Feelings About Masculinity

I was recently puzzling over why I was having such difficulty doing a particular piece of writing. Everything I tried felt a little off key, a little false, and I couldn't understand it. It slowly dawned on me that the explanation was that I couldn't write authentically about the topic at hand without setting it in a different and broader context -- that is, without talking at least briefly about my feelings about masculinity. I've written about masculinity before, but I've never focused on my emotional relationship to it, so I set that post aside for the time being and started to work on this one.

A short answer to the question of my feelings about masculinity is that they are complicated and deeply ambivalent.


Partly my feelings about this topic are complicated because that's just how feelings are -- their shape and landscape don't (and shouldn't) necessarily follow the same contours as analysis. In particular, I mean their tendency to seep from their point of origin, to transpose themselves across similarity or resonance or homology such that the path to get there makes a certain sort of sense but the attachment of the feeling to the new object may not be obvious to those who have not shared the same journey. For instance, we first hear a piece of music during a moment of great personal joy and forever after it makes us feel happy, or we have a terrible break-up and for the next two years any sort of stress -- job stress, family stress, whatever -- triggers sadness about our lost lover. Why this is relevant will become clear below.

Partly my feelings about this topic are complicated because masculinity is complicated, as is gender more generally. Masculinity and gender as a whole can feel simple to some of us, but once we start to pay attention to them, they really aren't.

I understand gender to be about how we move through the world. It is not a classification of inert physical bodies, but rather is socially produced -- that is, gender is an experience created as we interact with those around us. Those activities -- ours and other people's -- do not happen in a formless vacuum but are socially organized and regulated in specific ways. Partly they are regulated by the behaviours of the people we interact with. Partly they are organized by written texts that we take up and act on, and regulated by the ways in which other people take up and act on written texts. Partly they are organized by more amorphous forms of discourse in the broader culture that we take up and act on, and regulated by the ways in which such discourse is taken up and acted upon by other people. Through these ways, through all of our actions every day, gender as a form of social relation is organized and created.

As I wrote a year ago:

Though there is lots of specificity according to social and geographical location, the dominant social organization of gender in North America involves two clusters of bodies, practices, and symbols. One (masculinity) is organized into relative privilege and the other (femininity) into relative oppression, in ways that are interconnected with and articulated through all other social relations. Deviation from the "normal" way of clustering bodies, practices, and symbols is also punished. The ways that gender gets done in the everyday lives of most people results in people getting trained as they grow up to enact in turn socially regulatory practices on the people around them, to enforce both m-over-f and adherence to the binary, though there are lots of other, more specific ways to understand how these relations are reproduced, including social organization mediated through official texts (e.g. immigration regulations, the organization of employment, etc.). Note that the ways in which those trained into dominant masculinities engage in practices that not only oppress women and gender non-conforming people, but are also part of how subordinate masculinities are kept subordinate. As well, none of us completely conform to the binary -- we have practices, preferences, desires, inclinations, tendencies that deviate a little or a lot from the enforced gendered "normal" -- and active social regulation (and, indeed, production) of people's practices, preferences, desires, inclinations, and tendencies is required to keep the supposedly innate binary from falling apart. Obviously, there is several library's worth of detail to how it all plays out in different situations.

Masculinity is the body-symbol-practice cluster. Masculinity is the doing (and the textual and discursive organization of the doing) that constantly recreates the cluster. Masculinity is a way of moving through the world by individuals that draws elements from that cluster and/or that is regulated based on the content of that cluster.

As I've written before in a slightly different context, there are elements of the body-symbol-practice cluster of dominant masculinity, and of individual ways of doing masculinity, that are innocuous, that don't matter. You like pro football and drinking a cold one and using power tools? Whatever, I like the middle one and have no interest in the first or last, but if you like 'em, good for you.

Some aspects of the cluster can be positive, though even with these things it is all about our relations with others -- for example, the imperative to exercise material care for others that is prominent in some ways of doing masculinity can be a great thing. It can be part of equal, intersubjective, mutual relationships with family, friends, partners, children. However, it can also be disempowering, controlling, and downright misogynist, depending on how and in what context it is enacted.

