Men are in need of improvement. This opinion is surely shared by all women. How many times have I heard female friends speak – only half in jest – of their boyfriends, partners and husbands as if they were pets to be trained, or as another ‘child’ in the house, or as projects? Inherent in this approach is the idea that the man is currently not meeting (her) expectations. And how many times have I heard that the girlfriend/partner/wife is the best thing that’s happened to him, that she straightened him out, that she tamed and domesticated him? And how many times more have I myself wished for certain underdeveloped, socially inept men to find a partner who would teach him and improve him so that I no longer had to interact with a Neanderthal?
[Spoilers for the film Maudie]
In all this, the expectation is that the civilised, socialised woman will groom the primitive man. The expectation is that he’ll become someone who’ll shower regularly and wear pants around the house, take out the garbage without being told, make small talk with her friends, demonstrate affection, and show appreciation for her contributions to the relationship.
Implementing such a project, as well as the very act of turning into a project someone who is supposed to be your equal, strains the relationship, perhaps in ways unnoticed in the beginning. No one wants to be a case study. No one wants to feel like they’re unfinished and inadequate. Yet society seems to celebrate instead of lament the idea of men as work in progress.
And arts and media seem to have a tendency of placing the burden of self-improvement on someone other than the person in question. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, at least as depicted in the excellent BBC series Sherlock, is completely bereft of social skills and does not engage in social norms or conventions. His flatmate and friend Dr. Watson (a man, admittedly) brings it upon himself to teach Sherlock how to behave in society. Sherlock’s behaviour towards other people could be considered cruel: while he does not intend to hurt the other person, he makes no effort to not hurt them. But at no point is the viewer encouraged to blame Sherlock for his abrasiveness and hurtfulness. These traits are presented as quirks that the audience sympathises with and even romanticises.
The Irish-directed Canadian film Maudie is a reminder of the problematic expectation of how women should deal not only with rudeness but with power abuse from men. In Maudie, the protagonist Maud is a cheery, good-hearted, independently minded but physically frail and mentally scatterbrained painter. She not only tolerates physical and emotional abuse from Everett, the man who employs her as a housemaid, but ends up loving and marrying him. We see Everett’s rough demeanour and social spartanism soften slightly over the course of their life together, but even near the end there is a scene in their pickup truck where he does not show a single shred of compassion at the emotional hurt that his wife is experiencing upon discovery of family deceit, betrayal and loss. He aggressively dismisses her right to feel pain and explodes angrily at her in frustration at the way his life has changed due to her and says he would’ve been better off without her.
They make up in the end. Her dying words to him are, “I was loved, Ev. I was loved.”
The male gruffness exemplified by Everett is hardly uncommon. The audience could predict that she would eventually soften him somewhat. And while it’s undeniable that there can be love in an abusive relationship, is this film – and countless other forms of media, from novels to songs to TV shows to other films – guilty of romanticising abusive relationships, or is it simply depicting a reality? When he hit her across the face, were we all screaming, “What the heck? Leave him!” or were we thinking, “Let’s give him a chance”?
We expected her to put up with the abuse, to stay quiet, and to adapt to his ways instead of requiring him to adapt to her, and to slowly, subtly, slyly, subversively condition him to be more communicative, sympathetic and affectionate. We expected this of her without acknowledging the enormous mental and emotional burden this placed on her, not to mention the physical suffering. We expected this of her without questioning whether this was her responsibility at all. We expected this sacrifice from her without expecting any sacrifice from him. Why?
The male character’s disconnect with his feelings, lack of self-reflection and self-awareness, inability to empathise with others, and focus on his own well-being without showing care and concern for others seem to fit society’s expectations of boys and men – the higher hopes of women notwithstanding. The flip side of telling girls to shut up and sit down is not only to tolerate certain behaviours from boys – for example, dismissing fistfights with the inane phrase “boys will be boys” – but to encourage certain behaviours by discouraging others. We’ve heard that “boys don’t cry;” that running/fighting/doing anything “like a girl” is an insult; displays of emotion and empathy taunted as signs of weakness; and attempts at self-expression – which requires self-reflection – through words, music, dance or other art mocked as gay. Boys are conditioned not only to be stoic, but to suppress – or, at least, dial back on the expression of – other emotions like love. As the display of fear is considered unmanly, fear is expressed in inaccurate manifestations like anger, which further prevents honest exploration and connection by himself and by others.
He suffers. How can he become a fully developed individual with all the nuance and richness that entails when so much of that is frowned upon by society?
She suffers. At best, from the mental and emotional strain of ineffective communication and mismatched expectations. At worst, from physical, emotional or sexual abuse as he exerts his power in the relationship to cope with his own suffering.
If there’s any message to take away from film and art, it’s that damaged goods can be repaired; basketcases can be rescued; and each individual should be encouraged to reach their full human potential. But it begs the question: Why are there damaged goods in the first place? When we raise our boys and impose these harmful expectations on them, how can we expect anything to prevail but a patriarchy that oppresses men as well as women?
Response from Jens Hevike: I am a brought-up boy (kind of)