Editorial: Towards a feminist conception of masculinity
Few people discuss masculinity as a gender to the same degree as femininity, and when they do, the focus is on the toxic aspects of contemporary masculinity. Toxic masculinity has been a serious problem in society, but little work has been done to outline a non-toxic masculinity.
Throughout the history of feminism, characterizing gender relations has meant focusing on women, and for good reason: society privileged (and still privileges) men over women, and so to combat this inequality, it was essential to demystify women and dissolve sexist conceptions of femininity.
Although the job of combating patriarchal power structures and sexist cultural stereotypes remains, the important work of outlining a feminist conception of femininity has, by and large, been a success. Intersectional feminism, girl power and third-wave feminism, among many other movements in feminist thought, have left rich resources to outline an inclusive, empowering vision of femininity for those who care to look.
Masculinity, however, has no such resources.
Men and women alike (and especially those whose gender identities don’t conform to a gender binary) are harmed by the competitive, exclusionary aspect of masculinity: to be “less” masculine than anyone else is emasculating, and so masculinity requires a constant rejection of anything deemed unmasculine, including people. Sometimes this aspect is comical, like when men are uniquely uncomfortable holding women’s purses, but it also expresses itself in violent ways such as bullying.
Even many of the more specific, innocuous aspects of masculinity are comical at best and dangerous at worst — literally, because facing danger, even for no reason, is considered a masculine trait.
Indeed, violence itself is a traditionally masculine trait, which should be profoundly unsettling for anyone who retains a desire to identify as masculine (like me).
The most obvious way masculinity is toxic is its outwardly violent and destructive effects, but it can also have insidious effect on those who internalize masculinity (usually men, but not always). Common life setbacks, especially job loss, strike deeply at masculinity on top of the other emotional distress caused by such a setback.
What’s worse, emotional distress is viewed as emasculating, so men facing serious mental health issues, which are sometimes caused by crises of masculinity in the first place, attempt to struggle through alone. This is considered a likely cause of the greatly increased suicide rates among men compared to women.
Many of the more positive traits associated with masculinity, such as rationality, assertiveness and independence, tend to fall into another problem with masculinity: the way masculinity has been equated with humanity. Until very recently, masculinity has been seen as the default state of humanity, with everyone else occupying the “other” category.
Clearly, current conceptions of masculinity are unacceptable. Not only do they hurt and restrict those who attempt to adhere to them, but they also fuel the opposition to inclusionary feminism among people and cultures who emphasize such masculinity.
One solution is to simply abandon masculinity as an identity-forming concept at all. Certainly many have suggested this solution, but gender identity is such a formative part of many people’s identities that to attempt to abandon it would be difficult and a profound loss.
The other solution, then, is to articulate a feminist conception of masculinity which retains the identity of masculinity while rejecting aspects which are harmful to women, society and the men themselves. Obviously this should be a concerted scholastic effort, but I’d like to throw out a few ideas that are critical to my masculinity that could be possible areas to start.
One key aspect is servanthood. Although Christians are called to be servants of God in general, I find it to be a uniquely masculine experience to serve people, especially in concrete ways. Mowing someone’s lawn or shoveling their walk could be some specific ways for this to play out, but it might be a different experience for different people.
Although servanthood can often have feminine overtones, in practice it ties in with many conventionally masculine practices, including chivalry and the importance of physical labor. Furthermore, I find the practice of masculine servanthood intensely personally satisfying, and the kind of identity it creates involves helping other people rather than competing with or hurting them.
Another important aspect is respect and admiration for the feminine. One of the most bizarre aspects of masculinity currently is its relationship with femininity. Although contemporary masculinity involves the appreciation of attractive women (often as a prerequisite for masculinity), it also involves continuous avoidance and borderline antagonism towards femininity.
It may be understandable to want to draw distinctions between masculinity and femininity, but it does seem like the two concepts are intimately interrelated. Masculinity may not necessarily imply a sexual attraction to women, but a deep respect and admiration for femininity has been a very important aspect of my masculinity.
Certainly this doesn’t come even close to exhausting the potential options for a vision of feminist masculinity, but I hope it’s a helpful starting place.
This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily represent the views of Calvin College or the Christian Reformed Church.