| Geordie Groenhuysen | Janier 2019 |


Masculinity and vulnerability

Crédit photo : Sandi Hodkinson Photography



Masculinity?  What is it exactly because I really want to know?


It seems like I’ve always wanted to be this thing, to be near it, close to it.  Is that because I was made to feel guilty for embracing the feminine side of myself from a very early age?

Hang on a second. Don’t get me wrong. I loved playing with trucks and cars in the sandbox my father built for me when I was little. But I liked playing ‘house’ and ‘dolls’ with my best friend Kim, from next door, a whole lot more. I can tell you that.

Even when my parents bought their first house and we moved to Westbank, my little brother Mike and I loved taking turns trading and choosing our ‘HOTWHEELS’. One by one we tore up the flowerbeds in the garden, where we would play for days on end under our massive cherry tree. Equally, I was just as satisfied – if not more so – playing with the Barbies and their outfits at my cousin’s – Nancy and Peggy’s house.


As far back as I can remember I have felt vulnerable being myself. It seemed as if I was met with disapproval, as if I was doing something very wrong when I expressed love, care and responsibility for the dolls I got to fuss over and take care of as a child.


Some of my very first memories start aged four when I went to stay with my father’s parents. My mother and my baby brother were not in a good way, before, during and after his birth because of complications and my family didn’t know if my mother and brother were going to make it. While staying with my father’s parents, I experienced the joy of having proper English tea parties with my grandmother and her friends and playing with neighbouring children and cousins.  It was my first experience of being independent, so to speak.  No parents.  Suddenly I could ‘play house’ and express myself by ‘being’ characters other than myself.  I got to be the father, or the brother, or a baby even. I even played the mother sometimes and in those early days of my life I built some wonderful, fundamental friendships that I still have to this day.


Then in kindergarten, at age five, I remember coming home one day and being questioned about my behaviour. I’d had a brilliant day at school and I remember it well. It was a sunny, bright day and I got to do all of my favourite things – finger painting, I had cookies and milk, I played outside, I listened to a story, I had nap time (I didn’t ever really sleep during nap time to be honest) and I also got to play house inside.


I’m not sure exactly how the conversation went with the kindergarten teacher and my mom later that afternoon, but I remember being questioned about it afterwards.  Oh the embarrassment for her.  I was barely a five-year old, I’d had a tea towel tied over my head that made pigtails on either side of my face, pretending to be Mum.  Playing her probably.  I’m guessing it happened more than once in order for the kindergarten teacher to have contacted my mother out of concern.  I’d been marching around, bossing the other five-year olds about while cooking, cleaning and telling them to put their toys away!


Shortly after, I have a memory of being taken by my mother to this dim, dusty-smelling, gloomy doctor’s office and having to wait in his long wood-panelled corridor for what seemed like hours. There were loads and loads of glorious toys inside that room.  But what bothered me most was the small painting that hung in that stark hallway.  It was a print of a painting by Renoir.  The image haunted me for years. I sat there so many times staring at the ‘Girl With Watering Can’ for hours on end.  It hung above the double doors where one entered this dark hallway, right in the middle, taking up the space between the door and the ceiling.  I was more disturbed by the position of that painting than anything else. I’m sure of that.


Feeling such vulnerability at such an early age simply for being myself was challenging.  I knew I was there because of my behaviour. I knew it was because of how I had behaved in kindergarten that day.


I was learning that being myself was not the ‘right’ way to behave.  I got that.  I understood it because my Mother was being far too nice.  And the doctor behind his little desk was also being far too nice and oh so patronizing.  Of course, I didn’t know what the word patronizing meant then, but I knew he was asking to many prying questions. I remember thinking to myself, why does he want to know?  I was terrified that I would give a wrong answer or give myself away somehow.


During that first visit, I was told he was going to speak with my mother first while I waited out in the hall (with that girl in the painting holding a watering can that had a bright red ribbon in her hair) and then I would be called back inside the room and he would speak to us together, then my mother would leave the room and he would speak to me on my own and then together again. That all sounded fair enough. But I also knew, deep inside, that there was this concern in the air. It was the most uncomfortable experience of my entire life. Not understanding that concern. Incapable of giving voice to feelings of intense vulnerability. I still call on that entire experience today to help me get through other uncomfortable situations – things like being on over-crowded public transportation here in London, for example.


On that very first visit to that faceless psychiatrist, when I was with him on my own he asked questions. I gave direct and honest answers. Then he asked me to get off my chair, to stand in the middle of the room and to face away from him. The room was divided down the middle – like the parting of the Red Sea for Moses – with all the pink girl’s toys on the left and the blue toys for boys on the right.


When I stood on that spot, in the centre of that room, something happened inside my head.  I felt a change happen.  Inside my little person I knew they were trying to figure me out for some reason or another, and I felt the need to protect myself. I felt betrayal. I felt abandoned and alone. I felt his presence behind me waiting for me to make my move, to make a mistake.


Vulnerability never felt so real to me as at that very moment. I didn’t want any part of it, so I just stood there. Fixed to that spot. Looking from side to side with my eyes, and not my head, at all the lovely toys. Those beautiful dollies and Barbies and the pink kitchen appliances that were all in my size, the cool big trucks and cars and motorbikes and even a real bike all in blue off to the right. It was heaven for a five-year old I’m telling you, but I wasn’t having it.


The doctor asked me to choose a toy to play with. I refused. In my mind I dug in my heels. I remember thinking I wanted to deny him the pleasure of doing what was asked. It felt wrong. I think I knew that I had choices during that moment, but I didn’t know what they were. I just wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of doing what he asked.


