Repression To Expression: Exploring the Masculine & Feminine
Updated: Aug 25, 2019
*This thought train started as a critique of mainstream feminism, of which there are many, (see Black Feminism & Womanism for more) but I think it's more constructive to talk about the masculine and feminine, NOT men and women, but rather the qualities that we all possess, which ones we choose to idolize, and how we can healthfully harness both sides of the spectrum.*
I'm an emotional person.
What comes to mind when you read that sentence? Crying? Laughing? Throwing tantrums? Anger? A woman? A man?
What about when you hear, masculine or masculinity? Feminine, femininity?
What do you think has influenced your perception of how emotions are expressed, and what, or whom, we attribute them to?
I had a funny experience the other day. I was exhausted, maybe a little hangry, and desperately wanted to curl up in a ball and have someone pat my back. (When I don't sleep I go full baby). I wanted to ask for help, love, or reassurance from anyone around me, but I kept coming to this feeling of weakness associated with that. I felt like I was supposed to bite my tongue and handle it. The wonder hit me then, how is there so much emphasis in our society today on feminism and emotional intelligence, and yet we still carry the influence of what it means to be a "strong man" or "strong woman," unable to find comfort in expressing ourselves? How come I, even with many female role models and after hearing much about the equality of men and women, felt like I had to find "strength" in repression?
It came to mind that the qualities we often idolize are still masculine qualities. So while women are slowly making our way to being equal to men, the movement might not be making as much progress as we've hoped. If we are "making our way there" by calling ourselves and other women "crazy" for expressing their emotions, we haven't made it. If we "make it there" by owning our masculine qualities and those qualities only, we haven't made it. If we "make it there" by accepting and idolizing women we see as "strong" in a masculine sense, and those women only, we haven't made it.
This concept reminds me of a lecture I was in two (ish) years ago, in which my professor was talking about Western beauty standards for women. I distinctly remember him asking the class why we wore make up. After this, many women answered things like, "I do it for me, not anyone else," or "It makes us feel powerful/good," to which my professor replied, "I don't doubt that it makes you feel powerful and good, but have you ever wondered WHY?" I will remember that line forever. This made it so clear for me, it's not about changing the qualities we choose to present in our lives or the energy we possess. It's about changing what we idolize. We can forever change the reason that we do things, but if that thing we do is still in line with the attitude of the oppressor, it honestly doesn't really matter why we do it. A Black woman can have straight, blonde hair because it makes her feel powerful, and that's fine, but if it makes her more accepted at her job or in her friend group than if she grew an afro or wore locs, there is truly no progress made.
I got together with my good friend Todd to talk about this masculine/feminine balance, as he is one of the first people I think of who not only seeks (and I think, has) a balance of these qualities but also seems to enjoy each side of the spectrum. Along with this, while he is emotional and in touch with his feminine qualities, he looks, physically, pretty masculine (covered in tattoos and often found on a motorcycle, wearing all black). Todd has previously spoken to me about this subject as he recognizes the importance of things like vulnerability as well as physical action (playing sports, riding bikes, etc.) and assertiveness.
The best description of masculine and feminine I've come across is from Robert Siegel of NPR. He says, “Masculine and feminine can be understood only in terms of each other; basically they are opposite and complementary qualities. They are like darkness and light. It is very hard to understand darkness except in terms of light, and light except in terms of darkness. They are two extremes on a continuum.”
I love this comparison because although he puts them on opposite sides of a continuum, he also brings to us the fact that they cannot be what they are without each other. Along with the fact that there IS a continuum, and we don't only rest on either side.
Another description of the difference says that the masculine is more so outer-directed while the feminine is inner-directed. This means that the masculine energy is directed toward the physical, moving, building, etc. The feminine is directed toward deeper knowing, feeling and sensing. This energy is togetherness, nurturing, and helping one another. Jeff Johnston brings these together beautifully by saying that the masculine can be seen as DOINGand the feminine as BEING. (Mmmm).
Todd mentioned that within his relationships with women, romantic and otherwise, he has to be careful and mindful about not "mansplaining" things to women, as well as not overloading them with his emotions, as if they are there to nurture him only. It takes conscious action to practice this and hone in on where we're at with each end of the spectrum.
