Get ready folks, it’s time to talk masculinity.
Often a topic of passionate debate, masculinity has a problem of its own: it’s definition. The most common examples on social media refer to something called “toxic masculinity,” and what they describe sounds as problematic as you would expect. Whether it’s varying forms of misogyny, rape culture, excessive aggression, or simply how uncomfortable men are with emotional health, toxic masculinity paints a clear picture of something bad.
And that’s not even considering the challenges queer folks have to grapple with regarding masculinity. A few years ago I spoke on HuffPost Live about a group I had started, Gaybros, and how the queer community had taken issue with many aspects of our social community. By using the word “bro” in the title we unleashed a very spirited debate about masculinity in the gay community and how many found it to be exclusionary and dangerous. Again, it had that very negative connotation.
This was confusing and difficult for me, as a gay man. I had personally not shared in that connotation of the word “masculine”. It was likely because of my privileged upbringing, but the masculine men in my life rarely caused me harm or emotional stress. Looking back I realize it was naïveté, but I was shocked when I heard people attacking a concept that seemed so benign. I felt ridiculed for how I identified the group, but at the time I wasn’t sure why. Despite this, I knew it was important that I not ignore how these commenters felt, nor what they said, so I dug into the issue.
Educating myself about all the varying degrees with which masculinity can manifest in a harmful way, I came to the realization that my version was not the same one seen by others. Perhaps the reason, or one of the reasons, there are so many arguments about masculinity is because people are arguing about different constructs all together, not sharing together in a single definition. Maybe, just maybe, we could use a new definition of masculinity to help guide us into the next century with a better understanding of what it should be, not what it was. Reclaim the word, give it a makeover.
But if we did, what should that definition be?
While the negative characteristics of masculinity are plentiful and easy to find, there are certainly a handful of positive traits attributed to this word as well. Strength, confidence, resourcefulness, curiosity, and a competitive mind are all things commonly considered masculine that could contribute to a well-rounded person. I don’t think many could argue that such characteristics are problematic unless taken to their extremes. In fact, there are entire websites dedicated to just the positive aspects of masculinity. Clearly there is something worth salvaging here.
Next, we would have to examine how to disconnect masculinity from the institutions of sexism and violence that are so often connected with it. Is this even possible? An obvious reason sexism plays such a large role in the understanding of masculinity is because it is a word that is seen as exclusive to biological men, specifically heterosexuals. Despite this, none of the traits we’ve mentioned, positive or negative, are linked to biological sex or sexuality.
It’s time we stop pretending that only men can be masculine and only women can be feminine.
If we’re going to redefine masculinity for those positive traits mentioned above, they must be accessible to all people, women, queer, trans, and nonbinary included. On that note, men can and should feel comfortable openly identifying with their feminine traits as well. It’s safe to say that all people have varying degrees of masculine, feminine, and non-specific traits that make up who they are. No two people are alike. We should celebrate that, not try to bar people from expressing their true selves.
Some might argue that disconnecting the construct of masculinity from its problematic traits is an impossible task or one that is unnecessary if those traits are available regardless of gender identity. It’s a valid point, but I think it ignores the fact that many families and cultures will still use these concepts and the children growing up in these surroundings will feel pressure to define themselves accordingly. If we can’t stop the use of the word, the least we can do is to try to evolve it into something healthy and positive for society.
This leaves us with only one question. If we are giving masculinity a makeover for its positive attributes to help build a better future, what word are we going to use for those who are emotionally distant, rape-culture supporting, overly-aggressive misogynists? I suggest we call them what they’ve always been: