The Ideal of Masculinity

Our culture expects men to be strong, in control, unemotional, courageous, and honorable. No matter how much progress we make these characteristics still define the gender construction in this society. To be masculine is to be, powerful, in control, heterosexual, unemotional, angry, courageous, outspoken, without compromise, demeaning, the anthesis of femininity, and dominating. It's all a façade, because all men are unique combinations of the feminine and the masculine, the former contradicts the latter. Thus male people aren't masculine; they're forever trying to become masculine, which is a pursuit of an unobtainable ideal.

As someone who is interested in men and masculinities, in this case, academically, I think this puts me in a difficult situation. I've charged myself with the task of investigating "what it means to be masculine in our society." I've even categorized this as a gender studies project, and have used the term "masculinity" extensively. But as I'm writing this paper, I've realized that 'gender studies' has little to do with what I'm actually trying to write with, and by looking at things from this perspective, I've had to shift my perspective. I don't want to find out what it means to be "masculine" anyone can be masculine, and as I said (albeit indirectly), there is no real definition of masculinity, and I'd hasten to say that because it's such a subjective designation, that it doesn't exist in a form that can be studied. Rather, I think I should be asking "What does it mean to be male."

The first conflict this runs into is the social construction of gender. Gender is socially constructed, and is completely subject to the definitions of a culture. But I'm not seeking to counter or to support this. I'm not approaching this with an anthropological perspective, looking at entire (and often foreign) cultures is very cool, but at the same time I'm much more interested in individuals, and how individuals fit into society. And in this case, I'm really interested in our own society. My second problem is that a great deal of the work I'm trying to accomplish here is based on introspection and self-study. I'm not sure how to validate this, or even if I should try to validate this, so for the present I'm going to let it stand.

While I think that we really can't say that "masculinity" even exists, there are plenty of people who are male. This is still not a categorization that's based on biology, but rather on self-identity. It's also much easier to discuss because people are either male or they're not. I realize that this isn't completely true, but it's damn near impossible to say anything believable, or come to meaningful conclusions when you're constantly accounting for the exception. This is something that I should have taken from my experience at Anytown and applied to this circumstance: while the world is made up of exceptions, societies (and history) are constructed of general trends. By focusing too much time on exceptions we can completely lose track of what we are searching for. In that direction, while I'm quite aware of gender-variance and what not, for the purpose's of this project I'm going to divide the world into men and women, and that'll have to be good enough.

So then I have to ask: What does it mean to be male?

Men are faced with the social pressure to be "masculine," which they have to balance with their own gender characteristics, which often includes elements that run counter to the pressure to be "masculine." Men enjoy the privileges of the male gender regardless of their desire for these privileges. The privilege isn't without costs as it is the privilege that creates the pressure to be masculine. Men embody many masculine characteristics: they have trouble showing emotions other than anger; they view anything effeminate or feminine as weak and abhorrent; they have problems giving up control or power in many situations; if they feel out of control, hurt, cowardly, or dependent, they chastise themselves. That's being male.

Another thing that I've found myself doing in the course of this project is expanding the scope reputedly so that I'm not just talking about gay men, because obviously that's what I want to do. Because talking just about gay men strikes me as incredibly self serving, and any critic that wanted to could come a long and say "you're not perusing scholarly wisdom, you're contemplating your own existence," and they'd be right. But then, what is the pursuit of scholarly wisdom, if it's not the contemplation of our own existence?

This is a bias on my part, but I think I can honestly say that I believe, that straight people, men in particular, don't consider their sexuality when they think about them selves. Most of time, even though its often not the first thing gay men think about themselves, they do consider it, and it is very much a part of their self identity. And before you ask, I don't think it's possible to consider masculinity without confronting issues surrounding sexual orientation. No matter how we categorize ourselves, as humans we are sexual beings and especially around issues of gender, this sexual aspect is inseparable from the issue of gender. Furthermore, my sexuality… being gay… is a very prominent part of how I perceive my own gender, for good or ill, and as this is my project, I'm going to confront issues of the male gender as it intersects with sexuality.

Having said that I think it's interesting to note that on a sociological scale, there are really few differences between gay and straight men. Cultural differences aside, sexuality has little impact on how men interact with each other and the world; rather, sexuality does impact the self-identity and perception of being male, which as I've stated before is what ultimately defines 'male.'

Contradictions abound in this study, and I think that is traceable to the very beginning of this train of thought. Masculinity as a concrete concept in our culture doesn't exist, at the same time men clearly do. It's, obviously an incredibly slippery topic.

(Editor's Note: I should note that the preceding portion of this post was composed at an ungodly hour and may be somewhat lacking in coherence.)

One thing I've done in this post so far is completely ignore the existence of bisexuals, which is abhorrent on my part, and perhaps that's some sort of cosmic pointer to something I should spend more time looking into. On the other hand, there is very little published research (scholarly or otherwise) on bisexuals and bisexual males, which for my purposes at this moment is critical.

I'm interested in reader's input, but before I bring this monster of a post to a close, I'm going to put in a few definite statements to help with my direction as I get further into this project:

  • Gender characteristics, such as femininity and masculinity are created and reinforced by the patriarchy and are not really suitable to either female and male people respectively.
  • Both gay and straight men face the same challenges as men, and while sexuality very much defines gender self-perception, it has relatively little effect on how men function in society.
  • Gender is defined by the individual.
  • Men don't function well in groups of men, despite the fact that research shows that men form their most meaningful non-romantic friendships with other men. (This is a commentary on non-romantic and non-sexual friendships, and thus applies to men who are both gay and straight).
  • Within communities of queer men, despite the perception of an effeminate overtone, the group continues to bend to the will of the patriarchal idealization of masculinity.

Ok, that's going to have to do it for now. I'm sure there's more in there somewhere, and I suspect that they'll find their way out here sooner or later. Cheers!

comments powered by Disqus