Jim Padilla DeBorst grew up in a tight-knit, conservative community in Grand Rapids, Michigan. From there, he traveled to locations around the globe, including the African continent and Latin America, where he’s made his home for 30 years. Padilla DeBorst belongs to Casa Adobe, an intentional Christian community in Costa Rica, is a missionary with Resonant Global Mission, and a leader in the Community of Interdisciplinary Theological Studies. He holds a master’s degree in nonprofit management at Regis University and in political and economic development at the Harvard Kennedy School. Recently, he sat down with his friend Randy Flood, psychotherapist, and Director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan to talk about political masculinities: how ideas about and practices of masculinity shape the political landscape including the electoral process, elected officials, and the people who elect them. Portions of their conversation are below (edited for length and clarity). The entire discussion is available now on the Revealing Men podcast.
Flood: So, you’re back here in the States and heading back to Costa Rica next week, right?
Padilla DeBorst: That’s right. I’ve been up here for almost two months.
Flood: How’s it been?
Padilla DeBorst: It’s quite a time to be in the United States. [Flood: Laughs] Quite a time!
Flood: Quite a time to leave, maybe, too? So, say a little bit about where you’ve been and we’ll take it from there and provide a little backdrop.
Padilla DeBorst: Yeah, so, I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan and went to preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, and college all within the same 25 blocks … and of one, really, particular culture, one view of what the “normal” family was, all that. Now it’s been 30 years in Latin America. Latin America is really the fourth continent I’ve lived in, because I took some time in Africa and Europe also.
Flood: And so, how would you frame your understanding of masculinity in terms of viewing it now from around the globe and looking at American masculinity and what we’re seeing today. Just your sense of where we’ve been, where we are, and maybe your vision of where we hope we could get to.
Padilla DeBorst: Like I said, I grew up in this really small community, and I like to tell this joke: You go to somebody’s house and the trash can would be under the sink on the right-hand side, and if it wasn’t under the sink on the right-hand side that was basically wrong. [Flood: Laughs. “Right.”] And in my travels of the world, I’ve been disabused of that notion!
Most of my travels and looking at things and looking at American culture didn’t really start with examining masculinity but the political side, certainly. As some of the new research and talk about masculinities has come out, it’s really been interesting to put those two together and see how they play out, in good and probably more bad ways.
Masculine Representation in Different Cultures
Flood: If we just talk about the intersectional analysis of what you see, masculine representations in some of your different cultural experiences, the diversity of masculine representation, and how people define masculinity. What have you seen and learned in your travels?
Padilla DeBorst: I remember having a conversation early on about body type. Like the type of body that’s attractive to the typical male and coming from a generation and a set of people that sort of appreciated skinny, white chicks, ya know? [Flood: Laughs] Then being in West Africa where anyone who is skinny is viewed as sickly. And having these conversations with some of my friends and having them think that I was probably just making things up or exaggerating. Just even how the male gaze operates on the female body is wildly different in different cultures.
I was just such a through and through member of this one ethnic subculture that was tough and stoic and the like, and then I spent a semester in Spain—and the family, the guys that cook, and really everybody’s hugging and kissing—it’s just a really radically different setup. Slowly, that seeped into my psyche, I think, and let my imagination open up as to the different possibilities of what a male could be.
Flood: What we talk about in my work is the socialization process because there’s this differentiation of gender constructionists and gender essentialists… the gender essentialists are really about saying, men are men because of … our biology …. I’m more of a constructionist. Because I believe, if you travel the world and see different cultures, it’s hard not to be a constructionist! Because men are men, in terms of the XY chromosomes around the world.
Contrasting Expressions of Masculinity
Flood: So, I’m just wondering what you’ve noticed about just different socialization practices that give you that sense that masculinity is often a construction of these ways in which we behave, or think, or relate to women, or relate to other men, or relate to the environment.
