Veronica Grace asks how you define the undefinable.
Years ago I had a close friend who was struggling with a life that began in a male body but with a feeling of wrongness about that body. Eventually this friend came to understand that she was not a man even though her body screamed “Man!” to the world. After that realization, it took years while she worked through issues and meltdowns and fears and celebrations both small and large, as she brought her outside life into line with her inside.
Becoming a woman did not stop her from loving stereotypically male activities, things she’d loved her whole life. Yet her love for those activities caused her doubt and a feeling of discomfort. It seems that it’s not easy to explain to people that you are a woman in a man’s body. When you add on top of that traditionally male interests and being attracted to women, most people get even more confused. She was sometimes one of the people who was most confused by these seeming disparities.
Which leads me to the question of what exactly is it about a man that makes him a man? I was going to say “as a woman I am unqualified to decide.” But the more I think about it, the more I feel we are all completely unqualified to define gender for anyone but ourselves.
When I look around in the world I see a few main themes our society uses to determine masculinity and manhood. Please note that I don’t agree with any of these. They are simply the themes I see played out in the world around me.
Activities: Things “men” are perceived as doing. I asked a group of men and they gave examples that included sports but not just any sports, beer but not just any beer, being mechanical but not just any kind of mechanical. Repairing things, hunting, and martial arts were also mentioned.
Women: Being attracted to women. Being able to “get” a woman. Being able to have a family with a woman and take care of a woman. Everything except anything that even hints at BEING or acting like a woman. This of course is disgustingly heteronormative just to point out one of the most obvious problems with this theme.
Penis: Having one. There seem to be expectations around size and reliability of function as well.
Toughness: Strength and power, in mind, body and bank account.
My friend was born with all of these “qualifications” – she liked manly activities, was attracted to women, had a penis, and was strong. And so it was extremely difficult to accept herself as a woman while still fitting so much of society’s expectations of men. It took time for her to feel comfortable in her non-man-ness enough to participate in some activities and to allow herself to feel and be powerful. There was a period of adjustment to the idea that giving up manhood did not mean giving up strength.
From the outside it seemed that as hard as that was, it was not as difficult as making the transition from “I am a woman inside” to “I am a woman.” She came to some sort of peace with telling people she was transitioning to female, long before she was able to say or believe that she was a woman. It was as if she only felt entitled to say she was in training, or as if she always had to remind everyone, including herself that she had not completed the necessary prerequisites to graduate with her degree in womanhood. It seems that it’s easier to disqualify yourself from a group than to feel entitled to be a member of one.
There are also societal expectations for being a “real” woman. They include but are not limited to things like having a vagina, having interest in and the ability to attract men, having the drive and ability to have babies and nurture them as society sees fit.
My friend never seemed to feel that she could live up to her idea of the requirements to be a woman. She often talked about not being a “real woman.” She is not the only woman, trans or cis, that I have heard voice concerns about not being a “real woman.” For some it’s not having a vagina, for some it’s being unable to get pregnant or not feeling any drive to motherhood. For some it’s not desiring the attention of men, or not desiring the attention of men in the way society says they should.
This has always pissed me off. I rarely rant but this subject always puts me in a ranting mood. I want to scream and yell and point and stomp and make sure my point is heard. And this is my point:
You are a woman because you are. You don’t need any special equipment, you don’t need society’s approval. You don’t need to attract anyone or give birth to anyone or want to breastfeed anyone to be a woman. You don’t need to do girly things, you don’t need to look like a woman, you don’t need anything at all except the simple fact that you are a woman.
I want to take this space to say the same things for men. But I feel like men need to do that for themselves and other men. Instead I will say, if you hang out at The Good Men Project it doesn’t take long to see that you can be a man and love yarn. You can be a man and not be attracted to or successful with women or interested in being with many women. You can be a man and have or have had a vagina. and emotions. and a way with babies. You can desire affection from men. You can desire and have sex with men. You can be introverted. You can be just about anything that fits or does not fit into the stereotypes and be a man.
So if you can be or do just about anything and be a man, how do we define masculinity?
Some people try to define masculinity by how it would be different from femininity. What is unique to men? What makes men different from women? I don’t think there is much value in that. Defining ourselves based on what we are not or on our relation to other people or groups is flawed and disrespectful to everyone involved. There may be general differences that statistically are more often true of men than women, but if you use those to define men you leave out the men who do not fit them or who do not fit them all. Besides, who gets to decide which items get on the list?
So am I saying there is no difference between men and women, or any other gender or mix of genders? Not at all. What I’m saying is that masculinity is not something I believe we can come up with a static/one size fits all definition for. Masculinity is too deep, personal and nuanced of a concept to be captured in a check off list.
In our writers call today one of the new writers said that he’d spent time with a poetry group trying to define poetry. In the end they decided that it is much more effective to show poetry than to try to write up a definition of it, he thought the same was true of masculinity. I agree completely. That’s why I love The Good Men Project, because I believe that one story at a time is the most powerful way to show what being a man is.
Masculinity – to me — is what men do from the part of them that they feel as male. If you take away the messages of our culture what are the moments, relationships and activities that make you feel masculine? Maybe it’s the power of your legs as you run, or the tenderness of your arms as you hold your child. Maybe it’s the feeling of building or repairing things, or maybe it’s the feeling of designing a great new skirt with pockets. Maybe it’s that feeling you get when you feel almost defeated but like you absolutely did the right thing. Can you define that? Can you pinpoint what part of you it comes from or what about it makes you feel masculine?
My husband has a knitting machine, when he knits it comes from the part of him that loves yarn, and making things and machines and tinkering with machines to make them do just what he wants. For him, knitting is a masculine expression. My husband loves to build things, it comes from the part of him that loves to make things and and use power tools and change our environment. Knitting and building things are just activites, masculinity is a meaning we give to them. The key is, does society give the definition? or does it come from you?
Who gave you your definition of masculinity?