The mythopoetic men’s movement sounds great — until you dig a little deeper and realize it’s more of the same.
I’ve been lucky enough to know some stellar men in my life: people of integrity and compassion and courage, who care deeply for others and for the world. I’m grateful for these men — because they enrich my life, but also because I know it would be so easy for them, in a male-dominated culture, to be otherwise.
Like most women, though, I’ve also known a much larger number of men who are awful: bullying, entitled, hurtful, lashing out in fear at any female-bodied creature that refuses to make herself smaller to accomodate them. All women know the type. These men are in all of our pasts, and often in our present, and in our most immediate future — they will be there when we get to work in the morning or, worse, when we get home from it.
Violent masculinity is not dangerous only to women. But it tends to be femininity that sets it off — either too much effeminacy where they think it shouldn’t be, or too little where they think it should. Men who are gay, or seem gay, or simply appear too soft or quiet often find themselves on the receiving end of masculine violence. As a queer woman who doesn’t conform to other people’s notions of gender, when I am targeted by awful men, it’s usually because of my inability to perform femininity to their satisfaction.
Feminists have long been calling for men to think deeply about violent masculinity, and reconsider their relationships to the concept of masculinity and femininity. One response to that call has been what some call the New Masculine, or the mythopoetic men’s movement. This movement focuses on the idea that men need to rediscover a positive masculinity that has been overshadowed by the dominant culture, and offers narrative, myth, and ritual as tools for recovering what was lost. It promises to help men become better men by finding a masculine identity that is empowered and positive, not toxic and violent. It sounds great. But when you look a little deeper, you begin to see how little the New Masculine differs from the old.
The mythopoetic movement is based on two texts that emerged in the 90s: Iron John by Robert Bly, and King, Warrior, Magician, Lover by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette. According to these authors, in opposing the oppression of women and the violence of dominant masculinity, feminism has inadvertently created too much focus on the feminine in modern society. “The male in the past twenty years,” says Robert Bly in his introduction to Iron John, “has become more thoughtful, more gentle. But by this process he has not become more free.” The feminist movement caused men to “notice what was called their feminine side” and overemphasize it to please their newly-feminist wives and lovers. This has disrupted men’s lives and identities and rituals, and men are suffering for it.
The books’ second shared premise is that there are universal male archetypes inherent to every male-bodied person that are represented in myth and story around the world, but are suppressed in the dominant culture. “The developmental history of every man,” say Moore and Gillette, “is in large part the story of his failure or success at discovering within himself the archetypes of mature masculinity.” Following Jungian psychological theory, they claim that if men are not given room to express these archetypes in a healthy manner, they will act them out unconsciously in ways that are damaging and violent — either directed outward at other people, as overtly violent male behavior, or directed inward, which saps the vitality of the man involved.
It’s worth noting that the authors of both books, as well as their contemporary followers, seem a hell of a lot more concerned about remedying male acting-out that’s turned inward and creating “male malaise” than they are about male violence directed toward others. Take the essay “Why Men Find It Hard To Feel,” by mythopoetic workshop leader Darren Austin Hall, who says that “women are at an advantage to men spiritually” and that “menstrual cycles mean women are energetically connected to cycles of the Moon, which in turn is energetically linked to our unconscious.” This leads him to the conclusion that the solution to “war-mongering tyrants” in the world is for women to use “touch and the beautiful arts of seductive love” to “disarm men,” and that this will solve male violence. Gosh, why didn’t we think of that?
If this sounds to you like good old-fashioned woman blaming, with a heavy does of heteronormativity, that’s because it is. The masculinity that’s being offered by the mythopoetics is a narrow one, completely defined by an inability to separate sex from gender, and masculinity from straightness. They speak only of binary genders and universal straightness, where masculinity is immutable, monolithic, and definable only in opposition to a similarly monolithic (and always heterosexual) femininity. The story this movement weaves constantly comes back to heterosexuality as the basic organizing principle of all peoples’ lives. It erases first of all queerness of any kind, and second any ways that humans can live full and rich and deeply loving lives outside of hegemonic straight marriage and the trappings of white middle-class respectability.
In the opening pages of Iron John, Bly claims that feminism has taught women to “choose soft men to be their lovers and, in a way, perhaps, to be their sons.” He speaks of men’s inherent vitality using the metaphor of the “key to the castle,” taken from a Grimm’s fairy tale that he quotes extensively; his central argument is that men must “steal the key” from the queen of the castle — that is, differentiate themselves from their mothers and wives — in order to find their “wild man” or “deep masculine” identity. Moore and Gillette, too, claim that “just as the woman at mid-life is powering up into her aggression, her Warrior, a man is discovering the opening of his heart, his Lover,” and that this difference is “the source so much inter-gender misunderstanding.” All the authors, and their contemporary followers like Hall and others, spend an enormous amount of time talking about masculinity only as it relates to heterosexual relationships and the universalized feminine that they find there, and construct their vision of male identity only in that context.