Padilla DeBorst: I think the classic one that really has broken down the most for me is the idea of the male as this rugged individual: the Marlboro man on his horse out there rounding the cattle up or whatever. And all the cultures I’ve lived in, outside of the United States, the set-up is much more communal, much more a shared experience. There’s way less emphasis on individualism. And so, that isn’t necessarily male/female, but it has massive implications for both genders and I think especially for males, the individualism thing is bigger. Like, even in the most individualistic structure here in the U.S., women (who have been traditionally socialized) are more likely to be hanging out, having a cup of coffee, sharing their joys and pains, and the guys are, maybe – I don’t know —throwing horseshoes and drinking beer or something; but not sharing.
Flood: Okay, so you see in other cultures …. this idea of men being expressive. So American masculinity is rugged individualism, and there’s a lot of prizing this stoicism; like real men don’t have emotions, or express emotions to other people, whether that’s affection or verbalizations. Just say a little bit about what you see around that, too.
Padilla DeBorst: Yeah. So, it’s very normal in the Latino cultures (that I spent a lot in) for males to be really, really emotional about women, about romance, about crying in their beer, in stuff that I could never imagine doing personally in the culture I grew up in, and was originally socialized in. I mentioned Spain. My wife’s from Argentina, there’s a lot of influence of Italy and Mediterranean cultures there. The guys kiss each other for greetings, maybe not now during COVID, but they kiss both cheeks and big hug. They’ll stand next to each other with arms around each other talking, just a lot more deeper questions, too, about how you’re doing and how you’re feeling and it takes a while to get used to.
Masculine Political Culture
Flood: One other aspect of masculinity that I see represented in American culture more is dominance and power. There’s this rugged individualism, there can be some stoicism. And again, there’s diversity in American culture. I’m not trying to make this into a spectrum that we experience, but I’m just looking at this more traditional approach is this dominance and control and power, and I’m wondering if—you’ve lived in other parts of the globe—you see that manifested in our relationships with other cultures: this masculine political culture.
Padilla DeBorst: I think, certainly, the whole Colonial and Neocolonial history, structure, process is one where the powerful are creating hierarchies that aren’t essential, that don’t exist, they’re not God-given. There are all these different rankings. (I’ve done a lot of work in South Africa, too, where the races are split.) And so, it’s just a really strong effort to impose a set of hierarchies that sort of dole out power, that dole out prestige, that dole out honor, and intentionally try to hold a set of people further down the line.
There’s some architects of those kind of things that are really—maybe “explicit” isn’t the word I’m looking for—they’re very intentional. They might be trying to hide their motives and actions, but they’re very intentional about it. And there’s a lot of people that are just like I was back here in Grand Rapids; a fish in the water and couldn’t see it. They think that that is normal. They think that is just typical. They think God created people poor, and they want them to be poor, and they should go to heaven. They don’t see the oppression and structuring that’s going on.
Masculinity and Politics: Political Masculinities
Flood: So the structuring, not only in masculinity, but of culture. That brings us to the … what is happening in our culture—called the modern world—and stuff. And there’s trying to level the playing ground and historically powerful structures and men had power—white men had power—and so there’s race issues. And so, …. you’re here for the last month. What’s your analysis of what we’re going through in this incredible transition? Hopefully, we get to the other side.
Padilla DeBorst: Yeah! Hopefully we get to the other side without a civil war. I’ve lived through three civil wars so I don’t recommend them. Some people seem to be intent on starting one, especially here in Michigan, lately.
But I think if we really, truly value human beings and we sort of base that valuing on something like our Constitution where we say we’re all created equal, or our religion, where we might say we’re all image- bearers of God—most religions tend to embrace all of humanity—then, we need to get there, because we’re not there. And, there’s a lot of water under the bridge that has made that not true. In the same Constitution that says we’re all created equal, African Americans are counted as three-fifths a person and Native Americans are savages to be conquered and run out.
So, once you get to the point where you can see that things are constructed, once you can see—if we think of a set of Legos—once we can see the different blocks and not just the house or the pirate’s castle, or whatever set of Legos we bought, and we start to take them apart, that needs to be done with care. It’s threatening to people, people can even get scared, but we can take it apart and put it back together more in accord with our values. [Flood: “Right.”] Our Constitution and my religion say people are equal, so let’s put it together in a way that respects that. It’s not that hard to say it: it’s really hard to do it.
