The masculine emphasis on boundaries helps clarify classically male behavior many women say they find inexplicable and many men have difficulty explaining. To take an example from my own life, during the 60s I was active in organizing protests against the Vietnam War. Compared to some activists I was a moderate. On the University of Kansas campus one of my more forceful critics was a big Irish poet, John. He liked to belittle my supposed lack of commitment, and sometimes I gave his lip back to him.
One evening I was having a beer with friends at my favorite campus bar, the Rock Chalk. John entered, saw me, and walked over to the booth where I sat. He had been drinking even before his arrival at the Rock Chalk. After a few cutting words, he threw a book of paper matches into my glass of beer.
I threw the beer in his face.
Drenched, he leapt on top of me and we tussled briefly, until the bartender came over and threw him out.
About a week later I saw John at a “Be-In,” a musical gathering in a sunny field. I was going to keep my distance, John being considerably bigger than me, when he called “Hi Gus. Want a toke?”
“Sure.” I answered. His pot was good.
We became friends, and until I moved away and lost track of him all my subsequent memories of John are fond ones. We never agreed on tactics for opposing the war, but it didn’t matter. We liked one another.
What happened? How could that bar fight have led to friendship?
John pushed past my acceptable boundaries with those tossed matches. He crossed the line. I pushed beyond his with the erupting beer. My reaction was greater than his provocation because while he had ruined my beer I had drenched him and his clothes. Each of us felt the other had violated our boundaries, and each of us defended those boundaries. We had tested one another’s mettle, and along the way released some accumulated tensions. We were free to be friends, rather than continuing to send rude remarks in one another’s direction, which we never did again.
Yes, it is a male thing. IO have never heard of two women becoming friends after coming to physical blows. But this kind of event is well-known among men. Think of the story of Robin Hood and Little John. Nor is it a particularly bad thing when among relative equals, though obviously when the jousting becomes too one sided it amounts to bullying and aggression. But to establish a boundary some pushing and pushback is often needed. Had we been more mature we could hopefully have established the boundaries needed for a relaxed relationship much more wisely, keeping John’s matches and clothes dry and my beer in its glass. But the fight that ensued was not an effort by either party at dominating the other.
What happened was quite different from the vertical politics of the baboon troop, and much more interesting. We ended up in a friendly horizontal relationship, not a vertical one with one of us the dominant alpha party. We were friends. I have met many men with similar stories of friendship emerging from physical conflict, but so far I have never met a women with such a story.
This was the only example of mutual boundary setting I can remember where I actually tussled with another. But the same basic dynamic often repeats itself much more subtly.
When two men shake hands, each is very aware of the other’s grip. In our culture a weak handshake sends a message of weak boundaries and passivity, inappropriate feminine qualities within this context, whereas a firm one very rarely means an effort to dominate the other. Of course there are jerks who squeeze as hard as they can, trying to turn a mutual acknowledgement into a dominance display. They impress mostly themselves because that is not what a handshake is about. They would probably make pretty good baboons.
Masculinity, even when one-sided, does not necessarily imply domination and hierarchy. This very important point is one I believe too little recognized by feminists.