Salvaging Masculinity

Posted on October 5, 2011


I stumbled across this article on Twitter today. It’s conclusion is pretty silly:

“The Founding Fathers believed, and the evidence still shows, that industriousness, marriage and religion are a very important basis for male empowerment and achievement. We may need to say to a number of our twenty-something men, ‘Get off the video games five hours a day, get yourself together, get a challenging job and get married.’ It’s time for men to man up.”

If you want a full deconstruction of the argument presented in the article then click on the link and do it yourself. I promise it won’t be very difficult. But apart from all the silliness, I actually agree with the article on one factual matter: traditional masculinity is dying. Where I disagree is on the normative implications: I think that the death of ‘real men’ is a good thing.

To show why, I’m going to start with the three hallmarks of masculinity referenced from the founding fathers. Industriousness is praiseworthy, but it can be taken too far. We have spent 8000 years developing technology to make our lives easier and yet in Canada, long hours are the most common source of workplace stress. Should endangering one’s health in favour of an inflated paycheque really be a masculine value? Work can be good. It can support a family, earn a few nice luxuries and give a person of any gender a sense of purpose in life. It should not, however, be fetishized. A man who decides to quit his office job to be a stay-at-home dad has not foregone his masculinity.

Marriage is certainly a wonderful thing for some, but not everybody is interested in lifelong romantic commitment. I haven’t met a single married person who has suggested that marriage is easy. It takes a lot of emotional maturity and hard work, and if it fails then you tear a giant hole not just in your life but in the life of at least one other person. Given that marriage is not something to be entered into lightly, do we really want men doing so simply because they have been convinced that it will make them more masculine?

The less that is said about the last suggestion, the better. Belief in the supernatural is not necessary to be a real man, a real woman, or a real anything. I have no qualm with people of faith, but faith should never be a prerequisite.

If traditional masculinity could be reduced to the three qualities listed above, then it would be a mostly innocuous if somewhat antiquated concept. What is not mentioned, however, is the fact that traditional masculinity, with all its varied definitions, is only really useful if placed alongside traditional femininity. It is then that it becomes truly objectionable.  When ‘real men’ take industriousness to its logical conclusion, it is the women in their lives that have to pick up the slack at home. When ‘Real men’ are expected to pursue women at any costs, the corollary is that women are discouraged from objecting to this pursuit. Since traditional femininity is all about being meek and ineffectual, traditional masculinity responds by exhalting violence as a means of problem solving. Traditional masculinity is violent and repressive and I will rejoice when the last ‘real man’ grows old and dies.

But that can’t be the whole story. I don’t expect to out-live traditional masculinity but even if I did, we would not be able to simply drop centuries of social conditioning by the side of the road and embrace endrogeny. People like archetypes. If there is any available model of masculinity, then a great deal of men will identify with it and make a conscious effort to emulate it. If that model arises from the cultural soup of contemporary TV, cinema and internet programming, then it is unlikely to be a positive one. That’s why it’s time to re-define the concept. If it truly exists, then the ‘crisis in masculinity’ described by the article should be seen as an opportunity to re-define what it means to be a man in our culture. The time has come to craft an alternative.

I have a few ideas about what I would like to see the new masculinity represent, but they are personal and subjective and too longwinded for this blog post. My purpose at this point is not to suggest what masculinity can be. I will, however, begin to engage with the subject with this list of a few things that it should not be.

  • Masculinity is not mandatory. People of all genders are free to choose their own archetypes. Even those who want to identify as men in every sense of the word should not be forced into any box.
  • Masculinity is not monolithic. There can be multiple views of what it means to be a man. So long as none of them involve violence or treating women like trophies, they are all equally valid.
  • Masculinity is not based on anything biological. I’d spend time refuting certain ideas about the size of certain body parts, but I’m pretty sure most of my readership is over the age of 15.
  • Masculinity is not violent. I can’t stress this enough. Intentionally hurting people should be seen as something that diminishes manhood rather than increasing it.
  • Masculinity is not heteronormative. Men can like men.
  • Masculinity is not the opposite of femininity. This might be the most important consideration. It’s fine to invoke, for example, intelligence as a hallmark of masculinity, but that says absolutely nothing about the intelligence of women. Masculinity, femininity, and all other gender identities should be seen as parallel concepts rather than opposing ones. They can play off one another and they can overlap. I think the widespread acceptance of gender identities that transcend the masculine/feminine binary might be useful in facilitating this point.

I’m really just brainstorming here and so that’s all I’ve got so far, but I’m going to spend some more time thinking about this. As a man with a social conscience, it is my responsibility to contribute to a discussion around how male identity can be made less problematic both for men who are forced into it and women who are oppressed by it. One of the most useful things male feminists can do is to help get our own house in order.

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