Trent’s a councillor comedian and George is a biophysicist currently working at the Zoo and I’m a bald pinkish writer unsure of where I fit on the autistic spectrum because I’ve never been tested and this meeting we’ve organised could amount to something; something really great, or maybe nothing at all.
Our paths have crossed over the past several years through our shared passion for social justice and equality and it’s been more than infrequently that I’ve been inspired by a half-baked idea and thought of Trent or George, or been surprised by a memory of our past hair-brained schemes while I was eating Cheezels to the beat of some classic 80s tune, like Rhythm of the Night by Debarge, or Bizarre Love Triangle by New Order.
And that’s the very song I was listening to only minutes ago as I drove to our meeting point – Fu Manchu restaurant in Preston – doing my best to stop three year old Maki from falling asleep in his booster seat by screaming ‘Hey Maki-Waki-Paki’ and singing loudly with one hand twitching towards the roof, Wiggles style.
Right now, in direct defiance of my desire to avoid a much later bedtime routine, Maki’s belly down on the restaurant’s long wall-mounted bench cushion, snoring, cute, and completely unaware that this meeting is happening, in part, because I’m worried about the future that’s available to him.
In the several emails and discussions we’ve shared in the previous few weeks, before this meeting, the tone has spiralled steadily towards urgency because we’ve been revealing knowledge about ourselves we’d previously been coerced into hiding or dismissing and through that we’ve found another commonality: we three, despite our liberal view of ourselves, have been affected by the same patriarchal pattern of emotional repression and behaviour modification as every man.
We’re becoming aware that it may have placed limits on our self-perception, and on our view of the world, and this get-together is the first step that we hope will bring us closer to a truer perspective.
To avoid the air of pretentiousness that many people may automatically impart on the three of us for even having this meeting, we order soy macchiatos and share an organic, segmented chia-seed muffin, with the help of some lovely little three-pronged forks.
It really is an impressive restaurant and after saying so several times we promise to be suspicious of our need for certainty and to instead commit to doubt; to chip away at our assumptions by asking lots of questions and – with my hand on Maki’s back to prevent a sudden sleep-spasm and tumble – we find the conversation moving back and forth between personal experience to broader more serious stuff.
We talk about the male stereotype and wonder if there’s any truth to it. Does biology play a major or minor part in the different behaviours of men and women? George wonders why he felt such social pressure to join in a rough playground initiation with a group of boys in high school despite feeling traumatised by the idea of being hurt, and morally repulsed at the thought of hurting others.
Why do teenage boys lose the permission to be affectionate with their male friends? Why at age fourteen did I call someone a faggot for laying his head on my shoulder even though he was my best friend and even though I felt horrible for hurting him and later missed having him to confide in?
Why, after a certain age, is intimacy only available to boys and men within the confines of a sexual relationship? How does this shape the way we reveal ourselves both socially and intimately to others?
We talk about the ‘man cave’ – which we can all relate to – but question the idea that it’s an innate place in a man’s life and wonder if it’s simply another tool we’ve adopted to support emotional withdrawal. Why did I disappear into my ‘man cave’ to hide my true devastation after Tania had a miscarriage?
We ask questions about men taking more involvement in the home and I relate the discussion I had with a friend who told me he couldn’t become a stay at home Dad – despite disliking his job and despite the fact that his wife was capable of earning a higher income – because of what others might think of him. Why is the pressure to be the main breadwinner still restricting the choices available to many men? What impact is this having on their family? How is this impacting on women? How is it shaping society? And what happens to men with that mentality who are forced into unemployment by factors beyond their control?
We talk about inequalities in the work force and how we’re still, in these supposedly enlightened times, arguing over the gender pay gap and wonder how it’s still possible that women, despite graduating from Universities in greater numbers than men, fill such a low percentage of Australia’s top business positions? How can we still be shrugging our shoulders at these glaring examples of inequality?
Maki continues sleeping and George hordes the empty plate to himself but I manage to distract him for a moment by pointing at a semi-interesting ornament so that I can quickly prod at the muffin crumbs and chia seeds and suck them from the end of my fingers before he turns around.
We talk about gender role stereotypes and how they might impact on men and their parenting. Trent wonders how his focus on work is affecting his interaction with his children and talks about men in his work community who work ten hour days and throw their hands up despondently as they describe themselves as ‘bad’ parents.
We admit to falling back and forth between despair and anger as we wonder out loud about men and domestic violence, about those of us who commit the offences, and those of us who feel sick in the guts as we read about it in the newspaper before moving on without giving it another thought.
We even ask questions about the men actively campaigning against domestic violence. Is there a better way to do it? Are there other things we can do to make it more successful? Is it possible that the male stereotype is also dictating their approach? Could it be affecting how the message is being delivered? Is it creating a tension between men that needs to be examined first?
We wonder about the vicious, misogynistic, online trolling and stalking that men from all over the world engage in when women speak out about inequality, or have a strong opinion about anything. Why does it happen so often and so predictably? I admit to something by asking why, in the past, my initial response is to feel angry when reading an article asking for men – all men – to stop hurting women. And we talk about the steps it took for me to reach the point where I could stop trusting that feeling and learn to look beneath it.
Nearly two hours have passed by and I’m like a human shaped jug full of Macchiato and this discussion feels positive despite the confrontational topics. Maki is still asleep which is making me nervous because I didn’t bring a change of clothes and as I keep an eye on the crotch of his pants in anticipation of an emerging wet patch we start to talk about the male stereotype as an illness with many symptoms and we begin looking at several of the issues we’ve been discussing – emotional withdrawal, lack of intimacy, inequality in the work force, restrictions on family structure and choices, violent behaviour, misogyny – in that light.
The awareness campaigns and preventative measures in place to tackle gender inequality and depression and risk-taking behaviour and suicide and domestic violence are vitally and immediately important but what if those issues really are symptoms of an underlying cause? Is there any real hope of far reaching, long lasting change if we don’t treat the underlying disease at the same time?
I’m awarded a pat on the back for at least trying to find an analogy for this when I say, Yeah, Panadol is great for a headache, you know, but not really so effective in the long term if the headache is the result of an underlying brain tumor. But hey, we’re on a roll with this and willing to see where it goes.
We return to examining our childhood and teenage years and all three of us – George, Trent, and I – see the glaring similarities in our experiences with family, peers, school teachers, health professionals, sporting bodies, media, advertising and product manufacturing. Right from day one, as early as we can think back, we can see the dominance of the male stereotype; the male prototype; the kind of man the patriarchal model of society wants every boy to become.
Is it possible that the slick, unerring, model of patriarchal manliness has modified our mentality to such a convincing degree that, despite our shared passion for equality, we are still, to one degree or another, promoting that same restrictive model to everyone around us?
Has our upbringing and socialisation as males in a patriarchal society restricted our ability to come to a discussion about equality without at least some bias? How can we become more conscious of that bias? How can we build an ear to its constant whispering? How can we lessen and diminish its influence on how we think and behave?
Maki is finally stirring and Trent has to pick up his children and George has to get home to his daughter and in the rush that five minutes allows we make another commitment: we’re going to keep asking lots of questions as we run with this hypothesis and take the male stereotype head on, furiously, constantly, to see how far we have to dig into ourselves before we lose trace of its all-pervasive presence.
We’re going to keep the meeting open and reach out to others who’ve become aware of the same nagging doubt that gathered the three of us around this one exotic muffin, because there’s the real possibility that it’s just another symptom to add to the list.
We can stay locked inside it by searching for distraction or withdrawing or getting angry. Or we can use it to get digging, as deeply as is needed, to expose its cause.