The Opposite of Masculinity

Posted on December 20, 2011


Living and studying in another country among other international students from all over the world has a peculiar effect on your self-image. In Canada, my identity includes a number of descriptors including nerd, feminist, beer lover, academic, and procrastinator. Those same descriptors apply in Edinburgh, but I must also include another one: Canadian. I remain a Canadian when I’m home, but when nearly everybody around me has that same quality, it is no longer a matter of personal identity. In Edinburgh, by contrast, my nationality is one of the most readily available ways to set me apart from a group. This has produced a difficulty that I think is fairly common among Canadians. It’s hard to define our nationality except in opposition to Americans. This can lead to unfair assumptions about Americans. We Canucks like to imagine ourselves to be polite, unlike the boorish Americans. Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized that my American friends in Edinburgh say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to cashiers just as much as I do!

While I applaud recent efforts to create a positive Canadian nationalism, I think that we will always have a tendency to define ourselves in opposition to others. It will always be easier to point out things you are not than to consider what you actually are. This is mostly harmless in the context of nationality, but it can be a great deal more problematic when it comes to gender identity. Men pursuing the masculine ideal tend to identify themselves in opposition to some kind of feminine ideal. The negative effects of this can cut both ways. When applied in this context, traditionally masculine traits such as strength, intelligence, or self-reliance can imply that women are weak, stupid or dependent. Alternately, if women are percieved according to traditional femininity to be nurturing, empathetic, and polite then the quest for masculinity will drive some to become cruel, callous, and obnoxious. The latter effect explains a lot about the masculine nihilist brigade.

This leaves us at a somewhat hopeless position. Masculinity is a social construct, and the recognition of that fact means that we can define manhood as whatever we want it to be. If, however, people can’t be kept from defining themselves in opposition to others, then gender identity comes perilously close to being a zero sum game, in which every positive trait in one gender must be offset by its undesirable opposite in the other. I think most rational people will recognize that this is neither the way the world works, nor a way that anybody would want it to work. How, then, are we to account for this tendency in the construction of a more positive masculinity? What is the opposite of a man if it is not a woman?

Here’s my proposal: The opposite of manhood is not womanhood, but rather boyhood. Masculinity thus denotes maturity rather than mere opposition to femininity. This must come with a few disclaimers. First, as I mentioned above and have said before, nothing about this says anything whatsoever about women and femininity. Questions about femininity are for women to answer. Second, boyhood is not to be understood as a set of negative characteristics to be shunned, but rather as a perfectly healthy state of being that people should be expected to grow out of at a certain point in their lives. Lastly, this is all quite subjective. Manhood, boyhood, and other such identities vary between cultures, families and individuals. That being said, here are a few of my observations on the matter, drawn from five summers of working at a day camp. As I see it, men differ from boys in a number of important respects:

  • Response to Adversity Howls of rage at not getting one’s way are generally characterized as immature, and indeed they are far more common among boys than among men. Masculinity can therefore be understood as including a certain stoicism in the face of difficult circumstances.
  • Response to Constructive Criticism When criticized, boys frequently respond with insults and denial. It is, accordingly, thought of a mark of maturity when somebody uses constructive criticism as a catalyst for self-improvement.
  • Responsibility Speaking purely from personal experience, I can say that adulthood has come along with a vastly improved ability to acknowledge the consequences of my actions, both as they pertain to me and as they affect other people.
  • Temper Boys are quick to hit one another as a way of resolving conflict. Men can be expected to use their words, and little tolerance is extended to them if they are unable to do so.

The nice thing about this definition of masculinity is that it already lines up with a lot of what is prized in traditional masculinity. Traditionally masculine pop-culture heroes, for all their problematic sexism, tend to exhibit a high degree of maturity. That this transition is not terribly radical will make it easier to attain. It does, however, have an interesting and encouraging side-effect, which I have intentionally chosen the characteristics listed above in order to illustrate. Feminism, if taken as seriously as it deserves, should change the social landscape such that gendered privilege is stripped away from men while those same men are asked to reform their behaviour as they relate to women and each other. This will not be easy for many men, and it will require a great deal of maturity to deal with. Many men have, predictably, responded to feminism with a series of juvenile whines, but masculinity, according to my definition, requires the stoicism to accept the loss of certain privileges, and the willingness to listen and change when one’s sexist behaviour is criticized. This can only be good for the feminist project.

This is just one way to understand masculinity, of course, and no man is required to abide by it or any other masculine ideal. The reason I have shared this is because men need alternatives to Sean Connery masculinity, and these alternatives must not define themselves simply as ‘not femininity’. Anti-feminists have chosen to aggressively question the masculinity of men who support the feminist cause, so it behooves us to fight back by cutting the very idea of normative masculinity out from under them. An important job for male feminists is to make the transition away from patriarchy as comfortable as possible for men, while not compromising the advancement of women’s rights. We need new, feminist-compatible views of masculinity to make that possible.

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