In both of these cases, various practices may be innocuous or (potentially) positive in and of themselves, but all the ways in which we treat them as "boy things" are still a problem and still do harm -- the assumption that people who don't do masculinity can't/don't/shouldn't do them and those who do masculinity can/do/should erases lots of people's realities; the social regulation, the everyday social punishment, when we relate to them in a way that is contrary to gendered expectations, can be heavy and painful burden; and the ways in which the actual doing of many practices occurs in gendered ways is a product of the social relations that produce the two hierarchically arranged body-symbol-practice clusters of dominant gender relations, even if that actual specific practice and its distribution doesn't matter very much. That is, saying that some elements of the cluster are unimportant or positive does not make the existence of enforced clusters any less oppressive, in the m-over-f sense or in the mandatory binary sense. The clustering itself is harmful to people.

And, of course, there are specific elements of the body-symbol-practice cluster of masculinity that are inherently a problem, that are inherently about exerting power-over and doing harm. Like, say, rape. Or taking what other men say more seriously than what women say in interpersonal interactions. Or allowing your inertia and passive-aggressiveness and learned helplessness to keep your female partner doing far more than her share of the housework. Or lots of others. A few men do some of these, a lot of men do others, and saying all of this is definitely not claiming that "all men do X." But each of these oppressive practices is in part produced by (and reproduces) the body-symbol-practice cluster that is masculinity, and none of us who do masculinity can claim that the logics and processes that produce them are nothing to do with us, even if we don't ourselves do that specific thing.

Masculinity, therefore, is complex and heterogeneous. Any particular enactment of masculinity might be very different from another enactment, both in the sense of one person doing masculinity differently from another person but also from one moment of masculinity-as-practice differing from another moment even when it is the same person doing them. That's one level of the complexity. It is made even trickier by the fact that all of these very different experiences of masculinity are connected in material ways --that is, the relations which socially produce them are woven together.

So it makes sense for our feelings about masculinity to be complicated, since masculinity itself is complicated. After all, masculinity is not one kind of practice but many different practices and all of the experiences that those practices can create. There is no timeless essence, but rather a contingent, socially produced clustering of disparate elements that shifts with time and place. Yet that clustering has material reality, because it is reflected (in diverse ways) in the practices of lots of people. Just because there is no inherent, natural, or inevitable connection among the elements that are clustered under the banner "masculinity" doesn't stop our regular experience of that clustering in the behaviour of other people from having an effect on our own consciousness. And the tendency of feelings to transpose themselves in non-linear, unpredictable ways adds a further layer of complication.


I should start off by saying that the deep ambivalence I feel about masculinity is not the sort of ambivalence that would ever result in me adopting a way of moving through the world that would cease to be read as masculinity by the overwhelming majority of observers. I am cis, not trans. My way of doing masculinity may be quirky and against-the-norm in some moments (though in other moments it is entirely consistent with dominant ways of doing masculinity), and I may see the deliberate adoption of ways of moving through the world that challenge dominant ways of doing masculinity as an important political strategy for bioboys with critical gender politics to adopt. But however strong my negative feelings about the stream of doing, the cluster of bodies and symbols and practices, that get labelled "masculinity," it is and will remain the sea in which I swim.

Yet I have a lot of negative feelings about masculinity, for quite a wide range of reasons.

I have been hurt and damaged by the social regulation that organizes the clustering of practices we call masculinity, and that patrols its borders. All of us who do masculinity have felt that. Even Erving Goffman's "unblushing male" -- that is, a doer of high-status masculinity that meets the requirements for what a man 'should be' -- has moments of not fitting, moments of feeling the need to exhibit emotion that men are told we shouldn't, moments of not being tough enough, hard enough, angry enough, dominant enough. It happens to all of us, even if we want to fit, even if we don't have the tools to articulate that the social punishment we receive for not fitting is a source of pain and is wrong, even if we are among the most enthusiastic at doling out punishment to other men when they deviate from dominant norms of masculinity. From the moment of pain in the hockey locker room when peers deride you as not being man enough, to the long-term stunting of connection with your own emotions brought on by relentless policing of emotional expression by others and by self from a very young age, the regulation that creates masculinity is a source of pain and damage for those of us who do masculinity. This informs my feelings about masculinity.

