On Masculinity

$263,000 into the story, the men apply for Guggenheims and nothing less.

 

Which is to say, I had no intention of arriving at the auditorium in time for Joshua’s poetry reading. As a visiting writer at a companion institution, a doctoral student engaged in a war of attrition with her committee, and an adjunct professor at nearly every college offering a web-based curriculum, I had worked an endless day in order to pay my bright, now nearly cancelled, credit cards, and wanted nothing more than to sleep. But sometimes the will to please others is stronger than the allure of pleasure itself.

By the time my friend M has texted me but before the crowd arrives, I will be seated in the second row, waiting for the night to begin. Though I don’t know it yet, I will meet an instructor from the local college, to whom I initially refuse to speak because of his bright, meandering, and arguably botched, tattoos.

As the reading wears on, prefaced with and promptly followed by a lengthy objection to that year’s Nobel Prize, I will realize that I am being looked at.  I will note this and turn my head, then run the tip of my tongue along my perfect teeth, where I have always imagined both fear and desire to reside.

Though my friend M grabs me by the arm, the walk to greet him feels more nerve-wracked than it should. As I take each cautious step, I do my best not to visualize what he could be holding in the locked rooms of his mind. I imagine a secret emerging, one that could be folded behind such an elegantly shaped mouth. I imagine box after box of painstakingly folded secrets, which one day will fall from their towering white cabinet.

¤

What I have been afraid to say, and what have not yet said, is this: ambition, that dark desire, ruled both my heart and his, for it is the only method we both knew for concealing failure. Of all the men I had known, none had ever shown me this darkness at such close proximity, in such fearful and loving detail.

A month later, M spent a full 10 minutes introducing my reading, elaborating on the ways that an endowed residency at Yaddo represents not a year’s, but rather, a life’s work; the castle where I had resided in Scotland on a fellowship funded by the Heinz Foundation; my grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund; as well as my many poems, stories, and essays in what she called “important” magazines.

When I stepped up to the podium, he would not look at me, despite the elegance of my black dress, the care I had taken with my long hair, or the perfection of my false lashes. We met again and nothing was the same, not even his voice.

At first, the location of his terror was a mystery that enveloped the both of us, like a shroud that covers a bright dying thing. I tried and failed to draw a smile from his lips when we passed through the anteroom and once when we lingered in the narrow space of the hall, talking about the injustice of the entire book publishing system. By the then he had prepared himself to reveal that which I could not have known, but somehow had always known.

Will I have a book before I am 40.

When, when, when will I win the Yale.

Couldn’t you just get me a Stegner.

I had not realized, and had not yet mourned, the fact that he had been drunk the entire time we dated. His smile was not one of acceptance, but an intoxicated stupor, a glorious Vodka-induced sleepiness. Here he was, meeting me stone cold sober for the first time.

I was never frightened when he threw various objects at my head, the pallid doorframe, the rank, thickening air. The terror had not yet found its way into the walls of my body, not even as he pushed me against a ledge, and held me there, trying to assert his physical power in the moments when he felt insecure about his intellectual achievements.

What I feared most was the night I would kiss him and be asked to leave, dragged promptly to the door, and bolted out of a tiny apartment filled almost entirely with books.

One might argue that it is fear that brings these things to pass.

¤

It is a widely known fact that academia is coded as male. An article appeared recently in The Guardian stating exactly this, explaining to women in the profession that there is “no flowing hair allowed.” Indeed, the author, Francesca Stavrakopoulou, explains that, “feminine means frivolous.” In other words, the default assumption is that academics are generally men.

As a woman who succeeded, in some ways, in a predominantly male space, I felt as though I too had been marked in such a way. It was impossible for me to perform my gender and to be believed, no matter how short the dress, how tall the shoes.

In some ways, it is understandable. No one, regardless of gender, wants to date the competition.  Because book followed book followed book, I had long since ceased being an object of desire. Even the most lecherous male professors left me completely, utterly alone.

In my early years, I had wanted a family, a used car, a small house in an indeterminate city. Once marked as enemy, as target, my forgetfulness unfolded all too slowly, the way a glacier freezes to conceal a lake below.

¤

Of course, I wasn’t the only woman who had been sealed feet first, alone with her diplomas, recommendation letters, and professional certificates, beneath a bed of frost. In recent years, headlines like “U.S. WOMEN DELAY MARRIAGE AND CHILDREN FOR COLLEGE” have become increasingly common in electronic and print media. Here, “delay” might be the wrong word, as it fails to convey a sense of difficulty, a war of attrition that only intensifies as a woman gathers degree after degree, to place alongside her departmental awards and additional non-degree coursework in Gender Studies.

Said simply, it is not a question of will, effort, or timing. In a recent article in the Daily Nation, a staff writer asks: “When the young woman scales the academic and corporate ladder, whom does she couple up with if she has outperformed her male peers? Furthermore, if she has been educated and raised on a feminist diet, which preaches that men are her equals, whom on earth will she marry, if at all she attracts someone in the first place?” For many women, however, it is not a question of unreasonable standards, but rather, an outright resistance to female intellectualism, despite a profession that claims enlightenment and equality for all.

This tacit hostility is well documented by sociologists. As Stephanie Coontz argues in The Boston Globe, “Thirty-five percent of Massachusetts women 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or more, a level of educational attainment almost 10 points higher than the national average. So perhaps it follows that 28 percent of women in the state have never been married.” Coontz’s observation holds true across states where women have pursued education in excess of the national average, a statistical rise that coincides with a sharp decline in marriage rates.

