Rémy is typing…
Caitlin Jenner is on Vanity Fair’s cover and I am being roasted in my WhatsApp group.
Rémy is typing…
It is late at night. It is cold. Namibian winter cold, not ordinary winter cold. That means the cold creeps around scarves, beanies, and mittens. There is no way to keep warm. I have early flu symptoms: my nose is doing a full cardio workout with all the running it is doing, a slight headache throbs behind my eyes, and I cough every so often. I am sick, I am cranky, and I am being roasted in my group.
Rémy is typing…
I am trying to tell the other 25 participants in my all-male, all-black, WhatsApp group that I have no problem with Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlin Jenner. My internet connection is slow so I cannot riposte the sarcastic barbs that are being thrown my way every ten seconds. I am outnumbered in my liberal views by 20 to 1.
The group is absolute chaos. Memes are being posted. Swear words and other derogatory terms are being thrown around. I am being called all manner of things by people who are outraged that a person they will never meet, or never have to do anything with (besides see them on a magazine cover that they will probably never buy), has chosen to have a sexual reassignment.
I am trying to tell them to just live and let live, to, you know, assess the number of fucks they have to give and determine whether they are spending them wisely.
Rémy is typing…
It is 01h00. Someone just said a real man would never change their sex. Ever. And they tossed in the caveat that any man worth his salt would be outraged by Bruce Jenner’s transition.
Oh, it is going down.
I am leaking my soul through my nose and typing furiously. My wispy internet connection makes it look like I am ducking away from comment threads because my responses take time to be posted in the group. I am trying to succinctly explain my reasons for not having a problem with Caitlin’s transition. I am trying to avoid sarcasm, trying not to call people imbeciles, desperately trying not to sound like a better-than-thou black. It is hard. So hard.
Rémy is typing…
My iPhone’s notification panel is permanently camped out at the top of my screen now—all I am seeing is emoticons, LOLs, and the beginnings of new argument threads. I am about 20 messages behind.
Caitlin Jenner is on Vanity Fair’s cover.
And I am being roasted in the group.
Rémy is typing…
A Chris Rock quote I have become particularly attached in recent months says that “if poor people knew just how rich people were there would be riots in the streets.” It is probably true. I have only seen mere suggestions of how the other half lives (on Instagram) but I am sure that if some of my peers and I exchanged financial woes I would disown some of them.
What I know to be an indelible fact of the universe is that women would be horrified if they knew what men talk about in their WhatsApp groups. Our wives, our girlfriends, sisters, mothers, and crushes would stare open-mouthed in shock if they scrolled through our phones. Of course, this is not to say that all-male WhatsApp groups are cesspools of sexist banter but I am confident enough to say that a great many of them are—lord knows a lot of mine are. And, yes, I have my moments where I, too, transform into a rude and sexist prig. Ratchet Rémy is totally a thing.
My god, if women knew what we talked about in our WhatsApp groups there would be murder.
All-male WhatsApp groups, I think, begin with a particular goal that is defined by the group’s founding name. So “Rémy’s Birthday” will be created by someone who has taken a peek at their calendar and realised that my birthday is coming up soon and, oh, holy shit, let’s plan a surprise party for him. And while most groups have a particular purpose at their inception—organising a night out or figuring what readings are required to answer a college essay—after the fact, if not deleted, they undergo an almost identical and predictable transformation. A couple of name changes later and, voila, a new entity emerges: a badly punctuated meme-sharing service littered with screenshots from Instagram, Facebook, and the Internet.
I cannot profess to know what happens in all-female WhatsApp groups, male groups have a very simple content formula: 1) women (how to get them, where to get them, what they look like, what they do); 2) money (how to get it, how to spend it, who has it, who is spending it, what they are spending it on); 3) sport (who is winning, who is not, whose team has not won a trophy since Jesus’ ascension); and 4) miscellaneous (this includes religion music, books, politics, art, and current events).
While the emphasis placed in the subject matter may differ from place to place, group to group, the core is always the same. Guys will talk about women, money, and sport. Always. Most of these conversations will be lighthearted banter—guys love talking shit. I do. But every so often the conversation will become gravely serious when a friend is going through emotional turmoil (during a breakup or when his soccer team is about to buy James Milner), getting married, or thinking about changing careers. In these moments, everyone chips in their two cents to try to offer comfort, advice, and encouragement.
These moments are not the norm, though. Oftentimes topics are lighthearted, loaded with sly humour and an opportunity for some unwitting member to step into a trap that will have everyone in the group—even that 25th member who never participates in anything—chucking sarcasm Molotov cocktails.
It is mostly fun and games.
Unless, of course, the subject of manhood comes up. Then things get very, very serious.
Rémy is typing…
Caitlin Jenner is not the first time that the issue of manhood has come up. In every all-male WhatsApp group I am in the issue has raised its head on more than one occasion. My friends and I are, after all, in our late twenties and early thirties. Our parents, girlfriends—boyfriends in other instances—and society as a whole expect us to start becoming men.
But becoming a man is no longer as simple as it once was, I believe. The standards are shifting and eroding every day. On each continent, in each country, in each culture and social circle, the requirements of manhood are in flux. Few people in my age group and social circles know what the future holds.
Thanks to robust feminist debates and critique, and reforms in almost every discipline of life the idea of masculinity, of manhood, of “being a man”, has changed drastically. An undercurrent of doubt is in everything that was once held to be true and definitive.
