Liquid Masculinity

There was a time when a boy was expelled from the religious school I attended. It was the only expulsion I’d seen in my time there. He was expelled for drinking. 

At the time, most of my grade drank. In fact, a lot of boys in the school drank. But they expelled only him. It was an easy expulsion. The code of conduct and the religious principles of the school allowed it.

But why was that the rule? If half (or more) of the school drinks, would they expel them all? This thinking of punishing alcohol consumption has very deep moral roots. 

The people with power over us declare alcohol a moral evil and cast judgement on the sinners. It is toxic and unhelpful. But most of all, it only makes the problem worse. The boys in the school drank specifically because they couldn’t. 

There was a status to being able to avoid detection and a rebellion to being caught. Young masculine bravado was pent up around the idea of engaging in contraband. Severe religious punishment has a very masculine identity so there was a certain ability to claim manhood by being able to “stand up to the man”. My fellow learners tried to cast away the restrictions of being boys by drinking. 

It was easy to claim manhood by engaging in the activities of men: drinking boisterously. Certainly, the boys in the school saw themselves that way. There were many rituals considered as growing out from boyhood. Alcohol was the easiest — far easier than building muscle or having sex. They normalised the feeling of intoxication to the feeling of being a man, which they then coded into their behaviours while sober. 

There is a norm that very strong alcohol is for men. How often do we hear of flavoured or diluted alcohol being compared to femininity? There are entire categories of alcohol scorned upon by masculine men as being weak. Here, boys are taught to access their identity as men through the brazen reckless consumption of alcohol — of potent alcohol. Manlihood required the excess of intoxication and the ultimate release of inhibition, even if that meant exercising violence. 

By far, it was easier for a lot of the boys in the class to perform masculinity while intoxicated. In this way, alcohol did not make them violent, sexist or patriarchal, but it eased the denial and shame. It decomposed their demeanor behind bully-ish outbreaks and condescending remarks. They emerged arrogant and unmerciful. I have seen how nights progressed among these boys, who started in anxious shells. A few drinks in, they confidently spewed jokes about rape, got into argumens about sporting teams and bragged obtectifyingly about conquering sexual interests. 

This behaviour reminds me of the opening lines of Alan Ginsberg’s poem, Howl: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.”

There were these boys, starving hysterical naked, and their daily activities summarised so neatly as an angry fix. Indeed, too, they were strong minds. Many of them once questioned the pressures of boyhood, the insistence on gender roles and the expectation on them to display strength and courage. Some of them wanted to be silent shadows, observant wallflowers or musing dreamers. But over time, they all descended into the patriarchal mold, destroyed by that madness.

Certainly, these were the same activities they performed sober. Alcohol did not cause their patriarchy. But it was very clear that very often, alcohol made it easier for them to perform. Perhaps, somewhere there within, these boys had slight voices of consciousness which cautioned against their toxic masculine tendencies. But, while intoxicated, that voice was a mere whisper against the boisterous shouting of their ego and bravado. 

After all, for a young teenager, patriarchy is performed. These young boys especially had no idea what they were doing. I saw them flickering through pornography magazines, practicing rougher voice accents, hobbling along like their favourite action film stars, memorising sexist gangsta rap and losing their footing in after-school fights. They weren’t men, not by any definition, including their own. 

They had no competency for the hallmarks of their supposed manliness, for roughness, for building, for hunting, for securing, for survival, for fighting, for arrogance, or for dominance. They were small, small boys. They had high pitched voices, skinny arms, and single-mother raised homes. They weren’t at all what they wanted to be (were told to be) — and they knew this. Performing masculinity when it is so obviously false required alcohol. 

One of the boys told me once that alcohol is liquid courage. For them, it was the opportunity to imagine their masculinity until they could normalise it. They were not escaping reality. They were creating it. Alcohol was a gateway to their manliness. 

So, we return to the expulsion. Indeed, this was not a caution. This expelled boy was now a man in their eyes. He had successfully ruffled the feathers of the men-on-top. He was to be kicked out of this camp of boys, leaving forever its gates. But, this was an elevation to manhood, because after all, anyone that remained in that school was a boy. Anyone who left was considered a man. 

The expulsion did not undermine the consumption of alcohol. It raised the stakes. Certainly now, only the “manliest of men” would dare drink. But more dangerously, those who were thought of as not man enough had the opportunity to prove themselves. It is those that are least masculine that we should worry most about since they feel a pressure to still attain their masculinity and feel they should pursue it in the most extreme of ways — to make sure.

