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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.


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