The Inner Lives of Men
Men doubt themselves too. Should they listen?
I will say this about the run-up to 2020: The more than a dozen male candidates in the race run a remarkable breadth of masculine archetypes. There’s Responsible Patriarch Joe Biden, Angry Grandpa Bernie Sanders, Gen X Slacker Beto O’Rourke, Golden Boy Wunderkind Pete Buttigieg (and all the other men we aren’t hearing as much about, which includes all of the male candidates of color; there is also our president, Angry Racist Grandpa Donald Trump).
The familiar prototypes into which we have shoehorned the female candidates offer less range. There’s professorial scold Elizabeth Warren, binder-throwing scold Amy Klobuchar, opportunistic, duplicitous cop Kamala Harris, and opportunistic, duplicitous gunner Kirsten Gillibrand.
The stories of the women are also fairly straightforward; we get their topline bios. To “humanize” them — a power-seeking woman so thoroughly unfamiliar we apparently need to hunt for something flesh-and-blood about her — we get anecdotes about motherhood. Even when they haven’t birthed or adopted children, the women in the race emphasize their maternal impulses and experiences.
That women running for office are also talking about motherhood is a good thing. But it is also telling that, for women, maternity is the single acceptable avenue to public vulnerability, the one fail-safe way of appearing to let voters into their internal worlds. Even that peak inside is fairly superficial, focused on the positive emotions (my children complete me) and the relatable, oft-discussed struggle of finding “balance” (sometimes I make tough professional choices and feel like a bad mom; no one can have it all).
The (white) men, though? We get deep dives into their unique skills (did you hear that Mayor Pete speaks Norwegian?) , their complicated feelings, their self-doubts, and their inner lives.
This isn’t a bad thing — and certainly not when the dives are written as wonderfully as this piece by Sasha Watson, a Boston-based writer who also happens to be Beto O’Rourke’s ex girlfriend. She sees his now-famous Medium posts about his post-election road trip and sends him an email to say hi. He writes back, saying “I’m struggling with whether or not to run for president,” and then, “That sentence sounds as nuts for me to write as it is for you to read.” Watson writes:
I felt for a moment like we were still in our early 20s and had somehow found ourselves here. Check this out, he might have said. It’s nuts! And it did seem nuts that Beto was asking himself this question, and that so many people were watching and waiting for him to answer it. How had he arrived in this place, on that road trip, the question of what to do amplified to the level of the nation and the presidency? When I saw opinion pieces that held him and that road trip up as an example of white male privilege, it kind of blew my mind: All I could see was Beto, making what must have been the most difficult decision of his life.
And yet, when I stepped out of the familiar channel of our connection, I could understand the criticism, too. In a year when a host of brilliant, driven women are running against the worst example of a white man many of us have seen in power … well, yeah, a good-looking white guy on a road trip, trying to figure out what to do, might seem a little angsty, a little … privileged. This was, after all, someone who had recently met with Obama and who would, soon after, sit on a stage with Oprah, joking and discussing a possible run. And so I found then that I could see him in two ways: as the person I’d long known and as the politician who might or might not be able to beat Donald Trump in the next presidential election. It was hard to see those two people at the same time, though. I had to switch back and forth between them.
I’m one of those people who wrote an opinion piece holding Beto’s home life and that road trip up as examples of white male privilege. But I appreciate what Watson did here. Politicians do become symbols, especially when they vault to fame as quickly as Beto did; those of us who write about and analyze them can forget that they are also human. A bit of cynicism is good — most politicians act out of calculation more than authenticity and go to great lengths to craft a public persona that reads as “authentic;” those of us who comment on and analyze politics would be naive to ignore that — but a touch of humanity and generosity doesn’t hurt, either.
Beto isn’t the only candidate who wrote through his complicated feelings about seeking higher office, and who seemed to have something of an identity crisis about it. Bernie Sanders, a man not exactly known for voicing any apprehensions about his own abilities, was apparently a nervous wreck during his time as mayor of Burlington. And he had good reason to be, because, according to his own telling, his life was a mess. His house was filthy, he wasn’t taking very good care of his kid, his relationship with his now-wife was in an unsatisfying holding pattern. Running a city was a lot more complicated and difficult than he had anticipated; the revolution was not coming easily. Bernie wasn’t a kid — he was in his 40s, already the divorced father of a teenage son. Yet was so apparently thrown by the tasks before him that he devolved into cliches more familiar from younger men, sounding at times like a college kid who couldn’t manage to clean his own space or pay his bills on time, and at others like an adolescent thick in the throes of Who Am I angst. “I am unable to look in the mirror and see how I am,” a 43-year-old Sanders wrote. “How am I? I don’t know. I don’t know who ‘I’ am.”
A few years later, Bernie ran for governor.
Pause and imagine, for a moment, if Hillary Clinton had written those words as a 43-year-old woman. Would we see her as thoughtful and inward-looking? Or would the mockery be unending?
(It would be the latter).
Pause and imagine, for a moment, if any of the women in the race today voiced those doubts about their professional abilities, their mental stability, or their maternal skills (let alone maternal desires, or lack thereof).
I don’t mean to be too hard on Bernie and Beto — self-inquiry is important and valuable. But it’s a useful exercise to look at who gets to be publicly self-reflective without being a narcissist; who gets to be unsure without being weak; who gets to be a slacker without being written off; who gets to be unkempt and disorganized without being crazy or negligent.
This isn’t to say that we should treat men in politics the same way we treat women — that everyone should be held to impossible standards, and every sliver of humanity seized upon, mocked, and crushed. It is to say that we should give women a little more breathing room — that we should be as interested in (and forgiving of) their inner lives, their doubts, and their imperfections as we are of men’s. The only way to highlight this imbalance is to look at how we talk about the inner life of men, and look, on the female side of the ledger, at the void.
