Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Manly Question

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.


Mrs.Hawkings said...

I've always wanted to ask about the significance of Bar/Bat Mitzvah's. Are you really a man now? At age 13? I've always thought of "manhood" or "womanhood" for that matter, as something that is realized or earned, through some event, moral dilemma, or internal conflict, in which, if the right choice is made, manhood is achieved. Something along the lines of The Road Not Taken.

In my own attempt at embracing gender, I've decided to treat it more as a biological inevitability, rather a social construct. Gender inequalities, judged on a social construct, are something to be rid of, tabooed, and politically corrected. Whereas, those who view them as simply a biological predisposition, are not limited by the titles and in turn , liberated to positively embrace the differences. I find it chivalrous for a fellow to open a door, or lift something heavy. Why does it not belittle or insult me as a woman? Because I am aware of my pride in my strengths that are not limited by my gender but are not independent of either. I know I can open the door and lift the box by myself but in acceptance of my personal “weaknesses” is how I assert myself. I treat my disposition for nurturing, cooking, or even childbirth, a God-given gift, with appreciation, something I want to do if given the opportunity. I treat these qualities as my own, but am aware of its strange coincidence with my gender. What would I deprive a man of such a moment of small pride? I am not a man, but a man is also not me, a woman.

I think if femininity is properly embraced, which can be done by both men and women, a true ssense of independence is realized, one that doesn't rely on constant reaffirmation to exist either. Emotional honesty, the ability to let yourself cry or be sensitive, is an aspect of being feminine I treasure most. I remember my grandfather often scolding my male cousins for crying; whilst, I was allowed to be a whiny mess of tears and snot, and was even given a hug for being so. I often felt sorry for them, they cried in secret anyway, likely in shame. The quality of masculinity that relies on overriding of true emotions (which actually I would classify as socially constructed, not a biological quality), “signs of weakness”, is what I think suppresses men. In this I feel liberated, a sense of strength gained, for showing pride in emotions otherwise considered weak.

Men and women really are the same in their goals, the biologically dispositioned gender divides is simply what defines how we achieve them. Mind you, I said dispositioned. Same as you mentioned, what is more strongly embodied in one over another. It does not mean either gender is limited to their own set of characteristics. Anyway, sorry for all this rambling! It is really such a conflicting issue. When I'm faced with society, I often want to retreat from my own gender. In Eastern European culture, gender IS identity. Your roles, values and worth are all based on it. These qualities are long preserved too, in Russian Orthodox churches, even in Calgary, women must wear a head scarf and a skirt to enter.

It seems Western culture's pursuit for equality resulted in gender neutrality, which seemingly only further suppresses both.

I can't wait to read your answer. I couldn't even have imagined this as something you'd be worried about or put in question. You are the only man I know (maybe I don't know many men?) who most exemplifies masculinity. I promise this conclusion is not solely based on the superficial reason of your beard but a lengthy list of qualities. Most importantly, you have the attributes; how you choose to dress em, is up to you – I am not encouraging smoking though. Your integrity, honesty, and strength is perhaps what radiates masculinity for me most!

Carolina said...

"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.) "

That's why I, as a woman, prefer male friendships over female ones. You men are much more honest and loyal. Sometimes I wish I were a man so I could have all the guy friends I wanted.