What is masculinity actually meant to be though? I think we have done some good work (which must continue!,) to gain understanding of what it should NOT be… but what SHOULD it be? Any opinions? (preferably from men/masc people, non-men welcome too). Asking As A Men.Restioson
My answer for this necessarily rests primarily on my own lived experience,as I’ve done little reading about masculinity. However, my experience has been unusual and instructive.
The problem with looking for positives about masculinity is that exists within a power structure designed to promote it and men and the expense of femininity and women. This makes the question immediately fraught and difficult. Furthermore, cis hetero patriarchy is prescriptive (as opposed to descriptive) and imposes a very simple model of masculinity and gender. In the most basic form of this model, masculinity and femininity are a binary opposition inherently tied to physical sex. Hélène Cixous writes that all binary oppositions map on to this binary opposition – good vs bad, sun vs moon and so forth. Power, strength and goodness map on to the male half. Evil and weakness map on to the female half. (1997)
Some more progressive notions of gender attempt to detoxify this model by decoupling sex and gender and expanding it from a binary opposition to a one dimensional spectrum. However, this expanded model still has a notion of binary opposition embedded within it – if something is closer to the masculine end of the spectrum, it’s further from the feminine end. Thus any positives about masculinity are inherently sexist, as they imply deficits of femininity. Some take this to mean that gender itself is toxic and should be abolished.
Where do we go from here?
Firstly, we can say that eliminating gender is not a good or reasonable goal. It’s not a coincidence that this goal has been weaponised against trans people as we are those who most conspicuously align ourselves with gender categories. This aside, gender is a human universal. The specific expression of gender vary widely by culture, but there are no cultures I know that have no concept of gender. People, cis and trans, seem to seek out gender expression and perform it. Most people like having gender. What they don’t like is oppression.
It does show that talking about cis people illuminates very little about gender – they don’t know much about it and their experience is too limited and inappropriately universalised to draw conclusions from. By looking at trans and gender nonconforming people, we can learn much more about what gender is and isn’t.
People do not transition with the goal of shifting within a power hierarchy. Some people experience dysphoria related to social aspects of gender. Both these things show that gender is extremely important to people and that it has meaning outside of power relationships. Given this, how do we talk about masculinity decoupled from that power relationship?
Gender is not a binary
Non-binary gender identities show that the one dimensional model is too simplistic. While it might be tempting to say that they’re simply between masculine and feminine poles, this does not seem to reflect their experience or presentation. Some people have a lot of gender – masculine and feminine, for example bearded ladies in frilly dresses. Some people seem to have much less gender, for example people who identify as agender. Instead of seeing masculine and feminine as opposite poles, one can see them as distinct but related concepts. A two dimensional graph with a masculine axis and a feminine axis would be a somewhat less inaccurate model.
Therefore, masculinity is not the absence of femininity (or vice versa). But if it is not this and it is not (just) a power relationship, what is it? Looking for a universal answer immediately runs into the stumbling block of extremely divergent cultural encodings, which also vary over time. The current dominant mode of masculinity in the west posits masculinity as inherent authentic, unadorned and related to labour. But one only needs to look at portraits of French kings to see that the very opposite was once true. In those portraits, fills, leggings and leisure were signifiers of masculinity.
We’ve previously rejected embodiment as the basis of masculinity as this would seem to exclude trans and gender non-conforming people. But one of the examples I chose contained embodiment in terms of a beard. To pick apart this further – the decoupling of gender and sex is a relatively recent development, which has lead to extremely unhelpful educational aids like the ‘genderbread person’. (Gonzáles, Prell, Schwartz n.d.) (Killermann 2015) Treating sex and gender as entirely distinct is widely understood to be a form of allyship with trans people, but the problem is that it tends to lead to discussion of trans genitals. Rather than fall into this trap while trying to deconstruct it, I’ll just quote a trans woman on twitter who posted “sex is just gender with a doctor’s note.” (Anon n.d.)
While trans people certainly know a lot more about gender than cis people, the systems were created by and for cis people, so some talk about cis embodiment may be necessary. Which is to say that masculinity is not cock and balls, but is related to them.
In penetrative sex, a person with a penis enters triumphant, but exits deflated. A certain amount of identity seems to surround one’s cock, but one has almost no control over it.
Cis hetero masculinity is a struggle towards inevitable defeat.
A defining notion of masculinity in my culture is struggle. One struggles against oneself, against society and against other men for social rank. This last one is generally toxic, but the others need not be. Furthermore, defeat is inevitable. One is never fully in control of anything, least of all oneself. Where masculinity becomes toxic or good I think may partially lie in how it copes with both defeat and victory.
One can have grace and humility or one can have terrified bravado. Good masculinity seeks self-improvement. (Recall that we’ve taken away the binary opposition and presences in masculinity are not absences in femininity.) Toxic masculinity seems to stem from fear of being unworthy. This leads to futile attempts to suppress parts of oneself and to inflate one’s perceived rank through unearned means, such as systemic power relationships.
Embedding masculinity within struggle tends to be compelling to people seeking direction. While I find this satisfying, it’s possible I’ve overly universalised my own experience. Masculinity has been a struggle for me, in that I’m not cis. It’s been a long challenge to be able to claim this space. I therefore believe that this was a worthwhile thing to do. Not just because it was hard, but because I felt compelled to do it. The result is that I’m a happier, kinder and more productive member of society. Therefore, from my own experience, I feel there must be something positive here. I fought for this, so it must be worth having.
The rise of fascism
Alas, the spectre of binary opposition always looms over discussions of gender, making them potentially harmful towards women and feminine people, however, it’s important to continue to have these discussions, while simultaneously rejecting the notion of prescriptive binary. If there are no positive discussions of masculinity, there will be only negative ones. There are a lot of young men searching for meaning and we can’t leave the conversation to Jordan Peterson.
Masculinity itself is morally neutral, but easy to weaponise. It’s important to speak about the positive factors and potential within masculinity without a binary opposition and without denigrating femininity. Genders are socially constructed, but, unlike other constructions, like, say, money, we can’t point at a time before they existed. Indeed, efforts to get rid of gender have not been emancipatory, but have been attacks on people with less gender privilege. With this in mind, discussing theoretical and practical aspects of masculinity in a public way is a necessity. It’s trite to say that young men need role models, but it’s nevertheless true. If we try to tell them that masculinity is shameful, this is a disservice to both young men and trans men.
Narratives about anti-heroes are extremely popular right now. These characters are made sympathetic in the telling, to make them compelling characters. Unfortunately, some take this to mean they should also be role models. If examples of toxic masculinity are ubiquitous and positive masculinity is taboo on the left, we are at a dangerous disadvantage.
Anon. (n.d.) I tried to find this but couldn’t.
Cixous, H. (1997). Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays. DOI:10.1007/978-1-349-25621-1_8
Gonzáles, C; Prell, V; Schwartz, J. (n.d.) The genderbread person. [Referenced by https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2013/09/21/the-genderbread-person/ ] [Accessed 3 September 2019]
Killermann, S. (2015). The genderbread person v3. It’s pronounced metrosexual. [Web] https://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2015/03/the-genderbread-person-v3/ [Accessed 3 December 2019] This content is plagiarised, but the original is not easily available.