Much is good about masculinity, writes Michael Kaufman, but the devil’s in the details.
You could get into a long debate about the many adjectives we’ve used to describe manhood in order to decide which are really the greatest characteristics of masculinity.
The truth is far simpler.
To answer the question, “What is good about masculinity?”, we need to remind ourselves that:
- Masculinity doesn’t exist. At least not in the way we think it exists. There is no timeless definition of manhood. It varies from culture to culture, era to era. It’s simply how we define manhood and how we define the relations of power among men and between men and women.
- That means that masculinity (like femininity) is a collective hallucination. It’s as if we’ve all taken the same drug and walk around imagining that masculinity is real. We might assume it is biological, we might think it comes from being male or female, but in truth, each culture makes it up.
- Our contemporary ideas of manhood simultaneously do two things: First, they help individual men cement our roles at the top of social hierarchies. They help individual men take advantage of enormous privileges that men as a group enjoy. So, if you’re raised to be assertive, strong, and decisive, if you’re trained not to experience (let alone show) weakness or pain, you’re more able to lord over women or other men in the home, at work, in sports, in politics, in fights, and at war. The ways we raise boys to be real men is basic training for a world of (relative) power and privilege. And, when you don’t have power and privilege, you stoically accept your lot and don’t complain because obviously it’s you who is the problem, not the system.
- The second thing it does is this—and here’s the great paradox I’ve written about for the past three decades: the very ideals that confer and represent power and privilege, are a death trap for men. They are a source of enormous pain, isolation, and fear. The reasons are many: To demand that any human not feel or express pain is impossible. To push boys (and men) to ceaselessly prove we’re real men leads to a constant dialogue of self-doubt about making the masculine grade. It leads many men to hide their authentic feelings and to fear closeness to other men, lest they discover your supposed weaknesses. No wonder men are more likely than women to kill ourselves, be addicted to alcohol and other drugs, and fail to get physical or emotional help when we need it. No wonder we die younger.
Which takes us back to the discussion on what’s good about masculinity.
The answer is very simple: Pretty much everything. After all, to be courageous or emotionally strong, to be dedicated to a task, to be physically strong, to see yourself as a sexual creature, to provide for others, are all, simply, human attributes and ones shared by women and men. All of these (and more) are part of our human birthright. All are important for our survival.
The Devil, Though, Is in the Details
Devil One is the qualities that got voted off the island. All those things a given culture associates with femininity get denied to men. Men mustn’t over-concern ourselves with nurturing activities. Men mustn’t show weakness or vulnerability. Men mustn’t show love for other men. Men mustn’t be too empathetic. By denying such things (and more), men rob ourselves of huge parts of our human birthright. We become half the men we really could be.
Devil Two is that men learn early on to obsessively pursue the attributes we associate with manhood and avoid the things associated with femininity. Too many men become driven. Too many live in fear (especially when we’re teens and young men) of not being a real man. Too many men learn to disassociate ourselves from many things we feel and to obsessively pursue an iron-plated masculinity. In other words, masculinity isn’t just a gender definition; it is a fear-based construction.
Devil Three is the assumption that women don’t share the positive qualities we associate with manhood. Furthermore, male-dominated cultures have denigrated and belittled the qualities we associate with femininity.
So, rather than talk about what’s good about masculinity, I’d rather encourage both boys and girls, men and women to do two things: To celebrate and nurture the human qualities that are good for us all. And, secondly, to allow for true individuality: yes, some of us will be more one thing or another. Let’s let our boys and girls be those things without wedging them into the miserable world of pink and blue.