But patriarchy and its prerogatives are not solely the province of men. Women can and often do claim them – just as any disenfranchised group will do what they can to cling to power. Throughout my childhood, I watched my own mother turn male prerogatives against herself without realizing it. There was an invisible line she would never cross, and I learned not to cross it either.
Watching the Ellen clip evoked a childhood memory. I couldn’t have been older than five or six, and my mother had taken me for a haircut. When the hairdresser asked me what hairstyle I wanted, I told him I wanted long hair, “like my mother’s”. When I saw the look in his eyes, I knew instantly I’d made a terrible gaffe. I saw my mother’s response in the mirror – her taut discomfited smile, the combination of dread and sangfroid in her expression, like she’d taken a sip of spoiled milk. “No, no,” my mother corrected. “You don’t want that, honey. You want short hair, like a boy.” I vividly remember the brief nonverbal exchange between the hairdresser and my mother, the reams of emotional information they managed to compact into a single look.
This was my earliest experience with shame. I cannot describe precisely what the shame felt like, because shame eludes precision; I cannot describe the precise violence done to me, only that it was unbearable. It was a feeling so threatening, so terrifying, I knew I had to bury it for my emotional survival. I knew not to cross the invisible line.
Though I buried the feeling, I kept the lesson: that my desire for long hair was uncivilized, but even more crucially, my love for my mother was unnatural. There was something deeply offensive in a boy’s love for his mother, his desire to emulate her. This idea formed the murky basis of my understanding of masculinity – which I came to see not in terms of any positive attributes, but as a negative impression, a series of prohibitions. And shame was the way to enforce those prohibitions.
Shame and masculinity have a reciprocal relationship – and they share the same vague contours. What makes shame powerful is that it lives so deeply in the unspoken. If emotions like anger or happiness are fairly easy to define, shame lives in a more complicated, hard-to-reach space. Shame has a vagueness that, instead of diluting its power, only intensifies it. Because it is so hard to name or pinpoint, shame magnifies in the mind. If one attempts to interrogate its workings, the shame compounds and redoubles. Men are shamed into hating anything feminine in themselves and the world, and if they dare to question that hatred, they are forced to relive the shame.
This is the double bind of masculine identity.
Like most young people, I wanted to feel I belonged; I was eager to align with power. I taught myself to hate what was feminine, just as certain women I knew came to hate anything that smacked of femininity in young boys. When I turned eighteen, I began to mimic men who objectified women so I could participate in a sphere of male power – but my efforts never amounted to anything. For one thing, I liked women better than men. For another, my performance was all wrong; men’s hatred of women wasn’t robust or conscious in the way I pantomimed it – it was more a wafting scent, and I’d doused myself with the bottle.
I still felt the urge to become masculine, though I wasn’t quite sure if or how this was possible. Then, when I turned twenty-one, I had a realization. I realized my body could be made to do things I hadn’t asked of it previously, things that I believed would make me a man. If long hair exposed like an X-ray my inner deficiencies, the perfect muscled body I could forge from sheer will – from my powerful masculine mind – would redeem me.
I became a gym rat. I ran 10 miles a day. I took diet pills and protein powders. I starved myself. I took drugs that made my heart pound as I lay sleepless in bed. My happiness was not a consideration, for I knew masculinity was something to be inflicted – a wound or brand that would empower me; and I did feel powerful. My body was toned and sculpted. The muscles in my arms bulged with ropy blue veins. But at the same time I felt held hostage to my body, hostage to the promise of this vague concept, this masculinity I might one day inhabit.
In Sam Fussell’s excellent memoir, Muscle, the sport of bodybuilding becomes a metaphor for the construction of masculinity – and it’s all theatre. Increasingly threatened by the wave of violent crime riddling New York in the early 80s, Sam decides to join a gym and “toughen up”. The group of bodybuilders he befriends there all play characters – they invent personas, change their names to things like “Mousy” and “Portuguese Rambo”. Sam, too, reinvents himself to participate in the theatre of masculinity. He lowers his voice, stalks the corridors of his office with a menacing new walk. He goes from meekly answering the phone to shrieking “Speak!” after the first ring. “Much of being a bodybuilder,” writes Fussell, “was playing at being a bodybuilder”.
Eventually, Sam quits his job in publishing to become a professional bodybuilder. He begins to treat his body as “an abstract concept, a shell to be plucked and polished with regularity”. He injects the body with drugs, pumps it with steroids, starves and feeds it – not because his body needs these things, but because in manipulating the body he can force it to signify something he believes he lacks: that is, strength.
