The battle of the sexes
As you may also discern, the Warrior or Wuss socio-cultural narrative also depends upon our culture’s imposed opposition of men versus women. This opposition is often termed “the battle of the sexes.” However, let me call it what it actually is—a culturally entrenched war on women. Martha Beck writes that,
disdain for women and girls is impossible to get away from in this society, and some of it sinks in, regardless of an individual’s vigilance or egalitarian upbringing. It sinks in on women as well as men.
Consider the word sissy (derived from sister), [ . . .] or wuss, used by men [and boys] to denigrate each other, most of the time jokingly. Now, deconstruct the word. It’s a cross between woman and pussy, used in situations where woman is either not derogatory enough or politically incorrect, and pussy, is too strong for polite company. But the meaning is the same: You are womanlike, lesser, a girlie man. Even men who would never use these words have heard them all their lives . . . .
In other words, a “real” man cannot resemble or act like women or girls. Wuss, sissy, pussy, girl, mama’s boy, and girlie man are all derogatory terms hurled by boys and men toward other boys and men. Arnold Schwarzenegger. well versed in the warrior role (the Terminator or “Governator”), has made girlie man part of his lexicon for quite some time now.
The purpose is to deliberately shame a boy or man by insinuating that he is somehow female. For men, this deliberate gendered taunting means that they are at risk of losing their manhood, their maleness. As Kipniss explains, gus might be seen as “unmen [which, then means] to risk non-existence; there is no other viable options to us [via our culture].”
Patriarchy is based upon oppressing women as an entire class; therefore, women occupy the lowest social and cultural status. Therefore, it follows that being viewed as female in any way is set up by patriarchy to be a severe demotion for males. Linking the male loser or wuss role to women and girls continually promotes a tense and forceful separation between men and women. This division gets drawn so sharply it’s as if we’re completely different species!
Again it is important to repeat here that the Warrior or Wuss myth also conditions women and girls to expect that men or boys squeeze themselves into either one of these roles. Women and girls are taught to associate warrior qualities with men whom society deems as “desirable” or “worthy.” The patriarchal masculine or feminine gender norms that are spoon-fed to us impacts every person. Obviously, this damages the lives of men and women, boys and girls. It restricts us from experiencing our self and each other authentically, and additionally requires us numb ourselves to the pain and grief this restriction causes.
I’m going to start with a version of the King Arthur and the Holy Grail legend told in very broad strokes. In the film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur, confronted with the Black Knight, severs the Knight’s left arm. In response to this drastic injury, the Black Knight promptly declares, “Tis, but a scratch!” As the King continues to chop off all the Black Knight’s limbs, the Knight persists in ignoring the severity of the wounds and his pain. The King’s savage brutality (dressed in the trappings of chivalry) is dismissed while the Knight’s refusal to acknowledge his true state becomes morbidly absurd. This scene only works as satire because both characters are stereotypes of conditioned male behavior.
Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, demonstrates the same type of “acceptable” warrior behavior. The swordsman Mercutio, when fatally wounded, first acknowledges the truth of his wounding: “I am hurt, a plague on both your houses! I am sped [done for].” However he quickly dissembles. When asked, Mercutio masks the truth significantly: “Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch.” Shakespeare deftly shows that the social mask that Mercutio wears (like many men) slipped away when he was fatally wounded, showing his real self. Shakespeare also skillfully follows with the quick yet arduous effort Mercutio expends to put the mask back in place before he dies.
Directly after Mercutio’s death, Romeo declares that his love for Juliet has made him “effeminate” and “softened valor’s steel.” In other words, Romeo states that because he loves Juliet, he is no longer courageous (no longer a warrior) like his dead friend, but womanly; in essence he’s become a wuss. Wait! That actually sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Yet, Shakespeare wasn’t trotting out a new masculinity crisis through Romeo’s dramatic reaction. He accurately reflected the patriarchal attitude that expressing love makes a man more female, makes him lose his manhood, has literally softened his weapon.
Let’s fast-forward to a recent example. Protagonist John Creasy in the film Man on Fire, a former U.S. Special Operations soldier, is now employed to protect a wealthy Mexican man’s daughter from kidnapping threats. At first, Creasy is tough, aloof, and strictly business with everyone and especially, with the girl. However, the young girl’s efforts to get him to care start to work. And that’s the exact moment the plot pivots. Creasy is ambushed, shot multiple times, and hazily witnesses the girl being stolen away. Creasy becomes emotionally hardened once more. Rising from his hospital bed to formulaically ignore his major wounds, Creasy resumes his warrior role. Furthermore, his renewed purpose is not just to find and rescue the girl, but to kill. He does all of this alone, keeping tight control over his emotions and physical pain.
Movies, television, literature, and gaming videos offer us hundreds, if not thousands, of these types of warrior portrayals of men being “cool, decisive, in control and invulnerable” as well as efficient killers or fighters. That’s how a man retains his masculinity in a patriarchal society: he jettisons empathy, connection, and intimacy and toughens up to embrace pain, control, violence, and indifference.
Changing the story
Awareness, compassion, and action.
We all need to be aware— to be conscious and present—to the Warrior or Wuss myth playing out in so many different ways around us. Each of us needs to examine how this damaging narrative is impacting our own lives and the lives of those we love. Clearly recognizing the rigid gender roles of warrior or wuss takes courage and gentleness. We can condemn the system that feeds us such a story, and can be outraged by the constant barrage of the message it sends, but we must hold compassion for our own self and the others around us who have been conditioned to play such roles.
There has been progress. For instance, it is not such a strict cultural mandate now to tell boys not to cry. Of course, boys should cry, and men should cry whenever they are hurt, frustrated to the point of tears, crushed by disappointment and the like. Having a full emotional life and having the courage to be vulnerable around those you love and trust is human. Living with an open heart promotes connection, intimacy, and true strength.
That said, living with an open heart is tough. Shedding the armor of the warrior or the defensive pose of the wuss is just as tough. Compassion to yourself is key when you are stepping away from the belief that this story is the only real story available to men and boys in our society. The truth is there are multitudes of stories just waiting to be embodied. Compassion requires empathy—that exquisite understanding that comes when we “suffer with” our self or someone else. Gentleness toward the feelings and memories of the effects of these imposed roles is crucial.
Finally, work to step out of the Warrior or Wuss myth. Take your courageous open heart and live like a knight without armor, valuing women and girls, embracing authenticity, and discovering how being sensitive, grateful, and tender can lead to joyfulness. Find a tribe of people who believe that first and foremost, men and boys have the right to be fully human, not cardboard cut-outs of patriarchy. Things are changing. We all have the ability and power to change our individual stories and ultimately, our culture’s stories.