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Kathrine Boyer

Gender & Literature

Masculinity in Poetry
In Michael Lassell's poem, How to Watch Your Brother Die, it tells the story of a man losing his
brother to the implied AIDS virus, and his interaction with his brother's lover. It's a gripping poem that
tackles the real issue of AIDS and its toll on a large community, and it shows the reality people go
through when dealing with the loss of a love one. Lassell also demonstrates the characteristics of
masculinity through the characters. Masculinity is portrayed in two ways, first through the living
brother who exemplifies the masculine gender roles, and then through the lover who breaks the
masculine gender roles, and Lassell demonstrates how these roles affect the two contrasting characters.
According to Deborah David and Robert Brannon's book The Forty-Nine Percent Majority: The
Male Sex Role, there are four main characteristics that make up the role of masculinity. The first one is
No Sissy Stuff, which means that anything remotely feminine is prohibited. A man cannot behave
like a woman in any way. The next one is Be a Big Wheel, which is when a man must possess fame,
wealth, and success in order to be considered manly. The third characteristic is Be a Sturdy Oak,
meaning a man cannot show emotion or weakness and remain calm and rational. The last characteristic
is Give 'em Hell, which means men must be daring and aggressive, and go for it even when fear
and reason suggest otherwise. These four characteristics are played out in Lassell's How to Watch Your
Brother Die.
The living brother demonstrates the four characteristics of masculinity throughout the poem, but
also has instances when he breaks the masculinity roles. The opening line is, When the doctor calls, be
calm, which exemplifies the characteristic be a sturdy oak because men are calm and rational.
Listen to the doctor with a steel face on, is another line within the poem that demonstrates the sturdy
oak characteristic, because showing weakness is not masculine. When the brother and his brother's

lover travel across Mexico to try and bring drugs that could possibly save his brother's life, the brother
fills with rage and begins to grow loud when he is not allowed to bring the drugs to his brother. This
falls into give 'em Hell because even though there is a risk in yelling at the border guard and it isn't
reasonable because it's illegal, he still becomes angry and gives 'em Hell. In other situations, the
brother breaks some of the masculine characteristics. He says to his brother's lover, You're an
extremely good-looking young man, which is something feminine, because a heterosexual,
masculine man is complimenting another man. Overall, though, the brother shows that he is more
masculine and does fit the characteristics more than breaking them.
The brother's lover is the character that defies masculinity through out the poem by doing the
opposite of the masculine characteristics, and instead portraying more feminine qualities. A line in
the poem that goes, Watch the tears well up in his eyes, shows that the lover is breaking the sturdy
oak characteristic because he is the one that's crying, and masculine men don't cry. The lover also sobs
and is held by the living brother as his lover takes his final breath, another instance of breaking the
sturdy oak characteristic. The fact that the lover is gay demonstrates how he's breaking masculine
characteristics because men masculine men don't love other men. The lover and the brother show the
different perceptions of masculinity, and how sexuality plays a role within that as well.
The lover is oppressed for his sexuality, while the brother has privilege for his. For the lover,
due to the fact that society already says he lost because he doesn't fit the norm, then it can be why
he is less afraid of breaking masculine roles. The brother, who is a big wheel and has expectations to
be masculine to remain a big wheel must follow the masculine roles, otherwise he will be put on a
lower status like other oppressed people. Male privilege exists, but what happens if a man is not
masculine or masculine-expressing? If the brother acted feminine, he would be stereotyped as gay, and
would lose lose his heterosexual privilege, but would he also lose his male privilege since he isn't
acting the way a man should act, as in he's not masculine? When the lover puts his hand on the
brother's arm as he's yelling at the border guard, a line goes, See in the guard's eyes how much a man

can hate another man. It isn't directed who the guard hates, though. It could be the lover, the brother,
or maybe even both of them. The brother can't understand how the lover gets use to it, to having
people hate him so often. The border guard sees the brother and lover and assumes they're a couple, and
this is the first time that the brother feels hated for a reason he is not use to.
Michael Lassell's How to Watch Your Brother Die is an emotional poem about a man losing his
brother to a terrorizing disease, and through this loss he gains the friendship of his brother's lover.
Lassell explores the way masculinity plays a role in both characters' lives; the brother fits the roles but
is restricted because of them, and the lover breaks them and is oppressed for that. The two characters
who are very much opposites, come together under the loss of their loved one, regardless of what
societal norms they are required to follow.

Works Cited
David, Deborah, and Robert Brannon. The Forty-Nine Majority: The Male Sex Role. New York City:
Random House, 1976. Print.
Lassell, Michael. How to Watch Your Brother Die. Luna Nina. Luna Nina, n.d. Web.