Jackson Bliss grew up in a world of fixed and simplistic gender roles. Only recently has he understood how complex masculinity truly is.
As a teenager, I was a tiny casualty of gender bullying even though I didn’t know shit about gender back then. After years of being a minor track and field star, one day I told my coach I was quitting the team so I could become a concert pianist. He said: —God bless you, son. These were the kindest words any man had ever said to me in 8th grade, words I would replay over and over in my head whenever I felt bad about myself.
After packing up my soccer and running cleats, I lugged a tome of Shakespeare and Czerny around the carpeted hallways of junior high like an exiled prophet looking for higher ground. Sometimes I played piano in the choir hall before classes. Other times, I sat in the cafeteria during lunch and scarfed down my food, pretending to be friends with the outcasts at my table. Mostly I avoided people and found redemption in art. Subverting the social order, though, (based on athletic affiliation, physical maturity and family wealth) had consequences at my school. Sometimes students harassed me in the hallways for coordinating my kicks, for dressing up for school or simply for wearing foreign-looking sweaters in the winter (my parents used to own a Eurotrash clothing store, so giving us store samples for Christmas was always the cheapest option). While girls giggled when I passed them at their lockers, boys made fun of me for being a pretty boy. Sometimes they threatened to beat me up for accidentally looking in their direction or they shot me dirty looks when I was holding hands with a cute girl.
Eventually, a rumor began circulating that I shaved my legs because I had no leg hair, which mutated into the ultimate slander in small town America that I was gay (because gay guys—and maybe Olympic swimmers—supposedly shaved their legs). It didn’t matter that I was part Asian and I always had a girlfriend, what mattered was that my masculinity be defaced so that the masculinity of the boys in my grade could be restored. The thing is, my mom was hapa like me, my obāsan had a thick accent and my dad was a creative and musical dude, so I knew I was already different than the other kids, with or without the requisite leg hair. In fact, it would have been impossible for me to be like them even if I’d wanted to (and I didn’t). But being different can be a major transgression in school, and this transgression is usually punished through gender critiques.
Looking back, part of the problem is that I grew up during a time when gender was a social template, part crowd control and part Schindler’s List. Gender was just one of the many calcified cultural and social codes of the 80’s. Legible masculinity was the only option available to boys in 1987. The less obviously masculine a boy was (which is code for heterosexual, by the way), the more his sexual identity was endangered. It did not occur to me until decades later when I was reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble for grad school that men don’t “own” the masculine anymore than women “own” the feminine, and that furthermore, gender performance has nothing to do with sexual identity either.
But when you’re 13 years old, you don’t have a sophisticated understanding of gender in part because you’ve barely registered the changes in your own body. To no fault of their own, boys haven’t worked it all out in their head. And frankly, neither have most adults. Maybe because society wants us to, we naturally confuse biology with gender, gender with sexuality, and sexuality with biology—an understandable but flawed syllogism.
The thing I wish someone had explained to me in 8th grade is that gender is an inherently unstable categorical identity and always has been, so I should simply focus on being a teenager. Hopefully along the way, I also learned how to (fall in) love (with) people, how to accept myself and how to be a good person. But part of adolescence is struggling with labels, and labels are simply the way we slow down time by classifying human beings before they become erratic. Culture is always one step ahead of the label maker though. The labels we’ve used to classify gender, and masculinity, in general, are woefully obsolete. In 2013, we need a new and multifarious definition of masculinity that is dynamic, not monlithic, evolutionary not static. Part of the problem is our binary attitude towards gender: for many people, gender has always been an either/or fallacy. Yet, with even a tiny bit of examination, it becomes obvious that gender is socially prescribed, and for that reason, culturally relative. It is precisely the elasticity of gender and of gender performance that gives us a fresh hope for redemption because this elasticity gives men and women the right to be themselves, whoever they are.
The reality is, masculinity is complex, the very opposite of whatever gender was in middle school. The NBA athlete is a fine specimen of masculinity, but so is the librarian. The construction worker is legit, but so is the lawyer, the stay at home dad, the computer geek and the slam poet. The factory worker is a good prototype of masculinity, but so is the folk guitar hero, the gamer, the soldier, the metrosexual urbanite and the dog walker.
Just as importantly, sexual orientation is not a yardstick of gender either. I’ve learned from my gay and lesbian friends that hypermasculinity and emotional sensitivity, for example, have nothing to do with the people you fuck (or their gender). I’ve also learned that masculinity (like all gender identities) is pliant, contradictory and complex. It presupposes interiority and cannot be simply our physicality, otherwise we’re just robots destroying shit. The burden is on all of us to fight for male subjectivity whenever someone characterizes masculinity in terms of violence, aggression and primitiveness. By fighting for gender complexity for all people, men give themselves the space to be dynamic, evolved and contradictory.
If there is one thing we can do for kids growing up in this chaotic and often intolerant world, it’s to let them know that gender is not a yoke or a prophecy, it’s just a theorem of identity. Masculinity is like Luis Borges’s short story, “The Book of Sand,” a book with no clear beginning and no end, a book whose pages flip forever and whose content is infinite. In Borges’s story, each reading of the book of sand is both unique and inimitable. In the same way, masculinity is not fixed in time, it’s a project that each generation revisits, a cultural text that each of us rewrites over and over again until it comes out just right.
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