Guest post by W. McCrae
This guest post is from W. McCrae. She has previously published with Rhyd Wildermuth’s Gods & Radicals Press. Her current ongoing project is Junction, Nowhere, a serial Substack novel.
The Wonderland Rules is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
If I’m going to be honest, this essay nearly stumped me. “Give me a woman’s perspective on the Tonic project,” our old pal Rollins said—that’s easy mode, and I still spent five weeks spinning my wheels and overthinking it. Of course, my inherently feckless and indolent nature as a writer should absorb a lot of that blame, but I maintain that there was a degree to which this was a real quandary. The more angles of approach I tested, the less sure I became about what I hoped to accomplish by speaking on this topic at all, let alone what I wanted to actually say. My conviction in my own words was dismally low.
The trouble I’ve found myself in is that I don’t think it’s any woman’s place to explain to men what masculinity is supposed to be; and I doubt that you, TWR reader, want to see me incompetently try. Any definition of manhood that I could dream up from the outside would be prone to take a form suited to my sensibilities, which are distinctly other-than-male—and that makes my input useless at best or hostile at worst.
The thing about genderis that it is fundamentally an embodied condition. That’s not the only factor in play, not by a long shot, but it is the most deeply-rooted. In my time on this crazy blue marble of ours, I’ve come to terms with the fact that life is unavoidably dirty business; and I suspect that the lived experience of being a man is in many ways just earthier than that of being a woman. As humans, our lofty ambitions are never altogether separate from the grinding meat that sparks them: to be alive is to rut and stink and secrete, as endocrine an ordeal as it is a neurological or spiritual one. If we are all the base chemicals that compose us, then men and women are quite literally made of different stuff To expect either sex to flawlessly adapt to the other’s inter-group norms is optimistic bordering on naive, although that’s a hard pill for many to swallow.
At the end of the day, I don’t want to try to fit the peg of masculinity into a femininity-shaped hole (rimshot?). I respect men too much to do that to them—it’s not to say that a self-directed vision of masculinity need accept no feedback from its female counterpart, but it’s equally wrong for the mainstream narrative of maleness to remain in the hands of those who fear men. There’s a lot to criticize about the feminization of the public sphere in the 21st century; so without getting too sidetracked, I will broadly affirm that I do want to see men empowered to re-define maleness on terms that work for them, rather than them being compelled to playact the bloodless chivalry of self-erasure. The distinctly male half of human nature is half of what we are, and maybe this is just me being unpalatably heterosexual, but I don’t want to see it diminished or lost.
It’s not really for me to try and place myself as a first-order participant in building back a better masculinity, but I think I will still be one of the beneficiaries of that process. Ideally, we all will be. And hey, look—in six hundred words, I’ve given the Tonic Project my Biological Woman Stamp Of Approval, and (quite possibly!) ended the battle of the sexes forever. That wasn’t so hard! Can’t believe it took me five weeks to pull this together, but all’s well that ends well. We could celebrate with a drink!
Yes, you’re laughing. That’s because I’m funny; I think it’s one of my best qualities. If it were as simple as that, any art hoe or tradwife could do it. Staking a position in this culture war was never the issue; what eats me is the worry that I’ve been too flippant. Look, I’m not writing scholarship here—this is an evocative piece at best, and on reflection what jumps out to me about my own stance is just how heavily it is predicated on trust.
Because at the end of the day, I trust men. Yes, actually. I trust men to conduct their internal affairs responsibly, if left alone to do so; I trust men to respect me as a fellow traveler when we cross paths. Not that I’ve never encountered creeps in the wild or employed strategy to avoid probable danger, but in my own experience, the number of men who have been willing to interpose themselves upon a potential threat have always outnumbered the threats themselves. Men as a category-group have never given me, personally, reason to distrust them by default.