So where does this leave queer folks? Are gay and queer men not actually men, then? If differentiation from the mother and initiation by the father is the founding basis of male identity, as Moore and Gillette claim, then what about men who are raised by single parents? What about gay families? What about trans and genderqueer and other non-binary folks, and their families? What about people whose identities and lives aren’t defined by codependent monogamy? This movement has not discovered a universal narrative that belongs to every male-bodied person. It has simply used language and story to erase all other ways of being from the conversation.
The foundational assumption here is that the dynamics of heterosexual relationships determine the human condition, and that within that dynamic, men become what women tell them to be. Feminism has changed what women ask for, to the detriment of men. This same assumption — that somehow women have gained an unfair amount of power in our society as a result of the feminist movement, and that this has changed men for the worse — also underlies the more overtly dangerous sides of male backlash against feminism: the MRAs and online mobs of woman-haters, the dangerous men that lurk in all of our pasts and our presents.
If men are suffering from a feeling of purposelessness as their archaic gender roles disintegrate in the face of feminism and queer liberation, then the problem was always the roles themselves. If we cling to the assumption that gender dictates our purpose and direction in life, then yes, any liberation of one group of people from gender roles that don’t fit them must necessarily disrupt the identities of others. The only lasting solution is to let go of the need for gender to be the immutable form that gives shape to our lives.
For all of its language about a positive and healing masculinity, the mythopoetic movement has not been able to break free of that first flawed assumption. It’s coded into the language they use, and into the underlying tenets of their movement. Men are this, women are that. Men need this, women need that. When I speak to men that subscribe to this philosophy, I can feel the rigid box of monolithic gender closing in around me. And this is when it becomes dangerous — because I never know when some part of me that is too big for that box, some part that spills over the sides and grows tender shoots out through the cracks, is in danger of being cut off. It’s happened many times, because — as with the awful men they want to distance themselves from — in order for these men to perform their idea of Man, I have to perform their idea of Woman. Their paradigm, their system of archetypes, their whole world, comes crashing down if I don’t.
At those moments, these men become functionally indistinguishable to me from the awful men that haunt my past. I just can’t know how they’ll react to my being too big for their box until it happens. There may be personal or professional consequences for me when they lash out in anger or vindictiveness. At worst there may be physical consequences, too, and for women and queer folk who bear the physical brunt of gender enforcement, those bruises take a long time to heal. In a culture where men still hold most of the power, where men’s lives and men’s concerns and men’s experiences are still the dominant voice, the normative center, and where the definition of men is narrow and exclusionary, all who fall outside of that anointed circle are perpetually in danger.
There is a reason that just as many women, especially straight women who rely on their partners and husbands for personal and often financial security, are sharing and reading and spreading the texts and ideas of the mythopoetics and other purveyors of “good” masculinity. Women have a stake in how the men around us construct their identities; as long as violent masculinity exists, people who are expected to perform femininity will always be its primary targets. But continuing to imagine masculinity as universal, unchanging, and only definable in opposition to femininity doesn’t make women safer. It just gives us a different set of rules to follow, a different script to read from and from which we mustn’t deviate or we’ll face the consequences. Queer people too, of all genders, will always be marginalized in any conversation that can’t talk and think about gender independent of the dynamics of straight relationships.
What the mythopoetics are missing is an analysis of power, a critical framework for assessing how gender creates and is created by dynamics of domination and exclusion in the larger culture — in a word, feminism. Their movement discusses things that are the result of heteropatriarchy and its toxic masculinity as if they are inherent to men, an inalienable part of the essentialized male that they first create and then speak to. The lack of analysis of these power structures and how they operate makes this movement profoundly sexist, whatever its stated goals are.
What I want to say to the men of this movement, to the people of all genders who are seeking a different kind of masculinity in its pages, is that you can’t get there from here. You can’t solve the crises of identity and culture that are created by monolithic and exclusionary gender roles with more of the same. Thankfully, we already have a body of work that can help us understand how these roles are constructed and find ways to move beyond them: it’s called feminism. To really create a new masculinity, these men need to stop blaming feminism for their problems and start looking to it for their solutions.
Erin Innes is a contributor to The Establishment.
This originally appeared on The Establishment. Republished here with permission.