The Sexist

Sexist Comments of the Week: Exploding Masculinity Edition

Masculinity: Should we explode it? That's the question posed by Sexist commenters in last week's battle over the M-word and its place in the education of men and boys. So: Should we redefine masculinity to encourage boys to be manly-but-in-a-good-way, or should we blow the whole concept to smithereens in a strangely masculine display of destruction? Let's find out!

Sam wants to hear the positive side of masculinity:

Why does talking about gender and gender relations, particularly with younger/teenage boys, always, always seem to have to revolve around the notion of toxic masculinity?

I suppose this cuts back to the chivalry discussion from last week, but where’s the positive element of the concept here? What is positive masculinity today?

I mean, really, masculinity seems to be less defined these days by what it is, than what it is not supposed to be—not much of “do”s, but a whole lot of “don’t”s.

I want to talk about the dos, not just the don’ts.

Kit-Kat says that even positive traits coded as "masculine" are inherently limited:

Our view of men in this culture right now seems to be so narrow: men are defined by being not-women. To be manly, they must avoid anything that smacks of femininity. It’s so crippling, this warrior-view of manhood. I would love it if men were given more space to be themselves, if the arts and fashion and academics and the color pink and emotions other than anger were not seen to be the purview of women and gays.

Part of the problem in talking about positive masculinity is that there are a lot of traits that we might associate with being a good man, but they aren’t necessarily gender-specific. For example, if I had a son, I would want him to be honest and courageous. I would want him to stand up against injustice and look out for those who are not as strong as him. I would want him to have integrity, and to be willing to sacrifice himself for those he loved. I would want him to treat his romantic partners with respect and care for his children. But of course, I would want any daughter of mine to be the same. If he was interested in athletics or cars or whatever other stereotypical male interest, that’s fine, but not an essential part of being a man.

Maybe it would make sense to say that the problem with chivalry is not any specific behavior associated with it, but that it is predicated on the idea that one must treat women well because men are strong and women are weak. What if we had something like chivalry, a code of conduct towards others, but that was predicated on the idea that one must treat other people well because they are human? That honor is not about controlling others, but about standing up for what is right and sticking to one’s word? I think that might be a good start for talking about masculinity.

Sam says that in masculinity and femininity, "overlap is something to be avoided":

but isn’t what you’re saying exactly the problem with masculinity these days? That there’s really nothing a good man should be/do that a good woman should not be/do?Of course (most) men define themselves by being not women, because, well, that’s what most women want—not women. So whenever one concept changes, the other one necessarily will, too. And if one concept’s range gets larger, the other one will necessarily get smaller if overlap is something to be avoided.

Of course, there’s the question of why men aren’t simply content with being good human beings and want to also be good “men.” Why we need something that only we can do, why we need to be needed. I think it’s because we don’t believe that we will be wanted, because I suppose there is a deeper level understanding that we have always been the expendable sex, and culturally, we really don’t understand why anyone would want men if they’re really as bad as they are said to be in this dialogue—and also, there’s human mating dynamics which almost necessarily involves so much more rejection for the average man than for the average woman.

. . . I think men need a positive discourse about masculinity, and I think feminism needs a positive discourse about masculinity, and—also—a positive discourse about male (heterosexual) sexuality.

kza says down with conformity:

Masculinity can’t really be defined, everyone has a different opinion. Anyone trying to conform to society’s opinion of what masculinity is supposed to be are idiots.

Jess is more into men than masculinity:

"I think it’s because we don’t believe that we will be wanted, because I suppose there is a deeper level understanding that we have always been the expendable sex."

I just can’t understand where this “men only act macho because inside they are scared little boys” narrative came from. You know, dude, a lot of people have low self-esteem—some of them because they are trained from birth to believe that they exist only for the sexual gratification of others (but not too gratifying, mind you!—but we manage not to deal with it via rape and violence. If the performance of masculinity is just a manifestation of male neurosis, maybe men should try, at the very least, a different neurosis for a while. (Try attempting to model your body after an ideal of beauty that is actually not humanly achievable! I hear that keeps you very busy.)

I think you’re actually confusing the problem with the cure. If men engage in male posturing because they are afraid of seeming weak and effeminate (that’s the only interpretation of “expendable” I can force to make any sense), that is because the Dominant Story of Masculinity, as Griffin excellently puts it, tells them that anyone who doesn’t engage in male posturing is weak and effeminate. We don’t address that by taking performed masculinity more seriously.

I’ll have as much positive discourse about men as you want—many men are great, I am even married to some of them (okay, only one). But I’ll pass on the positive discourse about masculinity. I think men deserve better.

MissA says BLOW IT TO HELL:

Further to Jess’s point:Like it or not, hegemonic masculinity (the phrase my profs used to refer to the Dominant Story of Masculinity) is one of the key conceptual devices used to enforce oppression and repression along gender lines. Hegemonic masculinity is what tells men that they are never good enough unless they are “alpha”, beating everybody else at the game of life. It shortens men’s lives by associating manliness with danger, perpetuating the notion that the disproportionate rate of men killed in service, at work, or through crime is to be expected, and not a reason for concern. Not to mention through suicide; because men must be better, they cannot show weakness, they cannot ask for help. And it requires the domination and devaluation of everyone who does not adhere to hegemonic masculinity.

A “positive discourse about masculinity” is like a positive discourse about white supremacy—it does not exist, because it is premised on the domination one group of people by another. Masculinity does not need to be “redefined” as something positive—for much of our history masculinity has had a monopoly on positive traits—it needs to be exploded (as does femininity).

Photo via The Library of Congress

Comments

  1. #1

    I missed that discussion because I read the article before there were many comments, but I'm glad you've picked it out for attention here because I've been thinking about the name 'Men of strength' that Griffin uses for his sessions (and the general approach that name implies). One can see the tactical appeal of that approach, but it does seem an odd starting-point for deconstructing masculinity.

    It would be interesting to know whether Griffin sees the ultimate goal of his project as giving the participants a new 'positive' masculinity or dissolving their attachment to the whole idea. Eugene's remarks at the end of the eighth paragraph raise some questions. If what he's taking away from the sessions is that a 'real man' is one who's 'Nice. Fun. Cares about us. Respects his family', well, it's great in that he'll want to behave that way and encourage his friends to behave that way, but also hasn't he just identified characteristics that should be genderless and attached them to men, implicitly denying them to women? (Which is an example of what Kit-Kat says above, and which, as she also says, links back to the discussion of chivalry from last week.)

    At any rate I know that when I was that age I wouldn't have gone anywhere near a school club called 'Men of strength': it would have sounded like it was for boys who either were or wanted to be traditionally manly, and I wasn't. Maybe that wouldn't worry Griffin because he's doing a specific project aimed at a specific kind of boy; and maybe that's okay because a big proportion of oppression and rape culture is perpetuated by that kind of boy, the kind who wants to be a traditional manly man. But the kind of boy I was can easily turn into a Nice Guy, and Nice Guys can become oppressors and rapists too.

    In conclusion, er... it's tricky?

  2. Native JD in DC
    #2

    When questioning what manliness to embody in your daily actions, simply ask yourself: WWSMD? or WWPND? or WWLMD? or WWCBD?

    What would Steve McQueen do? Paul Newman? Lee Marvin? Charles Bronson?

  3. #3

    Amanda,

    so where are you on this matter?

    I think you should have also mentioned my last comment in the other thread (http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist/2010/05/27/come-for-the-pizza-stay-for-the-deconstruction-of-masculinity/#comment-70976), which explains a bit more, what I mean and adds context. It's hard to be conceptually precise in just a few sentences, since everyone has a different understanding of the concept - MissA at least defined it (hegemonial masculinity).

    Again, you can't really *not* have masculinity, in my opinion, however it is specifically defined and what it means in terms of specific behavioral practices. Not having *any* masculinty would logically imply that *all* male behaviour would be caused by biological instincts, which is unlikely since humans are a social species that has a tendency to develop through interaction, plus how do you think not only heterosexual attraction would generally work if it weren't for the display of culturally defined clues (of masculinity and femininity) - I believe chemicals are not completely unimportant, but I believe that the cultural element in mating is much more important. I'd assume that, in general, feminists would agree with that thesis.

    So, masculinity is *the practice of being a man*, and as such will be an integral part of sexual communication. You cannot even logically get rid of it. That's what makes much of this part of the feminist discourse seem a little disingenous, because without offering any real ideas about what would be attractive masculinity it does often come across as policing men for being men, even though that will usually be denied, and, I concede, will not usually be the intention. But it *is* not rarely a valid interpretation of the feminist attitude, which is what makes such discussions so difficult.

  4. LeftSidePositive
    #4

    Sam, heterosexual communication works because heterosexual people with vaginas want heterosexual partners with penises, and vice versa. That's really all there is to it. There is no need for a bunch of other cultural bullshit for that process to work. You don't need to have cultural spaces/opportunities/values/attributes that are just for men for heterosexuality to work because the thing that defines this whole enterprise (from the het female point of view) is the HAVING A PENIS, without which the relationship won't really go anywhere! Similarly, all the femininity in the world--makeup, dresses, baking cookies, pink everything, dotting eyes with little hearts, sentimentality, etc., etc--isn't going to do very much for you if the possessor of those traits doesn't have a vagina. (There are minor exceptions of course for trans and intersex individuals, relating to how the person identifies and how they have or have not transitioned.)

    The cultural aspect of mating might affect minor details in terms of which individuals are "in demand," who is considered attractive, and how people go about trying to attract a mate, but it doesn't change the fact that the vast majority of human beings want to get sexual someone who has different parts than they do. Are you trying to say that if men didn't have specific cultural ways to act that women would all go off and be lesbians? Are you saying that I cannot actually distinguish that one T-shirt-&-jeans-clad person at the Vintage Hollywood Musicals Film Club is male (and therefore someone I might be interested in as a mate, provided a LOT of other factors line up), and another T-shirt-&-jeans-clad person at the same movie club is female and therefore could never be anything other than a friend? I can assure you I can tell the difference quite easily!

    So, for men to invest so much time into defining themselves as not-women is, frankly, silly. Men are already not women. Women who are heterosexual want men. This is a basic fact of biology and a fundamental human need for love and sex, and you don't need to define a whole lot of extraneous details as exclusively pertaining to you to be "needed." That's a very selfish and manipulative way to make yourself needed, anyway! It's much better to be a kind, good, and productive member of society so that people WANT you, rather than trying to force people to NEED you. That's part of where this "policing men for being men" becomes relevant--what do you mean "being men"? What does it mean to be a man? If you're saying "being men" means insisting that certain attitudes, values, and lifestyles are only allowed to be "for you," then we're not policing you for being "a man," were policing the fact that it's simply wrong to arbitrarily kick other kids out of the sandbox.

  5. #5

    "So, masculinity is *the practice of being a man*, and as such will be an integral part of sexual communication. You cannot even logically get rid of it. That’s what makes much of this part of the feminist discourse seem a little disingenous, because without offering any real ideas about what would be attractive masculinity it does often come across as policing men for being men."

    I think this is such a smart comment. It often seems to be assumed in feminist discourse that we can get rid of the "problems" of masculinity & femininity by insisting that all gendered behavior that has a cultural element or isn't strictly biological is bad & needs to be debunked -- & then by defining what "really" counts as biological in as minimal a way as possible. There will always be culture, there will always be performative identities, & if we get rid of masculinity/femininity as currently defined, they'll just be replaced with something else.

    LeftSidePositive, it's a bit ridiculous to assert that "the thing that defines this whole enterprise (from the het female point of view) is the HAVING A PENIS." First of all, there are a lot of trans men out there who don't have penises & never will, & whose partners are presumably attracted to men. There are also trans women who DO have penises, yet are still female & wouldn't like to hear that they're defined by their gender. Anyhow, I'm a heterosexual woman, & when I get attracted to a man, it's not because I am attracted to his having a penis (which in most cases I can't see right away). It's because of a whole complex of factors about his appearance and personality. These includes secondary sex characteristic (beard, body hair, having a "male" body shape), but also some "performative" traits incl. the way he dresses and qualities that I perceive as assertiveness, competence, confidence, & sense of humor. Some of these read as "masculine" to me, some of them are attractive personality traits for any human being to have.

    "Are you trying to say that if men didn’t have specific cultural ways to act that women would all go off and be lesbians?" Well no, but some of us might be less attracted to those men, or not attracted at all, & women would likely end up gravitating toward any men that *did* behave in "masculine" ways. I'd agree that defining masculine/feminine as "opposite" is ridiculous, & a lot of the scripts we have for gender performance have got to go. But reducing sexual attraction to people's "parts" or biological attributes is too reductive.

  6. #6

    @Emily H.: agreed, x1000, you addressed everything about LSP's comment that I was thinking but didn't know how to say. I would like to think that I am attracted to something beyond genitalia when I am drawn to somebody; in fact, I KNOW that it goes beyond that. With guys, there are definitely traits that I also perceive as "masculine" that aren't even that easy to define, but are associated with maleness. It's one thing to deconstruct gender roles and ask why it is that we associate things like interest in sports, muscles, short hair, etc. with masculinity, but it's another to say that none of those things matter because all we really want is some dick. Not everybody is interested in children, so I think it's kind of silly to reduce everything to evolution and biology.

