Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Identities—What Are They Good For?

What Is It Like to Be a Man?

Phil Christman

Naked Man Crouching in Mid-Air by Ewan Frazer; private collection/Bridgeman Images.

Sometimes I just feel like a bad joke.

At the time my wife and I were beginning to date, I owned a broken bed. The box spring had a biggish crack on one side, which caused you to feel like you were being gradually swallowed in the night—an effect seriously exacerbated by the presence of a second person. I had not bothered to buy pillows when I moved to Milwaukee, reasoning that old pants stuffed in a pillowcase could not possibly feel that different. I did, however, have a desk, which I had carried from the Salvation Army, a mile and a half, on my shoulders, in August. I should mention here that I have never been what anyone would consider macho. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that I was allowed to live any other way.

My wife now amuses guests by narrating this period in our lives in the sitcom gender-essentialist mode: the silly, uncivilized man; the patiently exasperated woman.11xI borrow this phrase from the blogger Jack Graham, who defines it as follows: “Sitcom gender-essentialism revolves upon the ostensible ‘war of the sexes.’ The men behave badly, the women complain about the toilet seat being left up.” See Jack Graham, “Essential Problems and Dialectical Solutions (‘Deep Breath’ 5),” Shabogan Graffiti (blog), September 4, 2014, I defend myself by citing my actual poverty at the time—I was a graduate student with no savings, from a working-class family, for whom a $12,000 yearly stipend was a massive windfall. But she and I are both right: My choices rested on many years of socialization, as much as they unfolded against a background of economic precarity. Were there not buses? Could I not have asked a friend with a car to help me? Who purchases a Riverside Chaucer and a copy of the Go-Betweens’ 16 Lovers Lane before he gets around to pillows? I would never have put myself through all of that if I hadn’t spent my life believing that it was my job to be, precisely, a man.

As real as I know male privilege to be—and if I forget it for a moment, I have the newspapers to remind me—it is surreal to find maleness, an aspect of my life that I associate mainly with chosen discomfort, equated now, by so many people, with bovine self-complacency. A woman coworker, explaining the different ways men and women move through the world, says to me, “As a man, you never think about how much space you take up.” I nod, because I agree with the point she intends to make, but the wording of the statement is so literally false—I have fretted about the physical space I occupy for most of my clumsy, in-the-way, yo-yo dieting life—that I am still thinking about this trivial exchange hours later. “Men don’t have to think about how they look,” says another coworker, also a woman, and I nod again. Then I realize, days later, that the reason the statement is still bugging me is that I am literally never not sore from the gym, because I am so concerned with looking a certain way.

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