paternalistic protector male
Paternalistic Protector Male saving damsel in distress

Honest Masculinity: Do You Have Male Liberal Syndrome?

Our views on sexuality and gender affect our ability to maintain sustainable, peaceful, and meaningful relationships. Whatever our own gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, attraction, or preferred relationship structure,* we’re all affected by our societal programming in this area.

I recently came across the “Dear Woman” video, a male collective apology to women.

I appreciated many of the important points the video intended to convey, and found certain elements particularly moving and thought provoking. However, I also found the tone of it to be saccharine and slightly off-putting at first. Initially, I couldn’t figure out why.

When I watched Will Ferrell and others’ parody of the video, I laughed at several parts of it.

After I posted the parody on Facebook, a close friend whose opinions I value and respect a great deal questioned me about it. She shared that she had seen the original video a year or two earlier, and was impressed with the courage it must have taken the men to put it together. It’s a shame, she opined, that it’s so easy for others to criticize such efforts, even if in jest.

Even though my friend presented her viewpoint in a gentle way, I initially felt defensive, as I pride myself in what I like to believe is a good understanding of stereotyping- and prejudice-related issues. After all, I had taken several college and graduate courses on the topic, and had written about some of these things in Naked Idealism.

The irony was that in the past, I had done some relatively public volunteer work related to sexuality, and struggled with my own concerns about how others might perceive me. And now here I was being judgmental of others who were similarly stepping outside the norm box and attempting to do a good thing. So I knew that I had to sort out why the video had grated on me a bit.

I thought back to some of the models of white racial identity development that I had learned about years earlier. (See my article on honesty about racism, sexism, classism, and prejudice.) I wondered if and how they might apply to gender identity development, especially for males, since we are still in many ways in the category that has more collective power—and thus how it might explain my discomfort with the original video.

I recalled a few basic concepts from the models. In the process of becoming more understanding of individuals in any category that has been relatively oppressed compared to our own—perhaps even oppressed BY individuals in our own category—we come to understand and accept the wrongs that have occurred, as well as their impacts.

We look at what ownership we may be able to take for those impacts, and we consider what personal responsibilities we have for avoiding the continuation of such oppression. The video did a good job of covering such things. But why did I find myself triggered and annoyed by the tone of it?

As we continue to develop our identity as it pertains to gender, race, and so on, we need to be careful not to get stuck in certain places. For example, Derald Wing Sue and David Sue explain that “White Liberal Syndrome” is a common part of Caucasian racial identity development. It can include acting out of guilt to help underprivileged or minority groups, without yet being totally honest about our own prejudices. We may adopt a “paternalistic protector” role, playing the hero who shields minority groups from the evils of the world, or we may overidentify with a minority group while rejecting our own group.

Taking this a step further can lead to behavior that is actually condescending, where we don’t acknowledge others’ strengths or need for independence. Conversely, it can lead to idealizing or placing others on pedestals, which can also make them uncomfortable or generate unrealistic expectations. Positive stereotypes, e.g., “All women are better at managing relationships,” can be just as damaging as negative stereotypes.

I realized that as I had listened to many of the men in the original video, I was judging them as having something akin to “Male Liberal Syndrome.” I felt like somehow they were conveying that being male is a terrible thing, and is somehow below being a woman.

But were they really even doing that, or was it just that I hadn’t fully come to accept my own male identity yet? Were they really asking me to hang my head in shame and place women on a higher pedestal, or were they simply saying that we need to acknowledge some harsh realities and accept responsibilities as we move toward equality? As I watched the video again, it became apparent that they were doing the latter.

Perhaps they were even illustrating that being male can also involve communication style that has feminine traits to it, i.e., that gender role expression can be along more of a continuum, rather than being viewed as binary. (The video and spoof do, however, have a heteronormative bias, as described in this partial analysis of the humor.)

It’s likely that the men in the video were at various stages in their identity development process, with some perhaps being at a Male Liberal Syndrome level, and others being much further along. But I had initially lumped them all into the same category. This was probably because I haven’t gotten to the place where I fully do all of the following:

  • understand and accept the implications of group membership as a whole
  • respect how I’m both a group member and a unique individual
  • avoid stereotypes of others within my group—i.e., consistently recognize other men as both group members AND individuals who may (or may not) differ vastly from the average

I sometimes still have a tendency to believe that men as a whole are less evolved in certain ways than women as a whole, and I sometimes secretly pat myself on the back while believing that I’m further evolved than the average male in certain ways. But either of these is, of course, highly subject to debate–and probably a waste of time to debate.

The truth is that I’m seeing some of my own traces of Male Liberal Syndrome, and was projecting some of my own imperfections upon others in the video.

All I can know is that I’m doing my best, as are many others. It’s probably more accurate to say that we’re all continuously evolving through our unique life experiences in slightly different ways.

My attitudes and actions, nor anyone else’s, will ever be perfect, as it’s a lifelong process. And regardless of how differently evolved each of the men in the original film were, it likely took all of them courage and willingness to ask themselves some tough questions.

What are your opinions on this? How can this support you or a loved one in showing up more powerfully and authentically?

* See the Genderbread Person graphic for an excellent illustration of all of these.

Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

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