Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Masculinity Paradigm

Our culture is a patriarchy. It has been this way for a very long time, and while women's rights have made leaps and bounds, from suffrage to the much more recent Lily Ledbetter fair pay act, equality seems closer and closer.

But the thing is, we still do have our roots in this male-dominated mindset. These roots have lead to more than just income inequality and women being unable to vote. Though those are more overt, and can be addressed directly through legislation, there is still a large issue present. Basically, what our culture considers to be masculine, is damaging, both to the men subjected to the cultural pressure, and to Gender and Sexual Minority(GSM) groups.

Now how is it that this is the case? Well, to begin, we need to examine masculinity and how it' is impacting males, because this is sort of the key to all these issues.

The traditional view of masculinity has many traits; for instance, men are expected to be stoic, emotionless. The only emotion that is acceptable to show is anger - other emotions, especially sadness - are signs of weakness. Men - "real men" - don't cry. Crying is a weak, pathetic act. It's womanly - women cry, women are weak. Men are better than that. Men are expected to be sexually ready at any turn, and to embrace any and all opportunities they get. Men are expected to be the assertive person in relationships, from the first time the guy asks her out, to their first, second, fifth time in bed together. If a man were to be passive - that's weak and emasculating, and unattractive. They need to be strong on their own, independent. They need to keep their troubles to themselves, because they can show no weakness. "Real" men want to have sex, and they want to have it often and with as many women as possible. But only women - because all the "masculine" logic falls apart if there's two men in the relationship.

The consequence here is that men are widely constrained emotionally, and physically. Men are expected to bottle up their sadness, their depression, they're expected to grin and bear situations which may require emotional support. They're required to be assertive, despite their personality or wishes to the contrary. There is a drastically limited scope of what a "masculine guy" is. And it's reinforced, both in the media, and in the social behavior of groups of guys. Teasing someone about their sexuality (for instance) in order to make them feel insecure in their own masculinity, as if that had any real bearing on how masculine they are.  Men are, consequently, emotionally chained, cornered. They're bombarded with messages about how they are to be emotionally, who they can be sexually interested in, and with how narrow the scope is, this leaves many men scrambling to reconcile the parts of them that don't fit the "masculine stereotype".  In many ways, the emotional constraints on men mirror the physical constraints on female beauty, where a limited scope is considered "acceptable".

Now that we have a grasp on masculinity, we can talk about the impact this has on GSM groups. As I mentioned before, a large portion of the masculine caricature I described earlier revolves around who it's acceptable to be attracted to. In the case of the masculine individual, the assumption is woman. The "man's man" is a womanizer. Now, bear in mind, not everyone is introspective to the levels required to understand that the social pressure is on them in this way, but it is. It's self evident from the way boys insult each other calling them "gay" or "a fag". The intent is to say "look at you, you like someone who it isn't acceptable to! You're not living up to the masculine image and are worthy of ridicule!" The insult here is an assault on the person's masculinity. Now, that's not to say that this alone is the culprit - but it sets the stage for far worse.

Because men are made to feel insecure about the possibility that they may not be 100% unequivocally into women, they will fight against that notion. Even if they may be partially bisexual, they are forced to bury that aspect of their selves because it will bring ridicule and questioning of their masculinity. This internal conflict and turmoil manifests itself in a number of ways, all damaging to GSM groups. For one, they are likely to engage in further behavior against homosexual men and transgender women. Because if they're insulting people and belittling them, then there's no way they could possibly be hypocritical and actually be that themselves, right?

  It's this repression that causes these negative reactions. It isn't simply limited to venomous insults, either. When a man finds out he's dating a transwoman, well, there's a reason for his negative reaction. Its often that he's more worried about his own image, both self and perceived. Because in his mind, no matter how cis she looks, no matter her level of femininity, some part of her is male, in his mind. This throws his own identity into turmoil. If he was dating her, he obviously liked her - but "part of her is male". But masculine men don't like guys. And what will his friends think? Even if he can come to terms with it himself, that doesn't mean his friends (I.E. those individuals on which he uses as a mirror, projecting himself and gauging their reactions to determine his own value) will accept it.

At this point, the confusion and lack of understanding (of self, of societal pressures, and of transsexual people) bubbles over and he may react violently. Again, the root cause of all of this is the culture which encourages such a narrow scope of what it is to be a man, cornering them emotionally. And what is it that a cornered animal does?

That same scope also leads to much transphobia. Because the unspoken assumption is that men are 'better' than women - stronger, faster, more aggressive (which is seen as a good thing). These traits are seen as masculine, and seen as stronger. When you read the traits, gentle, emotional, empathetic, caring - you don't get a picture of a guy, you get a picture of a girl. A guy being described as those things is seen as weak. This is why, in part, tomboys are accepted, but "sissy" boys are not. It's alright if a girl wants to "raise" her social standing by acting more boyish (so long as she remembers her place, of course!) but for a boy to want to act "like a girl", it's disgraceful.

So when you take someone who's trans, it throws a monkey wrench into that poisonous, ill-conceived logic. Because it only leaves a few options, and none of them are pleasant. Option A - The transwoman is really a guy, and she's being disgraceful and worthy of being insulted. Option B - some people are trans, and it's not up to them that they are that way, it's just how they are.

Option B is obviously the case in real life, but the problem is that to agree with that, they have to accept that masculinity is not just "the better of the two options". Because if it were, then a woman born with male body and privilege, well that would be a wonderful thing! Because obviously, men are better than women, so she shouldn't complain. And yet, she does - she wants those feminine things seen as "lower". This challenges their understanding of the world order, and thus results in poor reactions from people.

Now that's not to say women are immune to being negative towards GSM people too - but without the constraints of masculine emotional image weighing them down, they're less likely to be that way.

The key in all of these cases is that men are expected to live their life in an emotionally unsustainable way, with rules that run contrary to the reality of humanity. It is this masculinity paradigm that contributes to the continued oppression of GSM individuals. Though times are changing, and people are starting to shun the use of "gay" and "fag" as insults, I believe these underlying feelings of disgust will continue until masculinity is redefined, without so much pressure to conform to such a narrow scope, and with no pressure on who you're expected to love. Only when men are afforded emotional freedom to grow into their own persons free from the warping influence of cultural masculinity, will we see these underlying feelings towards the GSM communities subside.


(This blog thrives on user questions - if you have a question or idea that you would like to see me address, please post it in the comments section below. Comments are open to anonymous posting, so you do not need an account to post your question. If you have it - ask! I will try to write on any question asked, provided I haven't already addressed it earlier)


  1. I appreciate your insight into the pressure men feel to be masculine. As a cis female, my understanding has been limited, but you help me to view the plight of males in a more open-minded, sympathetic manner. How can we take the pressure off men to conform other than contentiously allowing fluidity of gender roles while raising little boys? How do we help grown men?

  2. How do you feel about HIm from ppg?

  3. I have a friend who considers themself deeply invested in reproductive justice, and is often fond of telling men, "If you don't have a uterus, you don't have an opinion."

    So my question to you is this: Where do you think trans* people fit into the reproductive justice movement?