I want to address something that I occasionally hear from men across the political and cultural spectrum: the belief that masculinity itself is under attack from modern feminism. Specifically, it suggests that the current wave of feminism is devaluing traditional “masculine” attributes like strength, and assertiveness. Even among people I know who support feminism (or think they do) there is often an undercurrent of fear that while ostensibly critiquing certain aspects of culture, feminism is actually attacking men– or if not actually all individual men, then the idea of masculinity.
This fear is reinforced by terminology like “toxic masculinity” (see, feminists do think masculinity is toxic!) or “patriarchy”, as if feminists believe there’s some secret cabal of men controlling the world. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of these terms– but the misinterpretations provide ready-made strawmen to knock down, which I suspect is why they continue to persist.
That said, I do think that feminism has major ramifications for masculinity that we, as men– particularly us regular ol’, cis heterosexual men– will have to come to terms with. But these ramifications are positive; it’s just that they represent a change.
That change is not about devaluing masculinity, but about expanding what the term means. It’s about giving men and boys the freedom to express their strength and masculinity in ways beyond the chest-thumping stereotypes– and giving them the tools to do that.
For a long time, masculinity and femininity were defined as opposites to each other– yin and yang. The feminine was delicate and beautiful, the masculine was rough and strong. Gender roles, too, were clearly defined; women took care of the family and raised the kids, men went out and made a living. The domains of industry, politics, media, business– they were all, with rare exceptions, a man’s world.
Over the past century, feminism has largely changed that. Women have broken through ceiling after ceiling, and enormously expanded their role in society. A woman is no longer just the delicate flower to be protected and provided for by her man, she is the strong, independent controller of her own destiny.
In that sense, feminism has allowed femininity to incorporate some of the positive aspects of masculinity. Which means it’s no longer enough to define the masculine by what the feminine isn’t— rather, masculinity needs its own positive definition, not defined in opposition to the feminine but by the values that we as a society want men to strive for.
This, I think, is where we run into problems. Boys are still taught to be manly, but “manly” doesn’t just mean being strong enough to pursue what you want (a good thing)– too often, it means a lack of empathy for others, because empathy and caring are seen as feminine attributes, and therefore not important (or even negative) for boys. This is largely an unconscious process– fathers raise their boys how they were raised themselves; and media and culture continue to be saturated with role models and protagonists who emphasize the more traditional aspects of masculinity while devaluing the feminine. “Good guy” men are often womanizers (James Bond, anyone?) who save the day through strength and violence. I’m not saying there isn’t a role for the action hero– just that they’re oversaturated in modern media. Most of us don’t grow up to be superspies (unfortunately).
Through their environment– both family and wider society in general– boys are taught to be self-reliant. This is a good thing, but it sometimes means they avoid seeking help they may need, whether for bullying, or depression, or simple loneliness, confusion, and self-doubt– the sorts of things that almost everyone encounters in considerable quantity growing up. Self-reliance is a good quality to teach, but we need to give boys the tools to face their problems without stigmatizing the act of seeking help. Seeking help from others is a vital tool with which to confront and overcome actual problems in adult life– whether you’re a strong person or not. Moreover, if boys are taught to look down on those who seek help, they may also avoid helping people themselves, particularly other males.
This video is a trailer for a longer documentary, but I think it does a good job of identifying the pitfalls of how we teach young boys about masculinity:
“Toxic masculinity” arises when it shuns positive values that are seen as traditionally feminine–compassion, empathy, constructive listening and discussion. Instead, boys place a priority on maintaining their illusion of strength– not just to the outside world, but to themselves. And if they feel trapped by their problems, they may lash out instead of seeking help.
There are other examples, too. Men are expected to lose their virginity as soon as possible; if they don’t, it’s seen as a slight on their manhood. “Virgin” is an emasculating insult, applied far and wide– especially in the world of geek culture. A man not strong enough to get laid? What kind of man is that?
In the wake of the Isla Vista shootings last year, I wrote a long blog post about the shooter’s motivations, and how scarily well I could understand them. The man is often portrayed simply as a boy who was mentally ill, and while that may be the case, he also posted a long rant blaming women and society for his problems. This is a particularly brutal example of that toxic masculinity I described above, which discourages things like self-reflection, or getting help, and stigmatizes anything seen as weak, from self-doubt to virginity. We see motivations like these all too often, not just in murders but domestic violence cases and sexual assault as well.
Luckily, the vast majority of boys and girls grow up to be fairly well-adjusted people. But my ultimate goal, and one generally shared by feminism as a whole, is that people should not be judged or made to feel inferior based on how well they follow some culturally constructed gender norm. Masculinity and femininity are ultimately things that people have to define for themselves, as part of the process of determining their own identity. And they deserve to be accepted by society and their family however they choose to define those terms.
