Sophie Moss examines the evolution of gender norms.
Ladies, make room for the new breed of masculinity spearheading twenty-first century gender politics: the new man.
Traditionally, to be a man meant unmarked-ness. To be a ‘man’ was symbolic. Traditional masculinity operated under a cloak of invisibility alongside which came a multitude of privileges: they represented, universally, the general citizen. You. Me. To be a ‘man’ was to fall into a dominant category of both unmarked and invisible—yet omnipotent. Men were the invisible majority. Contrarily, those of us who remained at the margins of this dominant category suddenly became Other—the “marked” citizens of the world wherein everything we did and said and hoped and desired was performed through a particular identity.
Man became black man. Man became gay man. Man became woman*.
Masculinity derives its value from its complete antithesis: femininity. According to Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, for instance, words and concepts and things and us can only become meaningful by comparison to what it is not. A cat is a cat because it is not a bird or a dog. A man is a man because it is not a woman.
Traditionally, masculinity found its purpose through meaningful participation in public life. Whilst the public sphere is still ultimately the loyal subject of a patriarchal Kingdom, today, there exists a very different kind of reign. In the twentieth-century, men were a breed of hunter-gatherers whose masculine virility depended upon the routine expression of a supposed innate physicality exercised through labour.
Masculinity was deeply embedded within the structure of the economy and it was the use of men’s bodies that – literally – made the world go round. In the post-war condition, however, there was an economic shift from industry to service, where emphasis on economic affluence as achievable through traditionally “masculine” labour transformed into the reliance on more traditionally “feminine” modes of production: aid, leisure, consumerism, technology.
Neoliberal capitalism was charging to the forefront of capitalist economic and political structures, leaving all understanding of what it meant to ‘be a man’ in its “feminine” wake. Suddenly, the society in which men could exercise their masculine vigour was replaced with one that emphasised happiness through commodification, affluence through technological revolution and masculinity through attractiveness. The traditional domains in which men could pursue authority and power like an animal stalking game were gone, and they were faced with a sense of emasculation in a post-war “feminised” consumer culture. Before they knew it, they had become victims of corporate infanticide.
Men felt passive citizens in a culture of Ornament. The essence of masculinity had been bottled, mass produced and sold at $25 a spritz and it was a scent from which they had become completely disenfranchised. Sweat and soap became elderflower and rosewater with undertones of three-day-old musk. The ‘new man’ was hard and soft all at once, emotionally vulnerable, intuitive and sensitive but with the ability to win in a fight against a bulldozer and skulk off into the sunset with a pretty lady swung gallantly over his shoulder.
Manhood became defined by appearance, attractiveness and flash cars. Men became passive visual spectacles to be looked and observed. They were objectified. They were socialised into the realm of the “feminine”. The domains in which men found their belonging were now societal, and they felt cheated of their masculinity – of their purpose.
It is interesting, then, that there exists a crisis of masculinity whereby men reject citizenship in a so-called “feminised” culture. This “crisis” appears little more than a call to arms for the demolition of all things “feminine” and a desire to reassert patriarchal dominance. This sense of lost masculine agency in a “feminine” society is founded on the patriarchal notion of all things traditionally female as inferior. How foul it must be, to regress into baubles of “feminine” passivity — docile, disillusioned and robbed of worth and agency.
How terrible it must feel, to see fellow men (the pinnacle of their species!) waxed, muscular, scantily-clad, on billboards in capital cities – objectified, passive, infantilised – all of the denouncing qualities thrust upon the fairer sex in a misogynistic culture that indeed they have come to reject!
Furthermore, the redefinition of ‘masculinity’ is problematic, for it is merely a flat, one-dimensional representation of some awkward amalgamation of aggression and vulnerability and libido and sensitivity that reinforces archaic patriarchal values. What a lazy renegotiation of masculinity, indeed, to simplify it merely in terms of narrow, stereotypical characterisations of aggression and vulnerability in the new millennium. It would be naive to reduce gender politics to a pantomime of two opposing characteristics at their most simplistic levels.
With the residues of traditional masculinity mere rubble in a late-capitalist society, there is a demand for the rise of all things “feminine” to take responsibility for the alienation of masculinity. The bigger picture, however, that still remains ignored is the blatant devaluation of anything and everything considered to be traditionally female. There is a social consensus in operation: to be masculine is to prosper. To be feminine is to be weak. To be inferior. To be destroyed.
We must think not about redefining masculinity in isolation, but instead about redefining how our culture values women and the “feminine” in relation to the “masculine”. We must see the ultimate fall of patriarchy as we know it.
*Woman became black woman. Woman became lesbian. These are deeply complex, interesting issues that I intend to explore in a subsequent post. For the purposes of this article (with specific focus on the masculine crisis), I chose to omit them.
Originally published on LunaLunaMag.com
photo: bradcerenzia / flickr
Want the best of The Good Men Project posts sent to you by email? Join our mailing list here.