Manning up to Masculinity

I have always felt that feminism holds a negative connotation in today’s world. Somehow, someone uttering the words ‘I am a feminist’ is portrayed as a lesbian hippy activist who cultivates a deep hatred for men. However, if you ask any academics specialising in feminism they will all tell you that the concept of feminism is much more complex and encompasses a plethora of issues. The most important point, however, is that feminism is not only about women. Indeed, feminism is really about the study of gender, as well as how femininity and masculinity are socially constructed and what these constructions imply in our modern societies.

Image courtesy of Ron Wiecki, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Ron Wiecki, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Through a purely historical lens, it cannot seriously be argued that women have not been discriminated against on a political, economic, and social level. For instance, it was only in 1944 that women were granted the right to vote in France with the implementation of universal suffrage. By constantly focusing on women, however, we forget that feminism is a holistic theory which studies gender as a whole. What about men? Has someone ever taken a step back and thought about the implications of masculinity as a social and political construction?

When we examine the place of men in our western societies, we can definitely see a discrepancy of responsibility between men and women. It is without a doubt that men have a higher political representation; for example, the United States ranks 91 on the Worldwide ranking of women in legislature according to a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in August 2011 with women only representing 16.9% of US legislature. The first obvious conclusion that people draw from those statistics is that women are discriminated against and should have greater political involvement in the US. Have we ever thought, however, what this dominance in politics implies for men? Indeed, men are considered better rulers than women. In realpolitik, power and rationality are often associated with masculinity, demonstrated by the infamous feminist J. Ann Tickner. Men therefore have an image to uphold in politics to keep up the stereotype of the ‘alpha male’. This implies numerous restrictions. Men are, for instance, not allowed to be emotional, especially as politicians. They have to sustain this composed, unshakable figure to be in concordance with the social construction of masculinity. Is a man that is not a leader considered a man at all?

Societal pressute for men to live up to the alpha male figure is also a type of discrimination. Men who regularly show emotions are seen as effeminate and weak. Since the rise of capitalism, men have also been labelled as the ‘breadwinner’. They are traditionally considered to have the dominant role in the family. Talcott Parsons, a sociologist, for instance talked about masculinity as an institution attached to a specific familial role. This has imposed a cornucopia of stereotypes when it comes to the job market. Why do we see more housewives than stay-at-home dads? Because of the breadwinner stereotype, men are stigmatised if they willingly choose to have their wife as the one sustaining the family financially. Stay-at-home fathers are often compared to ‘women’, as if taking care of the household is not enough to be qualified as a man.

This image of the alpha dominant male has a wider impact when it comes to jobs. It is harder for a man to be a nurse or a secretary. This can easily be explained by the fact that both are jobs that require a superior. This is also the case in more art related domains. A man who wants to become a ballet dancer or a fashion designer will automatically be labelled as ‘gay’. Why does expressing sensibility seem to defeat the image of masculinity?

Related to this is the issue of sexuality with a gay man often associated to femininity more than masculinity. Does homosexuality completely defeat masculinity? Somehow, our society is constructed in a way that the gay community is portrayed as overly effeminate men. This stereotype is simply untrue, however, when you give it some thought. For instance, Neil Patrick Harris, star of the TV show How I Met Your Mother, portrays with excellence a heterosexual ‘player’ despite being gay in real life.

Masculinity is strongly connoted to power and strength. ‘Man up’ is a common expression which expresses the need for someone to toughen up. Why does someone have to be strong and emotionally repressed to be a man? Somehow, our society portrays men as borderline insensitive gym addicts. Jean Bethke Elshtain, ethicist and philosopher, brings out the concept of the ‘Just Warrior’ as the ideal man who protects women and goes to war. Men are therefore seen as protectors. Looking at the simplest things, such as the emergency ‘women and children first’, we can see that men are blatantly considered stronger in society, almost unable to express any emotions.

With the concept of masculine strength also comes violence. When boys are young they are expected to play with toy guns and engage in violent video games. From infancy, this idea of the Just Warrior Alpha male is integrated in to the way we consider gender. This could explain why men are usually seen as more prone to violence than women. However, this is a dangerous stereotype as a man affected by violence would be seen as weak. Professor Sivakumaran points out that the rape of men in conflict is often prominent but neglected by the media. He also points out the shame associated with being raped contradicts the social image of masculinity. This explains why cases of male rape are very rarely reported. The Human Rights Watch, for example, documented several cases of boys and men being raped in Sierra Leone in 2003. The reluctance of young boys to report the crime was said to be because of the stigmatisation of homosexuality in Sierra Leone. The report also mentions two cases of female fighters forcing men to have intercourse at gun point.

Therefore, masculinity is a social construction that is heavily stigmatized by strong gender stereotypes often discriminating against men. A man is seen as a strong figure with high leadership potential which should be held in high regard. Masculinity is deprived of any sensibility or emotions, affecting the perception of men in certain working domains. The literature on the study of men is, however, poor. Women have the focus in feminism, which, while historically understandable, heavily restricts the theory. Gender stigmatisation affects both men and women. We need to deconstruct stereotypes for men and women to define themselves in modern societies without societal pressure affecting them. By deconstructing the idea of the ‘Just Warrior’, we will at the same time remove the concept of the victimised ‘Beautiful Soul’ associated to women, leaving people free of gender pressure that go beyond the simple biological differences.