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Like many people, I was transfixed by the perilous rescue of the 12 Thai boys belonging to the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach deep from inside the cave they had been stranded in for over two weeks.
As rescue operations were underway, I was struck by the sense of calm surrounding the massive international effort to save the boys and their coach, despite the frightening urgency of getting them out before the rains made the cave impossible to navigate.
While this was clearly a male-dominated operation from start to finish, it was quite heartening to see a completely different expression of masculinity in Thailand. In the brief glimpses we were afforded of the boys in the cave, there seemed to be an unusual serenity in their demeanor. There were smiles, yes, and no doubt a sense of gratitude and relief that they had been found, if not yet saved, but there was a distinct absence of histrionics or entitlement or spoiled-brattiness. Instead, there was a real feeling of solidarity and brotherhood among the boys and their putative leader, the ex-monk turned coach Ekkapol Ake Chantawong, who, it has been reported, taught the boys Buddhist meditation techniques whilst trapped in the cave in order to help the boys survive their ordeal.
The mother of one of the boys even remarked to the Associated Press when a video was released of the boys, “Look at how calm they were sitting there waiting. No one was crying or anything. It was astonishing.”
And it wasn’t the no crying of the stiff upper lip British variety. Perhaps on one level it was fatalism, but more likely it was mental fortitude in the face of terrifying odds. Which is not to say that they did not suffer. In a Washington Post report, Paul Auerbach of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stanford University’s medical school said, “It’s very likely that while the boys were in the cave but not yet discovered by rescuers that they experienced various degrees of anxiety, fear, confusion, vulnerability, and dependency, and perhaps hopelessness.”
And it would have been completely normal to experience such emotions. Under the circumstances, tears, hysteria, anger, even a Lord of the Flies situation, not to mention threats of a lawsuit—all these reactions would have been understandable. At the risk of being accused of stereotyping, it would not be far-fetched to imagine an insufferable, over-coddled and entitled white boy in a similar situation demanding immediate action and screaming, “My parents will sue you!” to the coach and perhaps the rescuers for taking the time to assess the risks thoroughly before finalizing any plan. And one can also imagine a Hollywood movie showing one of the boys challenging the coach’s authority and assuming the role of the leader and eventual savior because the conventional wisdom is that that is how men are supposed to behave.
The Thailand cave ordeal upends all those notions of masculinity. Even among the men who comprised the rescue team—an international group of volunteer elite divers alongside Thai Navy SEALs, including Sergeant Major Saman Gunam, the Thai Navy SEAL who lost his life in an early attempt to deliver the trapped boys out of the cave—there was a remarkable lack of grandstanding and credit-grabbing, just a unity of mission, determination, co-operation, and hope.
It was as if all these men, from the boys to the rescuers to the government officials—notwithstanding the fact that the current Thai government is ruled by a military junta, all checked their egos at the door. The coach, all of 25 years, even asked the parents of the boys to forgive him. In a letter given to the rescuers, he wrote, “And I promise I will take care of the kids at best. Thank you for your kind support and I would like to say I’m really sorry to you all.”
If all involved in the Thailand rescue mission were men confident about their masculinity, with no need to trumpet any kind of alpha-male superiority, Trump, along with his ilk, is, as Vox Media’s Liz Plank put it recently on MSNBC, “the poster boy for fragile masculinity.”
The constant need to remind people you are the alpha dog is a clear indication that you aren’t. It’s textbook psychology, really. The obsession, as Plank put it, with being perceived as “a big man,” and a “big leader,” as Trump and Duterte successfully parlayed as a campaign strategy, actually masks a deep insecurity and a threatened masculinity, hence the corollary need to emasculate all other men who are perceived as rivals, and insult and slut-shame women who dare to challenge them, in order to assert their sexual virility. Duterte seems to think homosexuality is the gravest slur you can bestow on a man because it diminishes manliness, hence his penchant for calling men who threaten him “bakla,” such as the former US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg. And let’s not forget his choice words for Barack Obama, whom he did not call gay, but it was clear that he was threatened by the former president’s intelligence and, well, justified concern for the rampant extra-judicial killings brought about by Duterte’s war on drugs.
(On a side note, Duterte’s remarks questioning the existence of God are totally justified, however provocative. If only he would apply that measured thinking to the way he governs.)
As for Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed tough guy is really a baby—and a crybaby at that—in disguise. Just look up at the skies in London and you’ll see Baby Blimp Trump flying above the Parliament. The very epitome of fragile masculinity, as you can see.
And yet the irony is that enough people equate their macho posturing with real strength and vote them into office. The tragedy of absurdity indeed.
B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant.
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Art by Marian Hukom
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