Surprisingly, the reasons aren’t always financial, but have more to do with unspoken expectations of a female romantic partner. True, these normative ideas about gender have been all but banished from the workplace by irrefutable legislation. But there is an unacknowledged aggression, that pitch dark lining beneath the hem of a suit, an anger that manifests all the more intensely as women attempt to transition into more familiar roles. I’ve seen this anger intensify as words like Lacanian, deconstructionist, and urbane pass through my mouth, with its perfectly applied layers of liner, lipstick, and gloss.

Which is to say, competition is a darkly feathered bird indeed. The cruelest part is this: As women, we don’t realize we’re making a choice, that is, until the glittering cage has forever locked behind us.

¤

One might wonder, then, why an educated woman is so much of an outlier, a transgression for which there is no proper name?

The answer is this: The men have their loans too, because doctorates, titles, conference travel, and office space have never been given away for free.

Of course, the burden of student debt, totaling more than $1.48 trillion dollars, belongs disproportionately to women. One must bear in mind, however, that men have long equated masculinity with success, financial stability, and prestige, all of which are inevitably undermined by a career in academia. For men in the feminized profession of poetry especially, this insecurity often manifests as a kind of territorial aggression, that veiled threat in the lining of every meandering, convoluted sentence.

I would later find out that the man who I had dated, a tall, beautiful kick-boxer who was at turns drunk, drunk, and violent, had completely maxed out the Federal Stafford Loan Program, and his debt exceeded the $138,500 aggregate limit, at which point he opted for the dreaded “Grad PLUS Loan.” Needless to say, as his repayment commenced, tensions ran higher than a stack of undergraduate essays on a Friday after class.

According to a recent article in Forbes Magazine, men are far more likely than women to default on their student loans. Staff writer Michael Derkheimer elaborates, “Out of the 44 million student loan borrowers in America, more than 4.2 million were in default at the end of 2016.” Said simply, one in three millennial men will default on his student loans, with the national average being much lower for women of the same age cohort. Some male borrowers are approaching this problem with unprecedented creativity and entrepreneurship, such as the Indiana graduate who had his $33,407 student loan debt erased thanks to a gaming app. But these exceptions to the rule are rare indeed.

As the literary magazines, publishing houses, and academic journals that serve our learning communities become increasingly interested in diversity, white middle-class men with towering debts are less able to pay them. After all, professional credentialing is as important to one’s livelihood as education itself.

This growing financial instability threatens the ways many American men have heretofore conceived of their identity, a sense of self that revolves around wealth, power, and influence. A white male colleague said to me yesterday, “Diversity is trendy now, so much so that I can’t get published. It’s just not fashionable to be a white male professor these days.” I cannot count on one hand the number of times I have heard this same complaint from the men I work with. This is not due to the lack of examples, but rather, the limitations of human anatomy.

Needless to say, educated men feel the need to defend an academic space that has always belonged to them, and the stakes grow higher with each dollar borrowed from the Federal Direct Lending Program.

As a woman, and a survivor of innumerable abuses of power, ranging from mental, emotional, and financial abuse to physical violence, I am, of course, in favor of greater diversity in our academic and literary publishers’ offerings. What I do object to is a separate but related phenomenon: the passive aggressive behavior to which this diversity gives rise in the heretofore privileged, often white, and often middle class, men of the academy, whose insecurity manifests in innumerable ways.

These men are responsible for their own words and actions. Those individuals who are championing voices from historically marginalized groups of people should in no way be held accountable for a male academic’s last effort to cling, his pale, skinny fingers clenched, to that power which in the grand scheme of things is quite small.

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FRAGILE MASCULINITY: A PARTIAL ARCHIVE

“My personal library is much larger than yours. The majority of it’s just in storage right now, that’s all.”

“Most people, not just women, need things explained to them. You’d be surprised how little college graduates actually know.”

“As a white man who didn’t get a job this year, I’m honestly buoyed and pleased to see so many of these positions going to women and people of color.”

“I don’t understand why, as a man, I can’t qualify for this Rona Jaffe Foundation grant.”

“But have you read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest?”

“Actually…”

“I’m not threatened by…”

¤

But is this really a problem for women? The answer is simple: As we labor to build a career and a life outside of it, we are subjected to male aggression at every conference, every faculty meeting, every Friday night excursion to Nietzche’s Bar & Pub.

While a seismic shift is surely coming, those classrooms, auditoriums, and lecture halls that have always been masculine spaces are slow to change. As a result, we are doubted in our professional roles, no matter how well we publish, how articulate or cutting edge our scholarship may be. A student in the University at Buffalo doctoral program in English literature, who wished to remain anonymous, was told, in an evaluation by the department chair, to “lower the timbre of her voice” when teaching or speaking in a professional context. The implication, of course, was that a more masculine persona would do justice to the originality of her ideas. I, for one, was astounded by this narrative of mentorship, as our department chair is female. These abuses of power are inevitably internalized, and we live with them in our solitude, perhaps even more so than we resist them in our moments of activism.

As we are coached to succeed in a masculine professional space, we find it nearly impossible to walk back into our private lives unchanged. We find ourselves alone with our intellectual jewelry and the accompanying invoice, as there will inevitably be a bill for each conference, each seminar, each professional development workshop.

In an article entitled “Call me maybe when your student loan is paid in full,” Jennifer Ludden delivers a veritable litany of unmarriageable young professionals with towering debts, offering quote after quote from the fiancés who broke it off with them. Most of her interview subjects explain that is selfish for any woman to borrow so much money to pursue her dreams, even more selfish than it is to leave a romantic partner over a student loan.

The challenge is not meeting that moment of vulnerability, the conversation in which the extent of one’s debt is revealed, with candor and grace. The issue at hand is creating a space in which women may again make themselves vulnerable, when the men of our profession grow more delicate by the day.

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