A young boy learns a hard truth about masculinity from a withholding paternal figure while they perform together a male-coded activity.
This activity may be fishing or football or basketball or hammering a nail.
The withholding paternal figure almost always performs the task successfully, although in rare instances, his failure provides an unsettling moment of uncertainty for the young boy, putting into question all he has learned about being a man from his father and grandfather and older brother and uncle.
More often, the father succeeds. The anecdote hinges on the success or failure of the young boy’s completion of the task: his success measures how well he presents masculinity.
If the boy sinks the basket, hammers the nail without hitting his thumb, lifts the heavy object while grunting the appropriate amount, then he will receive a coveted nod from the withholding parental figure. He may even (rarely) get praise.
If the boy sinks the basket, hammers the nail without hitting his thumb, lifts the heavy object while grunting the appropriate amount, then he is a man.
It is, however, possible for him to make the basket, hammer the nail without hitting the thumb, and lift the heavy object while grunting the appropriate amount, and still be seen as lacking by the withholding parental figure.
It is the uncertainty of the result that deforms the soul.
This leitmotif—uncertainty, not around what counts as masculine, but around how much of it the boy needs—recedes and swells in the background, pulsing and thrumming whenever the fishhook slips into the meat of the young boy’s thumb.
Masculinity, the leitmotif reminds us, must be assessed and tested. It is never a given. It must be constantly proven.
No one can prove a negative.
The essay will explore the ways in which he’s learned and unlearned the lessons of masculinity.
Alternatively, the essay begins with a young boy engaging in behavior or play not typically coded as masculine. The boy is then discovered by the withholding parental figure.
The boy might be, for example:
• dancing with abandon
• dressing up in the opposite sex’s clothes unironically
• expressing emotion sincerely and deeply
• attending to his physical appearance beyond basic hygiene
• masturbating to the sight of inappropriate objects of desire such as androgynous bodies, feminine male bodies, masculine male bodies, all male bodies, zaftig women, or butch women
• being quiet
• being talkative
• engaging in painting and/or drawing
• expressing an appreciation or desire for necklaces, bracelets, earrings, jeweled hair pins, or other adornments
• listening to the wrong music
• using a deodorant or cologne that is powdery, floral, or otherwise feminine
These behaviors can occur singly or as a cluster.
The boy may perform these behaviors—until discovered—without shame.
Or, the boy may perform them secretly, having already learned from peers and family members that his pleasures and desires are wrong, bad, or deviant. They do not want him to be teased, they say.
If the former, the anecdote lays the groundwork for all the retrograde attitudes about masculinity that will manifest in the author’s grown-up life. The author will disavow these attitudes, and the behaviors that stem from them, later in the essay. (The author may blame these attitudes—or their childhood causes—for his own chauvinistic or misogynistic behavior.)
It is very important to show one’s ugliness before revealing one’s triumph.
If the latter, this anecdote will provide a foundation for various psychosexual dramas enacted again and again in later relationships.
These psychosexual dramas also—according to the essay—explain the author’s internal and/or external homophobia.
The author may display discomfort with males exhibiting physical affection, sexual or otherwise.
Conversely, the author may frequently hug his male friends and vocalize his platonic love ardently.
If the author is not strictly or predominantly heterosexual, this pivotal incident may be used to justify the author staying in the closet for several years past puberty, sometimes even decades.
Many formative moments viewed retrospectively take on a linear quality.
No matter the truth of the narrative formed later, there’s no doubt that the moment the young boy looks up from his dance, or from carefully painting his toenail (which can be hid in the shoe, a secret slice of glamor known only to him), and sees the withholding parental figure watching him—that moment—is a moment of crisis that is lodged like a shard of glass in the young boy’s heart, in his eye, turning all that he feels cold, turning all the beauty he sees ugly.
The essay will demonstrate how he’s learned to see differently, how his heart has opened just enough to thaw.
