Imagine a man in a movie. What do you see? What do you think of? Muscles so big they cause veins to break through the skin? A deep voice? Shredded abs that cause female counterparts to swoon in old-timey fashion? Do you think of the 1950’s style breadwinner with the pretty wife at home taking care of four kids? Or a man so mentally tough that he could slit a person’s throat without batting an eye? Maybe you think of Robin Hood: Men in Tights, in which, even though Robin and his crew are saving people, they must set out to prove their manliness because they wear tights. I am not knocking this movie. It has been a favorite of mine for years and makes an excellent comedic point about the frivolousness of masculinity in modern culture. It begs the question: why should men have to prove their manliness?
Whatever your picture of a man is well and good, but it’s not real! Why? There is no one right picture of a man! There is no one pure definition of the meaning of a man.
A goal of my writing is to use my troubled experience as a woman who could not find self-acceptance for any part of myself to help others who are struggling with the same. Yet, to keep a conversation about self-acceptance and disrupting expected gender roles to just women is ignoring the fact that placing restrictions on the meaning, look, appearance, and behavior patterns of a gender affects men as well. Whenever cultural expectations and restrictions are put in place, there is an element of unrest that afflicts anyone who does not feel true to themselves in conforming to an ideal not their own. I am aware and sympathetic to the struggle that men have with their bodies, the cultural concept of male sexiness, and the overall parade of expected masculinity. Social construction of gender identity affects all individuals, especially those that do not conscientiously conform to them, because it has the potential to create a sense of separation and isolation. I wish to live in a world in which human beings can be just that and not have to find themselves going through the rigors of fitting into very fixed and expected roles that do not encompass who they are as a person. This includes their appearance, emotional natures, natural physicality, sexual orientation, opinions, values, gender identity, etc. You get the picture.
Yet, why do we still see politicians, the media, our families, or our friends continually lay out the cards about what a “real” man is, does, and looks like?
Men are constantly given messages about what it “means to be a man”.
As an example, I want to discuss a character not from politics or pop culture, but instead one from literature that I find to be very telling of the masculinity conundrum. Let’s look at the character Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Septimus was a WWI veteran, who was characterized, within a Victorian Era British cultural context, of having feminine traits. He loved poetry, Shakespeare, and was sensitive, emotional, and vulnerable in the face of human destruction, as this was the expected norm. In war, Septimus learned how to neglect his emotions and separate his sensitivity from the trauma he witnessed on the battlefield. He saw the worst of terrors; as I imagine happens in war. Upon his return home to Britain at the end of the Great War, he suffered what psychologists would now call PTSD, but was at that time referred to as shell shock. However, as a man born, bred, and raised in a masculine-dominated culture of Twentieth-Century England, one that ostracized anyone who displayed intense emotional reactions against war, Septimus become isolated and even threatened to be locked up in an asylum for his display of emotional symptoms of shell shock. This was done simply because he showed a proclivity to feel and think on his own terms, as well as reject any sense of pride in fighting in a devastating war . In other words, Septimus rejected societal pressure to act as the part of stoic masculinity and was ostracized because his physical presence (he had regular emotional outbursts) became a threat to manly ideals that were thought essential to manifest nationalistic goals. Sound familiar?
So, how does this work of fiction related to present day idealization of masculinity? I believe men are still taught to relinquish all outward displays of “feminine” traits of compassion, intuition, feeling, and nurture. In other words, men are taught that there is a male/female gender binary that manifests itself through outward appearance and behavioral displays. And, I believe that men suffer just as much as women do in a society fixated on exact roles. The following examples are all experiences that I have witnessed in my everyday life and I am guessing many of my readers have as well. If a man cries too much, he is termed as de-masculinized by his peers. If a woman makes too many demands on others, she is termed a bitch and considered too masculine. If one shows too much of any trait that has been conditioned and socially constructed as opposite of their sex, they are negatively exposed in a gendered and arbitrary way. They are ostracized as “different'”, “weak”, or “non-traditional”. Why on a cultural level must we fixate on supposed to, rather than what is human? It is learned and fixed that if a man like Septimus Smith, though he be a fictitious character, relinquished an expected front of stoicism, he is criticized as a “pussy” or a “wimp”. And if a woman takes charge of her success and climbs the corporate ladder, she is a frightening display of masculinity that should not belong to her.
Appearances are deceiving.
I used to strive to portray what I thought was more masculine-like emotional tendencies. I acted tough (or tried to at least). While I wanted to fit into a thin female ideal, I also wanted to be the one that wouldn’t cry; the one who people could count on to save them; the hero who pursued great feats of strength, mentally and physically. Yet, this went against every internal message I received from myself. I was not ostracized for it or deemed different though. This is because I had the “look” of the fragile woman and could easily fit in. Yet, my externality did not match my internality. My sensitivity-towards-myself meter was broken and I was mixed up in a power play between wanting to act tough like a man, all the while trying to display the female body ideal. And guess what? I suffered. You can look the part, but it doesn’t do a damn thing for your serenity when your inside clashes with outside expectations. Yes, appearances are deceiving. And this is why I believe pigeon-holing gender characteristics is dangerous. I use this as an example of how men and women are equally affected by gender expectations. I believe all people have internal characteristics of the masculine and feminine archetype or if you will, the yin and the yang. It is a healthy human balance. (Stay tuned for a more in-depth discussion about the masculine/feminine archetypes.)
Assumptions hurt everyone.
Assumptions about what gender should look like hurts everyone. For, it tells us to defy the very aspects of our most human nature. Human nature can never be confined to breasts, muscles, or false stoicism. It is internal. It is more humanly real than any amount of body-building, money-making, pussy grabbing, or redeeming a lady’s honor when she can do it for herself. I believe that to be conditioned to live in a way that goes against our intuition and internalized sense of self is hurtful to how a person perceives themselves. To infuse specific characteristics and qualities of manhood and parallel those to what a woman is conditioned to be creates an atmosphere of confusion, falsity, and misunderstanding. And, when gender qualities are pinned to a person from the outside, any differences they might feel on the inside can quickly turn into a feeling of differentiation. This does nothing but separate people from their own human condition.
It is the human condition to feel, think, and be sensitive, just as much as it is to fight for survival, use logic, and be action-oriented. If we want to rid ourselves of the pain of not living up to the musts, resulting in a feeling of separation, we need to look past constructed roles and more at what is human. We must look at HOW we can live in harmony and balance between the outside world and ourselves. These are questions not confined to gender specifications, as there is no one correct look, feel, physicality, or even biology that strictly defines the meaning of male or female.
We need to stop categorizing gender in our daily conversations and look at the human aspect of ourselves that supersedes any notion of man or woman. Gender is on a continuum; one set for a person to determine who they are, rather than what they are.