Sunday, 29 July 2012

Earning Masculinity

"Men simply do not know how to reach or when they have achieved ‘true man’ certification.  As a whole, there tends to be a lack of an organized and standard rite of passage for young men in the United States (unless you want to count losing one’s virginity or binge-drinking your twenty-first birthday away).  This lack of a rite of passage can cause men to view masculinity as ambiguous, uncertain, and problematic.....Masculinity, when considered by a social constructionist approach, has performance standards and rules that are concocted by society.  The key here is that masculinity is performance based. Completing a rite of passage might allow one to take a short intermission, from the great performance of manhood; however, the masculine performance has endless acts on the stage of life. Masculinity is an active state, with ambiguous measurables, with referees who have disallowed the red challenge flag.  Men cannot simply print their own ‘man-card’; their peer group assigns them and voids them at will."
Men and Masculinities Summer Newsletter 2012

At the root of our masculinity is a doubt about our manhood. The very idea of being a man which we are forced to aspire towards has built into it the perpetual questioning of our masculinity. 

A woman has less reason to question her femininity. I am not saying there are no existential issues there, but for a woman, her biological rhythms will remind her, whether she likes it or not, that she is a woman. If anything, the modern female is faced with finding her individuality in spite of her biology. Women after feminism are seeking to free their identity from the sense of being enslaved to a biological role.

For men, you could say it is the opposite. Men spend much of their lives subconsciously looking for validation of their masculinity. Lacking the tangible signs of their gender-identity, men must earn the right to call themselves men. Masculinity itself is a cultural construction, a vague goal that we must achieve. Our manhood is not served to us on a platter.

Because one's masculinity is not a given, it has to be worked for, and once achieved we must work even harder to secure it. We never really know what it is that we are seeking, but we lack no signals as to when it is we have failed to attain our manhood. You could argue that masculinity is a negative construct, that built into it, is a cultural idea of failure. There is no real definition of what it means to be a man, but we all have it conditioned into us to know when we are coming up short.

The very idea of masculinity or manhood endangers men to a basic schizophrenia. Masculinity, if we understand it in the culturally constructed sense, conditions men to be at war with themselves. The foundational message of cultural masculinity is that you are not enough, that you are only as good as your last achievement, your greatest kill, your biggest car, your hardest sell. And past achievements are not enough either. There is nothing worse than a man who has lost the vitality and power of his former achievements. Masculinity is performance related, and dependent on the opinions of one's peers. It is therefore fickle, and lost as quick as it is gained.

If one's identity is always something one must fight for, then one defines oneself according to this fight. At the root of yourself is an insecurity. The psychological coordinates of your life are never reliable, and you are constantly seeking some clear idea of yourself, some material evidence of your manliness, your goodness, your right to be alive and take place in the world.

Your masculinity is the stamp of approval you never get. It is the mark of validation you always fight for but you can never secure. Even in those brief moments where you win it, it is not something you have a right to claim. It is handed to you, and taken away from you and it is awarded at the discretion of forces necessarily outwith your control. You are not a man by default. You are a man when you earn that title, and that title is given to you through the explicit or tacit appreciation of your achievements. It's by nature an externally determined title.

As a result, your value as a human being is not a given either. Is it any wonder that masculinity has got a bad reputation? That violence and competition and bravado have come to be the central features of what we consider a man? Is it a surprise that a great many men hide their insecurities behind a mask of shallowness and narcissism?

It certainly should come as no great revelation that men are conditioned through this fundamental battle with their own identity, to express themselves in abusive and pathologically competitive ways. That sexuality itself is just another way of asserting a manliness grounded in a conquest-psychology, and that women become tokens of that masculinity, another form of property to boast masculine achievement.

When love itself is reduced to tokenism and material achievement it is no wonder that sensuality, tenderness and vulnerability have been divorced not just from the abstract idea of a man we have in this culture, but such qualities become completely foreign to the deeply conditioned self-image of a great many men.

It is my belief that alcoholism, domestic abuse, violent sexuality and the politics of power and domination stem from this root-insecurity in masculinity. It is not just some aberration of manhood, it forms the very foundations of our idea of what it means to be a man, and any change in our society must start with a wholesale revision of this entrenched Patriarchal system of identity. 


  1. Thanks for your comments. I have read some of your blog too, and found it provocative and brave. I suppose I write this blog because I think the only way we will de-construct Rape Culture is through a kind of deconstruction of the masculine ideals of this culture. A lot of this has to come from men themselves if it is to be effective, and it means a deep uprooting of the masculine self-image as it is handed down to us. It's going to take time for this dialogue to become a mainstream reality, but it will happen, and once it does, once the masculine ideal gains that simple element of self-reflection, Patriarchy will start to crumble from the inside out.

    Again, thank you for your comments, and for taking the time to engage with this ranty blog.