I spend a lot of time thinking about masculinity and what it means to be a man.
It’s a natural consequence of the job, to be honest; a lot of dating is caught up in the ideas of traditional gender roles, of the man as aggressor and female as receiver, of male and female sexual roles and attitudes and so on. But at the same time, much of the obsession with masculinity is the root cause of so many problems men face, not just with dating but in their lives as a whole.
I’m about to go into a digression here; stick with me, this will all make sense in a moment.
As I’m writing this, the entire US is getting excited about the Super Bowl.1 I’m not a big sports guy. Never have been. I just don’t have whatever internal doohickey that makes me go nuts over the idea of competitive team sports. I can get into boxing and mixed martial arts to a limited extent, because I’ve studied them and participated in tournaments, and I enjoy the artistry of pro-wrestling when I happen to watch it. But team sports like hockey, football, soccer or baseball just leave me cold.
Of course, I’m a geek, and not being into sports is almost part of the definition of being a geek2 because of the jock/nerd divide. That jock/nerd divide, however, also depends heavily on ideas of masculinity; jocks are seen as inherently more masculine than geeks because of the emphasis on athleticism and aggressive attitudes and forceful behavior. Jocks, we are told, are “alpha males”, the dominant of the pack. Geeks – who are generally (but not always) more cerebral and usually more passive – are “beta”. We are, so the theory goes, lesser, doomed to be ignored by women and laughed at by society because hey, geeks aren’t real men.
Except those jocks aren’t just trashing nerds for being betas, they’re just as often trashing their fellow jocks – guys who are just as athletic, just as “alpha”, supposedly, who spend their time destroying their bodies in the name of their team – for being “pussies” who need to “man up”… presumably by letting them be provoked into throwing down. And those who don’t are castigated by their teammates and the public for being “pussies”.
There’s an obvious question here: if even their fellow teammates aren’t “man” enough, who the fuck is?
The traditional view of masculinity, especially as espoused in the west, is an identity that’s reaffirmed through the use of bullying and violence, while punishing others for being insufficiently macho. Sometimes the definition of “man” is wrong. In fact, sometimes it’s not just wrong but actively harmful.
Maybe it’s time to take a look at just what we mean when we talk about “masculinity”.
The Performance of Masculinity
Men are taught through culture and society that “manliness” is the highest goal to which they should aspire. While certain aspects of life are desirable – providing for a family, being a leader of men, the number of sexual partners one has access to – they are all seen as being in service to the monolithic definition of “to be a man”. Ron Swanson gets lionized as a man’s man, the epitome of how a man should act, despite being an incredibly arch satire of masculinity. To be a man – having the biggest, clanging-est of brass balls – means to be Billy Bad-Ass, a scotch-swilling, meat-eating ball of testosterone-powered swagger.
And yet, if traditional masculinity is defined by anything, it’s by fear.
No, I’m not trolling. I’m being completely serious.
I’ve written about the fragility of masculinity before and how easily one’s manhood can be “taken away” and the reactions that fear causes in men. Even the mildest of actions can be seen as bringing somebody’s masculinity into doubt and prompting them to flail about in an attempt to reaffirm their man credentials. In fact, a research study at UC Berkeley has found that when men feel that their masculinity has been threatened, they overcompensate in response by doubling down on stereotypical masculine traits – especially in areas that involve demonstrations of male dominance and homophobia. Moreover, men whose masculine identity was threatened were found to feel more guilty, ashamed and – critically – hostile.
Of course, anyone who’s ever written online about gender is familiar with this behavior. Whenever anyone writes something vaguely critical about men or masculinity, the reflexive response is almost always for men to lash out. Witness the hue and cry every time Antia Sarkeesian releases a new Tropes vs. Women video; the response isn’t a nuanced discussion about the the nature of fiction, the complex history of how women have been portrayed in media and literature, and the external forces that lead to companies marketing games exclusively to men, it’s a bunch of angry voices screaming about how Sarkeesian doesn’t know anything, that she’s a bitch, that she needs to get laid (and can’t because who would have her… reinforcing the idea that the ultimate insult to a woman is to deny that she is sexually desirable) and all the horrifying things that they’d like to do to her. It’s not a discussion, it’s an attempt to shut her up. Men who are critical of masculine behavior rarely get as violently harassed, but certainly face their share of backlash by people who want to dismiss and diminish them. The men get labeled as “pussies” or “manginas” (being a fake male is even worse than being a woman, after all) or are told that they’re just bitter and envious of their betters. It’s a way of putting on a performance of manliness, making as large a show as possible to reassure the gender police (other men) that they are indeed as masculine as they can be.