The essay then offers a humorous, self-deprecating aside in case the reader has felt a little overwhelmed with sadness for the young boy, and to reassure them that there is some hope to be had.
Before or after the self-deprecating aside, the author will describe a beating.
A personal anecdote allows the author to position his experience as comparable to that of the reader, and attempts to bridge whatever gaps of privilege and visibility there may be between the two.
Everyone was young once, and everyone remembers moments when we were told to adhere to a standard, when someone moved our bodies—gently or with force—into a new position. We’ve held that position for years.
The reader feels a kind of kinship after reading this anecdote, and only rarely thinks about how the author’s essay appeared on a fashionable literary website, went viral after well-placed social media mentions, and later got reprinted, first in a collection of the author’s own essays, and then in a popular anthology regularly selected for classroom use by writing teachers too stressed and overworked to make course packets tailored to their own students’ needs.
The essay will distract the reader from this truth: the author is white and male and began writing the essay—even if he did not begin his life—with more resources, more access, and more power than most of us will ever have, although he’ll be the first to tell you he did not have it easy. Sometimes he will tell us how and when he had to root through his car to gather quarters in order to scrape up enough money for rent.
That he was so careless with his money as to leave quarters scattered about his car speaks to a certain attitude toward money, an attitude only exhibited by people who know they can go to their parents for help if they cannot scrape up enough quarters from their car.
This kind of play-acting poverty is maddening to anyone who has experienced true poverty, but the author’s social circle is unlikely to include anyone who has experienced true poverty.
The self-deprecating aside, in which the author shows he is not afraid to make fun of himself, encourages the reader to disregard these economic, social, and racial differences.
The author may accomplish a similar outcome by rhetorically lamp-shading his privilege, proving himself to be the kind of white, male writer who acknowledges what being a white male has afforded him.
This move shows how an act of speech can be mistaken for action.
The essay’s main thrust (a word whose phallic quality the author acknowledges) is to interrogate his own heterosexual masculinity, to expose the cultural standards that acted upon him, to excoriate himself for further enforcing these cultural standards on his peers as well as on his progeny, and finally, to examine how those attitudes (for which he is not at fault, not really, as we are all surely products of our environments) have affected his relationships with women.
His relationships are almost always with women. He learned long ago that acting on any other desires had a social cost he was not willing to pay. He may have entirely forgotten the slender young man in a pub bathroom in Glasgow.
The essay may be published after a minor scandal involving a woman, or as a pre-emptive strike in anticipation of a scandal not yet public.
Even if he publishes excerpts from other people’s letters, from past lovers, this making-public will be seen as a self-flagellating move, and thus as permissible.
By sharing material which casts himself in such a bad light, the author proves himself to be brave, honest, and unflinching. These painful moments insulate the author from criticism and suspicion. Such moments can be wrapped around the author like a warm blanket, fresh from the dryer.
Some readers may look upon these authorial revelations with a critical eye, mentally posing unpleasant questions, such as, “Did ______ consent to have her emails published?” and “Did _____ wish to read a passage in which she is presented as a sun-dappled nymph stretched across the author’s bed by the open window, her pubic hair catching the window’s light?”
Some readers may note that the women’s emails read as pleading, angered, mystified, politely requesting rational and legal behavior from the author.
These moments create a feeling of cognitive dissonance in such a critical reader, because the potential privacy violation might feel justified by the author’s greater message, an important message that other men need to hear and consider.
This ambivalence is heightened to a dizzying degree if the essay brings in the author’s childhood abuse, drawing a connection between his own experiences as a child, and abuse—emotional, mental, perhaps even physical (but only a little bit)—he’s enacted on others.
The reader knows that abuse begets abuse.
The reader may even know firsthand the ways that abuse, whether brief or sustained, can alter the way one views the world, the way one responds to minor slights and transgressions, the way anger can erupt, sudden and unstoppable.
The reader has also made mistakes.
The reader is also flawed.
