Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Defining Masculinity and Femininity

The post below on our dear deranged friend Doug Giles got me thinking about the way we define masculinity and femininity. These are not symmetrical concepts. Femininity is something women have almost by default, by the lack of testicles and penis apparent from birth. There is no struggle for most girls to "win" femininity, and although women who are viewed as very masculine may suffer from ridicule and may even face societal discrimination, mostly being a woman is no big deal in the sense of a quality that needs to be maintained. You are what you are sort of thing.

I'm not saying that there aren't gradations of femininity, but I very much doubt that the average woman worries about her feminine quotient. My theory is that this is because being a woman is not that great a thing in most places on this earth, and in general we don't struggle to gain the bottom of the ladder. If anything, we might even encourage girls who are seen as "tomboys", at least in the West, because they imitate those with more power.

It's with some hesitancy that I wrote the previous paragraph, because things aren't quite that straightforward and exceptions can always be found. But mostly the real struggles in these societal definitions are about how to define masculinity. Just think of what happens to boys who want to wear a dress in this country, or what happens to boys who want to play with dolls. Tomboys are not ostracized the way "sissy-boys" are, and the reason is that being a woman is less desirable than being a man, as a cultural value, and therefore a boy acting like a girl is bringing down shame on his whole family. A tomboy in a traditional society may be viewed at most with some pity as the adults know that she can't go on being a tomboy for ever. Reality will take her by the neck at puberty and might put her into a burqa or a training bra, and very few tomboys survive this stage. In other words, femininity is the default setting.

That may be why masculinity appears so brittle, so vulnerable to attacks from feminists, so hard to earn. It's not something you just have, not for wingnuts, at least. It's something that must be defined, over and over again, and it's something that must be rehearsed and defended. Because it's a step up? Because it really is this fragile? Or because masculinity is really the absence of femininity, and the horrible pink goo keeps sucking boys down the ladder?

One of the trickiest aspects of the wingnutty flavor of masculinity, the one that I most often read about, is that it's defined as a relationship to animals, the nature and women and even children. It's not a quality of the person, and therefore all those other actors seem to have the power to demolish masculinity by just refusing to act in the way the relationship-based masculinity requires.

Think about it a little. People like Giles define manliness by things that men do to others. A man is someone who leads, he tells us. But for anyone to lead, others must follow, and if all men are to be leaders the only ones who can be followers are women. So this definition of masculinity also defines femininity: women are the ones who obey. Or consider the idea that a man is the one who protects. Once again, for the definition to really work women must remain unable to defend themselves.

We are in a push-me-pull-you jam here. Any definition of masculinity, this important, powerful and oh-so-fragile concept, also defines femininity as the absence of masculinity. And from this follows all that patriarchal shit and women's oppression. An awful bind, isn't it? What looks like equality of the sexes to me looks like a total destruction of manliness to someone like Doug Giles. His well-being demands my suffering.

The solution is fairly obvious: Define masculinity in a way which doesn't tie it to the absence of all that yucky girl stuff. Accept that men and women are not the exact opposites of each other but more like two slightly different models of a car. Learn to find your self-esteem in something more realistic than in what is between your legs. Then discussions of masculinity and femininity could actually be interesting.