Our understanding of masculinity is changing, fast. It is redefining our very culture and challenging beliefs that have long been held and passed down through generations.
So, to celebrate International Men's Day, I decided to put masculinity under the microscope, to get to a deeper and more complex sense of what it means to be a man today, from different perspectives.
I brought together two men with very different life experiences; John is English and straight, while Mauricio is Mexican and identifies as gay. Here's what they had to say in response to questioning about the similarities and differences of their experiences of masculinity and much more.
I started by asking them about their personal background.
Marie-Claude: For me, masculinity is not a fixed biological reality but a social and cultural construct. I am curious to find out about the worlds in which you grew up and how they shaped the kind of men you became.
John: I was born in South-East London, in quite a challenging area. My mum was, for a time, a tenacious single mother - so I have a lot of respect for strong women - and she was later joined by an equally tenacious stepfather. The area was pretty interesting, there were a lot of men I saw acting in a very traditional way. Guys were expected to play sports, drink beer at the pub, treat girls in a cavalier sort of way. Activities I struggled a bit with as I grew up! I was a bit nerdy or geeky, danced, loved musicals and video games. It didn’t always make for an easy time as a lot of the things that made me happy were seen as weird or, at the time, ‘gay’!
Mauricio: Mexico is a patriarchal country. It’s a very macho background, I think. The role of the man as a patriarch, the head of the family, is quite important and this family focus in Mexico affects what relationships you have with other men. The nuances are different, but I can relate to the traditional gender roles John is describing.
Marie-Claude: It is interesting. When I was growing up in Canada, I was not particularly aware of gender at all. In fact, I ‘discovered’ that I was a woman when I backpacked across Europe, aged 19. It was the gaze of others, especially men, that made me realise that they saw me as a woman, not just as a person. Before that, I knew I was a woman - I was a sister, a daughter, I had boyfriends and so on - but it was not a salient part of my identity. And now my daughter, born and raised in London, finds it equally puzzling when she goes to summer camp in Canada to see how not gendered things are over there. She finds it liberating. Sorry for the digression! From what you were saying, it seems that you were both slight ‘misfits’ in a sense. Your own identities were not quite aligned with social expectations about men. Is that right?
Mauricio: Sure. Growing up in a highly patriarchal context as a gay man, but even now that gay culture has become more mainstream, there’s a lot of pressure to perform as a traditional ‘masculine’ man with beards, muscles and clothing. There is a kind of fetishisation of the ‘Straight Other’: even as gay men, there is an idealised notion of masculinity that we seem to aspire to. The gay men who can assimilate and pass as masculine straight men do.
John: That shouldn’t be surprising to me, but it is. I think part of my hope, perhaps naively Mauricio, is that part of being gay means that there has been a far better navigation of masculinity than straight men typically undergo. That the journey of sexual, and gendered, understanding leads to a greater control and comfort. What do they say about assumptions! But it just shows how effective masculinity is at ensnaring ‘men’ in so many ways. We are all trying to live up to this idealised version of what a man is, which shifts and changes so much and could never really be achieved. Yet we can really persecute others for failing to get there. I was always geeky and intellectual. However I felt lost and unaccepted. Especially as a teenager when looking to try and find happiness through peer relationships and those with girls. So I started playing sports and going to the gym, in order to fit in better.
Check out another article inspired by International Men's Day about what makes a good man
Marie-Claude: You are both describing ‘passing’ as a coping strategy: hiding your true identity by pretending to fit in with existing social norms because you fear that your genuine identity will be devalued or stigmatised. But while it might help you in one sense, are there any costs that comes with ‘passing’?
John: Like any semi-conscious act, it is quite exhausting. At times when I’ve had to alter my behaviour to fit in with a norm, there has always been an uneasy feeling. I think it is the cognitive dissonance and processing power that is involved in considering every idea and action, in a specific masculine context. You have to really think before you speak, ‘will this go down well?’. And then if an event or behaviour crops up that really contradicts your own internal values, you have an internal battle over throwing away your ‘cover’ and fighting back, or just staying in the shadows.