And I understand that this is a fairly rare thing for a woman to feel able to say. Hell, it’s a rare thing for a lot of men to feel able to say, particularly those who stay vigilant on women’s behalves. All of human history is rife with precedent for women not to trust men’s motives; modern deference toward the feminine over the masculine is an overcorrection, but not a difficult one to understand. Fundamental distrust is baked into the dynamic between the sexes, and overcoming it is usually limited to the small-scale of interpersonal relationships.
Most women do trust some men, but it’s uncommon for a woman to really trust men. Particularly when the men in question are trying to convene on a matter—such as the quality of masculinity itself—that she has a vested interest in, but limited right of input toward. She probably has personal experience, or has heard enough testimony from friends and family, to leave her nervous about what happens when groups of men are given free reign to set the rules.
So… what happened in my case, then? Am I an idiot, or just that lucky? Do I not get out enough? Yes on all accounts, I’m sure. My charmed life colors my outlook, and that’s where we come back around to the point I made in my opening paragraph: that I lack conviction in the broad applicability of my own perspective. In my mind, the cautionary tales are just tales—they’re folklore, mythology from a neighboring tribe whose ways are slightly alien to me. The story that I’m living is still one where trust is not usually betrayed, and our shared humanity winds up seeing us through in the end.
Someday I may have an experience that changes this perspective. Maybe my starry-eyed universalism is doomed to fail; maybe I was always a fool and heading for a fool’s comeuppance. I hope not. But right now, today, at the time of this writing—the personal narrative still holds true, and that’s something I can state with conviction.
The story of modern masculinity isn’t mine to write, but it is a story. The version of the story that I know best was told to me by all the men I know best: by my steadfast father, by my brother who is constantly improving himself, by my husband whose first instinct is always kindness. By the school-buddies who barely treated me differently for being a girl, and the would-be beaus who occasionally made my femaleness feel like power instead of responsibility; by once-friends who became like family, and bus-stop strangers who were something like friends for fifteen minutes at a time.
So that’s what I’m here for today. Not to dictate a vision of what tonic masculinity could be, but to tell you that it’s already here, in the real world. It’s a story that’s meant to be lived, rather than spoken; it’s a series of choices rather than a series of words. The tonic is a many-threaded narrative of masculinity, and one in competition against others which are variously more self-aggrandizing or self-denying, and probably more widespread—but it’s still true, just as true as all the rest.
It’s true for me, at least. And I’m not letting the dream die just yet. Look to me when your faith falters, then.
Here’s to all of us, gentlemen. Thanks for letting me say my piece.
No hedging! You don’t care for hand-wringing about gender-feelings, and that’s why we get along so well.
On hormonal birth control, my loss of libido was so subtle that I didn’t even recognize it had happened until I came off the medication a decade later. Compare that to a male friend who described his experience of de-libidinizing drugs as deafening, like a soundproof room. The metaphor, that of sex drive as both vital sense and incessant distraction, struck me. Fellas: how the hell do you ever get anything done?
Hard for many of us on the left, anyway. I know I’m showing my belly by revealing that particular bonafide, but we’re all friends here, right? I’m cool, I can hang! Rollins will vouch for me.
Your treat. It’s Ladies’ Night.
I’m no simp for patriarchy theory, and I’m not convinced that the plight of the average woman prior to the Industrial Revolution was that of a caged bird under constant threat of beating or witch-burning. That historical retrospective only really makes sense when viewed through a highly Modern lens—but whether or not it’s true makes little difference when trying to appeal to folks who are habituated to modernity, myself included. Maybe our female ancestors were generally happier as kept women than the modern woman is with her right to vote; the values organically imbued in me by my upbringing are still such that I don’t want to trade the latter for the former.
Thanks to Rollins for the open mic this week!
I've enjoyed this thread of pieces. But hats off to McCrae for this line especially:
"Playact the bloodless chivalry of self-erasure."
Pretending we aren't what we are is among the silliest tics of a culture that got good at deconstructing, but never knew how to build anything better.