The One With Hugo Schwyzer

I stumbled upon a post by Hugo Schwyzer via the blog of Sugarbutch, aka Sinclair Sexmith, a day or three ago (I lose track what with my ever changing personal time zone) and I felt compelled to comment on it. Starting this entry out, I’m not entirely sure what all I will end up saying. But I do hope it will be interesting.

The post in question is called Men Run When They Lack the Words to Stay. Right off the bat, that sounds like it will be full of gender stereotypes and standard issue romanticism, but it really isn’t. Schwyzer uses phrases like “sexist acculturation” and “culturally constructed masculinity” to describe phenomena that are usually reinforced as the natural and correct roles of the sexes. He disavows this notion early on:

“This [behavior] isn’t because of testosterone, of course, or some inherent aspect of the human brain; it’s the hangover from growing up with the “guy code”.

What the post is about, then, if not to reiterate or defend men-are-from-Mars, opposites-attract, heteronormative relationship dynamics, is to explain and unpack the traditionally masculine emotions fail. He says that many men “retreat in the face of intense emotion, particularly in the face of a woman’s anger” and that they/we “feel overwhelmed by what seem to be the superior verbal and emotional skills of female romantic partners”, which is all learned behavior from being socialized male, growing up with the normative boys-don’t-cry masculine ideal. Schwyzer calls it a “learned emotional helplessness”.

Any one who knows me or follows this blog will see why this resonated with me. Whether it stems from my transmasculineness, my autism, or my history of emotional abuse and codependence, I do struggle with a feeling of helpless terror in the face of other people’s feelings, particularly the feelings of women. (By women, as in all my posts, I mean cis women and feminine-of-center CAFAB trans folk.) Where this becomes problematic is when it encounters Schwyzer’s acculturation theory, which, though I agree with, my existence refutes.

When Schwyzer says “men”, he means cis men. He means folks he were raised as male, indoctrinated in the “guy code”. When Mr. Sexsmith responded to the post, she was approaching it as a butch, with all the baggage of a sort of “butch code”, the ideal of female masculinity. Butches, while typically socialized female in their childhood, are retrained by butch culture to closely mirror the same ideal as folks who are socialized male. I’m obviously not saying that stereotypes of butchness are true; for a bit on dispelling them, see Sexsmith’s coverage of Butch Lab’s second symposium. I am, however, saying that those stereotypes are based in the reality of a cultural standard which pigeonholes butches, in the same way the “guy code” does cis men. In the same way gender roles and other stereotypes pigeonhole everyone.

I was not socialized male, though. Nor have I been socialized butch. I was socialized female, trekkie, and lesbian, in that order. The rules of acculturation say that I should struggle with the classically female problem of overprocessing more than the male problem of “submarining”, as Schwyzer puts it, hiding away until the problem has passed. And I do, as I’ve said before, have a problem with processing. Well, I have a problem in which I overprocess, causing myself undue distress and those around me undue annoyance. I also have a problem with other people processing. Or having emotions at all.

I have a lot of learned girliness from which I am still trying to recover. I say recover not because girliness is bad, in general, but because mine affects me unhealthily. I also have some innate girliness, and separating them from each other is liable to be an interesting and agonizing task. But I also show a lot of traditional masculine characteristics which seem to be innate. That may be proof that I’ve really been a boy all along, even when I was being raised as a little girl. It may be part of my autistic symptom cluster and have nothing to do with my gender. Or, of course, as innate as it feels to me, it may be a learned behavior, entrenched into my psyche from years of attachment issues, social anxiety, codependency, chronic emotional abuse, and borderline personality issues. I suspect most likely of all, it may be some combination of the above.

Later in the article, Schwyzer references some guy called Robert Bly, who apparently has a theory about copper and iron personalities. As his description is excellent, I’m just going to copy the whole thing over:

“Copper conducts; iron doesn’t. A person (man or woman) who is “copper” can’t set boundaries well; what other people feel or say has the capacity to flow directly to the copper person’s core. (Someone less poetic and metallurgically inclined might just say, “co-dependent”.) Iron, on the other hand, can keep things out. An iron person isn’t necessarily cold and inflexible, but an iron person can allow even those with whom they are most intimately connected to be angry or upset without “taking it personally.” Iron people set good boundaries. They don’t seek to “fix what they cannot fix”, and they don’t run away in fear either. They are receptive in the way someone standing in a doorway is receptive — with the capacity both to invite someone in and, if needed, to close the door, firmly and politely.”

I love this analogy to itty bits and pieces. And, obviously, I identify so much with what he has to say about copper personalities, and long achingly to more resemble that iron personality.

Schwyzer goes on to explain that men indoctrinated in the “guy code”, which not only trains them to cover up their feelings, but pointedly gives them no advice on how to “fight fair”, tend to wind up with the very copper trait of not recognizing a legit critique from an attack. I can certainly identify with that, and from my very limited sample pool, so can a lot of guys. I suspect, however, that very few women see this, especially in typical guy-code-rooted male behavior. Women often see stoicism, fear of commitment, and avoidance in men, but the vulnerability that often stems from passes under the radar. Again, I’m dealing in stereotypes, but stereotypes rooted in truth. And, of course, the gender specificness I’m communicating here is not necessarily true, just probably pretty common. Many women are more “male-brained”, many men more feminine and in-touch with their feelings, and regardless of gender roles, I think recognizing and understanding the mentality Schwyzer’s post outlines is important, and will probably be helpful to most people’s relationships.

Speaking of stereotypes and ways to improve your relationships, here’s another of my to quotes from the post:

“So many make the classic mistake that women know men better than the men know themselves; for different reasons, men and women alike are attached to that sexist conceit.”

I don’t understand the prevalence of this concept. I suppose it’s a romantic notion to some. Certainly it’s been romanticized; behind every great man and all that jazz. Still, the propensity of so many people to discount an individual’s sense of themself is one of the most infuriating things in the world, right alongside unnecessary hyperbole. Of course, men do this to women, too. And most everyone does it to queers, pervs, and headcases. I’ve gotten it from all sides. And it fucking needs to stop, people.

In conclusion, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in this post, despite the possible irritant of gender stereotypes. While I’ve quoted a lot here, the original is still worth reading, if you’ve the time. I highly recommend it.


~ by onetiddlyridley on April 17, 2011.

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