Julie Gillis wonders if there are universally masculine traits, or just universally human ones?
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
Recently, an email popped up in my inbox asking for submissions to The Good Men Project on the topic of…. “So, what’s good about masculinity?” And I thought, foolishly, that this would be an easy piece to write. I could think of so many positive traits, the piece would write itself. Then I saw Neely’s piece. And the piece after that. I wrote a few drafts. I got a bit stuck.
The curators helpfully provided some examples of masculinity as a jumping off place, “Some thoughts to get you started: courage, loyalty, decisiveness, leadership, strength (physical), strength of character, self-sacrifice (in defense of others, through long & inglorious work), etc.”
But, still I just couldn’t get that “click” as a writer. Because each of those qualities I’ve seen in men, women, children, the elderly, gay, straight, rich and poor. I’ve seen men be courageous in the line of danger. I’ve seen women make immediate and difficult decisions, I’ve worked with straight female business executives and gay male artistic directors (and I’ve worked with other wildly varied combinations of gender and sexual orientation as well), each exemplifying the best of leadership.
Physical strength…well, on average the men do have more of that, no argument from me there. They can certainly open the jars I can’t. But my mother could also do that. She had really strong hands.
Also? My mother could fix cars and equipment like nobody’s business. I recall her telling me that when they first married in the early 1960’s, my father, a composer, would get ruffled when he couldn’t fix a piece of recording equipment and she could. She told him, “Don’t you cook far better than me?” “Yes,” he admitted that was true. “Well,” she said, “I can stay out of your studio and your stuff will stay broken, if you stay out of my kitchen and we eat food that we both don’t like.”
My father had a tremendous sense of humor, immediately understood, let go of his feelings about who should do what, and they ate well while his equipment stayed fixed.
As for strength of character? I’ve been highly impressed by a few 11 year old boys recently, standing up for their friends in the face of bullying, and I’ve sat back in awe at women like Lisa Hickey standing up for peace and dialogue in the face of all kinds of pressure from anonymous commenters and emailers on both sides of the gender fence.
Self sacrifice? There are the obvious examples-our fire fighters and police, our armed services members (which currently include men and women), and there are probably millions of people, male and female alike, in the world who work in back breaking conditions, sweatshops, fields, all to produce goods for us here in the western world so that they can feed their children.
There are men and women both who persevere in their lives against lay-offs, mortgage payments, divorces, doing whatever it takes for the kids to get good educations even if it means less gratification for them.
I can’t say for a fact that any of those traits listed above are inherently masculine, any more than I could say traits such as dedication, grace, thoughtfulness, kindness, flirtatiousness, shyness, or vulnerability are inherently feminine traits.
The chicken or the egg question becomes are “masculine” and “feminine” traits mirroring some biological truth about male and female bodies, or do we create traits to align with roles we’ve historically played out due to biological differences?
Being me, I suspect it’s both.
At that point I wiki’d. Here’s a link about gender which takes that chicken or egg question on with various theories. We do have physical differences to a large degree. Based on XX or XY, males get more testosterone and females get less, even in the womb leading to differences in brain structures, though researchers point out that brains are not all “masculine.”
“Animal studies also show that in any male, some regions make connections typical of males, but some parts remain feminine. ‘There’s really no such thing as a completely male brain,’ McCarthy says. ‘It’s a mosaic of male and female.'”
Those hormones create differences in how male and female bodies develop during early childhood and then again during puberty (and hormone levels of testosterone change for both men and women during later middle age, creating another shift in how the body looks and behaves).
Even so, it is possible and even common to see a wide variety of “male” bodies; short, tall, slight, heavy, highly muscled, softer skinned. The same goes for “female” bodies. Of course intersex is another matter all together and adds to the conversation about what traits are what.
If the traits listed above are found in both male, female and intersex people, and if brains aren’t one “sex” or the other, and in fact are subject to influence by hormonal changes over the course of a life (as well as a multitude of personal experiences that influence beliefs) if there aren’t character traits that belong to one sex over the other, why do we still create binary attributes such as “masculine” and feminine” when we are talking about those traits?
Because it’s easier to say “men are like this and women are like that?” Because in earlier periods we had little to no scientific knowledge at all about how the body and brain work and we went with what we saw? Because there is, perhaps, some bell curve of average tendencies for males to take on certain roles and for women to take others (even though those themselves may vary culture by culture)? Because picking the two most common points on the bell curve creates a binary? Bear in mind, we here at GMP may be focused on these traits from a Western-centric POV. Other cultures may value and thus places emphasis on different traits.
I favor the argument that a lack of scientific understanding led to survival roles becoming based on physical attributes. This may have led additional tasks becoming the purview of male or female over long periods of time, thus creating a cultural and social expectation connected to tasks and thus qualities assigned to those tasks.
But what happens when society changes? When technologies are introduced that allow survival to be more of an afterthought? When it takes less time and physical energy to rear children, clean clothes, eat meat and build homes? This is when those traits come into question and when roles begin to shift. If women and children need no protection from lions, what good does courage do? If we can play equal roles in our work (which many many more of us could than at any time in history) how do we claim that one sex has particular traits that would place one gender in one work role and another in the other.
Thus, I think, began a period of Western cultural existential angst, starting up round the time of the Industrial Revolution and gaining tension around the Computer Age. What does it mean to be a man? To be a woman? To be neither? Both? These questions make us grumpy. You can see it here on the site.
Perhaps like Hamlet above, also experiencing such deep moments of thoughtful maudlin questioning, we also have of late lost all our mirth.
We are knee deep in it this cultural moment (or maybe waist deep depending on who you talk to) and I don’t have many answers myself except to try to look at character traits as universal and brave the coming change of roles. Yes, it’s likely those changes will affect economics, politics, history, even. And it’s happening now. Which is why we should be doing exactly what we are doing here at GMP, which is talking about all that is so very good about men and asking the questions.
What purpose do we serve? What qualities of reason, what faculties admirable, what pieces of work are we made up of if not all of them, together, wonderfully beautifully human?
—Photo Sheep purple/Flickr