In a recent documentary entitled, If You Could Read My Mind, Gordon Lightfoot, utters a profound insight: “The really important thing is the relationship between men and women.”
In Surfacing, among other notable quotes, Margaret Atwood writes:
She must have heard the door opening and closing in the middle of the night; she produces a smile, warm, conspiratorial, and I know what circuits are closing in her head: by screwing Joe she’s brought is back together. Saving the world, everyone wants to; men think they can do it with guns, women with their bodies, love conquers all, conquerors love all mirages raised by words.
And in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood writes, through her character June, in a voiceover:
Someone once said, ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.’ We should have known better. I thought there were still secret places, hidden in the cracks and crevices of this world. Places we could make beautiful, Peaceful. Quiet. Safe, Or at least bearable.”
It is not only the violence that men perpetrate on women that haunts Atwood’s work but the fact that the image of that violence “exist is the back of our heads in our world as well.”
Reverberating in the backs of all of our heads, incorrigibly inevitably and relentlessly, are images of both men and women who haunt us if and whenever we return to moments of trauma, terror, ill-ease and profound vulnerability. And the images of those faces, those hands, those voices, those weapons used against us even those guns will never completely subside. Such reverberation is not exclusive to “the back of women’s heads, nor is the “fear” so echoed exclusive to women, nor is the direction of traumatic fear exclusively from men to women. Both genders, equally if differently, have those drums beating in the backs of our heads, and even in the pits of our stomachs, depending on both the severity of those initial “strokes” and the work we have each done or not to confront them. Watching an air-head male, a former American marine, shoot a sparrow on a clothesline, in front of his twelve-year-old daughter just for some ‘fun’ while she screams in protest, is indelibly seared in my memory back, at the back of my head. So is the memory of my father pointing the .22 at his head, behind the jacket-heater, at 3.00 a.m, when, at twelve, I asked him to give me the gun.
Men with guns, regardless of their national origin, their motivation or their share of responsibility for the situation that provokes the use of those guns, are frightening. And there are a lot more men with guns than there are women with guns. There are a lot more men dependent on those guns then there are women. And there are a lot more men who are unable or unwilling to confront their insecurities, whatever form and face they take, than there are women who confront their insecurities.
Males who continue to brandish their hollow ego’s, and their loaded guns, and their histrionic bravado and their impetuous, irrational and authoritarian, unassailable and un-questioned and un-appealable decisions all contribute to the arsenal of emotional weaponry deployed by both men and women in a desperate pursuit of unattainable okay-ness. In that frenzied chase, both men and women have recruited blunt gestures, single name-callings, bullying, rumour-mongering charges, character assassinations, gossip, and outright defiance, as weapons in the all-out war on gentility, empathy, identification, ennobility and social security. And included in that arsenal, rightly or wrongly, is laughter…AT the other.
Comparing women’s laughter as the ultimate fear men have of women, to women’s fear of the guns of men, however, hardly captures the relative fears, or arsenals of either gender. On the one hand, men fearing being laughed at by significant women in their lives, is in fact a deep and profoundly threatening experience. We laugh at banana-peel farcical falls, and at comics whose exaggerations, atypical associations, imitations, and entertaining tricks amuse, often to the point of tears. Gags continue to represent moments of laughter that for the most part are never administered in contempt, or hatred. In fact, they connect, unless and until the gag is motivated by a desire to pillory, undress and even destroy another. However, when a woman whom we, perhaps mistakenly, consider significant from a mutually shared perspective, laughs not with but AT us, that moment is indelibly imprinted on our minds, never ever to be erased.
So disarmed, and so literally disabled to “know what or how to respond” not having the reservoir of vocabulary, including the connection with the specifics of precisely how we feel at the specific moment, we are devastated, disarmed and not mere embarrassed at the laughter, but enraged at our own impotence. It is not the laughter exactly that we fear, but our own impotence. Impotence, that deadly, self-imposed, self-defined, and radioactive humiliation, is something from which we ultimately never really recover.
Impotence, too, has so many faces, forms, and expressions. More than all of the genres of music (symphony, fugue, oratorio, prelude, sonata, study, waltz, march, opera, jazz, rock, and many others) impotence, even if the word never crosses the consciousness of our mind, lurks at the root of our identity. Hard-wired as agents of procreation, and as foolish, even incompetent carriers, protectors and employers of our cultural, and biological role, we are never far from feeling a threat to that truth. Never mind crying “pitty-party” after reading that last sentence! We are almost unconscious of that part of our identity, except if and when its “power” is threatened, when, like the cat whose eyes have just been drenched with turpentine, we explode. So, dear women who believe that we fear your laughter, while you fear our guns, rest easy. We fear the spectre of our own impotence and your capacity to remind us of our impotence.