In Muscle, the body is reconfigured as a kind of armor, but ultimately, Sam’s “strength” obliterates him. Practically hallucinating from hunger, he’s reduced to shuffling the aisles of grocery stores with his emaciated face and pro-tanned body, tormenting himself with all the foods he can’t eat. By his final tournament, Fussell is so weakened from diets and drugs he’s lost the pads of fat on the bottom of his feet, and must be carried from place to place. Sam has become a freak, a Frankenstein monster; in some respects, Fussell’s memoir is a Frankenstein story, which is really the story of Prometheus – which can also be viewed as a story of the very American desire for human perfectibility.
In Muscle, the features of masculinity are entwined with the features of American capitalism, which is premised on creating new needs – needs that can never be met, because they aren’t actual needs. Capitalism tells us something is wrong with us, something elusive and ultimately unfixable. In other words, capitalism is a vortex of shame.
The more I tried to perfect my own body at the gym, the more wrapped up I got in this shame. I was increasingly desperate to fix and repair myself, to avail myself of all the products and treatments I could to plug the holes of my many male deficiencies. But the thing about masculinity is it’s pegged to a fictive status quo; it is something you either “work toward” and police endlessly, or give up on altogether. Eventually, that is what I did. I grew exhausted by my strenuous efforts to become a perfect male specimen. I moved to Iowa City for graduate school, and became a paunchy average guy.
Muscle, too, ends with Fussell’s devolution into an ordinary man. His muscles – the signifiers of his masculinity, the linchpin of his performance – shrivel and die, and he is just a human being again, vulnerable to life and pain and human feeling.
Near the end of the book, Fussell describes an encounter with a woman who had previously rebuffed his overdone musculature. Meeting again, she eyes his newly unmuscled physique. “There’s nothing left,” she exclaims in dismay. “What have you done?” Her response reminds me of Ellen’s question to Celine Dion: When are you gonna cut that hair? The boy’s hair, like Sam’s unmuscled physique, represents what – for both of these women – is an intolerable absence: an absence of masculinity.
But if masculinity is so powerful and immutable, who or what could take this from men? When I was young, to be “emasculated” seemed a kind of murder, a violence. And yet if we try to define the violence, what is it? What is this thing we could subtract or remove that would prevent men from being themselves?
Ultimately, the mechanism that defines or runs the thing we call masculinity is incredibly fragile. It is so frail that something as trivial as the wearing of a pink shirt, or the donning of a mask in a global pandemic, might throw its gears into some irreparable turmoil. Is something that frail worth protecting?
Years after that early traumatic haircut, I did finally begin to grow my hair long. I was seventeen years old – over a decade later – and I was a junior at a New York City prep school. One afternoon my headmaster confronted me in the hallway. He said boys couldn’t have long hair, that it went against school rules, and that I would have to cut it, and I broke down sobbing in front of him. My response was incommensurate with the prohibition. It hadn’t occurred to me until this writing that my response was really a response to that haircut, and the shame I carried – and continue to carry. I spent weeks avoiding writing this essay. Until now, I have never spoken or written about my experience at the hairdresser. But this is the power of shame, which exerts a far-reaching, often irrational hold on its subjects.
Shame is not a mood, or an attitude; I’m not sure it could even be properly classified as an emotion. Where feelings like happiness or anger eventually dissipate, shame does not fade or vanish on its own. “It will be like a miracle,” Trump famously proclaimed about the virus that has killed nearly a quarter million Americans. “One day it will disappear.” That denial is not merely primitive or naive – it is killing people. The virus will not disappear. Shame does not miraculously go away. And it cannot be defeated with the weapons men use to claim power in the world.
A reckoning must take place, but what is the nature of this reckoning? Maybe it’s a matter of crossing the invisible lines – or, rather, making the invisible visible. In some respects, this has already begun. We’re in a new cultural moment. Millennials and Gen Z are doing the difficult work of breaking down rigid categories of gender. Structures and systems are eroding, and what we once saw as sources of stability are being revealed as outmoded or inutile – or worse – as reinforcing social oppression.
I initially felt resistance to talk of gender dying out. But when I look at my own resistance I land right back at that familiar place, the lonely cold province of shame.
If we stop prizing masculinity as a cultural value, this doesn’t mean we stop men from “being men”. In a recent interview with the New Statesman, the theorist Judith Butler makes the clarification. “By gender freedom,” she says, “I do not mean we all get to choose our gender. Rather, we get to make a political claim to live freely and without fear of discrimination and violence against the genders that we are.”
In other words, if gender dies, we don’t die with it. Our human selves won’t die. What dies is the demand for a performance no one should have to give.
David Adjmi writes for theatre and television. His play Stereophonic is scheduled to premiere on Broadway next season, and his memoir Lot Six was recently published by HarperCollins