Updated: Feb 4, 2019
Concepts like gender are treated in our society with the same monolithic and old-fashioned manner with which theological scripts are bestowed upon the praying hands of the faith practitioners. They are transmitted from generation to generation, somehow unquestioned, but ultimately biased and flawed in nature. Ideas of masculinity and femininity permeate and root so deeply in our social imaginary that challenges to the status quo are frowned upon at best and dismissed as nonsense at worst.
Gender as a social construct has created, in time, so much structural violence and skewed so much of our wealth and power distribution, that we are now hitting a critical point. Men occupy the upper stratum of our society, and as such, are able to impose and conditions their views top-down. They make up a huge majority in government (77%) and boardrooms (79%). These are not any men, they are white, straight, middle class. Grayson Perry, in his book ‘The Descent of Man’ call this archetype ‘Default Man’. Centuries of patriarchy have moulded the world to reflect and favour this particular class, sometimes in the subtlest of ways.
I must admit, I could be one of those men. I am white and I am a man indeed, but growing in a working class, women-led lefty family has heavily informed my understanding of power dynamics and gender relations. Of course, this does not discount any bias I may still hold in regards to this topic, which is exactly why I am exploring this particular theme in this article. Truth is, gender is not a fixed concept, and just by looking back some years we can see how drastically it has changed. Toys and kids articles are a great example.
Just over 100 years ago men wore red uniforms and boys being small men, used to wear pink, and blue which was deemed more dainty as a colour, was used for girls. The swap over happened slowly, but ultimately solidified into the rigid structures of today. It goes without saying that there is nothing inherently manly or girly about these colours, the meaning here lies in the eyes of the beholder. Similarly, clothing is seen just as an essential and functional feat for men, whereas women are the ones with large wardrobes, frills, hairdos, nail polish, shoe collections and so on. Old school men internalise from a very young age that they are the ones that do the looking and are taught to believe that they are the ‘authentic’ and ‘uncorrupted’ ones, in a very distorted and masculine interpretation of the world.
Sure, boys these days are forced to be more body- and health-conscious than their fathers and grandfathers (me included), but this attention comes for a reason and at a price. As Perry explains in his book: ‘The visual model of masculinity now sold to men is as unattainable as the one long peddled to women. [...] An underlying rationale behind the desire for the super-lean muscular body may be that fat equals feminine, sensual and apparently lacking in self-control. A hard body speaks of a clear border between inner and outer worlds.’ hyper-masculinity seems to be a pantomime for men who do not occupy the working classes their grandfathers used to, and it emphasises seemingly irrelevant aspects of our lives.
Men buy into the ideals of masculinity that our social structures impose on them. Genetically, we are born with more muscles and a certain love for risk-taking, but we are single-handedly socially conditioned and even encouraged to take on a unnecessary dominant role. Violence and animosity seem to be reinforced in most boys. The use of force in toddler is translated in their parents' statements such as ‘he has a strong character’ or ‘he’s just a boy’. This is where the real threat lies. Today, in the UK, 45% of women have experienced some kind of domestic violence. Plus, of course, boys who grow up in households tainted by domestic violence will grow up with chances to three and four times higher to become violent themselves. Violence is learned, and it seems like boys are way more apt to learn it then women. Today, men commit 90% of violent crimes.
It seems to me as though men are being brought up anachronistically. They are sold the need to dominate and show authority in a reality that is mainly at peace and widely democratic (of course, there are many exceptions in the non-western world). They are taught to be brave in a very selective way, that is with their bodies and mind when in a physically dangerous situation, but never in syntony with their feelings and quite unadapted to deal with emotional danger. This is also due to the fact that most men buy into the idea that their emotional sphere is overall uncomplicated and straight-forward (if only!). Men seem to be happy only if they can prove their self-worth. The main resource of bliss here being the feeling of superiority when comparing with their ‘peers’.
Masculinity leaks out in different ways but it is a common feat across the spectrum. Like teens who brag about the latest game they have mastered, or about how important their dads are, so adults will drop hints about their excellence, be it in regards to their favourite organic protein bar, their workout routine or record collection. The need to impress is so embedded in masculinity that will exude at some point. All of this speak to a sense of unworthiness which I believe develops because of the way we are taught to think of ourselves. Men need to reconnect with themselves and their vulnerability, and need to learn to reach out because, well, we are conditioned to deal with stress on our own.
To overcome this emotional paralysis, men need companionship more than ever. We must reconnect with our vulnerable selves and with our intimacy. Refusing to analyse emotional states can create unconscious mess deep within our minds, and who better than a partner is able to help us dig deep within these realms? Emotions are not abstract, they are very physical, but they hide to the minds of the hyper-rational men. By re-discovering ourselves, we can rewire the concept of masculinity we have been handed, and perhaps live better, more relaxed lives while a good portion of women take up some of those jobs in the boardrooms and governments.