  7. #7

    Aw, Sam! As a heterosexual woman, I'm happy to do my part in creating "a positive discourse about male (heterosexual) sexuality."

    I'm less certain about needing a notion of masculinity to do that. I probably wouldn't list 'masculine' as one of the things I like in a man, and I definitely wouldn't list 'not woman' as one of the things I like. I don't like men because of what they're not but because of what they are. I'm only mostly heterosexual, so it's not like being a woman turns me off; it's more like a woman has to be fairly attractive before she overcomes the disadvantage of not having a cock. (Cultural masculinity = cute in small doses but mostly unnecessary; biological masculinity = very hot). Of course, women vary in terms of what they find attractive, but it's obvious to me that men shouldn't need to be "not women" in order to feel valued.

    One of the most interesting feminist ideas about male sexuality that I've heard is that men might suffer from not having a cultural discourse that allows that they might be desired. Whereas women have to suffer under "you must be desirable but not seem too available at all times", a lot of the time the idea of desiring a man is sidelined; men are considered the viewers, not the viewed. Maybe you lose something by that. If you're interested in further discussion of that idea, try reading figleaf:

    http://www.realadultsex.com/archives/2009/03/rule_2_in_action_via_reader_tlt

  8. LeftSidePositive
    #8

    Emily H.--I'd have to disagree. For one thing, I did make a nod to the nuances of trans and intersex individuals, and yes that rather complicates matters BUT I would be wiling to bet that the majority of people would not be comfortable sexually who didn't have the parts they were interested in. For other people, love can overcome that. AND, just because a trans man identifies as "male" (penis or no penis) doesn't mean that he has to be "masculine"--he can hate football, love art museums, be shy, quiet, and nurturing but still feel that he is "male."

    All those secondary sex characteristics are a pretty handy evolutionary shorthand to indicating what the defining parts are. In any event, it shows that you're primarily attracted sexually to the *physicality* of being male, which does not depend on the performance of masculinity. As for trans folks, the vast majority tend to feel more psychologically comfortable when they transition to some degree of physical conformity to their identified gender.

    NONE of the other characteristics you describe are in any way necessarily gendered. Not one. Nada. Zilch. A girl can wear a lumberjack outfit or a Don Draper suit or a Navy uniform and it won't change the fact that you perceive her to be a girl. The qualities of assertiveness, competence, confidence, & sense of humor are NOT AT ALL GENDERED. I can personally think of dozens of women who have many of these traits, and many more who have ALL of them, and while I love them dearly as friends, I would never consider any of them as a potential romantic partner, because I'm into guys.

    I think your belief that women will only or predominantly be attracted to "masculine" men is part of the dominant cultural narrative that makes masculinity so oppressive. It also makes femininity oppressive--it's the same belief that leads us to believe that we will only be attractive if we lose 20 lbs., wear the right dresses, put on tons of makeup, be sweet and supportive, etc., etc. It also further teaches individuals of both genders that they should only consider for mates (or more highly value as mates) individuals who have the "approved" traits, and that is damaging to everyone. It also leads people to have "public" spouses/mates that meet their society's view of attractive, while secretly carrying on with people they'd be ashamed to publicly admit they're attracted to. See: Prince Charles, Diana, and Camilla (wouldn't EVERYONE in that situation be happier--and possibly alive!--if he'd had the courage to say, "I don't care what the rest of the world thinks of her. This is the woman I love.") Look at Jude Law, then look at Sienna Miller, and then look at the woman with whom he cheated on her.

    Also, I'm certainly not saying that "parts" are the ONLY reason someone is found attractive--there are about 3 billion individuals on this planet with the correct parts, and I'm only attracted to a very tiny fraction of them! BUT the other characteristics do not need to be gendered. A lot of characteristics that make someone attractive to me are most definitely cultural/learned/fostered--kindness, talent, charm, confidence, beauty, humor, wit, ambition, etc., etc. But the fact remains I only consider those qualities *sexually* attractive ON A MAN. A woman with those characteristics would be my friend. (People who are bisexual would likely feel differently, but they're bisexual anyway and therefore NOT relevant to "If we don't have culturally defined spaces for men and women what will ever happen to heterosexuality?!?!" fears.) The point is that we do not need to enforce cultural "otherness" between the genders to maintain heterosexual attraction.

