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September 16, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Seven and a Half Inches of Throbbing Insecurity

What does it mean to be a man?

Does it mean anything at all? Does it mean you should buy a cane from Just Men Gifts? Does it mean your beard, your dick, or the fact that you identify with that dick? Does it mean you should delete your Pinterest, or take fewer selfies? Does it mean you should work out more? Does it mean how you act in bed, or how you act around other guys? Does it mean you should know how to change a spare tyre, or throw a proper punch, or beat Half-Life in less than 12 hours? Does it mean you have to stop listening to Drake?

In four hours, I will have been a male human for 21 years. Other than age, I’ve accomplished several of the supposed markers one needs to reach manhood, from missionary coitus to the construction of a freestanding object. I will be, I suppose, a Man.

I’m unsure how to feel about this. Part of me embraces this whole ‘masculinity’ thing wholeheartedly. Competitive? Check. Hairy? Check. Aggressive? Check. I like reading about gory war crimes and mocking my guy friends when they suck at stuff. At times, I’ve idolised both Hemingway and my father. There’s a Kings of Leon album somewhere in my iTunes. Whenever behind the wheel, I pretend I’m Ryan Gosling in Drive. I’ve gone to gigs with around five girls in the audience and absent-mindedly speculated that this means things will get a little rowdier. Once I even tried to punch a guy.

But then, my father just called to wish me happy birthday, then asked what I was writing about. “Masculinity,” I replied, to which he chuckled, then said, “Well you sure know a lot about that!”

Roughly half the people I meet assume I’m gay. I never know how to take this. I should be offended, but not for myself. Homosexuality does not equate with femininity or lack of masculinity—it equates with liking people of the same gender. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of gay dudes who are effeminate to a degree, but there are plenty who aren’t too. Some of the most “hahaha let’s drive around the bays wasted m8” dudes I know bang other guys. As Raewyn Connell theorised in 1992, sexuality is often “disruptive and creative”, and can thus subvert what we think of when we think “dude”, but homosexuality is not intrinsically linked to personality. There does remain a stereotype which people associate with gay guys though, and I seem to fit into it.

Which, to be clear, is nothing to complain about. I’m a mostly straight, white cis dude from a country with free healthcare—it doesn’t get much better than this. But it is kind of interesting.

*  *  *

Masculinity, like much to do with gender, is complex and hard to pin down. Is it just the natural qualities that come from possessing a dick, or a product of culture? Is it ‘boys being boys’, or a hegemonic system that encourages self-doubt, inequality, and violence?

You never know with nature versus nurture. Guys seem much more ‘masculine’—assertive, instinctive—when engaging in very biological acts, from fucking to hanging out with a large groups of other guys. Horny guys in packs are the worst. In other contexts, more abstract and removed from nature, like at uni or at a party, guys can seem stereotypically ‘feminine’—more into talking rather than doing, more in tune with the feelings of those around them. People who I meet in these contexts are invariably the ones who assume that I’m gay. This could be interpreted as our biological imperatives finally showing themselves, or just something we’ve been socialised to feel in certain situations.

Context-specific masculinity is everywhere. I asked another dude we’ll call Jeremy whether he talked differently around guys and girls. “Oh, definitely. I guess I’m more informal with the guys; I’d, uh, use words like ‘cunt’ much more.” Was this the more ‘authentic’ him? “It’s a different kind of authenticity. It’s just adapting certain types of your personality to certain situations. I mean, I think I’m more authentic around girls in some ways, because there is no need for any suggestion of ‘bravado’ or competitiveness.” Did his masculinity come to the fore in bed, too? “Totally, 100 per cent. Bottom in the streets; top in the sheets.”

Another guy, who we’ll call Matt, talks like a bro to his bros, and hates it. “In my view, that is an attempt on my part to rid myself of parts of my own personality in order to… what? Integrate with the wolfpack? Be accepted?” Matt dumbs down his articulation, heavily, because “most ‘men’ are boys. I think that is the problem.” This dumbing-down feels entirely fake. “None of the ideas that I have ever been presented with of what masculinity, or, indeed, being a man, is have ever resonated with me, or empowered me.”

Matt seems uncomfortable with this, like his masculinity is more put-on than simply felt. Many in academia agree with this assessment. It is, to quote sociologist Svetlana Ilyinykh’s summary, “a construct, a whole set of social ideas, attitudes, and beliefs as to what a man is supposed to be like, what qualities are attributed to him.” These ideas don’t come from biology, but from an opposition to femininity: to be a man is to not be a woman.

A binary framework certainly explains where so many masculinity tropes might come from. If women are the ones expected to have emotional outbursts, then men must remain stoic and calm. The two emotions women were encouraged, are still encouraged, to hide—anger and lust—are the ones men are expected to exhibit, like rabid dogs. As society matures, and women are openly sexual too, the ‘forever alone’ and ‘friendzoned’ tropes emerge, fully formed in their opposition to women having sexual agency.

