All men are equal. The paradox is too apparent to be missed. We see it all around us – from comic strips to superhero cinema, from thrillers and action movies, from romance novels to television, the stereotype of the masculine, dominant, and aggressive male makes recurring appearances. Masculinity is not merely a fixed natural response to biology, but rather to the socially constructed performances of masculinity that differ depending on men’s varying identities: race, class, sexual orientation, age.
To take the theatrical metaphor further, masculinity is a performance, a set of stage directions, a ‘script’ that men learn to perform. For others and ourselves. And this choreography has been enacted through generations. To be born a man is a privilege but to learn to act like one is a burden. This prompt choreography is rehearsed every day, while he/she/they eats, walks, sits, talks or even takes a dump. We are constantly reminded to be a man. What does it mean to not be one? What makes someone archetypically not man-enough? Is it to not kick a football hard enough? Is it to care for the ones you love? Or, is it to tell your friend that his joke on female drivers’ incapability to drive was not funny?
Masculinity and femininity are often treated as polar opposites, with men typically assumed to be rational, practical, and naturally aggressive, while women, in contrast, are held to be expressive, nurturing, and emotional. The role model depicts men and women not as free agents but like actors following pre-scripted roles: so to ‘be a man’ is to play a certain masculine role. Socializing agents like the family, school and the media inculcate and validate gender-appropriate behavior and the boy learns the male role through observation, initiation, and feedback.
‘What does it mean for you to be a man?’ I asked a friend who told me his hair is now a little too long for his mother’s liking. ‘I ask myself that frequently,’ he tells me he’s not too sure.
But is anyone?
From a post-structuralist perspective, identity is understood as something always in process, never finally accomplished. The importance of masculinity to this process of identity work is in the validation it can give to this fluid self. So if we accept that there is no core self, then socially dominant forms of being a male can allow boys and men to express their gender and thus their sense of identity. In taking up these localized and culturally specific signifying practices, males associate themselves with other males to feel like they belong and achieve a differentiation from the ‘other’ – not only women but also those males who appear ‘different’. The difference is usually marked by sexual orientation, but can also include forms of embodiment and ethnicity, as well as national and cultural variations of masculine performance. And with this performance comes identity, a sense of belonging.
Society dictates an idea of a real man – aggressive, competitive, multiple sexual partners, alcohol consumption to the use of physical aggression, ambitious and ruthless, would settle for nothing less than what they want, the unwillingness to seek health services or emotional support, and so on.
‘We hate our men so much that sometimes we hate ourselves for them: call it gender for short.’ I recall from recent poetry I watched. For some men, the consequences of not conforming to these masculine norms can also involve social ostracism and violence. Homophobia is a particularly salient and pervasive example of how narrow conceptions of manhood can shape power relations between men. In many settings around the world, homophobia is a central organizing principle in male socialization and is used as a means to keep boys and men ‘in-line’. To identify or imply that a man or boy is not heterosexual is to impose a label of ultimate contempt for anyone who seems sissy or untough. Often, the label is accompanied by verbal bashings and physical aggression. Another widespread expression of masculine dominance and violence over other men is the deliberate use of rape and various forms of humiliation in military, prison, and war contexts.
Further, while men as a group bereft of associations of masculinity and privilege hold greater power than women, not all men are powerful. Many men, particularly low-income and minority men, are marginalized and subordinated by traditional power structures. The fact that many of the world’s poorest men are also disempowered – albeit in different ways from women – compared to men more financially sound and higher in the hierarchical brahminical food chain are nearly always left out of gender discussions. However, it is of utmost importance to analyze how men view their own sense of power, and whether they view themselves as allies or beneficiaries of gender equality. Men’s frustration with their perceived lack of power can lead them to adopt certain behaviors that give them a sense of power over others, including high-risk sexual behaviors and violence against female partners.
To quote Rebecca Solnit, in Men Explain Things to Me, ‘What escapes categorization can escape detection altogether.’ Categorisation of traits, behaviours, conduct, actions of humans into binary columns of either masculine and feminine eventually lead to one threatening the other as an inferior. So, the next time you catch yourself segregating acts, habits, clothing, responses, entertainment, hobbies or even colours, based on gender, ask yourself – ‘Is it okay to characterise people and slot them into binaries?’ or ‘Do you think people have a right to choose who they want to be?’
Does this social conditioning extend beyond words, beyond actions, or even beyond gender; or is it, at the end of the day, just two tiny boxes at the bottom of the page to tick off?
A dancer, writer, debater, photographer and currently moonlighting as a Lawyer, Adithi Holla is currently pursuing Law at School of Law, Christ University. With an avid interest in International Criminal Law and Feminist Jurisprudence, she enjoys watching self-righteous, warmongering bipedal hominids threatening to nuke each other. When she’s not dancing, she loves reading poetry and attempts to write some. One day, she hopes to learn as much as she can about the various facets of this world and make a mark on it as it does on her, every day.
*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*