  9. #9

    That’s what makes much of this part of the feminist discourse seem a little disingenous, because without offering any real ideas about what would be attractive masculinity it does often come across as policing men for being men, even though that will usually be denied, and, I concede, will not usually be the intention.

    Saying that feminists do not intend to police males for being males is like saying Christians do not intend to police gays for being homosexual. It is too often the result of such discussion for one to claim that the policing is not at least a driving factor. Likewise, I do not think males should turn to feminists for ideas about masculinity anymore than gays should turn to Christians for ideas about their identity. People should form their own identities, not have their identities formed for them, and certainly not have their identities formed by groups whose opinion of those people is solely and explicitly negative. The latter is also likely the reason why no real ideas are ever offered. If one does not think highly of the group one wishes to "help," then it is unlikely one will have anything positive or even constructive to offer.

    If you’re saying “being men” means insisting that certain attitudes, values, and lifestyles are only allowed to be “for you,” then we’re not policing you for being “a man,” were policing the fact that it’s simply wrong to arbitrarily kick other kids out of the sandbox.

    All people insist to an extent that certain attitudes, values, and lifestyles are only "for them" or are only possible "for them." That notion forms the gist most feminist commentary (ironically, feminists are more prone to arbitrarily kick other kids out of the sandbox). While that is a silly behavior, it is also quite normal because it is integral to forming one's identity. People need their group characteristics to be somehow unique to them, otherwise they would lack an individual identity.

  10. LeftSidePositive
    #10

    Let's shine some light on Toysoldier's misconceptions, shall we?

    Saying that feminists do not intend to police males for being males is like saying Christians do not intend to police gays for being homosexual.

    As we've tried to tell you before, Toysoldier, the feminists in your head are not real feminists. Your delusions about feminism are irrelevant. Try to back up your claims or just acknowledge that YOU are the bigot here, and call it a day.

    Just in brief: I have no problem WHATSOEVER that men are biologically men, or even that many biological males like traditionally masculine things. By all means, enjoy your football, and be happy! BUT when your "enjoying football" means that I'm stuck cleaning up all the Thanksgiving dishes by myself, I'm annoyed. Not because I resent your "manliness" or your enjoyment of football, but because you're being a lazy inconsiderate slob, which is a negative characteristic of EITHER gender.

    All people insist to an extent that certain attitudes, values, and lifestyles are only “for them” or are only possible “for them.”

    This is wrong. It is unethical. And just because a lot of people do it does not mean that it's okay. People should be free to make their own way in the world, to develop as people and distinguish themselves according to their talents, goals, and desires. Anyone who tells you that you can't be like them is mean.

    People need their group characteristics to be somehow unique to them, otherwise they would lack an individual identity.

    This is just plain not healthy. If you only have your individual identity by shutting people out, then you're a petty, mean-spirited, insecure person. If you cannot forge your own sense of self without compulsively reflecting a group identity back to people, you're a stunted person.

    I also love how you can say in ONE POST both: "People should form their own identities, not have their identities formed for them" AND "People need their group characteristics to be somehow unique to them, otherwise they would lack an individual identity." Your argument has NO coherence.

  11. LeftSidePositive
    #11

    Sorry about the Italics fail!

  12. #12

    assume the centrality of heterosexual mating...

  13. #13

    I still don;t get why Masculinity is bad, after all it is just an ideal, and People are sapient, not apes, ideals do not control them

  14. pipi long stockings
    #14

    Currently there is no definition of positive femininity. The only time women are asked to be more womanly is when it is related to our appearance. Having a positive ideal based on gender is something that only exists for men.

    The whole concept of personality traits being masculine and feminine is BS.

  15. LeftSidePositive
    #15

    Pipi, I agree completely. Notice that when Emily H. sees a man who has "assertiveness, competence, confidence & sense of humor," (some of?) these traits read as "masculine" to her. Does the reverse EVER happen? Now, it's quite possible for a man to fall madly in love with a girl who is assertive, competent, confident, & has a sense of humor, but the reaction would likely be "she's so cool" or "she's so interesting" but NOT "she's so feminine" strictly on the basis of her assertiveness, competence, confidence, & sense of humor.

    The result of this pattern of this pattern of thinking is that "assertiveness, competence, confidence, & sense of humor" are widely perceived to be the natural state of men, but NOT the natural state of women.

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