Male Poetics/Male Gaze


Aurelio S. Agcaoili, Ph.D.

(Revised excerpt of an essay published in Salaysay: Researches on Language and Literature, 2000, pp. 176-185)

Refiguring the Context of Male Poetics

My purpose in this essay is to problematize what I call ‘male poetics’ in Philippine culture, particularly Philippine popular culture. It is at the same time an attempt to bring into a theoretical and engaged level of discourse what the ‘male experience’ is all about, an experience that is somehow named and not named, said and unsaid, sayable and unsayable, open and hidden, consistent and conflicted, even contradictory. Easily, you see a strategic trick here when you see a simple mind trying to complicate matters by raising new questions from old answers and pointing out new answers to old questions like the hermeneut of texts and counter-texts (Gadamer 1970). I hold on to the view that the question and answer divide is not a real divide but a dialectic: a question properly formulated always-already contains the germ of an answer and by implication, the answer already contains the question. This dialectic between the question and the answer is what will guide me in addressing the basic issues about male poetics as this kind of a poetics bears upon what I loosely taxonomize as my new question on the human condition, or if you wish, the male condition.

My way of looking at the male gaze looking at itself in relation to others and the world and relationships is, admittedly, and angled way of seeing: angled precisely because the perspective in which I try to see and understand the male experience is pre-shaped and preformed by a number of obvious factors. The voice you hear—that interpretive voice—is male and the assumption of that voice is that of the ‘male experience’ many women have refused or failed to understand because: (a) it is unhygienic to do so—it pollutes the agendum of the female/woman to get liberated from the bondage of patriarchy; (b) it is anti-women because women must finally declare their autonomy from men; and (c) it is anti-sisterhood because sisterhood, to be authentic and real, must adopt a tactic that excludes the male in the fight against oppression, inequity, inequality, tyranny of male power, dominance of male authority, and many other grand, big concepts of “middle class,” sometimes “burgis—bourgeois” feminism that hews closely on, predictably, citified, urbanized values and elite sensibilities and what have you. I tell my feminist friends: it is easy to cry foul about male hegemony and oppression perpetrated by agents of patriarchy. “But patriarchy itself is not preserve of the male,” I tell them. Patriarchy, among others, is an attitude, a gaze, a way of experiencing, seeing, looking, understanding. It is a disposition of the mind, the disposition essentially a product of many variables, including the involuntary, perhaps conditioned, admission by women, of its hegemonic power and tyrannical control.

Coming from this as my angled gaze, my prejudiced and biased way of looking at male poetics, I hope to show that to teach an artifact of a culture that is sensitive to the issues about men or about the ‘male experience’ is essentially to trod on not-so-hallowed ground in order to offer a different, perhaps, a uniquely different insight on what is to be a male human being.
I must admit that all throughout my attempt at coming to terms with the poetic and the narrative as both a writer and a teacher, I have always been fascinated by “the male question.” Friedman (1963) has a term for the female—“the feminine mystique” which some would corrupt, in a tongue-in-cheek way, as “the feminine mistake.” Of course, you would not even dignify this by commenting on it but this counter-naming is a semiotics unto its own: there is control here, there is dominance, there is an attempt to nullify the female dream to once again make it possible for women’s selves to “dance with their selves.”

In their “Foreword” to Masculine/Feminine (1960) Roszak and Roszak wrote: “He is playing masculine. She is playing feminine. He is playing masculine because she is playing feminine” (vii). The notion of play metaphorizing the divide between the male and female was elaborated by them, thus: “He desires her for her femininity which is his femininity, but which he can never lay claim to. She admires him for his masculinity which is her masculinity, but which she can never lay claim to” (vii). The declaration of Friedman that “men are just desserts” (1983), that is “when a man is an enchantment to the already complete and satisfying life of a woman who makes choices and takes action”; (xii) establishes the need for a male poetics that is capable to address head on the poetics of the female, with both poetics eventually oneing, uniting, converging, fusing—their horizons wedded to each other—to form a new world, a new sensibility, a newly liberated human condition.

I am aware that this essay might be raising more questions than it can afford to answer. I would be consoled by the fact that I raised the questions well. One thing must not be forgotten, though by the cultural worker of and on the Philippines and its people, and by “cultural worker” I mean all those who work in the arena of cultivating consciousness: that there has been an “area of silence” in male studies and that this area of silence has contributed to an non-understanding –or non-communication, if you wish—between the sexes and among the genders.