This is very similar to Immortal Technique’s rap, Dancing with the Devil: “criminals he chilled with didn’t think he was real… So he felt he had to prove to everyone he was evil”

In that song, Immortal Technique chronicles the descent of William, a “corrupted young man”, who wants the recognition of a gang. He and that gang violently rape a woman, who turns out to be William’s mother. 

It is this insistence on being recognised as a man that develops tendencies of violence and power. It can also explain the large disparities in violence between men and womxn. Gender roles enforce submissivess onto womxn as a means to access their gender identity, whereas violence is ushered into men. The relationship between men and violence is closely related to the ways men believe they should affirm their gender identity. 

For the men that simply cannot affirm this violent masculinity, alcohol is a useful psychosis to escape the limitations of their consciousness and adapt to this affirmed violent being. There is no longer a shrilling voice advising against their blustering violence. They emerge into a sexist disposition.

Dancing with the Devil warns us, however: “So when the Devil wants to dance with you, you better say never. Because a dance with the Devil might last you forever.” We remember our actions. Many of these young boys, still cognisant that what they are doing is wrong, sober and feel an immediate guilt and terror for their actions. After all, their same souls warned them against the act prior. It takes every opportunity to remind them of it after.

Alcohol then tames this voice. It submerges the feelings of responsibility for their actions and erases the despair of their memory. It does this at least for a moment. In fact, it does it only for that moment. So, they must return endlessly and always to that intoxicated state. It is so common in film and television, an archetype like this. A man, with a belly of beer, who is forever drunk and forever violent. Still, they are haunted by the very bottle that they use to wash away their haunting.

Of course, I did not know all this as a young boy in this school. Around me, I was a spectator in the way that these events unfolded. In some way, I felt morally superior to the rest of the flock. I don’t drink — not while I was in this school or after. I have seen the eyes of a man diluted into the night, raving away his inhibition. I have also felt the consequences of his drunkenness. This is something I do not want for myself or any other person, least of all the many womxn who are the greatest survivors of patriarchal violence.

I know now that patriarchy is a great pit of darkness that a man descends into. He suffers in there, chained by expectations he cannot fulfill and being a mould identity which is not his own. The result is so great a violence that it entirely consumes the man. These, too, are the pits that I have fallen into and try endlessly to climb out of.

Michael Lee’s poem, Waking Up Naked expresses so much of the transformation normalised by consuming alcohol. “Every time I drink I break out in handcuffs. I crap on the living room carpet, and then kick down a door… one time I headbutted my best-friend so hard I shattered his nose.”

Many men are still falling, far and deep into it, aided by the intoxication of their faculty. If ever, they were seriously sober, they would be immediately sad and struck by the horror of the violence they have committed. Such a soul would be impossible to save. 

But as Waking Up Naked evolves, we learn of the pain it took to escape, “handcuffed to an emergency room bed”. It is not easy to cast the pressures of alcohol off, but it is necessary. Men need to reckon with the death of themselves through the excess of alcohol and say as Michael Lee says, “No. I don’t want to die anymore.”

I wonder now how much differently all these boys would be if the school had brought us into a room and spoke to us about masculinity. Back then, the chaplain spoke to us on the morality and evils of alcohol. I imagine him instead with some large board print-outs with diagrams and a marker. I see him circling the pages, illuminating us to the pressures of masculine performance. He holds before us a mirror of ourselves and we see in disgust the men we were becoming. The voice of our consciousness is fed and grows so strong, we reject the norms of patriarchy.

Perhaps, it is fitting that Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are associated with a recognition of our identity. But, it would be better to start this affirmation before the bottle. Little boys are thrown into overtly backward camps of masculinity. They clearly emerge as spaces of violence.

Still, alcohol is not the problem, nor is it responsible for the actions that men commit to. Men remain the promulgators of violence. “Under the influence” is a misnomer. Alcohol is just a formative passive in the forming of the man. It is the substance through which boys numb their doubts about patriarchy and many, for the first time, accept a demeanor of violence. 

It is liquid masculinity. It is the darkness within the pit that covers the sight of the descent. Men are falling endlessly, constantly making themselves unaware of their dizziness, but still falling. 

One thought on “Liquid Masculinity

  1. This is spot on. As a man who is awakening from the bitter slumber of toxic masculinity, I can attest to the assertions made in your post. more often than not, men are captured by the myths of toxic masculinity, mainly: you ‘handle’ your liquor when you’re heavily drunk; you are an excessive chain smoker; your value is determined by the number of sexual partners; you are violent; you are unrealistically successful at EVERYTHING.

    It takes courage to open yourself up to be vulnerable, to shine a spotlight on such a huge majority of people, and awesome skill to do it in a manner that’s engaging. Love it!

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