Male Pain Is Male Power
Men hold the world hostage to their fragility and vulnerability — making female pain the inevitable cost of their comfort
“I was very emotional last Thursday,” Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the Wall Street Journal a few days before his confirmation, “more so than I have ever been. I might have been too emotional at times.”
“Emotional” was one way to put it. Anyone who read those sentences knew what he was referring to: the wailing, screeching, raging monologue Kavanaugh put the nation through in response to being credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple women. The one in which he veered, several times per minute, between red-faced toddler rage and weeping Hallmark sentimentality. At one point, his daughter was invoked to say she “prayed for” his alleged victim (referred to as “the woman”). At another, Kavanaugh wept openly when referring to his father Edward’s love of calendars. This caused some confusion later on when news outlets revealed that Edward Kavanaugh was not dead.
“Emotional.” The word applied, comfortably, to a lot of women that day. It applied to Christine Blasey Ford, on the witness stand, whose voice trembled and cracked as she described Kavanaugh’s “uproarious laughter” while assaulting her. It applied to many of the women watching: the women in my group chats, who talked about weeping in public or being unable to get out of bed, and the women who struggled to get dressed or carry on conversations. Every one of those women felt “too emotional,” which is to say they felt traumatized, either by the specific impact of sexual violence on their life or by the broader context of misogyny that facilitates male sexual violence and propels predators to power. But they weren’t the ones screaming about how badly the world had hurt their feelings.
We are primed, almost from birth, to find men’s emotions more serious and more worthy of empathy than women’s.
What Kavanaugh displayed on that witness stand was not “emotion.” It was weakness. And that weakness — and our presumed obligation to protect him — helped land him one of the nation’s highest seats of power. In time, we learned that he had been coached to show anger and that what looked like a public meltdown was a carefully calibrated performance, the result of White House counsel telling Kavanaugh to “show the senators how he really felt.” Kavanaugh’s testimony was a conscious invocation of fragility to avoid consequences, the all-too-familiar spectacle of a man holding the world hostage to his pain.
To think of men as weak or over-emotional requires flipping a few ubiquitous cultural scripts. It’s women, we are told, who are soft, caring, gentle, and capable of tenderness and sentimentality. This is our “gift,” though if we try to do any actual thinking, we’re told our viewpoint is distorted by emotion. Men are the tough ones. If you believe in the popular theory of “toxic masculinity,” their range of potential affect is culled by societal conditioning until the only emotion they can safely express is rage. When men tell me they’ve been hurt by the patriarchy — and they do — one of the wounds they most commonly list is the enforced suppression of their “sensitive” sides.
Yet we are drowning in men’s sensitivity — their fragility, their vulnerability, their endless wounded cries about being called out or caught. Male pain is what Kavanaugh called upon to defend himself. Male pain is put on offer when Aziz Ansari, after being accused of sexual misconduct, comes back to the stage with a set about the tyranny of “extreme wokeness.” Male pain is the specter waved in our faces whenever an accused predator or harasser loses his job; male pain is the unthinkable outcome being threatened when defenders ask if a rapist “should ever be able to work again.” Male pain is a power play, a bright red stoplight, a way to shut down any conversation that gets too challenging. Male pain is how men maintain male power.
I do not mean to suggest men can’t experience legitimate emotional pain: depression or post-traumatic stress or just a rough patch after grandma dies. What I do mean to say is that men’s emotions seem to carry more weight than women’s, that they are given more power and seen as more authentic, and that they are more likely to be seen as understandable reactions to bad circumstances rather than oversensitivity or “hysteria” — even when oversensitivity and hysteria is exactly what they are.
Men can afford vulnerability and softness and pain because the world will rise up to protect them.
We are primed, almost from birth, to find men’s emotions more serious and more worthy of empathy than women’s. Our culture has endless stories about male heartbreak and loneliness and distress, from Say Anything to Shakespeare. Often, in those stories, the villain is a woman who says no or walks away or otherwise puts the male protagonist in some uncomfortable situation due to her inconvenient sexual or reproductive agency. Menelaus puts the world through the Trojan War because his wife doesn’t want to sleep with him while Agamemnon murders his daughter to ensure his victory, and Achilles pouts for half the conflict because he isn’t allowed to rape his preferred slave girl. Hamlet kills everyone he knows, including himself, to make sure his widowed mother doesn’t get to date. The women — Helen of Troy, Iphigenia, Queen Gertrude — either die or get raped at the end of these stories, but they’re not the point. Female pain is less than nothing, an inevitability. Female pain is just what has to happen so that men don’t have to be in pain anymore.
In fact, for all the tenderness men attribute to the feminine — crying at the movies, cooing at babies, being moved by the fragile beauty of a falling leaf — very few women can be as sensitive as men are. The women who wept about their rapes in Sephora or pushed the snooze button 10 times before going to work these last few weeks; the women who spent Blasey Ford’s testimony willing themselves not to shake or cry; the women reporting the unfolding injustice in newsrooms or protesting it at the Capitol; the women who said nothing that day, who did nothing out of the ordinary, whose rapes and beatings and brushes with death went unreported and unnoticed — if those women were anywhere near as sensitive as women are purported to be, they would spend their entire lives screaming.
Men can afford vulnerability and softness and pain because the world will rise up to protect them. They can afford to fall down and fall apart publicly because someone will always be there to make excuses for them and cushion the fall. Men can afford pain because when faced with the spectacle of male pain, our culture’s first instinct is to look for whatever is making him uncomfortable and remove it — and, more often than not, what is making him uncomfortable is a woman asking for more than he’s prepared to give.
“My hearing testimony was forceful and passionate. That is because I forcefully and passionately denied the allegation against me,” Kavanaugh wrote. Again, the man screamed for 40 minutes about calendars and basketball and weights and Squi — about anything and everything and frequently nothing at all. He screamed not about the allegations or because he had compelling evidence to rebut them but because he was forced to admit that Christine Blasey Ford existed and to pretend, for less than half a day, that her life mattered. Her humanity was a roadblock on his way to power, and he wept and cried and shrieked until that roadblock was removed for him.