Even though I was dying to make a run for the Barbies.


There was a red wagon I had my eye on as well. It wasn’t quite on the girl’s side, but closer to the boy’s toys on the right. But I still stood my ground. I just stood there silently; as still as could be. I was good at sitting still because I’d been told to do that enough times in my short life. The doctor asked me to sit down in my chair again, and I was happy to. I didn’t really answer questions directly after that moment of interrogation, but when he asked what I wanted to do, I asked if I could finger paint. I loved finger painting.


I don’t know how many visits I had after that first one, perhaps it was two or three, but when my dad was informed about it he put a stop to it straight away.


I vaguely remember my parents having a heated discussion about it. I remember my dad being angry, saying that I was fine just the way I was and that he didn’t want any son of his going to a place like that. I was relieved that I didn’t have to go back again. It felt like someone was on my side, and, if I could have those finger paintings back that I did during those visits, I’d be a happier boy.


What comes to mind when I think of Masculinity is my father. Hustling, contributing, working, protecting, fighting, smiling, leaving, building, playing, singing, conquering, showing, teaching, dancing, transforming, announcing, laughing, joking, running, waiting, loving, caring, working, having, taking, bringing, disappearing, kissing, upsetting, listening, calling, discussing, disliking, looking, creating, guitar playing, hand holding, living, talking, considering, watching, story telling, sock throwing, celebrating, fire building, restoring, speaking, giving, achieving, cuddling, shouting, spitting, stinking, lifting, reaching, eating, changing, understanding, receiving, hugging, risk taking, hunting, fishing, sports watching, drinking, smoking, swearing, and driving, fast.


Throughout my existence Dad’s been larger than life to me.  A tall man he wasn’t, but dark and handsome he definitely is. What he’s taught me will remain and never be forgotten, and what I learn from him continues. Yes, behaviour is learned and I’m definitely the result.


It wasn’t then that I knew I was different from the other boys, but I do remember having loads more girls than boys at my birthday parties, during the years of early elementary school. We would play boys chase the girls, and girls chase the boys in the playground, and I pretty much played on the girl’s team most of the time; catching the boys and kissing the boys and sometimes fighting the boys as well.


I remember being dragged in by the ear from Mrs. Aarons in Grade One and being scolded . . . for what? This happened more than once. I also loved skipping, jumping rope and playing tetherball with the girls as well when I got a little bit older, but most of all I liked making art. Wanting to be a doctor or a cowboy or an artist were my main goals then. And I still relate to that very same vulnerability today as I did then.


It was summer camp 1975 when I was ten years old, the same year the movie Jaws came out.  It was the first time I was away from my entire family on my own. It was a glorious Okanogan summer. The lakeside Summer Camp wasn’t far from where I lived and each age group had their very own cabin and Camp Rep. It was all very exciting because my best friend Kim from next door was there as well. Only the girls were separated from the boys for some reason, and I wasn’t very happy about that.


My Camp Rep was bigger than life. He was tall and tanned and blonde. I noticed he was much bigger than my dad.  He was always smiling and I liked that. During the first week it became clear that my best friend Kim was having a brilliant time, but not with me. I was feeling isolated from the other boys in my group even though I was bigger and stronger than them.


They bonded and made friends quickly and I was being left out. One afternoon playing sport I just wasn’t made to feel welcome and I’d had enough. So when my Camp Rep disappeared, so did I. I decided I was going home. I’d made up my mind earlier in the week that if they continued to exclude me, then I would go home. So off I went. But when I got to the big gates at the entrance of the Summer Camp I just couldn’t do it. Instead I went and hid under the covers on my bunk. Word got around that I was missing and I was discovered hiding in bed.


My Camp Rep came in worried and genuinely concerned about why I’d disappeared. He asked what the matter was and why I’d left the group without telling him. He managed to get me sitting up. I just kept looking up at his beautiful smiling face and I began feeling better about myself. He put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me in, and something happened.  Something happened inside my head, this expansion of awareness and belonging I guess.


It was a similar feeling to how I felt when I stood in the middle of that psychiatrist’s office when I was five – but this time it wasn’t fear I was feeling.

At that very moment . . . that I knew . . . why I was different from the other boys. I found my feet and I rediscovered my confidence that summer.  By scoring goals, swimming faster, water skiing first and weaving the coolest key chain, I showed the other boys that I was a force to be reckoned with.


Toxic and fragile masculinity permeate today’s society. What masculine qualities and roles are considered typical – for boys and men and even girls today?  Normal is a myth.  Whether behaviour is learned, conditioned or passed down genetically and one’s sexuality is a result of socialization or biology, all I wanted when I was five years old was to be accepted for who I am.


I am evidence that masculinities, and a man’s willingness to counter stereotypes regardless of age, are possible. Life goes by/buy/bi far too fast and I choose to lead by example, I choose to be that smiling face, the arm around your shoulder that pulls you in. Let’s all be that person. Let’s go out of our way and pay attention to our emotional needs. Be that prince or princess among men. It’s important to love.


Geordie Groenhuysen


From February 20, an exhibition of the works of 50 renowned artists will be featured at the Barbican

Masculinities – Liberation through Photography

Thu 20 Feb – Sun 17 May 2020

Barbican Centre, Silk Street London EC2Y 8DS

Through the medium of film and photography, major exhibition considers how masculinity has been coded, performed, and socially constructed from the 1960s to the present day. Touching on themes including power, patriarchy, queer identity, female perceptions of men, hypermasculine stereotypes, tenderness and the family, the exhibition shows how central photography and film have been to the way masculinities are imagined and understood in contemporary culture.


Credit photo:  © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019