I have also been hurt by specific practices or tendencies or actions that are part of the masculinity cluster that are not directly about pushing for conformity with dominant ways of doing masculinity. In some contexts, men do masculinity in ways that involve aggression towards others, or involve treating those seen as subordinate in hurtful or disrespectful ways. Such behaviour isn't unique to men, and can be associated in different ways with different kinds of privilege. But it is a common element of body-practice-symbol cluster of masculinity, and is part of how many men do masculinity. Again, all of us have been on the receiving end of this in one form or another, and all of us have been hurt by it. As a relatively privileged man, this has impacted me less than many other people, but it has impacted me. So this, too, informs my feelings about masculinity.

Moreover, people I care about have been hurt both by the punishing regulation that patrols the doing of masculinity and by the various common practices of masculinity that are acts of domination of men over women, straight men over queers of various genders, gender-conforming men over gender non-conforming men, higher-status men over lower-status men. People I care about have been bashed, raped, assaulted, emotionally abused, disrespected, dehumanized, talked over, erased, mocked, harassed, and otherwise treated unjustly where those actions have been organized and enacted, in whole or in part, through masculinity. As above, I'm not claiming that all men do these things or that only men do these things; rather, I'm claiming that these things are often socially produced in ways that are grounded in masculinity. And this plays a huge role in shaping my feelings about masculinity.

I have also done things that I regret, and some things that I am ashamed of, that are related to my training into masculinity. I mean, I've never done the worst things that can be produced in part through training in masculinity, but I've done all of those everyday things that most of us who learn masculinity from infancy do from time to time, from making sexist assumptions, to talking down to a woman or a supposedly lower status man, to falling into looking at some random woman's body in an intrusive, objectifying way. I think I engage in everyday oppressive behaviours rooted in my training in masculinity less often than I did when I was younger, and I hope I'm more open to being called on them, but I still sometimes do them. And I find that upsetting, and my emotional relationship with masculinity is certainly informed by those feelings.

So it is no wonder that there is a sizeable dose of negativity in my mix of feelings about masculinity.

Feeling It

So. I encounter some action, some practice, some utterance, some media product that I know flows from or is related to the body-symbol-practice cluster that is masculinity.

Most of the time when that happens, I don't actually have a noticeable emotional response. None of us could, I don't think, given how pervasively gendered our experiences are. We can't notice everything, we can't always dissect out the impact of gender (especially on the fly), and we can't really react to everything that we notice.

One consequence of that is that there are probably lots of little things that really do matter, in the sense of enacting troubling or oppressive aspects of masculinity, that I don't see or don't react to, both in my own actions and in those of other people around me. If you really pay attention, troubling gender stuff (most of which is related to masculinity in one way or another) is really, really common in our everyday experiences.

It's not just a matter of how the volume of things there you could react to, though. Those of us for whom being on the receiving end is relatively rare and mild and for whom gender privilege is an everyday reality, there is little incentive to notice and lots not to notice, and less reason to have an emotional response when we do notice. Seeing and feeling are heavily influenced by privilege, and it takes ongoing work to counter that. I see more than I used to, but I know I don't see everything.

On the other hand, enactments of masculinity that I do notice and that have sufficient emotional content for me to have an emotional response are more likely to be things which are oppressive and therefore things which evoke negative emotions in me. This is true in the moment, and it is also true of more sustained emotion about particular patterns and tendencies that show up in the doing of masculinity. As well, because of the tendency of emotions to transpose in ways that do make sense but not necessarily the same sense as, say, an assessment of what causes harm and what doesn't, there are instances where I have negative emotional responses to elements of the masculinity cluster that don't really deserve it.

