The King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and the Supreme Ruler of Iran, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei—two men who, as symbols of manhood, couldn’t be further apart. And while no pair of males could represent the full spectrum of masculinity, the Thriller and the Chiller are strong contenders. Jackson’s death June 25, encroached on the headlines Khamenei was making, warning he’d had enough of the massive protests democracy-hungry Iranians were staging in Tehran.
Jackson, whose difficult gendered life seemed to be an attempt to be male, female and all points in between, inadvertently invited us to stretch our thinking about manhood. Not so for the Ayatollah, whose adherence to an extreme and rigid patriarchal masculinity precluded any such yoga of the mind.
For all his bizarre behaviors, Jackson broke down stereotypes and broke through barriers of how a black male was supposed to act. Long before allegations began surfacing about his sexual inclinations, an adoring public gave him wide berth to explore his attraction to whiteness and androgyny. That his later years were marked by accusations of pedophilia suggests someone literally uncomfortable in his own skin (whatever its color).
Despite gender bending behavior, it was business as usual—male aggression—in many of his music videos. In “The Way You Make Me Feel” he stalks a woman, egged on by a group of men. In “Thriller”, his signature song, the story line includes women under attack, possible victims of violence.
Jackson grew up in a fishbowl, maturing as an artist while stunted as a person. The chant, “Be a man” doesn’t ring true for someone whose goal, apparently, was never to become one.
While conforming to masculinity’s rigid restrictions wasn’t on Jackson’s mind, patriarchy is second nature for the Ayatollah. Still, he’s overseeing a country which has had enough of “supreme” rule. With a majority population of young people—two thirds of Iranians are under 35—he’s trying to hold the theocratic and patriarchal lines, so thin they’re hardly distinguishable.
Demanding an end to male dominance might not be how protestors would describe their demonstrations, yet they are challenging the Iranian male hierarchy, among the oldest of old boy clubs. Even as an emboldened citizenry is loosening masculinity’s hold, women remain under siege. Just turn a tear-filled eye to the ongoing rapes in the Congo to note the distance we must travel to ensure women live fully emancipated, safe lives.
Despite the brutality, new cracks are spreading in patriarchy’s Great Wall. In the United States, for example, there’s been a spate of high-ranking male politicians who arrogantly believed their power afforded them the right to commit adultery, deceive their wives and families and lie to their constituents. The assumption behind wielding such unbridled authority and control, i.e. male privilege—the very cornerstone of conventional manhood—is being fiercely challenged today, exposed with a force heretofore not seen.
Republican governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina (who may be an ex-governor when you read this) and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nevada), who both admitted to having affairs while married, are just the latest characters to join the ensemble of a long-running series, let’s call it Gone with the Men. Recent cast members include Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), former governor Eliot Spitzer (D-New York), Detroit’s former Democratic mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, former governor James McGreevey (D-New Jersey), North Carolina’s former Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards. In former President Bill Clinton’s day the series would have been called West Fling. My apologies if I’m missed anyone.)
Yes, we need to begin an important national conversation about personal privacy violations and the public’s trust. In the meantime, those men (with the exception of “I’m a Gay American” McGreevey)—represent the heterosexual establishment center between Michael Jackson and the Ayatollah Khamenei. They are harbingers marking the beginning of the end of conventional masculinity. As dead flowers decompose atop makeshift memorial tributes to Michael Jackson, and the “supreme ruler” pulls harder on the reins of power, a chorus of men on a journey to healthy manhood is warming up. Some may be chanting morning prayers, others may be singing Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” with lyrics including these: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror/I’m asking him to change his ways/And no message could have been any clearer/If you wanna make the world a better place/Take a look at yourself and then make a change.”
The days of men behaving badly may not be over, but there is no shortage of examples of men behaving well. In my Spring travels to conferences in Rio de Janeiro, Washington, Chicago, and New York; in the ongoing work by male college and university students; in trainings and workshops being conducted across Africa, Latin America, India, men and young men are articulating a masculinity that honors and respects women—the givers of life—as it honors and respects the inherent goodness within men and boys. Their names may not be in the mainstream media headlines but that makes their contributions to the great turning under way no less vital.
Chronicling their stories—and the rise of a new, healthy masculinity—is what Voice Male does. We broadcast a message of hope, possibility, and change to encourage both those in the trenches and bystanders on the sidelines. To do this work we need help. We need you to subscribe or renew, to take out a sub for your father or friend. We need you to make a gift; to write or suggest a story; to send in a letter to the editor or an email of advice. A great turning is under way, a seismic shift rocking the streets of Tehran, the halls of power in Washington, villages and towns in India, Africa, and U.S. communities on both coasts and in the heartland. Voice Male invites you to put your shoulders to the wheel of change. We need you. Now.