Mauricio: Passing is exhausting. It means that you are constantly self-monitoring, constantly assessing the risks of a situation, always alert to the possibility that someone might ‘out’ you. It can lead to disengagement and social isolation. Basically before I came out I lived in constant fear. I left my home country feeling as an exile and even as I found more gay-friendly communities, I never lost that slight angst about how I displayed my self. It’s something that stays with you and is completely unnecessary.
Marie-Claude: What about the social cost? ‘Passing’ is very much an individual success strategy but it does not change the damaging social norms that make passing necessary in the first place.
Mauricio: I was just going to say that. When we pass and choose to perform a traditional masculine identity to fit in with heterosexual communities, we are essentially helping to police and maintain the boundaries around the accepted social definitions of being a man and being a woman. Sadly, I don’t think that the gay community is particularly challenging misogynistic views either. I think that’s why more effeminate gay men can be accused of being ‘too gay’. They are almost perceived as undermining the success of those who have managed to fit in with straight society.
Marie-Claude: Would that be why the famous gay club XXL refused entry not only to women but also to gay men dressed in feminine clothing?
Mauricio: Exactly. If you wore any symbols of femininity, like high heels, you were not admitted into this club. It was more of a ‘bear’ club and it did not tolerate expressions of femininity, which I think is a form of internalised misogyny. There is a kind of hierarchy of masculinity at play here and policing it involves pouring scorn on those who are more effeminate.
John: This reminds me of research I conducted on masculinity with straight teens for my doctoral dissertation. It was clear that the boys in the study were attempting to define their self-worth as young men by ‘Othering’ (creating a distance from and discriminating against) those who didn’t fit in with commonly accepted male norms and by differentiating themselves from women. They were performing the ‘man’ role through calling out their mates on behaviours that could be accused of being feminine or acting in a way that went against the group’s ‘male values’. This was despite the very same boys being negatively affected by their own policing at later points in the study when they found they couldn’t express themselves in the way they wanted to!
Marie-Claude: Given all that, how can both straight and gay men feel comfortable expressing who they are and allowing others to express themselves too?
John: We need new role models who can show that masculinity is a fluid concept that includes myriad ways of being. We need to complexify what it means to be a man, or a woman, for that matter. In fact, I am not sure that we should hold on to our deep cultural views of gender as fixed and binary concepts. Challenging societal views on gender is of course one of the main aims of the LGBTQI+ movement but it benefits everyone.
Mauricio: Yes. We also need to celebrate new archetypes, like gay ‘geeks’, gay parents, older gay men, working-class gay men; people who are not like this metrosexual, super-fit body, great with fashion or into clubbing. We need more diversity, fewer stereotypes, in the way in which both gay and straight men express masculinity.
John: Absolutely. It needs to become perfectly acceptable for straight men to play more nurturing roles, more domestic roles, for example. Currently, the private sphere is seen as the realm of women. Men need to be allowed to stay at home to look after children, to care for their parents, to nurse sick people, to do an equal part of the home chores, to display a full range of emotions, to write the Christmas and birthday cards! Unless this happens, both men and women will remain trapped in ideas of gender that they don’t even want.
Marie-Claude: So who is responsible for driving that change?
John: Men and women. It starts at home, I think. But also corporations, governments, the media. It is such a fundamental change that it cannot be done by any one sector of society or group of people.
Mauricio: Everyone is responsible but brands and media companies should be at the forefront of this social change because of the disproportionate power they have to change social attitudes. When you’re portraying a man in an ad, you choose what he looks like, you're choosing how he behaves. You have a lot of freedom to show a man, you know, maybe playing a board game rather than playing football. A lot of micro-demonstrations of gender in the media can change attitudes and, eventually, society.
Marie-Claude: Could we reach a point where there would be no need to police the boundaries of masculinity, or where gender becomes altogether irrelevant?
Mauricio: There should be room for all kinds of masculinity, including tough guys, as long as everyone is kind to each other.
We ended the interview on that note. Coming from Mauricio, there was nothing twee about the injunction to be kind. It felt gentle but powerful and profound. A good place to start...