I’m going to riff on something which is only peripherally related to the “mission” of this blog, but I’m sure no one minds. Right? Right.
One of the major topics of conversation last night was gender and the expression thereof, and the ways that both of us have dealt with that. For my part, I’ve been mulling these things over a lot lately, in particular since a recent Mass Effect playthrough as a female character (FemShep, in the parlance) pulled front-and-center certain internal assumptions I had about my own gender expression which I was previously not consciously aware of.
We don’t need to have a debate about the value of video games for cultural expression and self-examination, right? Right.
I’m not a man who is comfortable with traditional masculinity. This surprises no one, least of all myself. But I’m still a fairly masculine-presenting, cis man, male. For a long time, I hadn’t thought about that at all, largely because I don’t need to. The world is built on the assumption that someone is male, and it’s easy to miss the ways in which one is “default”. Instead, the focus tends to be on the differences from expectation, but, ultimately, for me, the differences aren’t as great as the similarities.
This isn’t something I’m terribly comfortable with, though. I have always associated “masculinity” with negative traits–violence, bullying,gender policing, homophobia, tribalism, jingoism, etc. I was a small boy, and boys are awful to other boys–myself included. I’m still not nearly as comfortable with men as women, and most of my friends remain women.
But the fact of the matter is that I am, and am obviously, male and masculine. I don’t have to address it, because the world is designed not to throw it in my face, unlike other folks, but it’s there. I’m making a choice in how to present even if I am merely accepting the default options. And I’m not doing it because I feel pushed into it; I rapidly and vehemently rebel against those bits that don’t fit right into my identity. I am this way because I want to be, because it feels right.
What there isn’t, for masculinity, is any sense of choice. Any way to do it consciously (as opposed to self-consciously), and in an examined manner. Any way to accept what works while ejecting what’s toxic. Almost any other gender expression can be done in a subversive way, as an announcement of both the gender itself and also one’s politics associated with it.
I used to follow The Good Man project (no, no link), hoping that it would be, or lead to, a discussion of how to be masculine in the world as it changes. It didn’t, and (like all of these sorts of discussions) it was quickly co-opted by men who wanted to whinge about their “emasculation” in today’s society, or complain that feminism has “gone too far”, or to lionize those things that are most awful about what’s expected of men. Business as usual.
Guys, dudes, my brothers, look: we are not being left behind. We started out so far ahead. Other people may be moving faster than we are, but that’s because they have to to catch up. And it’s no one else’s responsibility to make space for us. If we want to be allies, or even relevant, we need to be willing to give up a privileged position. It’s not “emasculating”; no one else can emasculate you.
I like this identity. I don’t like some of the things that I associate with it, but I don’t have to do those things. But unlike other possible identities, there isn’t anything to reclaim here, except from my own negative image of masculinity. So it’s been unnecessary to do it consciously, and in an examined manner. I haven’t had to decide how to identify, I just have an identity. I’m starting to think, though, that it doesn’t have to be that way, that maybe there’s a value in the performance.
There are certainly things that are “masculine” that are worth preserving. Not bullshit about chivalry, or refusing to cry. Not simple virtues, like “courage” or “steadfastness”, because to claim those belong to masculinity is to claim that they can’t belong to the immasculine (for that matter, I think it’s essentially false to ascribe things like “being nurturing” and “talking about feelings” to femininity). Not merely biologically male tendencies, like height and musculature. Not sexuality. Not even sex or gender, because there isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a reason that anyone can’t take on this image. But the outward presentation of masculinity, things like:
- Facial hair
- Rolled-up, long sleeve, button-down shirts
- Leading in social dance
- Big watches
Anyway, these elements of outward presentation, which I think still have great value that it took me a long time to cotton to. Take ties, for example: I’ve long claimed to hate them. Partly, this is because I have a huge neck and the shirts that otherwise fit me don’t easily button to the top. Mostly, though, in honesty, it’s because I’ve associated them with a bullshit corporate culture that I hate. But I don’t have to do that. And if I don’t, it’ll be rapidly obvious, and I don’t need outward signals to demonstrate that.
A corollary to the conscious choice here is that all other choices are equally valid. It’s important, in being both masculine and enlightened, to have looked at all the other choices. It’s important to recognize the value of those choices, and it’s important to make the decision for oneself without making a value judgment on people who make a different choice.
Done right, I think this belongs in a similar category with various sorts of gender bending. Pi radians, 180 degrees, is still an angle, and mathematics doesn’t distinguish it in any special way; it’s just one angle of infinitely many. The phrase that keeps rolling around in my head to describe this is “hard dapper”, and I think a couple of people out there already close to epitomize what I’m going for. Check out Nick Wooster:
Or Phillip Crangi:
However, I don’t know anything about these guys’ personal philosophies. I think the key elements here for me, for this “hard dapper” thing, are:
- Masculinity as a conscious choice of outward presentation, as opposed to a default
- A recognition that this is not the same as “manliness” or “maleness”. These are not the things that a man “should be” or “should wear”. These aren’t things that anyone of another gender shouldn’t wear. In fact, folks of other genders make this sort of conscious choice all the time. It’s just an understanding that so can I.
- A recognition that this is a selection from a spectrum, and not only is it only one choice of many, it is many separate choices. I can mix and match whatever I want, even if I settle on one theme.
- A recognition that I can jettison the things that I don’t want. A tie isn’t homophobia. A suit jacket isn’t bullying men who are smaller than me. Leading my partner in a tango isn’t gender oppression.
I’m not sure where this is going, but it’s a new era of self-examination and I’m looking forward to the journey. I think I’m going to have some of my shirts tailored and buy some ties.