Once, when I was first starting to publicly participate in conversations about the changing “brand” of contemporary masculinity, one of the participants asked: does anyone feel as though having a conversation about changing masculinity only serves to reinforce a gender binary?
At the time, the question seemed odd – both in form and in content. While I am a social science researcher, I still tend to think of terms like “gender binary” as something belonging to a new generation. My generation of straight men are still trying to carve out version of masculinity that includes cooking or brazenly admitting having cried for the last 50-pages of “Walk Two Moons”…or both. For us, word strings like “non-gender binary”, or the idea that there are more than two genders, can feel like a code for “we’re not talking to you.”
And yet, the more I’ve come to participate in conversations about changing modern masculinity, the more I have come to see the need to explore this question. Through my participation in conversations about masculinity, I become frustrated with how often stereotyped difference between the sexes are used as proof that we are moving away from a more “natural” masculinity, towards more a more refined masculinity; when for many men, the old models of masculinity had nothing to do with what was more natural to us. In even the most forward-thinking and inclusive of conversations, people tend to fall back onto prescriptive statements about how men are biologically wired, how we are taught to be, or what statistics show us about gender differences. Well, the statements go, men are just more visual…or, statistically speaking, men tend to be more aggressive…
The statements do very little to identify the root cause of gender difference – assuming that observed gender differences are innate gender differences. Additionally, such stereotypes do not give voice to the experiences of men who have failed to measure up to the rigid interpretations of masculinity that they do not identify with. Rather the statements communicate that even in the most progressive of circles, masculinity is not defined by you, but for you. The statements communicate—if you fail to conform you are not masculine.
I suspect that part of the reason why I bristle so much at these types of statements is because typically I have not measured up very well. I was a sensitive boy – before the world had any appreciation for sensitive boys. And though I have learned to hide it a little better, I have rown into a sensitive man. And I’m not talking about the strong, stoic farmer who has a secret penchant for drawing. I mean the emotive talker whose eyes glaze over whenever he hears the words “draft pick”. And if what Bosson and Vandello (2011) say is true – that masculinity is something hard won and easily lost – then I can definitely see why when statistics lay out a recipe for masculinity that includes even a dash of something I don’t have: it would be easy to feel as though my own approximated construction of masculinity was somehow off the mark.
And it would seem as though I am not alone. A Facebook meme passed around awhile back showed a young man with a beard, a flannel, thick-rimmed glasses, and a scarf. Text over the image read, “If you have a beard, but can’t change a tire … SHAVE.” Another blogger wrote that hipsters were ruining beards for her because they were being “treated as a fashion statement” – rather than the mark of virility that a beard represented in her fantasy. In other words, according to both, you are not allowed to dress, define or proclaim your own masculinity. Your masculinity is both determined by and subject to seizure from any blogger or meme poster who decides to create a new standard to which men must hold themselves in order to be considered true men.
The suggestion that innate gender difference can be demonstrated by statistics can also undermine individual masculinity – making it seem as though there is one true and accurate definition. This is not to say that statistics are not useful. In fact, knowing that men tend to buy more car parts can help businesses create a sales pitch, or market an old product to a new audience. But when psychologists, sociologists, and other social scientists describe behavior as sex-based, they also create barriers around masculinity.
Beyond robbing men of the ability to define masculinity in their own terms, this type of statistical stereotyping sends a tacit message to men. That is: if you want to be a man, this activity, trait or behavior is now closed off to you. In other words, rather than describing behavior – statistics come to prescribe behavior. So hearing that women are better at multitasking becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Women hear that they are supposed to be better at multitasking, so they take on more and more varied tasks, while men feel as though they need to display focus and direction. Social scientists and psychologists tell us that women are more social, and so men retreat from close personal relationships because science has set those relationships aside for women. Yet, in truth psychologists and social science cannot distinguish between naturally occurring “masculinity” – and masculinity as constructed by the culture in which we live. As a result, social science doesn’t just describes gender-based behaviors, but constructs them.
In addition, statistical stereotyping highlights a more fundamental problem in the plight for equal representation: ultimately, we have no common goal. For some, moving the conversation forward means acknowledging where we started: in rigid social roles. For others, it’s acknowledging that those roles never really worked for us, and have always felt forced. It’s as though we (men and women feminists, and gender equality advocates) are all running a marathon. And yet when the pistol sounded to begin the race, we all began running in different directions. Some run towards a celebration and appreciation of sex-based differences, others sprint in the direction of equal pay, while a few run towards the erasure of all prescriptive sex-based differences. As we run pell mell, scarcely managing to inch the conversation forward we bump into each other and shout in frustration, “YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!”
I, for one, would like to see every behavior performed by a man included under the definition of masculine. I would like to see the conversation move away from statistical stereotyping towards a more nuanced understanding of why only certain behaviors have been labeled as “masculine” and made accessible to men. I would like the discussion to address questions like: how do we measure a man? And why does that measurement have to be different for a man than it is for a woman? More importantly, what is the future of sex, gender, and equality? Are we moving towards celebration or erasure of sex differences? Can we work together towards a better, more inclusive future before deciding on what that future will inevitably look like? And perhaps most importantly, how can we move the conversation about masculinity forward without reinforcing the gender binary?
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