Masculinity is a performance, Hugo Schwyzer writes, in which men differentiate themselves from boys.
Earlier this month, my column focused on modern-day “chivalry” and how men and women can negotiate gender-based courtesy in their romantic lives. In the piece, I pointed out something that feminists (starting with the hugely influential Judith Butler) have argued for years: gender is not what we “are” as much as it is something we “perform.” The give-away is the term “roles” that we use to describe what’s appropriate for men and women; in its most common usage, a role is a part played by an actor. And when it comes to gender, most of us—whether we’re conscious of it or not—are acting.
Another helpful way to think about performance is to think about the distinction between the words “male” and “man.” The former is a biological term that applies to other species as well as our own. We are born male; unless we undergo sex-reassignment surgery, we don’t acquire maleness through a process. It is who we are.
A “man,” however, is something we’re expected to become through a process. And that process is more than biological. Drill sergeants and football coaches have long promised to make boys into men through the alchemy of discipline and danger and pain. It’s common to describe the loss of virginity as something that makes a boy a man. (Though the act of sex with a woman isn’t what does it—what makes a guy a “man” is when his buddies find out.) Manhood can also be lost even after it’s been gained; think of the unfortunate and un-ironic obsession so many twenty-something guys have with “Man Law Violations.”
It is other men who pressure us to perform “manhood” through feats of bravery, loyalty, and recklessness. The title “man” is something they can bestow—and just as quickly take away. We learn early what we can do to make us “men” in the eyes of our peers, and most of us learn early to avoid performing those things that will earn us ridicule. (It’s telling that the most hurtful way to put down a guy is, invariably, to imply that he is somehow feminized.)
But it would be unfair to suggest that there’s nothing more to performing manliness than playing the part of a high school sports hero or a drunken frat boy. Some of the ways that men act in order to feel more masculine are destructive (binge drinking, brawling, driving too fast, and other risk-taking behaviors); others are harmless, and still others are profoundly positive.
Part of the problem, however, with this notion of performing masculinity is the mistaken idea that in order for something to be genuinely manly it must be something women don’t do. And as women have been successful in moving into once all-male bastions, some men have felt the pressure to go to ever more violent and more extreme lengths to “play at manhood.” Within living memory, only men went into combat; within living memory, contact sports for women were non-existent. A man who went to war or played hockey was made more masculine by the role he took as a soldier or a forward. In a world where women go to war—and play hockey—men who believe that true manliness lies in doing what women can’t are forced to create ever more-violent activities from which females can still be excluded. (This explains the rising popularity of the most violent video games, as well as MMA.)
But men who long for a vanished world of all-male preserves are making a fundamental mistake about masculinity. They think that the opposite of “man” is “woman” and that in order to prove oneself the former they must do (perform) things that no woman can. But it makes good sense to suggest that the better antonym of “man” is “boy.” To “perform masculinity” isn’t about doing what women don’t. It’s about doing what boys lack the will or the maturity to do.
So often, when someone makes a list of manly virtues (like courage, forthrightness, dependability, persistence), someone else rightly points out that women can also display all of these. That leaves many men floundering, wondering (as many writers here at The Good Men Project have wondered) what, if anything is uniquely good about masculinity? But the point is that performing manhood isn’t about differentiating oneself from what is female; after all, that’s a biological distinction that’s already in place. Rather, performing manhood is about deliberately choosing to do those things that are fundamentally adult rather than puerile.
So when I choose to confront publicly a senior administrator at my college, the modest courage I display is about taking responsibility. It’s something a woman could do just as well, but when I do it (I’ve had occasion to do just this a few times in recent years), I feel like a man. Not in the sense that I feel infused with macho bravado, but in the sense that I feel as if I’ve done something that I couldn’t have done in my younger, more self-conscious years. And it feels good.
So is “performing manhood” just about being a responsible adult in a male body? Partly, yes. But there are other ways to do it as well.
For example, clothing.
I live in hip West Los Angeles, where middle-aged fathers famously dress like teenage boys. I’m casual myself on the weekends and vacations, but when I go to teach or to an important meeting, I usually break out a Brooks Brothers suit or blazer. Growing up in my family, business attire from that famous flagship of preppiness was what symbolized adult masculinity. And while I’d like to think I’m a responsible adult whatever I’m wearing, I always feel more grown-up—and yes, more like a man—when I put on something just a bit more formal.
If we really are in a “man crisis” in America, I suspect it’s rooted as much as anything else in this fundamentally mistaken belief that manhood needs to be about rejecting anything that smacks of the feminine. With fewer and fewer all-male preserves left in our society, guys who cling to this outdated notion of what it means to perform masculinity will indeed feel themselves at a loss. But if we understand masculinity as something we choose to perform—and grasp that at its core, that performance is about distinguishing ourselves from immature boys rather than women—we can still find something pleasurable, meaningful, and redemptive in acting like “real men.”
Lisa Hickey responds to this post:
—Photo JD Hancock/Flickr