Jeremy certainly sees some elements of performance and construction within masculinity, but thinks this interpretation is a little simplistic and offensive. “Like, biologically there are different hormones.” He cited a study which showed that transsexual people’s brainwaves strongly represented the brainwaves of the gender they identified with. “It’s kind of galling, for someone who gender is really important to, to just tell them that it’s all a construct. It’s just finding out what these innate things are that can define your gender.”

*  *  *

Masculinity is terrifying. It’s terrifying to be a part of, it’s terrifying to have it imposed on you, and it’s terrifying to be a victim of. As a sweeping whole, masculinity encourages boys to become fucking monsters, every single day. It makes gay teens not like themselves and straight teens not like them either; it encourages the strong base of misogyny on which the patriarchy is built; and it is arguably the cause of a whole host of wars. As a whole.

Of course, not every guy who sees himself as a total dude is a misogynistic shit. But masculinity screws with guys on a more subtle level too. Guys lag behind girls at school like crazy, despite having essentially equal cognitive ability, because of their behaviour. 65 per cent of New Zealand children in Reading Recovery are boys. 31.8 per cent of boys fail NCEA, compared to 25.7 per cent of girls. Jeremy thinks he would have done better in school as a girl. “There is more systemic pressure on girls to do well. I used to just like, wag classes I didn’t like, and I felt like I got away with that kind of stuff more because ‘boys will be boys’ or whatever.”

Author Hanna Rosin points to this, and other factors, as the beginning of The End of Men. “The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male,” she asserts, pointing out that three-quarters of the jobs lost in the US recession were men’s. “The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength.” Rosin is hyperbolic, and men still make millions more than woman for no good reason, but she has a decent point: I’ve been hired by a woman in every job I’ve ever had, and playing up my femininity has always helped.

Which isn’t to say that every part of masculinity is inherently negative. Taken as parts, you can appreciate certain qualities on their own. Everyone can get behind a fair bit of resilience and ambition. Even anger is useful in it’s own ways—a recent study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that people who allow themselves to get really angry were happier overall. In fact, people who sought out anger were happier. The trick, writes Atlantic columnist Leah Sottile, is getting angry in the right ways—she suggests loud, aggressive music.

Jeremy sees parts of his masculinity as useful, even positive. “I think impulsiveness and independence can be really good […] it helps with confidence and can be real self-affirming.” The problem comes when these traits are reserved for, or pushed upon, guys and guys alone. “I think if traits seen as masculine were opened up, that would be real positive.”

And this makes a lot of sense. People are complex and different. To divide the huge range of human traits into two categories is as lazy as it is offensive. We should all be as feminine or masculine as feels comfortable—or any mixture of the two. But we aren’t.

*  *  *

A decade or so ago, masculinity was ‘changing’. 4000 think pieces were penned, often with advertising for traditionally feminine products such as moisturiser aimed at males as their evidence. If I was writing this feature then, I’d be using the term ‘metrosexual’ all the time. I’d mention Seth Cohen, and perhaps even ironic masculinity. Then it all kind of died down. ‘Metrosexuality’ felt more like a buzzword for marketers than something any real people were really identifying as. The fact that moisturiser still has to be marketed differently to each gender is telling.

Just take a look at our zeitgeist’s favourite characters. Don Draper, Ned Stark, Ron Swanson, Walter White—all pure distillations of masculinity, taking control of their lives. These are independent and assertive men; men of action and emotional distance. And who does society hate? Their nagging wives.

If, as the academics proposed earlier, masculinity correlates with femininity, then a certain resurgence makes sense. Women have come on in leaps and bounds in the last half-century—nowhere near far enough—but things are certainly better. Masculinity has lost ground, and it’s responded with vile force. Masculinity attempts to code it under reasoned argument in public. It’s “protecting girls from themselves”, or decrying abortion as murder—but the message is there. Online, free of coding, you see threatened males respond with more clarity, with “Male Rights Activism”, or anger towards “feminazis”. There’s a less-hateful resurgence too—the ‘man cave’ movement, the fetishisation of bacon—but masculinity is definitely fighting back.

‘Metrosexuality’ was invented as a marketing term. Advertisers—even the ones fighting for worthy causes—have followed the trend back into ‘real men’ advertising. ‘Real men’ drive safely. ‘Real men’ buy Mammoth Ice Cream. ‘Real men’ don’t hit women. And hey, if these campaigns work, then you can’t really complain. If we need to be given a gold star and a pat on the crotch to stop blatantly inhumane acts, then Jesus, perhaps we deserve that level of condescension.

But ‘real men’ don’t do anything. Real men are imaginary. Napoleon was fucking short. Hemingway couldn’t handle how good Fitzgerald was. Biggie Smalls seriously considered suicide. Don Draper cries like crazy. Your dad is insecure.

Being a man doesn’t mean anything at all. Being a human does.

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