The Masks We Live In

Rev Douglas Taylor


A few months ago, back in the fall, Bill Thorpe spoke from this pulpit about the power masks have to conceal and also to reveal aspects of ourselves. Sometimes we try on ways of being even though it is not (or not yet) our real selves. Over the years I have often talked about wanting to create space here for us to become our better selves, our more authentic selves. Masks hide our faces. And, as Bill Thorpe shared back in the fall, this is not good or bad, it just is a way for us to be in the world, a way to step into certain experiences.

Today, however, I do want to talk about the negative aspects of the masks we wear. And in particular, the masks men wear and how that impacts all people. Those masks men wear sometimes are hyper-masculine and harmful.

The term ‘toxic masculinity’ has grown in prominence lately. My awareness of the term has paralleled by awareness of the #metoo movement as if the two pieces of social commentary are entangled. Masculinity itself is good, but there is a toxic version that perpetuates harm. That’s what I want to talk about today, the mask of toxic masculinity.

A few years ago, I had someone here in the congregation stop me after a program or event and ask if I might consider offering a class for men on how to be a feminist.

Most of the time, feminism is considered to be obviously a women’s issue and of interest to women. Most progressive women have a positive opinion of feminism – of course depending on various definitions of what feminism is. Generally, I think in terms of an early, classic definition that feminism is about supporting equal rights and equal access to opportunities for women.

I remember being a teenager and thinking to myself, ‘yeah, I’m a feminist. I think women and men are equal.’ I was flummoxed by the notion that the definition of a feminists was someone who thought women were superior to men. To me, that just sounded like someone was trying to flip the old concept saying someone has to be better. That’s nobody’s definition of feminism unless you’re trying to argue against feminism.

I was raised by the women in my family. I am the youngest of four. My parents separated when I was four and divorced two years later. My older brother was distant and then absent as well when I was growing up. Part of my story is the story of alcoholism, but over the years I have come to understand how my upbringing has impacted my understanding of gender roles. I was raised by my mother and my two sisters.

Have you ever bumped into a tough woman who credits having been the youngest raised by a family of boys? I lived the reverse of that cliché. Early on I noticed how our society has grown to value masculine girls and women but not feminine boys and men.

What really cracked things open for me and allowed me to take a significant step toward wholeness was a class in Family Systems I took while in seminary. One task for this course was to build a genogram, which is like an annotated family tree. You draw a chart showing the relationships up and down the generations, and then you add commentary and extra symbols to show more information. Who had close relationships, who was distant? Where are the family secrets, what are the patterns?

One particular insight I found is relevant to this conversation about men and feminism. I discovered that I had distanced myself from the men in my family. One layer of detail I put on my genogram was that the women in my family tree tended to be teachers while the men in my family tree tended to be alcoholics … as if those two categories were mutually exclusive! Until I saw it on my paper, I had not seen the way I had put people from my family into these categories in my mind. And, ministry, in my mind, was in keeping with the trend of teachers, thus the women in my family.

I began to notice that it wasn’t just teaching, but other qualities I emulated. I didn’t identify with many of the traits and characteristics I saw in the other men in my family. I had, as you might reasonably expect, done all I could to not identify as an alcoholic, as violent, as unpredictable, unreliable, dangerous, angry, and aggressive. I had also done all I could to not identify as strong, charismatic, charming, powerful, protective, or loud.

Now, I’ve been through some therapy and I’ve processed a lot of this over the years. I’ve had some very profound conversations with my father. Through insight, grace, and forgiveness, I’ve done a lot of work. My point for today is that I actively practiced my way into traits that I’d labeled in my head as masculine. Traits, I will add, that society encouraged me to label as masculine. They didn’t happen naturally. I choose them.

