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What Masculinity?

I come across a mental barrier in my exploration of gender. Namely, that when I ask myself “how about exploring masculinity?” my brain comes back with “what masculinity?” and throws up a handful of examples of toxic instances of masculinity I do not even wish to touch. Yet, this is the road I see before me, to pick up elements of masculinity to see if they suit.

Riley J. Dennis mentions in her “Everyday Feminism” series* that the word ‘gender’ comes from the same root as ‘genre’. This was a productive thought for me, one that I brought me a little further in this dilemma. Genres, after all, have some characteristics that would be well-suited to helping me understand genders as non-binary:

  • They are distinct, but not mutually exclusive
  • They are based on, but not limited to, a set of tropes
  • They are suited to telling, and classifying, particular stories or experiences
  • New ones may be introduced
  • Existing ones often evolve
  • These categories are constructed for the market, the classroom and to talk about sets of stories
  • They can be subverted or critiqued
  • They have gatekeepers

If masculinity, or rather masculinities, is a genre with a set of subgenres, then one may be found that I am comfortable exploring and it would add to, rather than contradict, the rest of my sense of gender. However, I think about gender as genre and complications immediately come to mind:

  • Stories often present a rigid binary
  • Essentialism prevails
  • Classifications are prescriptive, not descriptive of lived experiences
  • Modern masculinities seem not to exist, in stories
  • Existing masculinities do not seem allowed to evolve
  • Gender is presented as ‘natural’ and conflated with biological sex
  • Any subversion or critique is met with hostility and violence
  • Online, the alt-right is setting itself up as the one true gatekeeper

Note that the above describe my personal experience through the lens of this particular conceit, not fact. But I do believe it is sufficient to illustrate a trend. One that I find singularly counterproductive, dammit.

The irony is that I have started to see surprisingly parallels between what’s prescribed for ‘woman’ and ‘man’, among self-proclaimed defenders of binary gender roles, especially that of ‘man’. It’s perhaps most easily illustrated by their attitude towards sexuality. The campaign for control over women’s bodies is matched by a campaign for control over men’s bodies by other men. Centred on forbidding masturbation and forcing sexual conquest, rather than forcing reproduction and forbidding sexual activity. Hatred of the other, whether that’s women, queer persons, persons of other countries or religions, is matched by self-hatred.

Can you see the inversion of the great commandment (love others as you love yourself), or the golden rule, if you will?

This leaves me hesitant to even enter that politicised poisoned mental minefield.

Feminist thought isn’t much help, since it seems more concerned with circumscribing traditional masculinity than proposing a new masculinity.

Neither does circumspectly asking men what being a good man is like, since the answer often boils down to “I grew up and became less of an impulsive idiot.” A surprising problem with straight, white men (which all of the ones I can ask are) being the default is that they regard their lived experience as just that of people, not men. Which means it doesn’t tell me much about where their stories may be distinct.

So here I am, the trailing end of the spectrum of my gender in hand, unexplored territory ahead of me, with no good map for guidance. I cannot leave these thoughts alone because I have first-hand stake in this now, even if it’s only with a part of myself, even if it’s new, even if it’s small and secret and private.

So I keep asking, what masculinity?

*I do not remember the particular video, but it’s an educational series: https://everydayfeminism.com/author/rileyd/

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