A key point here is that if someone wants to define their feminity or masculinity within “traditional” norms, that should be fine, too. If a Mom wants to quit her career and stay at home to raise her children, then that’s perfectly fine– it’s her decision. I want to see a society and a culture with room for both the stay-at-home Mom and the Mom who starts her own software company. I want there to be room for the stay-at-home Dad and the driven engineer who goes to work while his wife raises the kids– or the bachelor who never marries at all. I want people to have room to use the freedom so neatly summed up here by Michael Ironside– Starship Troopers is fiction, but that quote rings true even in our world.
I’ve heard it countered that to take such a wide-ranging view of masculine and feminine norms is to disregard biology; that as men and women, we have certain biological tendencies, and women are attracted to strong men– hence to downplay strength and aggressiveness in masculinity is to disregard certain base, monkey brain level tendencies.
But the goal here is not to criticize strength as an attribute, but rather to criticize the way it’s portrayed in our culture. Being an asshole and running roughshod over someone else, physically or emotionally, takes strength, but it’s a negative (toxic) strength. It takes more strength to achieve your goals (whether they be career, family, or romance-oriented) in a way that respects the people around you, as opposed to putting your own needs first and only helping others when it’s convenient or benefits you.
In other words, strength should be valued not just for how much you can apply to a given situation, but for how you control and direct that strength. How we educate and raise young boys should reflect that, and I think media and entertainment that teaches those lessons should be encouraged. We put too much emphasize on the power; not enough on the responsibility that comes with it. (Thanks, Uncle Ben.)
Even if we do accept that different genders have certain biological tendencies, the idea that this norm should enjoy some privileged place in society at the expense of folks who don’t fit the norm, is silly. To argue otherwise is to put yourself on the same side of people who argue against gay marriage because they claim to support the “traditional family.” Heterosexual families will always be the norm, but to privilege that norm by denying rights to everyone else is to blatantly ignore the fact that there are plenty of non-traditional families out there that are every bit as healthy and loving as the traditional folks, and just because they’re in the minority, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve support.
My own personal view is that whatever little behavioral tendencies we may be born with– be they related to gender, or family history, or something else– are far outweighed by how we’re raised, the environment we grow up in, and the values we hold. To suggest anything less is to deny your responsibility for your own actions, and I don’t buy that at all. As human beings, we are the one species equipped to engage in self-reflection and set values for ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. And I want everyone to have the freedom to do just that.
And it’s happening. One of the reasons we see a lot more “offense” taken over slights or insults that might have previously gone overlooked is that more people now feel empowered to speak out. People who don’t fit the traditional or majority mold– in terms of race, or sexual orientation, or gender, or beliefs– now feel like they have room to publicly discuss things that bother them, whereas previously they may have stayed silent. This, in turn, has made people on all levels of society more aware of such issues. The current plague of “SJWs” isn’t a backlash against free speech; it’s a result of more people feeling free to exercise their speech. I blogged about this a couple years ago during a SFWA kerfuffle, and I find it still holds true in the current “crisis.”
It’s sadly ironic that when the shoe is on the other foot– for example, when a popular movie like Frozen portrays a situation different from the “default” male hero, conservative commentators immediately complain (even though Kristoff, while not the primary hero, still has a heroic role to play). These people are used to having their own situations, roles, and values portrayed as the norm– in popular media, they don’t often see people not like them, and certainly not on the scale of a Disney mega-movie.
These people are made so uncomfortable by this, they go on TV and complain about it, like a completely over-the-top parody of the “SJWs” and feminists they hate. Are they really not aware that there are large groups of society who almost never get to see someone like themselves as the hero, or have a relationship that reflects their own portrayed? Imagine the fuss if Disney portrayed a gay hero in one of their animated films! The horror!
Not to mention the hypocrisy. When feminists critique a movie that blindly follows the norm, or hews to certain lazy or even offensive stereotypes of the minority, the response is often “shut up and get over it;” “you’re too easily offended;” “it’s just a [movie/game/TV show].” Until a movie comes out in which a female protagonist saves herself through her own actions, and the male characters take on supporting roles… in which case, Freak Out!
When people complain about masculinity being under attack, what they usually mean is that the traditional view of masculinity is losing its privileged place in society– we are seeing more (and better) portrayals of people out there who don’t fit the norm, in one way or another, and are successful at life regardless. These were people who were often invisible to larger society and media, but that has changed. They are finding their voices, and in the end we will all be richer for it.
Alternatively, some people seem to confuse being a strong man with being an asshole. Being a strong and assertive man isn’t being villified– but being an asshole is. More people are willing to call out shitty behavior when they see it, and behavior that might have been seen as okay in the past is now increasingly seen as not okay, largely thanks to previously underpowered groups (like women) who now feel more free to speak out.
Those of us who typically have the power in society, who fit the “norms”– whether we be white, or male, or cis, or heterosexual, or Christian– may increasingly have our own norms challenged, but that doesn’t mean we’re under attack. It just means society is making room for everybody else, too. Us “norm-fitters” will have to give up some privilege, but society will be richer for it, with a larger and wider array of voices to educate us, inform us, and lead us– in classrooms, science labs, companies, in the halls of government. It’s an ongoing process, but it’s one we will all benefit from– even the strongest of men.