Another wonderful point brought up in our discussion, was that having a patriarchal society serves men just as little as it serves women. Often feminism is seen as an anti-men movement (which is totally cuckoo bananas) and there are groups that surfaced such as "menimists." Sigh. Todd brings to my attention, though, men have to overcome the patriarchy also, and that feminism is for men as much as it is for women. He talked to me about his experience being bullied throughout school for being emotional as a boy, and how learning to suppress those emotions didn't help him, and won't help anybody. "I mean, you look at all these mass murders and school shootings and whose doing them..." Says Todd, and we say, almost in unison, "It's always men." This by no means is a reflection of men as a gender and is not mentioned to point out that masculine qualities are "bad." However, when one is taught to suppress certain qualities because they are feminine, or to ONLY be in that "outer-directed" state of mind, where does ones pain go? Outward. Where do the unexpressed emotions go? Outward. How do we learn to express love with masculinity? Physically. How do we learn to handle anger? By taking it out physically, and so on. And I don't mean crying, which would be a totally healthy expression. (Biased - cause I cry constantly). I admit this is a general statement, but we see it time and time again and I know I have personally seen men in my life punch things before I've seen their hands shake and heard them raise their voices prior to hearing them cry.
Another *super* important thing to note here is the amount of sexual abuse cases that involve older and younger men, or even men of the same age. Often these cases involve men who have previously been sexually abused, then raised in a society where that is stolen masculinity and there is a lack of space to talk about it, or knowledge about how to. One of the issues with how people see the #MeToo movement is that it's men against women. Believe me, I know and agree that it is important enough to bring something up when it's happening to thousands (millions?) of women, or even five women for that matter. It's wrong, I get that. However, it is also important to speak up about the fact that it happens to men too, and it's done (primarily) by other men. That is a huge piece of information. This learned repression of emotions and outward-only expression can be a culprit in continuing a chain of harm.
So how do we find this balance I speak of? How can we turn repression into expression?
"If a woman wants to be in monogamous relationships or independent and sexually liberated and that's her choice then that's great - both are great. We should be accepting of all people as they are." -Todd Miller
Just the same as everything else, this balance can only come when awareness does. That is the first step: becoming aware not only of what masculine and feminine qualities/energies are, but of how we primarily choose to express ourselves.
For example, I have always personally felt more masculine. I love moving, working with my hands, things that are physically very challenging, yelling (honestly), arguing (thank you philosophy for helping me), and so on. I've never thought of myself as someone who could be nurturing and each emotional moment in my life was usually accompanied by me thinking, "Oh god, I'm "not okay" again." I haven't found a perfect balance I would say, but I am in a place of recognition. I know the importance of restorative, yin, and gentle yoga classes/practices, not just for me but for everyone. I know how important it is to focus inward, be in stillness, and take care of myself as well as others. I actually am beginning to enjoy taking care of other people.
Once we have awareness of the different qualities we have and experience, and which ones we more frequently experience, we then move to finding which are the hardest for us. What is something, that you experience, that makes you want to reject it? What are those emotions/qualities for you? What do you find in other people that you love or hate? These are important teachers! If you hate feeling angry because you can't healthily express anger, that's a good thing to note! If you love someone because they're nurturing and you feel you're not, it's important to see how you can access that in your own life.
Making our way past the awareness period, the next (and probably last until further notice) is actual expression. What is a way that you can express an energy or quality in your daily life? If you feel consistent pent up masculine energy and rarely utilize physical expression, try to do so! See if exercise helps you to access and release that. It doesn't have to be lifting weights, it can be hiking, biking, running, boxing, powerful yoga classes - whatever you love! If exercise really isn't your jam, start a project! Use and strengthen your skills for planning, building, measuring, and more to make something awesome happen in your home or your life! Thinking back to the previous description of masculinity and asking, what can I DO?
On the other hand, if you find yourself only able to physically express things and feel a disconnect to the emotional, inward-looking part of yourself, brainstorm how you can access that in your life. Maybe it's journaling - starting with the contents of your day and moving on to how you felt about them, maybe you get something to take care of - plants, start gardening, YOURSELF *ahem*, other people (cooking for them, doing something helpful for them, etc). Start a meditation practice! Become more in tune with your emotional rhythm and how it connects to your body - you'd be surprised at how much that promotes emotional expression.
Another practice is to start simply. Thank people in your life when they do something for you. Let them know you appreciated it. Many times "expressing emotions" is associated with crying or expressing sadness, when it's just as hard to express the happy things! Tell your friends and family that you love them more often. Even if they're pissing you off, find something they did that you liked and tell them that you liked it! Or tell them that whatever they did to piss you off made you angry, and why. Tell people you're proud. Tell people you're excited. Work from there. When expressing the feminine it helps to focus inward - on you. Explaining how youfeel about something, even if it is something that involves someone else. Think back to the description of femininity and ask yourself, how can I BE?
Lastly, take all of this with a grain of salt. You may be more in touch with your masculine or feminine side and have no desire to strengthen your connection to the other, and if you feel balanced that's great! This is only my unprofessional opinion and advice. Also, I am working from a view of masculinity and femininity that is pretty traditional to the U.S. I am from New York and live in Texas, so I am going off of my experience and what I've seen (which should be obvious but I think it's important to say). I understand that other cultures may do things differently in ways that I am not aware of.
Take what you like, leave the rest.