Will the real “real men” please stand up? Alex Bove would like to examine this unhealthy conception of gender.
A recent photo shoot for the U.K.’s Sun newspaper presented side-by-side images of “real” men and athletes/models dressed only in underwear:
While we might be inclined applaud the “positive” message that “real” men don’t look like soccer stars and models, I think we ought to question whether any group of men ought to claim the mantle of the real. I endorse a maximally-inclusive version of masculinity that embraces cisgender men, transmen, men of color, gay, straight, and omnisexual men (and asexual men too), vegans and hunters, atheists and Baptists, young and old men, men of all physical and mental abilities, and yes (gasp!), even masculine-identified women. I will not accept an unexamined conception of gender.
Conversations about “real” men abound in the men’s rights blogosphere and are usually couched as battles between authentic men and limp-wristed, so-called “beta” males. A term has been coined for these men: “manginas.” Some bloggers have even attempted to parody this web site’s name, and to malign its authors. I’d like to take a moment to examine what I think that means.
On one level, ridiculing men by calling them women is classic misogyny. The insult only works if observers believe that being a woman is a bad thing, or that displaying womanly traits is unmanly. Likewise, calling a man limp-wristed is not only homophobic but also misogynistic. After all, gay men are men. The insult is not necessarily intended for all gay men but only for effeminate ones (those whose body language approximates traditionally feminine mannerisms). Thus, what is truly unacceptable is not men who desire men but rather men who act like women.
But I don’t think the primary purpose of the “mangina” epithet is to place non-gender-conforming men in the same category as women: rather, the goal is to circumscribe the category of “real” men. This strategy still reinforces a binary, but the binary is not so much man/woman as it is man/not-man. What I find most troubling about this world view is that it almost always seeks to define the (usually privileged) category of “man” extremely narrowly. While women certainly fall outside of the realm of “real” men, so do a large number (perhaps a majority) of men.
The worst thing about being a mangina, according to men’s rights advocates, is that it requires a man to mask his true identity, all because of feminism’s nefarious influence. As MRA Jack Donovan says in his critique of the Good Men Project:
if you let women dictate what kinds of male feelings are acceptable, you’re going to get a site that’s about what men think women want to hear — not a site about who men really are.
The proposition that “who men really are” is unacceptable to women is only true if we assume an essential (real) masculinity, from which all other masculinities (along with the entirety of female experience, of course) must be excluded. It requires us to accept that all men are one specific thing. Since feminism embraces the theory that gender is constructed, and therefore provisional, it allows for the existence of more than one masculinity. A flexible notion of gender can be threatening, especially to those who believe that authenticity is the sine qua non of masculinity.
Anti-feminists sometimes frame this threat as an existential one, but challenges to traditional masculinity only threaten masculine privilege. No one is suggesting that “manly” men ought not to be allowed in the club. What we are saying, however, is that we want to diversify the membership (to torture the metaphor). One way to view the “threat” of diversity is to see it as an incursion, and to imagine that the small, exclusive club of masculinity will become overcrowded (and we all know how much men like to stretch their legs and relax). But another way to see it is as an opportunity for expansion, allowing everyone to have the same amount of space in a much bigger building.
I’m not suggesting that we take away hypermasculine men’s right to call themselves masculine. I also don’t think, as Jack Donovan does, that openly criticizing traditional masculinity is a form of “explaining to men what they are doing wrong, and what feminists think those men should be doing instead, so that women can be happier or feel safer in some way.” We must criticize elements of masculinity that may be harmful to both women and men, but doing so should not dehumanize men who identify with those traits. It’s possible (preferable, even) to discuss what has historically been “wrong” with masculinity without throwing out the baby with the proverbial bathwater.
Ultimately, it would be wonderful to remove the gender binary altogether and to see gender expression as falling somewhere along a continuum (and as fluid, open to change throughout a person’s lifetime). Why should my vulnerability, compassion, and empathy be in conflict with my self-sufficiency, stoicism, and toughness? These things don’t feel contradictory to me. They are a set of skills I use at different times for different purposes. Doesn’t everyone?