If I were to smoke, I think I would smoke Marlboros, entirely because of the marketing. (Is there really any other reason people smoke?) The Marlboro Man is someone I'd like to emulate even though I know absolutely nothing about him. What do I need to know really though, besides the fact that he emanates masculinity, which is something that I would like to do to. The problem of course is that the price of cigarettes would make me ill, not to mention that I highly doubt that smoking Marlboros will automatically render me a "Marlboro Man". As both Randy Jones, and more recently Ang Lee have shown us, being a cowboy is not necessarily what masculinity is. If it's not the Marlboro man's cigarette nor his hat and rugged features, then what is it? Or, more broadly, what are the differences between masculinity and femininity? ("Great pun Ed!" "Thanks, I was afraid you would miss it.")
That's a problem that has been in the back of my mind for what's likely close to two decades but more recently I've been giving it a lot of thought. When I was young I liked to view the world in relatively simple terms. The easiest way to see gender is male and female. With two categories it makes for easy understanding. Males are tough, physical, rational, strong, and aggressive. Females are soft, emotional, compassionate, sensitive, nurturing and dependent. The nice thing about this view is that it was easy enough to find corroboration in countless places.
There are of course cracks in the simplistic view. At first with a bit of selective vision and selective interpretation, the view was defensible. For example, everyone knows that only boys fight physically because they're aggressive and girls aren't. Of course the occasional fight does break out between girls but that's because everyone knows that they're catty. (Thank God I'm male and don't have my own friends stabbing me in the back.)
Unfortunately the view got harder to defend as more and more counterexamples appeared in my life. As I had my view challenged I sought to find an explanation that could account for all the corroboration of my old gender views but allow for all of the exceptions. I was unsuccessful so I sort of ignored the problem, or at least never looked at it head on. I would affirm what I assumed to be truths about gender and then affirm other facts despite apparent contradictions. If the contradiction were pointed out I would likely have affirmed it too. The easiest solution to all the exceptions of the traditional male female gender roles is one that I was never willing to embrace: that gender traits are only social constructs and that is why they don't work.
The last little while I have been thinking a fair bit about what masculinity means and was also struck by an interesting entailment on my assumption that there is such a thing as masculinity, and that is there must be such a thing as femininity. Not being able to figure that question out by introspection, I've asked several of my women friends what their thoughts on it are.
The question assumes that gender is a defining characteristic of people. I think it's a defensible assumption and can argue why, but will forebear doing so because I assume that most are happy to allow for the assumption. The question I asked was, "What are some of the defining traits and characteristics of femininity that you relate to as a woman?" I was not prepared to assume that there are certain traits that are exclusive to one gender while universal to another, but I thought that maybe there are some that are generally more common to, or more strongly embodied by one gender.
I received some good replies, though perhaps the most interesting was "why is this so important to you?" Not the what is femininity question, but gender in general. I think I stuttered out some sort of answer but the succinct reply was "I don't know." I didn't know, but it caused me to think.
The website The Art of Manliness defines manliness as the not the opposite of femininity but rather the opposite of boyishness. I think that this is perhaps part of the reason why the question has been important for me, especially of late. As a student, though I'm in my late twenties there's not a lot that separates me from my adolescent life. I don't have any of the stereotypical trappings of adulthood, career, family, or mortgage so how do I know I'm an adult? Well I'm an adult if I'm a man so I need to know what it means to be a man.
That's just part of it though. I remember as a young boy driving home with my dad. I had the option of traveling with my mom in the other car but I remember that I really wanted to drive with my dad. I don't remember anything except for the fact that I was very happy to be spending time with my dad, talking "man to man". I felt that my masculinity was affirmed and that affirmation was very important to me. Now as an adult I think I'm looking again for that same affirmation but I don't know where to look because I don't even know what masculinity is. So I guess my answer is that the question is very important to me because it is important to me.
Anyway, I was really happy the other day because I think I've answered the question of what gender is.