In Defense of Mythopoetic Men’s Groups, or How Banging Drums in the Woods Can Be Good for the Soul
Being active in the theoretical as well as practical (re: participatory and activist) elements of men’s development, one is bound to come across mention of the mythopoetic men’s movement. Explanation of this aspect of men’s studies will include mention, (often as a criticism,) of the mythopoetic framework as being constructed around an essentialist approach to masculinity. In other words, masculinity is not constructed, but rather innate. Being male means being masculine and being female means being feminine. Any continuum of masculinity and femininity within individuals or consideration that gender is constructed is rejected.
Personally I have a problem with this criticism. This is not because I support an essentialist approach to gender, I do not, but because I come to men’s development and the study of masculinities with experience in one of these organizations that can be described as mythopoetic: drumming in the woods, use of ritual space and archetypes, men hugging other men – you get the picture. My personal experience with this group as compared with how it is described by its critics (typically academic) is not the same. Let me be clear, however, that I am not suggesting that all of these organizations described as mythopoetic are not as critics suggest. Rather, my personal experience (nor the experiences of those that participated with me) does not mesh with the picture that is portrayed as an anti-profeminist men’s rights organization interested only in forwarding an agenda focused on men at a cost to women.
In my discussion with gender studies colleagues in academia, I have found myself defending mythopoetic organizations. As you can imagine, their frame of reference is theoretical where my defense is experiential. As a fairly new student and practitioner in the world of academia, I often struggle in a debate that centers on theory and does not move beyond it. This is not because I am unfamiliar with the theories, but rather I find them to be more of a distraction to the real intent and focus of the groups such as the one I was once involved. If, however, I accept the premise that masculinity is not an essentialist condition and move beyond that debate to what I experienced and understand to be the actual goals of the group, it becomes a very different discussion.
Let me divulge first what I believe to be the lessons and purpose of the program and then back track as to how the emphasis on masculinity plays a role in achieving these goals. To establish a framework from which to operate, these groups, or at least the one with which I was involved, conduct weekend retreats at which ritual space, drumming, and touchy feely stuff occurs. This weekend is not the be-all-end-all, however, and emphasis is placed on the “real work” occurring in on-going groups created by participates in their own communities. The foundation of these smaller more intimate groups is not necessarily the celebration of men, but rather to hold one another accountable, to be men of integrity, to emphasize the practice of being of service, and to support one another in a manner incongruous with typical masculine norms. In many respects the focus of these groups is to challenge the gender norms that emphasizes men’s isolation and performative behavior. In order to get to this place, however, the space has to change because, as men, we recognize that doing so outside the confines of “safe space” is impossible….or at least that is what we believe. We believe this because in many respects it is true using the tools we are working with; tools that are developed through years of social construction in conjunction with layer upon layer of protective armor.
Critics dismiss the approach of the mythopoetic groups as focusing and celebrating too much on the qualities of masculinity and concluding that this focus only serves to perpetuate the myth that men and women are two different animals that can divided neatly into feminine and masculine. By fixating on masculinity as a good thing, the concept of gender as a spectrum is lost and, instead, results in encouraging men to continue to behave badly because we have somehow convinced ourselves that it is our biological right.
My response to this criticism is that while masculinity is most certainly a theme, it is really only the hook to be used for much deeper intents. Good teachers know that the best way to affect change is to meet the students where they are. I believe most men spend their lifetime armoring themselves. This is done through performing strength and internalizing pain. Ask any man if he knows what is meant by the “man behind the mask” and he will most likely know what you are referring to because you most likely are describing his lived experience. Being a man means pretending to be something we are not and hiding behind the mask to avoid the inevitable shame that would befall us if we revealed our true selves.
If we recognize that this is where most men are at, then this is where we need to meet them. Because if we admit that what is most destructive to men is our adherence to the dangerous and impossible gender norms of masculinity that leads to depression, addictive behavior, fear of intimacy, shame, violence, etc…, we have to talk about masculinity. And if our intention is to combat these by getting to a place of vulnerability, compassion, empathy, courage, and joy, then we have to work at tearing down those defenses that keep them from existing beyond the realm of wishful thinking.
Most men are comfortable in their heads, but not in their hearts. We can talk anything into oblivion, but when asked to make connections outside of our heads we often become anxious, awkward, and lost. Using masculine archetypes and stories about male courage (e.g. Iron John) are some of the tools used to assist in making these connections. The intent is not to teach these as truths but rather as a means to provide context.
Through the use of ritual, story, archetype, physical exertion, and exhaustion, what results is not a celebration of the superiority of men, but rather the gift of being authentic for the first time since childhood in the company of other men who share the same journey navigating the rough seas of gender norms. It is a celebration of the wholeness of all of us and the acceptance of one another. We recognize the strength in vulnerability not only in how it can alleviate our own pain, but how being vulnerable allows others to do the same. It is about discovering what a gift it is to be of service to others rather than always in competition. It is about being a person of integrity and having a willingness to keep others in integrity. It is about embracing fear and being authentic with that fear. In other words, it is about rejecting the masculine gender norms we have learned to conform to in order to survive. Instead, it gives us the courage to embody a new norm that is about being an authentic person whom embraces all the qualities of the feminine and masculine.
The initial creation and use of safe space is important in this endeavor because lived experience for most men is that it is dangerous to be authentic in the “real world.” The result, however, is that the more men recognize the similarities, the more stories that are shared of men’s truths, and the more men experience being supported and being a support to other men, the more it becomes a part of their everyday life.
That is the world I want to live in, and I applaud those that are taking the risk and suffering the criticism to get us there one man at a time.
- Sean Dixon