I’ve worked at having a strong balance of both masculine and feminine aspects in my identity. And I will step back a moment here and clarify that I am not talking about my gender identity vis a vis the experience of being transgender. I identify as a cis-man. What I’m talking about is the set of traits and characteristics our society attributes to men or women such as protective vs nurturing, breadwinner vs homemaker, ‘does the dishes’ vs ‘changing the oil in the car’. That sort of stuff. Dare I say, the ‘stereotypical’ men’s sphere and women’s sphere of interest and control. Old school patriarchy stuff. 

This is that mask of toxic masculinity I mentioned earlier = or least it leads to it. It is the mask that says men don’t cry and they don’t like the color pink. It is the mask that says men have license to use violence to protect and when nothing at the moment needs to be protected, they can use that violence for fun. It is the mask that says a man’s strength is his best quality and men are praised for how we dominate and lead. It is what led Margret Atwood to say, “At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.”

That is not the only way to be a man. And I am not the only one to suggest that this version of manliness is harmful to both women and men. Most of the people in my life see and resist toxic masculinity. Most of the people in my circle of connections are supporters of progressive values. Most people I know are even a few steps beyond so basic a concept, seeing and resisting various oppressions as they intersect.

The Equal Pay Act, for example, was passed as federal law in 1963. Of course, there have continued to be problems as recently as in the past ten years in the fight for equal pay. I just saw news that the actor Benedict Cumberbatch will only accept future movie proposals in which his female co-leads are being paid the same rate he is being paid.

I don’t watch television a lot but when I catch a show, I’m reminded how our society continues to sell us our gender roles with each getting special colors, scents, activities, concerns, and responsibilities.

People talk about a ‘pink tax’ as a way to show how women’s hygiene products tend to be priced up compared to similar men’s hygiene products. An obvious if ironic example is the Gillette razor for men vs the Venus razor for women (Gillette and Venus are the same company.) A quick check on line shows the pink razors are almost twice the price.

Gillette made their ad because they felt it would be profitable for them to do so, not because they wanted to stake out some higher moral ground or to sway public opinion. It really was, of course, all about sales. How many of you had seen or at least heard about the Gillette ad I played earlier in the service?

It aired during the Superbowl a few months back. The response from many men was rather negative. How dare this razor company suggest that bullying is somehow a problem that men are particularly positioned to do something about. One of my favorite responses to the Gillette ad saying men can do better is #notallmen.

I want to be whole. I want balance. I want to choose what I like and what my interests are based on what I like and what interests me rather than my gender or genitalia.

There is a passage in one of Paul’s letters (Galatians; 3:28) where he says in Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile. In the full wholeness of the spirit, there is neither man nor woman. The life we live tends to be divided but there is a wholeness we are striving for. It is unfortunate that religion has a tendency to become a tool of social control and status quo. Religion has a way of perpetuating gender norms or the culture.

This is why there are books about finding the names of the women unnamed in the Jewish scripture. This is why there are seminars and discussions about the roll of women in Islam. This is why ordaining women has been an issue among Christians. Religion can become a tool to of social control. And ‘gender expectations’ is one of those powerful ways in which we are controlled.

But the spirit is not served by subservience or domination. The spirit is not served by one group being made inferior and another group claiming to be superior. No. The spirit is served by each person living as their most authentic self. The spirit is served by each of us having a choice of our masks until we arrive together in the day when no masks are needed.

So, go experience your life. Try the masks that seem to fit, that excite and enliven. Be wary of the masks that promise power through dominance and fear. Be wary of the toxic ones.

If you are looking for more healthy masks of masculinity, try being a man like Steve Erwin the Crocodile Hunter, or Bob Ross the painter, or Levar Burton who hosted the Reading Rainbow children’s program. There are a multitude of role models for men who lift up the positive aspects of masculinity for us to emulate. I will smile at myself here for a moment and notice that the celebrity examples I have chosen to lift up are all teachers.

There are many, many role models you can look to for yourself, find the ones you respect. Try on a few masks. Choose your masks with care. And know that the Spirit calls us toward wholeness.

In a world without end,

May it be so.