You refer to the Cuban homes. How often does a man return home and expect his wife who has also been working, to clean the house, prepare the meals, look after the in-laws and children, while he the macho male, sits watching the TV? Perhaps just proving masculinity?

  • I disagree with some of your analysis, Carlyle. I still believe my explanation in the fact that economics does play a significant role in determining masculinity when one compares a totalitarian society and a democratic one, in this case, Canada to be very relevant to the discussion. The article states:

    “Patriarchal culture tells you that being a man is easy.” Because society is structured so that it’s easy for men, who abide by its patterns for success.”

    Absolutely if Cuba was in a patriarchal culture such as Spain, I would agree with you with democratic freedoms for its population, particularly young males. However, as you very well know, Cuba is ravished by bleak economic circumstances such that its totalitarian society cannot provide the most basic economic opportunity for a young male student who has graduated from post – secondary school.

    Cuba’s economic system does not abide by successful patterns in society so that it is “easy” for men to be successful men, relatively speaking. Men are prisoners within their own society. How can a youthful man express his masculinity in such circumstances.? Not easy. Certainly men in prison demonstrate their “machismo” but that is not masculinity.

    On a per capita basis compared to Canada most Cuban male youth upon graduation face a very bleak future employment wise. They have extremely limited opportunity to raise a family. Most have to live in the same house as their parents for most of their lives, unfortunately. This does not leave much room for a male youth to demonstrate his masculinity to himself, his family, or his community.

    Absolutely their culture is known for its “machismo” attribute however that hardly demonstrates a masculine man. Sure, they do go out and impregnate women and consider it a conquest but that hardly is an example of a masculine man. All animals impregnate yet are not considered masculine within their species. It is simple biology.

    Canadian youth upon graduation face a much better opportunity to obtain employment, though precarious presently; nevertheless it is a job, perhaps the beginning of a career. They have the opportunity to earn substantial amount of money, eventually buy a house, and raise a family. That is a successful man; that is a masculine man. It is easy, relatively speaking. Canadian youth are not prisoners within their society. They have many options to demonstrate their masculinity. Cuban youth do not, unfortunately. Everyone would like to see that changed for the better but that is another discussion.

    In summary, the economics within a society comparatively speaking and the opportunities it provides, or lack thereof, most certainly plays a significant role in determining masculinity.

    I rest my case.

  • i differ from Stephen’s opinion that:

    “a man’s opportunity to define himself as masculine in Cuba is very different from one in Canada because of the economic opportunities available to a Canadian as opposed to a Cuban.”

    Cuban men inherit the Spanish cultural practice of being “macho”. Canadian men although now derived from over seventy countries, largely (leaving out Quebec) pursue the anglophone interpretation of manhood.

    In Cuba, the objection to feminism is that it intrudes upon the image of “macho” being superior, and the men are in power.

    That objection is fortified in the minds of frustrated “macho” men, by the fact that 65% of professionally qualified people in Cuba are women, making it increasingly difficult for the men to strut their stuff and to demonstrate their supposed superiority.

    As one married to a highly academically qualified and very attractive Cuban and when able, spending the majority of my time in Cuba, I do not forget the answer she gave, when I enquired why with her position, qualifications and good looks, she had never married. The response was:

    “I would never marry a Cuban man, they are too macho, you and I are equal.”

    The difference Stephen, despite your lengthy explanation, is cultural, not economic.

  • Is it easy being human?

  • The question is not an easy one to answer because of the various factors in society that help determine a man’s worth. Geography also plays a significant role in defining masculinity because, for example, a man’s opportunity to define himself as masculine in Cuba is very different from one in Canada because of the economic opportunities available to a Canadian as opposed to a Cuban.

    Also the concept of feminism is not as pronounced in Cuba as say in the West where women are more free to express their opinions openly, petition governments, and lobby governments whereas in Cuba vocal feminists are seen as a threat to the totalitarian state, hence not allowed to openly express themselves; therefore, the dynamics between male masculinity and female femininity are very different.

    In the past, let’s say from the turn of the century to the 1950s a man’s role was well defined. He was a provider. A young man would get married at much earlier age than most marriages today. If he wasn’t a farmer, he would have a trade or an occupation that tended to last his entire working days. He knew his role in society that of being a family provider and guardian for his family. His male compatriots also fit into the local community with their similar roles well defined.

    In terms of marriage, the young man engaged with a young women who would trade her fertility and youth exclusively to her spouse. The trade off is that she gave him children, took care of raising them, took care of the household chores while the male in turn was the workhorse who took care of her even after her child bearing years, her prime, until death did them part.

    This societal bargain was a great incentive for men to be men, work hard, support the family, be proud of their family, in essence become a man. That was the old societal model which quiet frankly is outdated and for the most part does not exist anymore.

    Take the same young male today and his role and value in society has changed greatly. Marriage, if that is even a possibility for some men as many men today are simply going their own way (MGTOW) – no marriage, takes place at a much later date in the early 30s for males. How about the role of male provider? Well, that has changed radically for all engaged working adults whether one is male or female but is particularly traumatic for males. Most jobs in the Western world today are precarious, that is, temporary, without any security whatsoever. A man can be employed today for a short term contract and then be unemployed for some time until the next employment opportunity arrives, if it arrives at all. For a man, that unemployment phase is drastic on his ego, devastating to his concept of masculinity. He cannot provide without financial resources.

    Many men, certainly here in Canada, are employed in jobs that are considered “masculine” in nature, oil rig workers, miners, foresters, construction, all jobs that require a great deal of strong physical labor yet are also very precarious and have extreme unemployment rates. So much so, that a man employed in any of these occupations loses his job considers himself less masculine because it was his occupation that defined him.

    Unfortunately today, the male suicide rate is very high especially among young men who feel that society has given them a raw deal.

    A man knows he is the provider. It is built into his genes. Once that is removed he knows instinctively his masculine worth has been destroyed and he ceases to believe he is worthy, and/or even a man.

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