Thoughts on masculinity

The following is my reply to a recent message. The quoted part is reproduced with permission, while the identity of my correspondent remains a secret.

Hi prot, what are your thoughts on being less feminine?

I will get to the answer but must first comment on the framing of your question. I understand English may not be your mother tongue, as it isn’t mine, and am not judging you for it. This is just a general remark on matters of method and disposition. Please don’t take it personally.

Your question starts with the hidden assumption that “we”, meaning men, are “more feminine”. It holds the belief that this state of affairs is undesirable and that “we” should do something about it. The implied ostensible relative increase in levels of femininity among men suggests that there existed an earlier era when men were not feminine. Finally, it lumps up together a diverse group of people as “men”, thus reducing them to a homogeneous set.

The questions we pose foreshadow the answers we receive or the findings we collect. If you think that the above hidden beliefs are true, you are inclined to favour answers that support your narrative. Let me then tell you that I am sceptical of the premise of this question. Some observations:

  • How do you measure masculinity? Is it a natural condition, a bundle of social expectations, something else?

  • If masculinity is on a spectrum from, say, 0-100 then the supposed homogeneous set that includes all men isn’t that homogeneous after all. There is a great deal of variety therein. Why then lump together a diverse group of people and tell them that some are more true than others?

  • If forced homogenisation is somehow the goal, what should be the target on this fabled masculinity index? 50? A 100? If your score is 5 points below, what shall we do with you? What about a deviation of 10 points? And then 20? Where do we draw the line?

  • If masculinity is a spectrum and if, for the sake of this discussion, femininity is its opposite, we would be justified to believe it is a spectrum as well. We then have the same methodological problems for this group of people.

Without even mentioning other genders, you can already tell that the constructs of masculine and feminine are relative as they exist on a continuum. Otherwise the very notions of “less feminine” and “more masculine” would be meaningless. It would be a binary of either you are or you are not. There would be no hard methodological problems to solve. You would just draw a clear distinction between only two possibilities.

From these alone, we start realising that your question undermines the neat separation between the masculine and the feminine. Either you believe in the binary, in which case phenomena such as “less feminine” are impossible, or you accept the presence of a spectrum and thus discard simplistic concepts of the “manly man” and the like. Once we add the fact of the gender spectrum to our consideration, we notice that the original thesis is untenable, but I will not delve further as you may need more time to think about it.

Now on to the link you provided. I did not watch the whole video. Sorry! I stopped a bit before the 4th minute as I already had all the information I needed. I have heard the same things a hundred times over in my own cultural milieu. In those few minutes I watched there were references to some cult that presumably comprises all those dube-bros, the image of a pernicious “Adonis” meme, as well as undertones of homophobia and, perhaps, misogyny. Furthermore, there was the all-too-familiar mischaracterisation of emotions as (i) a sign of weakness and (ii) a mark of femininity.

Starting from that last element, I know from the numerous backward-minded people in my own culture how, for example, appreciating the sunset, reciting poetry, and admiring paintings are all signs you’re gay. I pity the covertly insecure “manly man” who does not appreciate a sunset and is afraid to engage with art!

Families with a son and daughter will send the boy to study physics and the girl literature. Is it because the former is that much smarter? No. It simply has to do with stereotypes and what effectively is sheer folly. (And I won’t even go into the widespread bias against the humanities.)

People suffer from the collective obsession to have defined roles for everyone. If you don’t quite fit in to the mould, they will offend you, ridicule you for being less of this or that, and ultimately bully you into submission. Instead of treating you as a fully fledged human being, they objectify you into what basically is a smart sex doll.

It does not stop with gender though. These attitudes are totalitarian at their core, as they extend to every expression of individuality and are ultimately intolerant of everything that departs from their desired normality. Religion, political views, skin colour, ethnic background… Or do you think that someone who is of a mindset that distinguishes between “real” and “fake” men will hesitate to apply the same reasoning to other matters, given the right triggers?

I am of the view that there is no such thing as a true specimen on a spectrum. There may be an average or a more common occurrence of a pattern under certain circumstances, but none is more truthful than the others. Set gender issues aside for a moment. Would the idea of a “true” skin colour make you feel comfortable? I hope not. Put differently, I do not subscribe to the view that there is a man manqué and that the idea of a “real man” is but codetalk for enforcing a specific view.

Furthermore, I do not agree with the very construct of a unidimensional person, where you are either identified by others or forced to thus identify yourself as merely a gender. We are so much more than a pronoun and/or a sexual organ.

This leads me to the point in the video’s introduction where some Adonis fellow is mentioned and a meme is on display. You may be interested in a relevant reply I provided to the question of Why greek gods are represented as naked, specifically the part about fitness:

You will notice that ancient Greek nudes did not have exaggerated features. You will not find the equivalent of a Barbie doll: tiny waist combined with disproportionately large boobs. There is no counterpart to the modern bodybuilder: a caricature of muscle (and steroids). What we have are human bodies that are fit, but which simultaneously show us that fitness is not an end in itself—they are not super fit, patronisingly fit, disgustingly fit, as fitness is not the be-all-end-all. This links back to what I mentioned about being well-rounded as a human: we have body, emotions, reason, and we must take care of all of them. If you spend all day at the gym, you will have no energy to think, and/or no time to appreciate the subtlety of life such as the gradients of colour at dawn.

Now think about the implicit comparison between modern men and some legendary era of yore during which men where true to form. Are we talking about any specific dates? Can you show me who those real men were? Do we know anything about how they actually felt? Is there any data about domestic abuse and/or the kind of suffering that older generations would actively suppress?

Many of these narratives of a long-lost golden age gain their superficial plausibility from a basic misunderstanding regarding the interpretation of the fact that we have abundant evidence about contemporary matters. They find no such evidence for older times and thus reach the false conclusion that its absence is proof that people were leading happy lives. For example, elderly folks will tell you how couples are decadent nowadays because there were practically no divorces back then. What they conveniently ignore is that women had no equal rights at the time, were treated like financial assets by their parents who would essentially sell them to the highest bidder, were faced with open hostility to challenge the status quo, and had no economic independence. Of course what we have today is different because the prevailing conditions have changed. The real question is if all marriages in those old days were happy ones. I doubt it.

If there is one message to extract from my reply let it be this: instead of wondering why men are “more feminine”, ask if we all can do something, individually and collectively, to broaden our understanding of the human condition. Why obsess about sex and gender when there is so much more to what makes us human? Can we find a midpoint, where we contribute to all facets of our humanity without going to extremes?