I heard that not long ago. It was hard to parse the flow of emotional reactions that arose from such a cliché and popular statement. Despite the intention to convey that men carry an innate clarity to their existence which can only be contaminated by feminine overthought, I suspected there was more here. It seems to me this statement opened a set of uncompleted implications:
Men are simple creatures; unlike women who are complex. Thus, human complexity does not apply to men.
Men are simple creatures, minimal attention required.
Men are simple, no need.
Men don’t need.
Men don’t matter.
I will speak to why I have such a strong, visceral response to this idea. However, before that, I also want to point out how this concept is founded in a comparative framework (a rather outdated stance, if I could add). The prevalent cultural delusion about men is that they are simple, lightweight, straightforward beings. In this same magical universe, women carry an inherent intensity to their emotions that causes unnecessary conflict. I’ll refrain from moving into feminist narratives, as I’m sure, my dear reader, you’ve heard them all. So let’s talk about men. Let’s talk about men’s clarity. Men’s “simplicity” suggests predictability, which then points to structure, safety and order. Rather existential concepts, don’t you think? It’s a beautiful thought, to imagine people fitting into clean boxes. And yet, my experience of men has been nothing of the sort. These “creatures” have the same capacity for depth and complexity as the next woman.
If I may begin at the beginning, the idea of singularity or simplicity applied to an organism from the homo genus (gender and sex being irrelevant here), strikes me as wishful thinking, and thus infantile, I dare say. Nevertheless, I’ll let my guard down and look a bit deeper, because there is also hope in this fabrication; hope for less suffering. A convoluted and tangled existence opens many points of disadvantage. Everyone who dreams of a life so big yearns for a side of power, because with power you are unmoved, unscathed. We also dream of a life so small where we go unnoticed, unmoved, unscathed. There is an attraction to being a big piece of meat and bone that doesn’t succumb to the vagaries of human betrayal or neglect. Wouldn’t that be nice? To be a tree. Or a koala. A simple being.
Being a tree in a world of people, nonetheless, can come with its fair share of mishaps. Better hope you’re not rooted in the way of a road construction. Also it turns out koalas are not that simple either. They have very specific tastes in their leaves. Placed in the wrong environment, they may starve rather than eat the same leaf over and over. Men, on the other hand, not only have preferences, but they have histories, burdens, dreams and longings; they have difficult relationships and they have misunderstood fathers.
When our minds are confronted with paradoxes that offer no immediate resolution, they activate the biological tendency to categorize the little that is known. We like to find some sort of sense amongst the disorder. Another means of making our lives more manageable is by externalizing the control we lack within. I don’t mean to shed a negative light on this instinct as I am guilty of being human as well. Climbing corporate or social ladders surely gives us relief during rainy days. It may even lend us a purpose. A ladder is simple, isn’t it? It’s just one step after the other, predictable direction. Although, there will have to come a moment when we must look down, for the farther we climb, the deadlier the fall. It’s simple physics. It fits in an equation. Be a man; don’t fall. Don’t fail. Easy peezy lemon squeezy. Climb to the top. Why? Because we don’t know what will happen to men who don’t have ladders.
A man without a ladder, what will become of him? We as a society don’t quite know. We don’t have enough of them to tell. Richard Reeves, author and gender studies scholar, spoke about ontological security (2022) as one of the most desirable qualities in modern masculinity. He describes it as a metaphorical anchor, a certainty about how to be in the world. In a post-feminist era that has undergone the #MeToo movement, who are men supposed to be now? Dutch author and professor Annette Markham states, “We only think about ontological security when we experience its apparent opposite, ontological insecurity.” This simple idea of opposites reminds me of biological homeostasis. Our brain will not bring our attention to everyday functions until something goes off track. We do not tend to it until we fear its loss. It is an efficient system. Simple. Or rather, simple as long as it is not disturbed. Simple in so far there is homeostasis.
A man who just is… Not a leader. Not a provider. Not a protector. A man who can be without risking losing his place in society… I know what you may be thinking, valued reader. There’s a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed; we do not live in a void. Being comes second to survival. Does it though? I would argue that as a society, we have never truthfully allowed men to test this hypothesis out. Our only immediate comparison is women and their historical fight for equity. I can attest to the reality of this country where women have power of choice. This freedom is now translating into our economy, our education system, our homes. I speak of choice here as a phenomenon that is intrinsically free of collective backlash. In today’s Western culture, do men have power of choice? Our muscle memory says, yes. They do. Still, is it a free choice or is it a Hobson’s choice? Meaning, underneath the apparent choice lurks a right and a wrong selection. Men swimming against covert masculine traditions risk, as sociologist William Goode states, losing “their membership cards in the male fraternity.” In addition, women want “real men” who aren’t intimidated by feminine strength. Isn’t that what we say? Facing the other direction, men embracing conventional male traits risk being labeled as toxic and backward thinking. I ask again, do men have power of choice?
A free choice implies options. True options must originate from genuine seeds of individual potential. To recognize what we have within us is to search for the invisible, the unnamable, at times, the forgotten. It is a kind of work that is unpredictable, sometimes chaotic. Often it feels ridiculous. It is a lonely process with few points of reference. Yet when you find something, there is a vitality that explodes color and texture to the mundane. It’s not linear though. It takes patience. It is like delicately attuning to an internal wavelength that produces no sound, like a solitary dance. I wish there was a simple word that could capture it.
Goode, W.J. (1982). ‘Why men resist’ in B., Thorne, M. Yalom, (eds). Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions. New York: Longman, Inc.
Markham, A. (2021, January 25). A summary of ontological security. Annette Markham. https://annettemarkham.com/2021/01/a-brief-summary-of-ontological-security/
Reeves, R.V. (2022). Of boys and men. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.
Lorís Simón Salum is a psychotherapist in private practice in Houston, TX. She is the author of Ensoulment: Exploring the Feminine Principle in Western Culture (2016), as well as the film director of the multi award-winning documentary Ensoulment: A Diverse Analysis of the Feminine in Western Culture (2013). She was the Creative Director for Literal Magazine for over 10 years. Some of her projects included Literally Short Film Festival, Literal’s short international film festival, and Literally Everything, Literal’s podcast. You can find her at www.lorissimon.com.