“I love you, man” | Male fragility and those four little words.

Tow mature men embrace. Close up.

In a weekend when the words “I love you” will be on lovers’ lips a lot more than usual, we take a different look at these contentious three little words. MR MAJOLA MAJOLA has had occasion to think about this recently, as two men ‘in’ his life gave him altogether different experiences with the phrase.  

The relationship I have with my father has always been difficult to define. Physical and emotional distances have punctuated our relationship. For a long time, phone calls from my father unnerved me, stirring up feelings of anxiety about how best to approach our limitations in dialogue. Once the vibration alert on my phone went off, I would immediately get palpitations, a number of issues would invade my mind at once.

I would think about my lacking in tangible evidence of success. I would think about the fact that I do not have any children yet, a disservice to my patrilineal origins. I would think about the social script which many men subscribe to, one that regards inferior anything with feminine energy. I would panic as an effeminate man whose treatment by society has not always been so good. On these brief phone calls, my tone usually betrayed my belief that I was a complete failure. My father’s tone was that of someone sincerely searching for common ground on which to base our elusive connection. Recently, he called me and after going through the usual ritual of fearful emotions, I finally answered. He suddenly and immediately said, “I love you,” before promptly ending the call.

I stood still in the middle of the street in Braamfontein (Johannesburg), allowing myself to feel the joy. This was the first time I had ever heard my father telling me he loved me in the 30 years of my existence.  That phone call was a rebirth to our connection. It wiped away a long history of difficulties in two minutes. He allowed the love he had for me to make me believe there was hope for fathers and sons to work together in redefining the meaning of manhood and masculinity in 2016.

If there were more men like my father who forced themselves to get to a place where they could vocalise feelings of affection, social cohesion between men and women of different sexual orientations would be a lived truth. It saddens me to admit that the number of heterosexual men who oppose male to male affection and believe it a threat to masculinity are overwhelmingly high. (South Africa’s) Radio 2000’s Mr David Mashabela seems to affiliate himself with men who are uncomfortable with male to male affection.  Several weeks back as I was listening to his night show “One night with the King”, a male listener called in to express his affection for the host with the words “I love you man” and Mr Mashabela warmly reciprocated, “I love you too, man”. No sooner had the call ended and Mr Mashabela’s discomfort filled him up that he did an about turn on air and dismissed his response to the gentleman.

If there were more men like my father who forced themselves to get to a place where they could vocalise feelings of affection, social cohesion between men and women of different sexual orientations would be a lived truth.

It was the first time he had uttered the words “I love you” to another man, he confessed. A few moments later a female caller burst onto the airwaves with boisterous laughter, ridiculing both Mr Mashabela and the previous caller for their public display of affection. The following evening the affectionate exchange had bothered Mr Mashabela so much that 24 hours later it was still a topical issue on his show. Unsurprisingly, a number of men called in to express their disapproval of what that caller had done. Mr Mashabela used the platform to rescue his now “questionable” reputation while callers chastised his affectionate caller and thrown in a dark pit into which men perceived to be weak are thrown.

The problem was the one-dimensional view of these three words.  Our society’s normative interpretation of love centres on romance and sex, suggesting that Mr Mashabela may have gone into overdrive and misplaced the affection as a homoerotic pass made on him. It is necessary to reflect on the two kinds of reactionary responses created by these two scenarios. My father’s decision to express his feelings led me to reconstruct the gloomy image I had of him. It became possible for me to understand his shortcomings as a fallible man. I recalled the joy I felt when he bought me my first bicycle. I recalled him introducing me as his son to strangers with a broad smile on his face. I looked at our photographs with new eyes. I realised that it was possible to love and be loved by anyone despite differences in values.

Mr Mashabela’s decision to denounce the expression of love originates at the same place that had made it possible for me to create and entrench a story in my mind, that my father and I could never relate. It is why many men believe themselves men enough, only if they fit the ‘macho man’ image and that their sole purpose is to assert physical strength over brain power. 

Allowing on public spaces the expression of views formed by irrational fear is like allowing a wild fire to spread unabated, hoping that it will die down without causing any damage. A confluence in notions of manhood is necessary if we are to see men who are fully developed physically, mentally and spiritually, come into existence.

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