The question isn’t mine but my son Robert’s, when he was six or seven years old. He came home from school one day and asked his mother, “Do bullies have Mommies?” It’s easy for me to picture him at that age, his lower lip pouting, his brow knit, his voice androgynous and sweet.
“Of course,” Kathi answered, “everybody has a Mommy.”
“Well, they don’t act like they have Mommies!” Robert said, and folded his arms across his chest.
All these many years later, with so many of our fellow citizens rallying around just such a bully, I might answer that boy’s question differently. I might say, “Bullies have Mommies, but they don’t matter.”
Although we have heard plenty about his father, the previous iteration of the Trump slumlord brand, we haven’t heard a word during this long and ugly presidential campaign about Donald Trump’s mother. Maybe that’s because, as it turns out, she arrived here from Scotland, penniless, a fact that runs counter to his demagogic anti-immigrant narrative. But it is more likely that he just doesn’t consider her important to the formation of his character. Women, in his macho bully’s world, contribute nothing of substance to the world of men they move in, a world where men make deals, dominate or surrender, win or lose. Women are beauty queens or else they are disgusting. Women are merchandise, a commodity akin to livestock.
Consider an archival video making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook: it is 1994, just after the birth of Trump’s daughter Tiffany to his second wife, Marla Maples. In a television interview, Trump is asked, “What does Tiffany have that’s Marla’s and what does she have that’s yours?”
“I think she has a lot that’s Marla’s,” Trump responds. “She’s a beautiful baby. She has Marla’s legs. We don’t know whether or not she’s got”—he cups his hands as if holding ample breasts—“this part yet, but time will tell.”
I’m not citing this exchange to play “Well, I never!” In fact, the worldview it evinces is all too familiar: one in which women’s fetishized bodies, evidently beginning at birth, are their only worth. An ideology in which women are body parts, pronouns, and slurs. The point here is not outrage, feigned or otherwise. The point is that everything we profess to be disgusted by is in fact the deep root, the rhizome, of the existing arrangement of wealth and power: call it patriarchy or capitalism or rape culture or pimp culture or exploitation, it is all about extracting value from the feminine. The “hidden curriculum of boyhood” as I have called it elsewhere, teaches boys that to be a man means to keep your distance from any aspect of the feminine that remotely suggests there is any other relation between these strictly enforced gender binaries except sexual relations—and cartoonish, pornographic ones at that.
So when my son asked his question, his little brow furrowed in consternation, he had just encountered this ethos, and its attempt to halve him, for the first time. Writing this, I feel pretty sure he had been called a “Mama’s boy”—and was wondering what could possibly be wrong with belonging to his mother! I suspect he was also trying to grasp why he’d been sneered at and why it felt so awful. Mama’s boy. Sissy. Girl. These taunts, among others, are tools of enforcement, designed to shame boys into rigid gender compliance. All are accompanied by a sneer and, of course, the implied threat of violence. Most men in our culture have moved on from this post-WWII version of masculinity. And yet, that tangle of anxieties we were taught to identify as our manhood remains and remains raw and vulnerable. Some years ago, in the early days of the Internet, a short essay of mine was posted on a website. The novelty of that, and of being able to see pretty quickly what readers thought about it, had me scrolling through the comments until I came to one that read: “Mr. Hoffman is a mama’s boy. Any man who uses the words complex, relationship, and culture in the same sentence is nothing but a SISSY.”
I was surprised to find how the word still stung. I tried to deny the feeling, the heat in my chest, my ears reddening. The only difference between that response in boyhood and now is that I can watch myself trying to deny, unsuccessfully, the impact of the word. That tripwire, that adrenaline trigger, that shame—it doesn’t go away.
Most men these days have friends of both genders and real relationships with women that involve give and take, affection that isn’t sexual, and respect. In my recent memoir, Love & Fury, I write about my father’s version of manhood:
My father preferred the company of men. He felt that he understood men. In fact, it would have been impossible for him, in his time and place, class and circumstance, to have ever been friends with a woman. My own coming-of-age coincided with the rise of second-wave feminism, and my friendships with women have been a crucial part of my life. Once, I mentioned to my father that I was having dinner with my friend Suzanne, a fellow writer, and frowning, he asked, “Does Kathi know about this?”
Clearly, there could be only one reason I would be meeting, at that time of day, with a woman not my wife. But my father was a man of his era, one that is thankfully not our own. So I have to ask, “Why would men ever want to go back to a sexist segregation that impoverishes them? And why would we feel the need to get together and snicker about women’s bodies as if they were something other than our mothers and sisters and friends?”
In his 1985 essay, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” published, incidentally, in Playboy, James Baldwin writes:
...there is a man in every woman and a woman in every man. Sometimes this is recognized only when the chips are, brutally, down—When there is no longer any way to avoid this recognition. But love between a man and a woman, or love between any two human beings, would not be possible did we not have available to us the spiritual resources of both sexes.
When an ideology is dying, its final throes include a ferocious and defiant last stand. I believe we are witnessing that right now, the last stand of a discredited idea of masculinity that was long in the making but took its most rigid and brutal form amid the atrocities of the last century of warring bullies.
Standing up to a bully like Trump might begin, for men, with the simple declaration that we are our mothers’ sons as well as our fathers’, a declaration that acknowledges our original wholeness. And then we ought to think hard about what that really means and what it might require of us.
About the Author
Richard Hoffman is the author of Love & Fury: A Memoir, Half the House: A Memoir; the poetry collections Without Paradise, Emblem, and Gold Star Road, winner of both the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club; and the short story collection Interference and Other Stories. He is senior writer-in-residence at Emerson College and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter at @ and visit his website.