About a week ago, I was sitting in the audience of a play, watching a birthday party unfold. Seventeen men were playing ping-pong, shooting darts, and guzzling beer from red solo cups. One man performed dangerous party tricks that left him with blood on his hands and head while a few others tore off their t-shirts to show off their arms. In the final moments, all 17 men fought viciously for so long I forgot what started it. Then, a pizza delivery guy showed up and peace was restored.
To me, the play is a meditation on what it means to be a man. It’s contradictory, chaotic, and complicated. It’s messy and physical. It moved me and made me think.
We know the arts, literature, and the media are rife with male characters who are fully developed, flawed, heroic, and tragic. They get to be the narrators and the protagonists, while women are relegated to sidekick, wife, and/or girlfriend status time and time again. Stories about and by women need to be told but continue to be disregarded. So how could I have possibly responded so positively to this “boys will be boys” play.
I’m an ardent feminist, frustrated by the depictions of womanhood we often see. Watching these actors reminded me that how we portray masculinity matters, too.
In one moment, the 17 are competing to see who has the biggest pecs. They show off fiercely. The same men, moments later, slow dance together, heads touching and emotions raw. They are intimate and vulnerable, and then they cover it is as quickly as they can, returning to the noise and chaos of the party.
There is something dissonant about watching this group of Herculean “guy’s guys” hold each other’s faces so gently. The night I saw the show, the women in the row behind me laughed hysterically through the entire waltz.
I’m so used to thinking about how women are shown and treated and talked about. I have made a priority out of being attuned to the way societal standards harm women, but at the core of my beliefs as a feminist is my feeling that gender norms aren’t good for any of us.
The show’s portrayal of hypermasculinity reminded me to think about something I’m far less inclined to notice. The world may have been made by and for men, but the boxes we put them in are their own sort of glass ceiling.
We know that it’s dangerous for boys to grow up believing it isn’t okay to show emotion, that young men struggle in a society that measures their worth based on their physical strength and sexual prowess, and that the “man of the house” phenomenon places a crippling pressure on adult males to provide and to uphold a breadwinner status.
This play wasn’t just another story driven by male protagonists. It drew attention to the complexities and dangers and double standards that—whether we pay attention to it or not—are a part of the way we have constructed what it means to be a man.
It’s so second nature for me to question and think about constructions of femininity, but it’s time, I was reminded, to make sure masculinity is part of the conversation.