The urbanized, middle class, sometimes bourgeois sensibility relative to gender and gender liberation has fought and has pushed for a certain variety of gayhood/gayness as legitimate gender or sexual identity and at some point, this sensibility has gained so much ground in the battle for equality. With Sapphic/lesbian writings successfully articulating counter-hegemonic cultural poetics/aesthetics side by side with voluminous gay writings by men, some of them not necessarily gay or not professedly gay, this counter-hegemonic cultural poetics has covered so much ground, so much terrain, and the victory for human liberation might soon be had.

But the big trouble really comes in when we factor in the political economy of human liberation. At what cost can we really be liberated? How are we to regard the prefiguring the sexes with biology determining what is to be written on the curriculum vitae? How are we to take the male gaze and the male experience and the male sensibility in the context of the (a) continuum of human sexuality and (b) rich varieties of masculinity or also called masculinities, that male condition revealing human realities and potentials, human actualities and possibilities? How are we to account the poetics of male suffering in Awiyao in Daguio’s “Wedding Dance” when Awiyao, amidst the frenzied beating of the gangsas, declared: “Lummay, it’s you I love, you know that. But what will the leaders say, what will my friends say?” How are we to account ‘male experience’ and male poetics in the film “Macho Dancer”?

So, how do we teach the male gaze, the male voice, the male experience? In short, what approach would make us productively teach a poetics about masculinity that is not necessarily patriarchal precisely because it is a poetics that questions the assumptions about male dominance and male power and male privilege? In effect, what strategies must we employ in the classroom to teach about concern for and sensitivity to the male condition?

The questions above assume an obvious fact: that male poetics belongs to the Naturwissenschaften or to the studies about the human and the humane and thus it is but proper that this poetics puts into play all issues, questions, and problematiques that are seen as contributory to making human liberation difficult. This means that male poetics is predictably a poetics of the human condition and must be so: a poetics that tries as much to understand the axiological premises of human action, particularly male human agency even as it condemns male privileges, masculine claims to superiority, male power and what have you.

Double Bind and the Fallacy of Male Power

The mass media—films, popular magazines, fan magazines, cinema posters, cinema billboards, and commercial advertisements, to name a few—are guilty of so many things relative to malehood and masculinity.
The “bang-bang” ways of then actor Joseph Estrada, Fernando Poe Jr., Philip Salvador, Rudy Fernandez, Ramon Revilla Sr. and Jr., Lito and Jess Lapid did not bring about social justice but only graphic, at times vulgar, resolution to inequity and violence in a mass scale.

The pronouncements of these “bang-bang” heroes did not end up as verbum-caro-factum-est but disincarnation of what is real and true and meaningful precisely because they are born of the fantastic and the formulaic, with no density at all, no reflexivity, no critique of the democratized sadness of the sorrowing masses the heroes were to liberate from bondage.

Celluloid—cinematic/filmic—solutions, we call these heroes, the heroes only acting as heroes, their acting never for real. On the other side of the same illusory, at times sadomasochistic posturing of filmic saviors posing as modern-day redeemers of bruised, wounded male self and male ego is the pornographic representation of the male in his phallic splendor of disorder with the Bench models to boot, to account the masked joys and self-congratulations of the male, the genitals of what accounts for them celebrating everything but life.

We have the male Richard Gomez, a sports buff, pictured as an expectant father in that delivery room scene, with his Lucy Torres on the clinical table being wheeled to where else but the deodorized room where babies are predictably “thrown into” life, into the cosmos, into earth minus the dirt and misery and deprivation all others males in this country are subjected to.
Think of the eight of every then Filipino males unable to set foot on the Lysol-ed enclaves of Gomez.

Think of the myth this mass media produced image of the male has reproduced and how this same image, precisely because it lacks sensitivity to the condition of the masses of the Filipino male, has generated more anguish than joy, more sorrow than laughter, more pointed references to deprivation than a promises for liberation.

The perennially clean, good-looking, strong, virile male getting all the adulation, envy, and attention sometimes results in deeper pain and injury because the majority of the males do not belong to the same class of those who can afford to leisurely row a boat (the deprived row their boats for a living and not for leisure), to bronze one’s skin in order to let the muscles ripple, to whiz a golf ball the way Tiger Woods does, to climb artificial walls and artificial mountains after ingesting capsules and capsules of that sex pill that makes one gallop like a horse.

“Buhay ang dugo—blood is raging and alive” claims the other ad on male multivitamins and we have a daily wage earner—a construction worker at that—hammering here and there and building houses for the rich and then in the evening, goes home to his children and wife as virile as ever, as sexy as ever, as manly as ever, as if human energy is bottled like a costly Gatorade and Powerade and Red Bull and then gulping them as if one’s life depended on them and presto, one regains one’s strength and vigor and youth and manhood.

