First published in Hinton Magazine: http://www.whoishinton.com.au/2015/08/20/dave-thornton-masculinity/
Dave’s car came to a halt as the traffic light turned red. At the intersection, he felt an overwhelming desire to be alone, gutted by a recent break up with his girlfriend. His hands gripped the steering wheel. Tears poured down his face.
‘It’s weird how we think we are alone in a car when we aren’t, we are practically in a viewing box,’ he chuckled.
A guy with a squeegee approached his windscreen and began washing the window.
‘In that moment I wanted my emotions to stop. I was embarrassed to be crying in front a stranger.’
He put this feeling of embarrassment down to his upbringing. ‘I guess we get taught we should act a certain way.’
Comedian and breakfast radio host Dave Thornton relays this story through his comedy performances.
‘Why this story?’ I ask him.
‘I’m not going to lie, it’s funny,’ he giggles. ‘It’s funny to all of us because it‘s incongruous. Comedy comes from things sounding misplaced.’
This story drew my attention to the expectation of men to be masculine.
Dave hopes men in his audience can relate to his story and acknowledge being in similar situations.
Many men, like Dave, feel pressured by the idea of masculinity and society’s expectation to appear strong and tough. This can cause a dangerous suppression of emotion.
‘A lot of my material gets caught in the uncertainty of a situation, the what do I do here moment. When I feel emotional, do I hide it because that is the manly thing to do, or do I show it because I am a modern man?’
The concept of masculinity can be difficult to navigate. It appears Dave certainly struggles to comprehend it. He tries to use an analogy to explain his understanding of masculinity – to both me and himself. It is easy to follow a law, he says. If you do something wrong you will be punished and the rules are explicit. But expectations associated with gender stereotypes are harder to navigate because they are implied.
‘It is not a matter of do this or else. It is more do this, and I’ll accept you.’
As we continue to chat and laugh, Dave recalls a conversation he had with a mate. They had discussed how easy it was for them to cross to a point of physical aggression, but how much harder it was to cross to an emotional state.
‘If you asked a guy to say to a friend that he loved them, he would find it difficult.’
Relaxing on a long flight, Dave was approached by a flight attendant. She politely asked him to move seats. It is law that men travelling alone must be moved if seated beside an unaccompanied minor.
‘It is weird being judged simply by your gender.’
He says stories like this are funny because you can’t believe they are real.
Dave’s fiancé Nixi had told him she didn’t want to come home every night to cook dinner.
‘Does that mean, just to stand up to gender equality, I should do it every night?’ he asks me. I tell him maybe he should cook because he likes to or is good at it, not because he feels pressure to subvert stereotypes. He thanks me and laughs, ‘I’ve gotten out of that one then because Nixi is a much better cook than me’.
Expectations of men have changed over time.
‘My father is no longer alive. It is so different, in my life and in his life, what was expected of him and what is expected of me. Back then, men did the man things and women did the women things. And today it isn’t like that but expectations still exist.’
Dave remembers being 18, back home in Geelong and at a pub with his mates. A guy had said something insulting about his t-shirt. While Dave laughed it off, his friend asked him what he was going to do about it.
‘I was caught in this weird world where I felt ashamed that I didn’t feel insulted and want to hurt that guy. My friend said if he had said that to him he would be on the floor.’
Physical aggression is dangerously viewed as an assertion of masculinity. A guy Dave had bumped at a house party challenged him to fight. Scared and intimidated, Dave looked to his good friend Paul and the words fell out of his mouth, ‘Do you want to fight him?’
‘The thing is for a guy when you have a fight, your gender is on the line.’ Dave felt ashamed as Paul and the bloke tussled and partygoers cheered. He asked himself if he was even a real man.
‘All of these stories came from just how befuddled I was about what I thought these implied rules were.’
Like Dave, you may question sometimes wonder, what should I do to be a man in this situation? Instead you should be asking yourself, what do I need to do to be me?
‘The hardest thing is to work through external pressures like gender stereotypes to figure out exactly what you want.’
Gender expectations are befuddling. But Dave uses this befuddlement to ask questions of masculinity in a funny way. Reflecting on issues that confront us through humour can help us better understand them and allow us to break down some of the harmful barriers put up by society.