Feminists spend a lot of time encouraging women to act more like men — to be bolder, to fight harder, to set our ambitions higher, to feel entitled to take up space and be compensated for our work and enjoy recognition for our efforts. We know the confidence gap is wide. That is, women tend to underestimate our abilities, while men wildly over-estimate theirs; even when men and women perform equally, men see themselves as over-achieving, while women see ourselves as under-achieving. We also know the confidence gap is justified: That is, when women do talk up our accomplishments or accurately represent our abilities, we are penalized for it. It is not the case that, if only we were as self-promoting as men, we would be equally rewarded. Instead, we are seen as unlikeable braggarts. Men are just, well, men. And men are also rewarded when someone spots potential in them, even if they’ve done very little to prove themselves. Women are rewarded on their actual accomplishments. Guess who gets ahead faster — the one who has to prove she can do the work and more, or the one who seems like he’d probably be great, no evidence necessary?
Yes, it would be a good thing if women acted a little more like men, and if women were given the same consideration as men — if we were fiercely ambitious and also admired for it; if we did fewer of other peoples’ tasks, felt little guilt about it, risked no judgment, and still saw those tasks completed without us; if being complicated and insecure was understood as human instead of disqualifying for a role as a serious person in public life.
But it would also be a good thing if men acted a little more like women. There is virtually nothing that seems to make even feminist-minded men more incensed than the suggestion that perhaps they shouldn’t do something they want to do, but: Sometimes you have deep, gut-grabbing doubts because you are actually not ready or qualified or in the right place to do something.
Women, I suspect, feel these doubts more regularly and more acutely; I suspect we are too quick to listen to them, which is why feminists expend so much effort pushing women to take risks and to quell that nagging voice that whispers “you can’t do this” or “you shouldn’t do this” or “you don’t belong here.” Every single competent, intelligent woman I have ever met has some version of imposter syndrome; every single one has doubted herself to the point where she has declined to go for something she wanted because she thought she couldn’t, or shouldn’t.
For men, it’s different. To be fair, most of the competent, intelligent, thoughtful men I know also hear that doubting voice (although it seems to be softer); clearly Beto and Bernie have both heard it, too. The difference, though, is that men’s doubts don’t seem to derail them quite as handily. Men (or at least the white ones) exist in a society that tells them achievement is their birthright, offers support systems to make it happen, and then pretends those support systems don’t exist and every successful man is self-made. Bernie’s house was a mess, he wasn’t being a very good dad, and he was struggling at work. Beto lost an election, barely saw his family, and had a child begging him not to run for office again. For a woman, that’s when the question would have turned to the predictable work-life balance cliche of “Can I have it all? Can any woman?” A messy house is a sign of our failure at basic adult female competence; a mother is not dealing with her child’s present or future amounts to maternal neglect. These are internalized as such profound failings that I have a hard time imaging that many women experiencing them would decide to scale up work and public life out of sheer desire for power (and a corollary assumption that, despite these deficiencies, she would get it). Coupled with a crushing professional setback — a lost election, the realization that one is not getting one’s job done — it is impossible to imagine.
(As I write this, I am running through the long list of talented, ambitious, visionary women I know and trying to picture a single one of them overwhelmed, in debt, paralyzed by simple tasks like bill-paying and house-cleaning, checked out of their child’s life, struggling at work, in a meh relationship, worried about their own mental health, and, having taken stock of all of it, concluding, “I think I will run for governor”).
For a man, deficiencies of the home and family can induce anxiety, but they don’t add up to total personal and professional failure. Nor do even professional failures seem to add up to professional failure, or push men to ask themselves, “Am I the right person for this?” Instead, the question seems to always be, “Do I want this?” If the answer is yes, men have more tools at hand to make that happen, in part thanks to the women in their lives; “I want this” is also weighted very heavy on the decision-making scale, in large part because, for men, few question that “I want this” is reason enough to go for it.
The exploration of the inner lives of men has always hinged on male desire — for sex, for power, for adventure, for novelty, for self-knowledge, for self-expression. For women, desire is more complicated; it is a greedier, uglier thing in a world where the most admirable men are protagonists riding the waves of history, while good women are devoted Penelopes, who wait and weave.
On Twitter, the wonderful Rebecca Traister put it this way: “Being depressed and lonely and self-doubting and questioning is human and reading about these guys' experiences is endearing. But who gets to be fully human in public? Who gets to have their soft underbellies exposed without getting flayed and gutted?”
That’s right. Whose display of soft underbelly is taken as a sign of depth, seriousness, and intelligence — confirmation that this man has the promise we are looking for, affirmation that he should take the next step? And who finds that their own nagging uncertainty translates into a confirmation of inadequacy — both internal and external?
The goal here isn’t to shut down conversations on men’s inner lives. It is to suggest that women’s inner lives and desires could be considered as valid and fascinating as men, and treated as such. And it is to go a step further and suggest that sometimes, doubts serve a purpose — and there might be some good that comes from the most confident men occasionally listening to their own.
I’ll be back next week with reading recommendations / yoga / travel / conehead pets (send me yours!) / things that feel good, including an interview with an absolutely amazing Honduran feminist activist who had a lot to say about US politics and policies on reproductive rights (and which feels particularly relevant at this moment in the American abortion wars). As always, this is a work in progress and I always welcome your feedback — did this stand-alone column thing work, or were you just here for the cat pics (and if it’s just the cat pics, why are you still reading)?
Enjoy your weekends — I hope it’s spring where you are.