Masculinity Vs. Bullying
Living with this constant sense of insecurity, the nagging fear that they are insufficiently masculine, prompts men to overreact out of fear that others may detect their lack. Traditional masculinity comes with an inborn hierarchical structure, and one can only keep one’s place by taking it from another; part of being “alpha”, after all, is to be dominant over other men. This need to continually reaffirm one’s masculine credentials means that you literally cannot relax; you are forever in danger of having your own man-card taken away by other men. It creates a culture where the need to assert power over others is all-important, even when those others are just glowing phosphors on a monitor.
Small wonder then that many people confuse “being a man” with “bullying”.
This sort of behavior – where displays of “dominance” are equated with manliness – is wonderfully exemplified by the conservative media; Fox News, for example loves the idea of “traditional” masculinity and its attendant values, continually trying to demean progressives by comparing them to women. When Chris Christie – a politician known for screaming at his constituents and performing petty acts of political retribution against his foes – was facing a new scandal over allegations that he directed his staff to shut down a section of the George Washington Bridge, Fox anchor Brit Hume lamented that Christie was just too “masculine and muscular” for our “feminized atmosphere” and that he’s being unfairly maligned for being a “guy’s guy”.
Similarly, witness Bill O’Reilly’s many, many on-screen meltdowns at his guests; hardly an episode goes by where O’Reilly doesn’t try to shout somebody down (he’s especially fond of doing this to women) for daring to disagree with him, flailing his arms and frothing at the mouth like a baboon performing a threat display. And, like his simian role-model, O’Reilly’s theatrics are there to reinforce the illusion that he’s the alpha, that he’s the one in power, the “man’s man”.
Of course, it’s in doing so that he – as do so many others – betrays the inherent fear that he just doesn’t measure up to the monolithic standards of manliness. It’s a way of clinging to the illusion of power and influence, that being the “alpha male” he is able to project his will upon the world. And in doing so… well, it’s a betrayal of the fear of powerlessness. O’Reilly may get ratings with his over-the-top antics, but when it comes to real power, the world was quietly taken over by those supposed “beta males”; Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs wield power and influence that O’Reilly can only dream of. In fact, there’s a certain level of ironic resentment when the Winklevoss twins – would-be alpha male masters of the universe, Olympic level athletes, men who were promised the world – were effectively emasculated by a scrawny, 120-lb weakling.
This sort of behavior is also found in other forums where hypermasculine behavior is prized; Richie Incognito’s assaults and harassment of Jonathan Martin are a prime example. So too are the attitudes of the Red Pill sub-reddits and the Men Going Their Own Way forums; the stated goals of both are to “retake” men’s value back from the women who have reportedly “stolen” it. Not surprisingly, their “advice” tends to run towards vitriol and harassment. (Warning: link is not safe for work, nor sanity.)
Of course, it’s the need to display one’s masculine credentials that tells you what you need to know. Feeling the need to try to dominate others – to shout at them, to bully them – is the surest sign that one is not dominant. Having to constantly prove your manhood is a sign that you’re not, in fact, a man. Masculinity as a theatrical performance only serves to highlight just how fragile and ephemeral it really is.
The Danger of Fragile Masculinity
Even in the 21st century, the “acceptable” traits of masculinity are still incredibly narrow, stringent and frequently contradictory to the point of being impossible to achieve; and what cred you do achieve can be taken from you at any time. It’s a permanent state of feeling like a fraud, and the constant, nagging fear that any minute now, somebody is going to bring the entire charade down and leave you exposed as a sham, a fake man trying to bluff his way through a world that prizes and prioritizes masculinity. This leaves men almost permanently on edge, continually having to defend themselves and their manhood against constant threats – after all, one of the easiest ways to re-establish your own manly bone-fides is to take them from others. Studies have found that the risk of domestic violence in relationships rises when the man feels that he’s no longer the primary breadwinner, especially when his wife earns equal or greater income – thus losing a critical aspect of his masculine identity.