Now, dear women readers, let’s get back to the “guns” of your fear. It is not unreasonable for women to be perhaps even excessively anxious about the size, the muscle, the sheer loudness and the impetuosity of the men in your lives. At the zenith of the expression of masculine “anger” (frustration, embarrassment, insecurity, anxiety, worthlessness, disappointment especially in one’s self, shame, guilt, rejection, alienation, abandonment…..and lots of others) for women, there is the spectre of something exploding and quite naturally, of threatening to life and limb. The evidence of domestic violence points directly to the perpetration of that violence, primarily by men against women. Men exhibit violence, not only to other men, and to women, but also to various forms of life including animals, birds, fish, and the eco-systems on which all life forms depend. And their primary weapon, in their hands, most effective in the “kill” is their gun. Also, unfortunately, deployed as their weapon is their “take-over,” their “buy-out,” their zero-sum definition and exhibition of competition “to the death” by whatever means. Baskets, field goals, free shots, penalty shots, winning goals, sales targets, bonuses, stock options, trophies, Mazarotti’s, investment portfolios, Bali vacations, while considered legitimate goals, are also embedded into the framework of masculine competitive, testosterone-fueled-and-driven determination…and much of this “work” is our considered and taught and exemplified and honoured role-modelling in order to attract a beautiful, brainy, witty, self-reliant and courageous woman.
Mating is another of those words riddled with cynicism, scepticism and even animalism, dependent on when a dog, horse, or cow might be in heat and when procreation is planned. Dating, romancing, entertaining, teasing, flirting, “getting to know,” and perhaps even “discerning level of maturity and responsibility” through such processes as graduating, achieving promotions, nominations for exclusive posts, are other words to depict the process, in a sophisticated culture.
Failure, however, like a never-receding cloud, hangs on the horizon of each of our window-sills in our bedrooms when we awaken, depending on our age, our history and our perceptions of our potential. And the question of males fearing failure or success more deeply remains for another place and time.
Let’s unpack another device in our exploration of some of these words, pictures and issues in the inter-connectivity of men and women. That device is a measuring device for “pro-activity” and “reactivity”….when and whether to initiate, or to respond. When to lead and when to follow, and how to discern the appropriate moment for each…these are not merely skills, they are intuitive and imaginative “tests” of our depth of both perception and adaptation to the moment. Is this person one who appreciates surprises or not? Is this person one who engages in repartee or not? Is this person one who appreciates flowers and chocolates when one has disappointed, or a more matter of fact apology? Is this a moment for “sweeping” her/him off his/her feet or not? Is it time, is s/he ready for the momentous meeting of one’s parents? Does this person enjoy rom-com movies, biographies, mysteries, histories, tragedies? Does this person like to “travel, dine out, try new recipes, entertain, engage in off-beat conversations?
These questions only become part of the consciousness of each of us at our unique and individual time, sometimes inappropriately, too early or too late, depending on the synchronicity with the other. And too often, it seems, (without supporting sociological research!) that male emotional maturity, and readiness to open to the significance of these mere “relationship” nuances far lags behind that of most females. A male accountant, a former associate, once demurred in silence, when I entreated an executive committee to focus on developing relationships with a critical, supportive and feeder demographic, as having nothing to do with his role as a member of that executive committee. Men, sadly, still refrain from even perceiving the importance of “developing relationships” (except dramatically designed as “transactional and profit-generating”) as a highly significant component of all business, professional, and clearly learning and supporting relationships.
Cynics, especially males, will be exploding with Oprah epithets, as if this piece exhorts all males to become “oprahfied” like women. That is definitely not the purpose here.
What is the purpose is to expand the vocabularies, and the expectations, the perceptions and the confinements of both masculine and feminine stereotypes of their own gender and of the opposite gender. Our conversations will go no where if we continue to dig trenches in our minds filled with stereotypical definitions of men and women. Throw away those shovels that have been used to dig the trenches we already occupy. And both genders have been firmly clinging to those shovels.
Reducing male emotional keyboard to a one-note repeating, harping anger leaves all men reduced to less than those cardboard cut-outs that try to emulate “stars”. Similarly, reducing all men to “guns” is another route to the same carboard caricature. Reducing all women to a “fear of men” on the other hand, and implicitly, rendering all women “second” and subservient and unequal is a similar reduction.
And those reductions, like all of the other bumper-sticker aphorisms, aimed at one or another gender, just as pointed at one or another individual, can and will do little more than exacerbate what already is a tense situation. And in the midst of one of, if not the worse, global tragedies in human history, the COVIC-19 pandemic, all men and all women, in every village, town, city, state and nation need the best from each of us. Not only do we face our own mortality more emphatically than any of us could have anticipated, we also face a moment of many months if not years, when we can and must face those questions which heretofore have eluded our consciousness, and thereby our imaginations as reasonable and available relationship options.
Exaggeration for the purpose of waking us up has a literary purpose. Operationally, however, it bodes engendering more fear, more angst and more anger. None of these provide the impetus, motivation or nutrition for enhanced harmony, creativity and collaboration…and ultimate survival.