Revisioning and Reinventing Masculinity
Flood: I think that there’s a lot of anxiety going on for men now. My personal opinion is they don’t recognize that they’re anxious. It’s more about, Michael Kimmel talks about…an aggrieved entitlement. As we begin to try to do this deconstruction, some people are feeling quite anxious and threatened by that because they feel that we’re tearing apart the proper order or the proper hierarchy.
And so, as we sit here as white males, heterosexuals, it’s like there’s this power structure that we can historically look back on: the oppression of gays, the oppression of people of color, the oppression of women. And for us to sit here and talk about it, I don’t know if you’re anxious about it, but I feel enlivened by it. Talk about what you see with this anxiety in American culture.
Padilla DeBorst: Both in American culture and overseas, I think people are scared and I think an important step is to recognize that. Most people are deeply afraid of change. And, I think we have to be fairly honest that white males might lose some privileges. If there’s ten people in the application pool, black and Latino women are going to get a look that they never even got before. I’m not saying favoritism, but they’re going to get a look when they didn’t even get a look before.
But we need to be open and ready to take the benefits, too, of deconstructing masculinity that didn’t let us spend time with our kids and grand kids, to slow down our career, to cry in our beer more with our buddies, or whatever it might be. Because for every privilege we deconstruct, there’s at least one or two opportunities to take. [Flood: “Right.”] As a male who’s been through a lot in life and has tried to be stoic and finally learned that maybe that’s not the answer to everything, I think there’s a real opportunity and we need to be ready to see that and embrace it. And that’s probably what you mean when you say you’re enlivened.
The Benefits of Community
Flood: That vision for me, as I’ve experienced it in my own life, the balance of being able to be a dad, have male friends that I can hug (and that doesn’t mean I want to have sex with them). That freedom that comes from moving away from the stoicism, moving away from some of that rigid masculinity that I grew up with, it’s been freeing and enlivening. The more that we can do that in society at large, I think, although some people feel threatened by the power that they might be losing, there’s so many benefits. I like how you said that. It’s lonely at the top. To be able to live more in community, there’s some inherent benefits, and you’ve had some experiences.
Padilla DeBorst: Yeah. Yeah. Like you mentioned, I live in an intentional community. A lot of people aren’t familiar with that term. Some people are familiar with a Kibbutz in Israel or the Jewish tradition. This is a Christian intentional community where we are trying to share a whole set of social, religious, economic practices. And, in the end, it’s beautiful.
Going back to the more political side of this, once you deconstruct and you see that it’s a set of Legos you can choose to put together in a way that tries to be fair to the vast majority of people, and you can come up with different models of society that are balanced and tilted in different ways, but with an intentional embrace of the positive values that society wants to build on, rather than on the past power of whatever ethnic, or racial, or gender hierarchy that held the guns and the power for a while.
Flood: Right. That’s the beauty of intersectional studies is that it helps us see the power relationships, when you start looking at race, gender, and religion, and how it comes together. The more that we can start, like you said, recognizing those pieces can be pulled apart and sometimes it’s painful to deconstruct because people like order, people like tradition, and there’s a lot of greatness about tradition and order, and we’re going to hang on to that, we need that as human beings. But there’s ways we can create new orders. Right? New traditions.
So, where do you keep the trash in your house? [Both: Laugh.]
Padilla DeBorst: Very good question! Of course, I still favor under the sink, to the right!
Redefining Political Masculinities
Flood: Any final thoughts for us, Jim, about leaving America and your wish for us? As men? As a country? That you would just want to leave as a parting thought or a blessing.
Padilla DeBorst: Sure. I’m what I like to call a U.S. American, because I live in the Americas. In this hemisphere, we’re all American, even the Canadians, but they might not want to admit it!
I think the most important part in the political thing is to realize if we can write a Constitution where we say we’re all equal, all the countries and ethnicities in this hemisphere ought to be equal, too. Our foreign policies, our economic policies, the things we choose to value and make supreme culturally, need to take into account the other. Because everyone on these continents deserves a chance to build their own particular version of utopia and value and structure and order things equally and positively and embracing all, not just their own little tribe.
Flood: Right. Beautifully said! Thanks, Jim.
Padilla DeBorst: Thanks, Randy. It’s great to be here.
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