Mythopoetic Men’s Work: A Patriarchal Backlash?
The men fixed their gaze on me — attentive, present, and somehow intimidating. Suddenly, I saw a tear rolling down somebody's cheek. He was just looking at me empathetically. I must have appeared pretty downtrodden while sitting on the worn carpet that had been placed in the middle of a circus tent. My emotional vulnerability was contagious, although I remained outwardly composed. Left and right men in other circles were roaring and screaming, doing “men’s work.” The scene occurred in 2008 when I attended a New Warrior Training Adventure with the Mankind Project, a modern male initiation and self-examination program.
You may be familiar with journalistic portrayals of guys out there in nature: wrestling, screaming, hitting dummies, or dancing around a fire. When I started my doctoral research on masculinities, I encountered such men a couple of times at outdoor gatherings. They got in touch with their inner ‘wild man.’ But the actual men’s work was less theatrical than it seemed from the outset. I became one of the ‘brothers,’ initially out of personal curiosity and later to attend weekly groups for mental health support. The more or less organized men’s circles I joined around the world were linked to the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, made up of mostly economically privileged and straight white males.
In the 1980s, the founders of the movement promoted the making of ‘new’ men who would neither be overly harsh and competitive nor too gentle and compromising. They argued that as a result of modern life, men had become alienated from their true nature, the so-called ‘deep masculine’ embodied by mythic figures, like Iron John depicted in a German folk tale.
The U.S. American poet Robert Bly spearheaded the movement and infused it with depth psychology. He contrasts the ‘wild man’ with the ‘savage man’ who does not examine and heal his psychological wounds and is prone to harm the earth and humankind. In a nutshell, the violent, abusive, or ‘toxic masculinity’ is born out of injury. It needs to be transformed through initiation rituals within a group of men who embody the ‘mature’ masculine. The mature man is supposed to get in touch with his inner life and emotions without becoming overtly ‘sensitive.’ In other words, the fragility that may come from a lack of awareness of one’s own strengths and downfalls is supposed to be overcome. I became intrigued but also noticed the shortcomings.
Iron John in the cage with the prince, by Godron Browne (1894)
Feminist critiques have argued that the mythopoetic literature and men’s work that seeks to develop male archetypes into a ‘mature’ masculine want to return to a mythic past in which men and women had clear-cut gender roles. Some sociologists, like Michael Kimmel, portray the self-exploration workshops and weekend initiation rituals as a backlash against feminism and a reaction to women’s empowerment. From this perspective, the ‘brothers’ want to return to the dark ages of patriarchy and quietly condone the oppression of women. The reality nevertheless is more complicated.
The secrecy around the weekend initiation rituals has prevented an open and critical examination. To participate in the New Warrior Training Adventure, I had to give the organizers complete indemnity as well as an attestation that I would keep all details of the initiation secret. I get it. It is done to protect the participants and to create a unique experience for new initiates. But it also obscures that some of the techniques used to do the ‘inner work’ come from psychotherapy. As a therapist, it struck me that the volunteer facilitators who had not formally been trained as mental health professionals were doing a pretty good job. They had experienced the processes on their personal journeys of recovery for a host of psycho-social issues. These volunteers were able to relate to the initiates in a heartful way and could facilitate powerful group dynamics in which men became partners rather than competitors.
However, the male initiation weekends do not guarantee long-term behavior change or a transformation of the shadow or toxic masculinity into men with integrity. Healing emotional pain, living up to one’s moral principles, and being held accountable by other men required participation in ongoing men’s groups that are offered through the Mankind network and other less structured associations. In my experience, this could take on very different forms in South Africa, Germany, and the United States where I attended locally organized ‘integration groups.’
Feminists rightfully criticized the mythopoetic movement because of its universal claims about the male psyche, and it’s silence on issues about women’s rights. I found it to be true that there is a bias against men with presumably feminine traits. While the depth-psychology of Carl Jung emphasized that there are masculine and feminine aspects (animus and anima) in every person, the mythopoetic rendering of his work gave way to an exclusive focus on masculinity. Moreover, the older generation of mythopoets left out folks who do not identify by one of the mainstream gender labels. Although gay men are included, the men’s circles provide little room for gender non-conformity and men who were not born male.
A growing number of young people do not follow stereotypes about how they should look or act based on the female or male sex they were assigned at birth. At the same time, others continue to search for a ‘healthy’ masculine identity that is not based on male dominance or oppressive patriarchy. It is telling that nowadays, the term masculinity has for many people a toxic connotation tied to the devaluation of femininity, domination, homophobia, excessive competitiveness, and interpersonal violence. So can there be redemption?
The so-called Sacred Sons may represent the most recent endeavor among Millenials to cultivate ‘new’ men through all-male gatherings that include yoga and tantric sex talk. Like the mythopoets of the 1980s, they emphasize the importance of male initiation and male archetypes, like the lover, warrior, or magician. Still, they seem to take a more explicit stance against patriarchy, are ethnically diverse, and show some openness to including people who do not exclusively identify as men. Moreover, they do away with the secrecy of weekend self-exploration workshops and catapult depictions of sexy, rouge, and yet vulnerable young men, into the spotlight of social media. This is an interesting development that nevertheless seems to come with the commercialization of what so far have been nonprofit peer-lead groups.
Let’s face it. Male and female bodies are different, and so are those that do not fit into these categories. Thus we experience the world differently. It makes sense to provide spaces for developing embodied gender identities for everybody, including guys who struggle to fit into popular stereotypes of masculinity. I think it is safe to say that spaces in which men commonly explore their manhood’s meanings, such as locker rooms, bars, sports events, and business suites, have led to limited and highly restricted expressions of ‘straight’ masculinity. The #MeToo Movement that focused on high-profile cases of sexual assault only exposed the tip of the iceberg in this regard.
In my opinion, the caricature and ridicule of psycho-social male support groups in the media and sociological accounts do a disservice to gender justice. Some self-declared male feminists deem men to be universally complicit with the oppression of women and those who do not fit into a gender binary. But this locks us into an irredeemable position and leaves little room for change — especially change that does not depend on reason alone. The personal and embodied nature of men’s emotional lives and vulnerabilities are simply left out in approaches that seek to transform men based on mere education about gender inequalities.
As a couples counselor and psychotherapist, I have witnessed that transformation is an ongoing process and needs to include the men’s partners, families, and communities. For those who hope for a quick fix of masculinity through educational workshops or weekend initiation camps, disappointment awaits. The good news is that you don’t have to become a mythologist or believe in unchanging male archetypes to do “the work.” Throughout the years, I found it extremely helpful to reflect upon my life and the lives of others in a group of supportive men, and I continue to do so independently of formal associations and enterprises.