Nobody, at least from what I can tell from the conversations I have with friends in my Whatsapp groups knows what it really means to “be a man” anymore. Our fathers cannot tell us because their generation had it easy—marriage, children, property—and our current crop has experienced seismic shifts in terms of gender equality. Most of us have attended co-ed schools; we have studied with girls and been beaten by them at academics; we have been to college and spent numerous years of our young lives interacting with women in various social situations and, for a select few of us, have even been treated by women in the exact manner men treat other women. We have experienced a totally different world from our fathers.
It is always amusing to see conversations about masculinity unfolding in WhatsApp groups. Three camps always develop: first, there are the old-school types who continue to stick to the traditional “bash it and bring it back to the cave” type of worldview; secondly, there are progressives who are open-minded until something touches an ingrained masculine attribute they have secretly held onto (like your wife taking your surname); and, then, in the minority (almost always), are the confused, laissez-faire people like me who know sweet fuck-all about anything because we were raised in houses without gender roles. People like me have figured out that by letting women have more independence we will be exempted from certain masculine duties that we do not particularly enjoy. (Like killing spiders. Fuck that. Bae must be handy with a slipper because Rémy isn’t killing anything with more than six legs.)
The first group is always confident, following old arguments, never baulking in their convictions, never yielding. The only problem I have with this group of people is that they are almost always in the majority. And they always have a better internet connection than you so they always crowd you out of the WhatsApp conversations. Assholes.
The second group, the fence feminists, are a little more open to discussion, provided, of course, that one does not encroach upon some non-negotiable principle.
The third group is just confused. In doubt, always questioning, never really sure what it means to be a man in the 21st century. And when you add the other important societal factors such as race and culture the question becomes even harder: what does it mean to be a black man in Africa in this day and age?
Rémy is typing…
It is a hard question. One that is no closer to being answered by the numerous all-male groups I am in. The answers range from the über conservative to the über progressive.
I, personally, have also been plagued by this question. And with Caitlin Jenner gracing the Vanity Fair cover the issue has risen yet again. There are many views being shared—some are insightful, some are not.
The issue, for me, cannot be approached without reference to my personal upbringing which, on reflection, has been instrumental in shaping my view of manhood. As the second-born child, but firstborn son, gender roles in my household were never really clear. My older sister was the unequivocal leader, I came next, and my younger brothers followed in their respective ages. But this was in paper only, in our house we were not raised to follow ages or cultural expectations based on sex. We were raised to do whatever needed to be done to make sure our household was stable and functioning. We were raised to work, and work had to be done by the most able person. It could be my sister, it could be me, it could be my brothers. Everyone cooked, everyone cleaned, everyone ironed. Everyone had to take the trash out, everyone had to wash the car, and everyone had to weed the garden. My sister had no special chores for women, and my brothers and I were never privileged just because we were male. The work had to be done by the most able, whoever that might be.
Barring our age gaps the responsibilities, and the consequences of failing to meet them, were the same for all of us. My father never sat my brothers and I down to tell us what a man must do and my mother never told my sister about “a woman’s work.” There was none of that. There were only responsibilities.
And in each of our lives it has carried on that way. My brothers and I are capable of doing any household chore and my sister is still climbing the academic ladder to heights unknown—last known sighting was PhD in Microbiology. We do what we have to do not because we are male or female, or men, or women, but because there are things that need to be done and they will not do themselves.
So, for me (and maybe my brothers), it has never been crystal clear what it means to be a man. I have always answered that question with reference to the only man in my life who I actively try to imitate, my father. From observing my father, his unwavering commitment to my mother and us, his job, and his extended family, it makes sense to me that a man is defined by his commitments and how he successfully tries to see out his responsibilities. My father came home to the same woman his entire life, he has always encouraged our academic interests, he has never been drunk in front of us, he has never squandered his income on things that do not push our family forward, and he has never turned a person in need away from his door, even when he had nothing to give. That, for me, has always been what I assume to be the definition of manhood: to be the person that you say you are, the person who follows through on promises, the person who has to do what needs to be done.
A man must have a commitment. That, I believe, is what marks the transition from boyhood to manhood. Somewhere along the line you have to find a commitment, something to anchor your life, something to which you can perpetually rally, something bigger than you. For my father it has always been my mother and his family. He has always been committed to making sure that we, his children, and his wife, had a better standard of living than he had.
And after commitments, responsibilities follow. Say, for example, you are committed to a woman. Are you, then, doing everything in your power to make sure that she feels valued, appreciated, loved, and supported? Are you giving her the trust she deserves and the loyalty she earns?
I put a lot of weight behind a person’s commitments, and their responsibilities, and how they cope with them and fulfill them. For me, that is all that really matters. That is why Caitlin Jenner’s transition really does not affect me much. Her personal choice to become what she has always felt she should be, for me, is no different from someone choosing to go on a diet and sign up for boot camp to attain the dream figure they have always wanted. It is not different from the person who saves up for years to buy that one elusive thing that they could not afford. Her transition is no more a betrayal of manhood than the poor boy who lifts himself out of the gutter to the Forbes rich list. Both individuals have been driven by the singular realisation that they are not happy with themselves or the way that their lives are unfolding, and both have found ways to get themselves to where they want to be, forsaking their existing ways of life, overcoming personal and public hurdles, and, ultimately, finally becoming who they want to be.
For me, all that matters in the end is whether they are living up to their commitments and fulfilling their responsibilities.
Is Caitlin looking after her children? Is she providing love and care? Is she, as a new member of the female sex doing her part for femininity?
Okay, cool, then that is all that matters.
Rémy is typing…