One interesting impact of this emotional ambivalence about masculinity is that, in my case at least, it has reinforced in my own doing of masculinity a particular element of the cluster that is very common and that is not at all a good thing. That is, I find it harder to cultivate substantial connection with other people who do masculinity, particularly bioboys who have no interest in critical gender politics, and I am, quite frankly, less inclined to try. And this is on top of being quite shy and reserved to start with. So almost all of the small number of men with whom I feel some important-to-me connection do masculinity in some (though never all) ways that run counter to dominant norms, and many are political radicals, queers, trans, or some combination. It's not that I don't know that it is politically important for men to cultivate substantive connection with a much broader spectrum of people who do masculinity -- any collective critical gender politics has to involve men connecting with each other, challenging each other, and supporting each other as we act in and support struggles against gender oppression. But...well, I'm working on it.

The Positive

Sometimes, though, I encounter some action, some choice, some practice that is clearly part of another person's way of doing masculinity, and I feel inspired, challenged, enlightened. It doesn't happen often, mind you, and as with the negative, most of the moments that theoretically might evoke such a response do not, in fact, do so.

For instance, above I mentioned the fact that there are practices that are part of dominant conceptions of masculinity and that are, in and of themselves, innocuous or (potentially) positive. Encountering those kinds of practices rarely makes me feel much one way or the other.

There are also the countless little moments of refusal that I know are part of the everyday lives of all of us who do masculinity. It's my understanding that all of us exist in the context of oppressive social relations in a way that is within, against, and beyond them. In the case of social relations of gender for those of us who do masculinity, we all have moments where we refuse to "act like a man" or at least "like a real man is supposed to," where we instinctively feel the ways in which our possibility or the possibility of a loved one is limited if we go along so we just don't. Even the biggest multiply-privileged patriarchal jerk has tiny moments of everyday refusal like that. Often we don't recognize them in ourselves or in those around us, partly because they are often small enough that they are hard to see but also because part of our gender training is, I think, not to see such moments of resistance. These moments are crucial, and part of cultivating critical gender politics among people who do masculinity is to connect with those moments, nurture them in each other, help them grow and become explicit and collective. Nonetheless, largely because of how hard it is to see them, this kind of moment is rarely a source of positive feeling for me.

No, the actions, the choices, the practices that give me positive feelings of various sorts are usually those that are more overtly, and often but not necessarily more consciously, counter to dominant norms of masculinity. It can be as simple as seeing a dad parenting in a tender, nurturing way, especially if I detect some kind of explicitly pro-feminist edge to it. Or it might be witnessing a moment of genuine, tender emotional connection between men, especially between straight men. Or it can be like a moment I remember from an Ivan Coyote story in which the viewpoint character and a friend, both women, overhear without being observed a working-class father passing values of genuine respect for women on to his adult son. Or lots of the subversive, delightful choices of people I know who are somewhere on the transmasculine spectrum. Or lots of other ways in which men visibly, deliberately don't do what they are supposed to do -- the visible and non-utilitarian enjoyment of some "not a guy thing" thing, the unexpected refusal to just accept a sexist comment from a fellow man, all that kind of stuff.

That is, my reactions to masculinity are at their most positive when it is masculinity that is being done in ways that -- intended or not -- act to directly subvert m-over-f and the mandatory binary, to oppose the ways in which those those relations and the practices which produce them harm so, so many people.

Which sounds cheesy and maybe even made up -- like maybe feelings invented in the service of performing a particular politics. Which it isn't. In saying it, I'm not claiming any particular success in doing the kinds of things that give me positive feelings, or at least not nearly enough, and I'm certainly not claiming that I never do masculinity in all those ways that are the basis for my ambivalence about it. By the very complex, heterogenous, socially produced way in which masculinity is enacted by those of us who do it, we are all a mix. And as I said, overcoming the ways in which my own reaction to that mix often prevents me from forming productive connections with others who do masculinity is part of my journey. But even so, it is the kind of counter-normative moment I've just described that gives me hope, gives me positive feeling, when it comes to masculinity.

Reprinted with permission from Scott's blog, A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land.