The reader thinks back to that little boy in the beginning of the essay, dancing with abandon, at the moment before his uncle hit him.
Does acknowledging wrong undo a wrong?
Is context absolution?
A reader with a critical eye doesn’t know how to answer these questions.
Later, they will push the essay a few inches away from them on the kitchen table, unsure of what to do with what they’ve just read.
Here is where the author moves to power, a subject that allows him to reframe his previous confessions.
The subject of all these essays is, ultimately, power.
Establishing himself as powerless in the past and in the present, acknowledging his own abuses of power, petty or serious, or acknowledging the power bestowed on him by his race and gender, by his gentleman farmer New England heritage, by his blasé assurance in his rare encounters with the police, the author can thereby speak about power with full authority.
In the way that someone infected with an illness can best attest to its bodily consequences, to the ravages it inflicts, the author knows how power has aided and abetted him, how even in the act of writing this essay he may be perpetuating the very power structures he desires to disrupt, as the attention generated by this essay might be better focused on a less-heard voice, but what can he do? He can’t stand by anymore. He can no longer be silent to the wrongs he’s witnessed and to the wrongs he’s done. He must speak to power via the power which power grants him.
Powerful, the author writes, is what we call a man when he is perfectly complicit in society’s inequities.
How does the essay end?
A casual reader will find that the essay ends as it began. We return to that primal scene, and the author rewrites it as he wishes it had gone, giving that little boy a fishing trip full of laughter and an empty bucket, or a scene in which the father takes his son’s hand and dances with him to Madonna’s “Lucky Star.” Perhaps he is the father, and comes upon his own son proudly standing in front of the mirror in his mother’s high heels and the author smiles and forces his own feet into his wife’s Manolo’s (she will scold him later for stretching her Manolos out, but she will scold him affectionately). The father stands beside his son and enjoys their mutual beauty.
The circular structure combines familiarity and surprise. It works well. It signals the end, and it signals renewal.
The reader feels hope.
The reader feels inspired to write their own essay about their own childhood struggles. They too have come to a realization of the damaging effects of trauma, of the binary gender paradigm, of compulsive heterosexuality.
It is this essay that they bring to the writer’s conference for a manuscript consultation with the author.
The ideal reader can be anywhere from sixteen to a sheltered twenty-four.
The author is as warm and charming and generous as his essays, as his voice on the radio when interviewed by Terry Gross, as a man can be when he is fully complicit with society’s inequities.
The author tells her she has talent.
The author encourages her to send out her work.
The author suggests she mention his name.
The author asks for her email address.
Her cheeks flush with delight.
What is the reader to think when at the end of the conference the author sits beside her on the brick steps outside the library?
He tells her again she is talented.
She glows. She is an incandescent bulb thrumming with heat.
What is she to think when he leans overs and takes a long, luxurious sniff of her shoulder?
When he says, “I wanted to know what you smelled like”?
This reader, due to youth or naivete, may not realize the author did anything wrong. When she does come to this realization, years later, she will feel as if everything has moved two inches to the left. She will doubt her own history. She will doubt her own ability to see.
This reader, due to the author’s flattery, may like the reflection she sees in his eyes. She will spend years looking into the eyes of other men for validation of her beauty and her talent, which become as conflated for her as they are to the men.
This reader may mistake the moment the author smelled her shoulder for a kind of power. But that is because she has misread his work.
This reader may question her actions. Why did she wear a tank top? It was hot that afternoon in Savannah, but she has shirts with sleeves. She will question the talent that he praised because his praise is tainted.
Incandescent bulbs have short lifespans. When they pop and go dark, they are easily replaced.
The cost is negligible.
The essay circulates among readers and the author circulates among readers.
The essay will always be able to find new readers. Readers are easily replaced.
The essay was never just about critiquing masculinity.
The little boy was not a fiction. But the little boy was fictionalized.
The essay was always about power.
The essay doesn’t end.
For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.