Similarly, sexual harassment has also been found to increase relative to perceived threats to masculine identity, as do threats of date rape. Consider the recent controversy over self-published author Vincent Vinturi who’s book LMR: How To Overcome Her Last Minute Resistance To Sex, Turn ‘No’ Into ‘Yes’ And Get the Lay! has just been yanked from Amazon. The book was about coercing a woman into sex – essentially a guide on how to push your way past a “no” and get what you want regardless. From the product description:
A woman will intentionally strive to turn you off to see whether or not she can derail your sexual train of thought and action. If she succeeds, it signals the man may lack sexual potency… anytime you get pushback as things move in a sexual direction, the woman is testing you for raw desire (among other things).
Notice the emphasis on sexual potency – a critical key to traditional masculine identity. The idea, of course, is that to be a man means getting what you want sexually, regardless of all other things. It’s an attitude similar to the one expressed by Ken Hoinsky’s proposed dating advice manual – the idea that the man is the leader and needs to force the situation to sex. Men must be the aggressors, the penetrators and predators while women are the resisters, the penetrated and the protesters. If a man isn’t able to “seal the deal”, then you’re just “not a man”… an attitude that tacitly endorses rape as a means of proving one’s sexual power.
Much of homophobia can also be tied to the idea of “traditional” masculinity. Homophobes have famously been shown to experience more sexual arousal watching videos of gay sex than men who aren’t homophobic – their homophobic behavior is a way of overcompensating for the perceived “weakness” of being sexually attracted to men. Gay men are also flouting gender roles – daring to take behaviors and sexual roles that are considered “feminine”; bottoms are performing the feminine role as the penetrated, making them “weaker”. This is one reason why “cocksucker” is still a prime insult to use on men – it implies the man is taking a submissive role, further sacrificing his masculine identity.
The Quiet Strength
The problem isn’t masculinity in and of itself; the problem is that the old model of masculinity is toxic. Even in this day and age, with greater acceptance of wider definitions of sexuality and gender, the tropes of “acceptable” masculinity remain narrow and exclusionary. Men who are more openly emotional or who flout masculine fashion are still seen as aberrant, treated as objects of ridicule. Even as acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage grows, the casual reflexive use of homophobic insults as a way of belittling men remains. The trope of men as sexually insatiable, barely able to control their own lusts – and thus mandating that women control it for them – is still dominant.
Its restrictive definitions and inherent fragility serve to make people miserable. It describes a system of faux-strength, a brittle facade that crumbles at the slightest provocation. It’s insecurity that tries to masquerade as strength by being loud and brash, attempting to intimidate others into doing what they’re told for fear of letting them look too closely and revealing the cracks in the system. Moreover, by making gender-policing a key part of manliness – encouraging the punishing of others (and thus taking away their masculinity) for violating gender roles and tenets of manliness – it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle; one compensates for threats to their own masculine identity by performing acts of violence, which then threatens that other person’s identity, and so on.
This is why we need to reclaim the real definition of masculinity – to take it from being something external and fragile and give it true strength. The kind of strength that only comes from within.
True strength isn’t loud and brash; it’s quiet. True masculinity, a modern masculinity, doesn’t need to prove its existence because it doesn’t require the validation of others to exist, nor is it narrowly defined or exclusionary. It isn’t defined by the size or shape of your genitals or what you do with them. It isn’t something that’s defined by being in charge or threatened by the strength of others – men or women. It sees others as potential partners, not competitors or antagonists, until proven otherwise. At the same time, it doesn’t mean being a doormat, being intimidated by others. The phrase, “never begin a fight, but always finish it” remains true; it’s a strength that comes from maintaining boundaries. About not being afraid to be vulnerable or to present your authentic self. It means being willing to face down challenges to the end, even if it means risking failure.
And most importantly: it means not taking part in the bullshit gender-policing. Part of the reason why so many people react with hostility to anyone who challenges the tropes of traditional masculinity is because it requires everyone to take part, if the system is to continue. The people who choose to not to go along, who opt out of being caught in the cycle are castigated and shamed because each person who leaves the system shows just how broken it really is; it makes it harder and harder to paper over the cracks. Each person who refuses to play into the roles becomes another pebble. And while that can seem insignificant, a pebble can start the avalanche that brings the mountain down.
The old model hurts us all, literally and figuratively. It’s time for a change.
It’s time for a new, modern masculinity.