Growing older and identifying as a cis man has only left me with more and more questions and worries about what does it mean to be a man and if it is inherently something good or bad. Without a doubt, the social construct of masculinity, what it stands for and how it works is one of the most complex and important conversations that we should all be having. With the rise of social movements and ideas like feminism and gender identity via social media and news outlets the idea of masculinity -and men- has been debated and problematized as the role of hegemonic masculinity and its tangible effects on society is each day clearer.
The idea of a single and correct way of being a man is obsolete, nevertheless present and strong. Hegemonic masculinity is a concept proposed by sociologist R.W. Connell as a part of her gender order theory. Connell defines the concept as a practise that legitimizes men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of the common male population and women and other marginalized ways of being a man. In other words, it is the masculinity that justifies and legitimizes the oppression of men over women and other gender identities, and it is heavily linked to the contemporary concept of “toxic masculinity”. Most cisgender men still function and live under the idea of hegemonic masculinity, following the traditional occidental idea and archetype of men as providers. On the other hand, masculine gender identities and certain groups of men try to redefine what is masculinity and find other types of “healthy” masculinity.
The idea and effort of trying to find new ways to live and experience the masculine ideas have had as a result many men forming groups where they are able to discuss and reflect on their actions and behaviours that could be considered as part of hegemonic masculinity, and directly contribute to the oppression of other individuals. Talking from personal experience, as a man who has participated and been part of several groups of men who have gathered to try and find healthy alternatives to masculinity, I can say they are not efficient, at best. My biggest problem with these types of groups is that they are mostly, if not completely, made up of straight cisgender men. Although I can appreciate a group of men trying to generate a better understanding of their actions and thoughts, what I see is a privileged group trying to decipher the exact mechanics of how this privilege works. By no means am I saying that important ideas are not being discussed, but the profundity and relevance of this analysis will never be as great as it could be. Just as Andrea Smith describes in her 2018 essay, Unsettling the Privilege of Self-reflexivity, the confession and recognition of a privilege in a public space can create an illusion of justice, when in most cases what is doing is only soothing the confessor’s feeling of guilt2. The only way in which the process of recognising a privilege can have some sort of result is if the individual transformation happens along a social and political one3. As Smith easily explains, this group of men may only be trying to soothe some sort of guilt that came with understanding their privileged position in a patriarchal society. Reflections and discussion are great, but only if they are just the tip of the iceberg. More actions are required for social transformation.
The other major problem I see with trying to redefine the idea of masculinity is that it could be impossible. Trying to find some sort of unmasculine masculinity seems like a never-ending search. The complete idea of masculinity and how it works in regards of gender cannot be removed from the notions of subjugation and paternalism. Trying to find a new kind of masculinity, while still trying to exist within the limits of the current one is like cutting the leaves of a plant when the root is already rotten. Instead of creating a new masculinity, in my mind, it only works as a rebranding and change of label. An alternative when it comes to help to end the oppression of men over women and other gender identities is to discard and abolish the idea of masculinity as a whole. A concept so deeply rooted in oppression must be disregarded instead of changed for results to arrive and equality and justice to thrive.
Although discarding the idea of masculinity as a whole may seem as the only choice we have as a society to help the issue of patriarchal violence and oppression, the reality still remains that those kinds of transformations take much more time and effort. It also opens the question of what happens to masculine gender identities, such as transgender men or non-binary transmaculine people that feel comfortable and happy in their masculinity. Their personal experience of masculinity is, and always will be valid, so trying to tell them that masculinity should be abolished does not seem as a possibility at the moment. As long as there are people living their identity through their masculinity, those identities will be respected.
After reading all of these, you can tell that the issue of masculinity only seems to bring more questions than answers. One thing is clear, more efforts should be done by men to try to question the concept of masculinity. New masculinity groups should, for starters, be more diverse with the type of people who participate in their discussions. Bringing other masculine identities apart from cisgender men can bring a much more enriched vision and discussion of finding new ways of living and experiencing masculinity. At the same time, actions must be taken out of the discussion groups for changes to start to happen. The deconstructions of the idea of masculinity must happen at a much faster and aggressive rate if we want to see benefits for oppressed groups while the concept of masculinity is still relevant.
On an ending note, I believe the most radical and important strategy men and masculine identities can take to help dismantle the patriarchy is to care and love one another. In a system that raises us, at the same time, to compete and be complicit with the actions of other men, our only alternatives are to be critical, but be empathic, caring and loving between ourselves.
Connell, R.W. Masculinities. California: University of California Press, 2005.
Smith, Andrea. Unsettling the Privilege of Self-reflexivity. California: Camas Books, 2018.
Painting: Diego Velazquez, “Mars”, 1599-1600. Oil on canvas, 181 x 99cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.