Drake has become the poster child for “emo hip-hop.” I’m not a fan of Drake’s whining and faux gangster posturing, but I’m not his target audience. I prefer my hip-hop the way I prefer my men: rough and rugged. I will nod my head to songs with lyrics that are supposed to make you cringe, the songs women who claim to be feminists are not supposed to admit to liking.
I’ve come to realize that there is, on some level – and I’m speaking strictly about myself – a correlation between my taste in hip-hop and my taste in men. Hip-hop has always been a hypermasculine genre, and with the notable exception of the late Heavy D – who, by all accounts, was the consummate gentleman both on and off the mic – I’ve generally preferred the artists with the biggest swagger, the most hyperbolic boasts about money, toughness and sexual prowess.
The same has been true of the men in my life. I’m drawn to men who are aggressive, who take the lead, who have strong notions of what being a “man” means. Consciously or unconsciously, I’ve looked for these traits in the men I date, even as I attempt to raise my children without the constraints of having certain traits defined as “masculine” and others as “feminine.”
Seven years post-divorce, I’ve begun reflecting on why I’m drawn to hypermasculine, emotionally stunted men – why the Drakes of the world are such a turn-off to me, and what that means in my relationships. I’ve had to make some adjustments in my thinking in order to enjoy being in a relationship with a man who is not emotionally stunted, who freely expresses the full range of human emotions, yet isn’t someone I’d think of as “weak” or “soft.”
My father was not an emotional man. I never saw him cry. He could make the most absurd statement in the driest of tones, and later you’d realize he was joking, but unless he was talking to the guys or his Tigers were winning, he rarely cracked a smile. Anger was the only emotion I saw my father express freely. Everything else, he smoothed over with a tight-lipped look of concentration.
My mother had the same tight-lipped expression. It must have been something they both learned growing up in their small Mississippi town, bearing up under the privation that went hand-in-hand with being small farmers with the same grimly stoic faces. Ours was not a family of hugs and kisses. We didn’t start saying “I love you” to one another until my father got sick, and I’m certain I never heard “I’m proud of you” from either of my parents about any of my accomplishments, although I knew they were.
When my sisters and I reached dating age, my mother gave us ground rules about what made a boy a suitable date. A good boy comes to your door to pick you up, instead of sitting in his car at the curb and blowing the horn for you to come out. He meets your parents. He holds open doors, knows what side of the street to walk on and “treats you like a lady.” And he brings you back home no later than curfew and walks you to your door.
Mama’s rules had more to do with her comfort than ours. She had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about what went on during those hours between pick-up and drop-off, though she was known for popping your bra strap once you made it back home, to make sure you were still wearing one. But we didn’t talk much about the substance behind the rules. It took me years to figure out that a man who follows the rules of chivalry, but who lacks an underlying respect for women, has nothing to offer.
My mother taught us girls independence. She gave us tools to protect ourselves if something went wrong. But she gave little guidance about how to choose a good partner in the first place. On that score, she basically told us, don’t make the mistake I made in marrying your father. She didn’t – and perhaps couldn’t – tell us what that actually meant. We could only judge our father as a father, not a husband, and our friends’ dads were just as remote as he was. So of course, two of us three girls wound up married to men who were an awful lot like my father.
My first boyfriend was a true romantic. In fact, he even looked a little like Drake. It’s possible I chose him because I knew my mother would like him, and boy, did she. He not only held doors and brought me back by curfew, but he never missed, or failed to manufacture, a reason to bring me flowers. Every Valentine’s Day, every Sweetest’s Day, every Easter, and sometimes, just because it was Friday.
We were in college and money was tight, and I quickly became dependent on him for everything from rides around town (I didn’t know how to drive back then) to paying the occasional bill when I was too embarrassed to ask my parents for extra money. Over the course of our nearly nine-year relationship, “dependent” was the way he preferred me.
My graduation from Michigan and decision to take a job in Wisconsin marked the beginning of the end for us, although it took another five (really six) years to finally sever ties. Those last five, six years were spent with me battling for independence and freedom against his increased efforts to tighten his hold on me.
I came to hate flowers.
And so it was that I went from a man who freely cried and said things to me like, “we can’t break up, you’re my better half” and “I put you on a pedestal,” to my ex-husband – who admitted at our divorce trial that he smacked me (I remember it as a punch in the head) while I was in the hospital giving birth to our daughter because I was “hysterical.”
I had control battles with my first boyfriend and my ex-husband, each of whom deployed different weapons. Yet because of what I’d witnessed between my parents growing up, I was more comfortable with the man who could smack his “hysterical” pregnant girlfriend, than I was with the guy who wanted to keep me dependent on him, and who cried when I broke it off for good.
This past weekend, I celebrated my one-year anniversary with my current partner, the first “real” relationship I’ve had since my divorce. He is not prone to romantic gestures and flourishes. But he is helpful. He cooks, cleans, and takes my son to the bus stop in the morning. He stays with the kids when I have to go out of town. I was the single mother who had it all under control – or so I thought – when I met him. I never asked for help, and resisted, for a number of months, allowing him to help me in any meaningful way. Then I realized that being helpful is his way of showing that he cares – and I relented.
As we’ve grown closer, my “dude” has allowed more of his emotional side to show through. He’s not just helpful – he cuddles and snuggles and even brought me a rose recently – a single red rose that lasted for a week, and was still fragrant even as it wilted. And as he’s gotten more comfortable being emotionally demonstrative, I’ve had to get comfortable allowing him to. I’ve had to put my distrust and cynicism to the side and not look for ulterior motives – or, worse, recoil – when he does or says something sweet.
As a mother, I’ve always thought it important to give my son the space and freedom to express all of his emotions, not just anger and, eventually, lust. I believe bottling up all those other emotions is why our men are so fragmented and distant and broken.
But as a woman, I’ve had to check myself, because I’ve rejected in men the same emotional freedom I’ve encouraged in my boy. I’m learning to welcome the cuddling and snuggling.
And I will accept a bouquet of flowers from my dude with pleasure.