This myth of youth negates the scars, the wounds, the trauma, and the haunting memory of manhood.

At best, the myth hawks a dream of youth never spent, of prosperity that has nothing to do with laboring under the sun and sweating for capitalists and businessmen who know nothing but profit and return on investment.
We can go on and on and this fantastic notion of the male including his chivalry and greatness is at best a luxury of the moneyed, the well-off, the privileged—in short, those who have most of the options in life like Agustin in that melodrama, Rosalinda, that has substituted the Angelus and other religious rituals for many Filipino families. Even Fernando Jose’s view of his remarriage to Rosalinda speaks of a feudal society life Mexico, which is as well the Philippine case: “Akin ka na ngayon, Rosalinda—Rosalinda, you are mine.” These males of the feudal and capitalist mold are brawn and not much brains, all sexy but not much self-reflection and sensitivity and openness to life’s terrible truths, to its twists and turns, to its endless surprises.

The male produced by the capitalist is the male in Jomari Yllana baring his skin with his Bench brief; the male in the Seven-up opening himself to the seductive power of commerce and to the illusions of satiation from want commodified desire offers.

So from “bang-bang” to “capitalist” and “feudal” males, we are left with nothing eventually, unless, by our critical reflection as cultural workers and by our different angled looking and seeing as teachers of the poetic, we realize that only through our concerted effort may we raise the consciousness of our young so that they will once again value the person in every man the oppressive society has systematically buried into oblivion. From plastic loves to plastic selves and plastic definitions of male identity, we graduate into the real, we graduate into the raw elements of life, we see in context the episteme by which our understanding of the lived male experience can become more productive, more human, more liberative, more liberating.

The Social Construction of the Male in an Oppressive Society

A society founded on an unjust arrangements of its basic institutions will continue to produce males who go by the script of that society, the script at times, bordering on masquerade and inauthenticity because the script calls for roles that may not be real or may not have anything to do with the project to become “human all too human” (Nietzshe 1984). The pursuit for the human is a genuine pursuit and thus it frames agency and commitment and responsibility including our responsibility to human memorias. The poetic is grounded on the memorias, on our act to become a member again—to re-member, in fact, so that in this remembrance, a community is built up, a congregation pf those who believe in life gets to grow, evolve, mature. It is in the memorias that the retelling of our dreams and aspirations and desires takes its form, assumes a shape, and become a giver of meaning.

The problem, however, is the venue for retelling, the situs for the narrative to be told and retold. The evil society reproduces itself as it reproduces its own agents who will guarantee that its fabricated truths passed off as the truth remains and will be fabricated over and over again in the course of time. The big trouble, too, is the male is somehow involved in this and therefore he must be reminded of this commitment to the memorias, his responsibility to the realization of a human communion that is as sacramental as any fusion, any oneing, any bonding, any uniting. In this we target the evolving of a continuing construction of the new male, one who is in touch even with his fears and scars and sorrows, one who can afford to keep on renewing himself in order to free himself from a maleness that is twin to “roughness, impatience, insensitivity, and self-inflation” (Francisco 1997:xi)

I can really go on and on but all told, a male poetics must look at the male and maleness (masculinity, if you wish) as predication of a liberating concept about “manhood in the making” (Gilmore 1990) and about the rich varieties of “men’s lives” (Kimmel and Messner 1989). For surely, there is more to men than just the lazy episteme of stereotyping where men, like women, are placed in society’s boxes and squares and circles and triangles and their person and worth measured according to these apriorized parameters.

In fine, a male poetics is an attempt to understand what Rankin has sung out: “I’ve been alone all my life. Couldn’t give my heart to anyone. Hiding in myself was a man who needed to be held like anyone.”


Agcaoili, Aurelio S., “Masculinities in Philippine Literature,” Paper read at the 1999 National Literature Conference, University f of the Philippines Dept. of Filipino and Philippine Literature and the Philippine Writers Academy, Nov. 25-26, UP Diliman, Quezon City.
Francisco, Mariel, “Foreword,” Primed for Life, ed. Lorna Kalaw-Tirol. Pasig: Anvil, 1997.
Friedman, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963.
Friedman, Sonya. Men are Just Desserts. New York: Warner Books, 1983.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. London: Metheun, 1970.
Gilmore, David. Manhood in the Making. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1990.
Kimmel, Michael and Michael Messner. Men’s Lives. New York: MacMillan, 1989.
Nietzshe, Friedirch. Human, All Too Human. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 1984.

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