John-Andrew O'Rourke Director // Writer

Masculinity and Vulnerability

If you’re on Instagram, you may be familiar with the trend among girls using the app to go over the top in wishing their girlfriends a happy birthday. They’ll post 3 or 4 different pictures to their story, each with a heartwarming (if cliché) caption like “I don’t know what I’d do without this girl in my life” or “this chica means everything to me” or “you’re the laughter when I’m sad, the ear when I need someone to listen.” You get the idea.

But here’s the thing: it only goes one way. Girls never do it for guys, guys don’t do it for girls, and guys certainly don’t do it for other guys. It’s like women have a monopoly on the market of public affirmation.

I’ll be honest. I’m jealous.

Now, I certainly don’t consider myself someone who needs constant affirmation, but something would sure be nice, right? Why is it that there’s some sort of social embargo on this type of public praise from or towards guys?

And it doesn’t stop there. I’ve been realizing over time just how difficult it is for me to affirm my friends at all, let alone publicly, and even moreso how difficult it is to receive affirmation.

Take my friend Michael. He called me a couple of days after Thanksgiving in 2018 to see how I was doing, and to let me know that he was really thankful for our friendship. My response? I turned it into a joke.

Why?

And it goes even deeper than affirmation to almost any form of emotion. When I moved to Denver last year for the first couple of months I lived in the basement of a really sweet couple with two young daughters. Let me tell you, these were two of the cutest kids I’ve ever met…but I felt like it would be totally out of line for me to smile at them, talk to them in a high voice or make contact in any way. This was reinforced by the fact that the couple told me that when I moved out they were going to try to find a girl to replace me so that they could barter for some babysitting. I’m the oldest of 10 kids, and they knew that. Why wasn’t any thought given to whether I would be ok with an arrangement like that?

I think the reality is that society has told men from the time they were little that any sort of emotion is not allowed. Whether it’s seen as weakness, overly feminine, or just creepy I don’t know, but for as long as I can remember I’ve felt uncomfortable with showing affection to those around me.

And I know I’m not alone. I had a friend confide in me that he struggles with showing signs of affection to his girlfriend – little things like carrying her purse at the mall – and that every time he does, there’s a little voice in the back of his head that asks “what are you, a fag?”

Apparently, the voice comes from a Bill Burr special: (and fair warning, lots of profanity and explicit imagery. Skip to the quote for a censored version.)

So anyway, so I decided not to go home for the holidays…and it was, like, the middle of October, and I was like “wait a minute. What about Halloween?” Then my brain was like “you know what? F*** this. I’m getting a pumpkin,” right? That’s how angry my brain is. I can’t be just like “you know what? Hey, let’s get a pumpkin.” It’s got to be “you know what? F*** this. Let’s get a pumpkin.”

It took me four trips to go to the supermarket to finally be able to buy this…pumpkin, because every time I would walk in there to get it, I’d be thinking all these happy thoughts: “This is a great thing. I’m embracing the holidays. It’s gonna bring me and my girlfriend together. This is a very loving thing to do.” And I reach out and grab it, and all I hear in the back of my head is, “what are you, a fag?” And then immediately, I had to turn around and walk out.

This is how it works with guys. Any time you do anything remotely sensitive, heartwarming, anything that’s gonna make you more of a loving, caring individual, immediately, all your guy friends suggest that maybe, just maybe, you[‘re gay]. Oh, it’s brutal. Even if you do something smart, right, like it’s raining out, [they’ll say] “he’s got an umbrella. What a fag!…What, are you afraid of the water? Put your shoulders up, you…homo”…Oh, it’s brutal…

“Dude, what are you, a fag?” is the reason why guys drop at 55 out of…nowhere. It’s literally from five decades of just suppressing the urge to, like, hug a puppy, admit a baby’s cute, say you want a cookie. You’ve just got to keep pushing it down…

I resented the fact [my girlfriend] gets to be a fag. She does. She gets to see pumpkins. “Oh, my [gosh].” Right? Sees a little puppy. “It’s so cute.” Cries at sad movies. I’ve got to hold on to all of that s***, slowly dying inside. Go out to go see a sad movie, comes to the sad part. What do I do? She’s crying. I’ve got to think of some funny s***… “How couldyou laugh during a time like this?” because I’m not f****** allowed…I always wanted to cry when I was watching Lifetime, but, you know, I was never allowed to.”

Bill Burr

It was when I saw this clip that I realized just how universal the problem is: guys are afraid to be vulnerable for fear of being too feminine. And it’s killing us.

Why do you think there’s such an epidemic of guys unable to make their intentions clear with women? Why do you think it’s usually guys who are the social outcasts? Why do think there’s been a rise in suicide rates among young men?

I would contend that the root of it all is that men have been suppressing their vulnerability, and it’s taking its toll. When you can’t be vulnerable, you can’t build meaningful relationships, and when you don’t have meaningful relationships your whole life suffers.

I also think this contributes to the phenomenon of guys cutting off their guy friends when they do get into a serious relationship with a girl. It’s not just that the relationship becomes the most important thing in their life, it’s also that the relationship is their only source of meaningful connection. Or maybe they just don’t want to be told they’re a fag.

So if that’s the case, now what?

The truth is that I don’t really know. I think it’s up to every man individually to slowly break free from the stigma in the little ways that he can. Men, don’t be afraid to speak up and tell people how important it is for you to receive affirmation or to be free to give it. Don’t be afraid to express your emotions, to smile at little kids, to kneel down to their level and interact with them. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.

I visited my friend Dan back in October, and before we went out on the town, we sat in his living room talking and playing with his little son and daughter. Dan and I are best friends, his kids are some of the most important people in his life, and he wanted to share with me what was important to him. He went out of his way to introduce us, tell them that I wasn’t scary, and create opportunities for us to bond. And you know what? It was awesome.

I know not every guy has these struggles. I’m sure there are some who feel perfectly comfortable being vulnerable, expressing emotions and giving affirmation. But for the rest of us, I think it’s important to recognize what’s going on and do our best to set it straight.

About the author

John-Andrew O'Rourke

Aspiring director and screenwriter. All the lonely Starbucks lovers will tell you I'm insane.

4 comments

Leave a Reply to Tony Kurzendoerfer Cancel reply

  • Thanks for this article John-Andrew! I don’t know what the answer is either, but for me personally it’s taken a lot of practice to be able to show emotion and be vulnerable at times. Though when I’m able to do that I’m really allowing another person to share in the joys and sufferings of my life, which makes life more bearable. Meaningful relationships are so important

  • Thanks John Andrew. Great read. You’ve definitely hit in a point that needs attention. I wrote my college thesis on the various skewed forms of masculinity and followed up with a presentation of an authentic masculinity. In my psychological research, I found everything you mentioned above and various authers used terms like, bro code, man code, machismo, real man. But none of these types was a healthy and appropriate way for men to live out their true identities. What’s the answer then?

    I found one possible answer in JPII’s personalism, specifically in his book Love and Responsibility. JPII would argue that the greatest issue of the day is utilitarianism, use and objectification of the person. His solution is love, a sacrifical cruciformed love.

    Thanks again, great read. Glad more people are speaking out about this issue.

John-Andrew O'Rourke Director // Writer

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John-Andrew O'Rourke