After the first interviews with men, I realized that for them, masculinity is something you do, not something you talk about. Although most eventually agreed to answer my questions honestly, many spoke out loud for the first time. For years, they lived masculinity, but to talk about it? It almost never happened to them. I noticed that they often lowered their voices and looked around as if to make sure everything was safe. Although I don’t have any personal experience to prove it, I imagine talking to a man about masculinity is a bit like a bank robbery. The prospect of loot can be exciting, but the whole process is way too nervous.
However, I knew that it’s harder for a man to talk about his feelings with another man (research shows that men choose therapists slightly more than therapists), so I wanted to see if they would confide their thoughts to someone who doesn’t. belong to their club: a woman. Two, to be exact. So, on a hot Sunday afternoon, I did my own social experiment in Washington Square Park. I arrived armed with a table and a sign that read “A Woman’s Free Advice for Men”. I brought with me a dear friend and well-known trade union specialist, Esther Perel, ready to provide useful free consultations that would otherwise have to be paid for dearly. For three hours there was not a moment when someone did not come to the table to seek answers to various questions.
As I suspected, most were about women. A man pointed to our partner who was standing nearby and whispered, “How do I make her happy?” Many of our guests have wondered how to “impress” a woman (a word of advice from Esther: if that’s all you want to say, you’re more of a “look at me” than a “see you soon” type). Others have asked why men so often try to strike different poses. Someone wanted to know how white heterosexuals should speak out about their dilemmas without sounding like they are taking the voice of marginalized and silenced groups. Interestingly, however, Esther and I later discovered that very few gentlemen actually asked the questions. Most of them went to the table and waited for us to ask them. It’s like they’re not used to admitting they don’t know something. But once they started talking, they didn’t stop. It wasn’t until we started instructing them that we discovered how much they missed it. That’s when I remembered the movie Fight Club: I realized that the first rule of masculinity is not to talk about it.
Once I was able to get something out of it, I kept hearing the same answers.
First, almost all of them, despite their adulthood, feel that they are not yet fully masculine – although they are, undeniably and in every way. For them, masculinity was not so much an identity as a task to be accomplished or a reward for getting out of a terribly difficult situation. My interlocutors felt constant pressure to confirm this with action at every stage. You have to work to be a man. But curiously, while all of them, consciously or unconsciously, used tactics to achieve the ideal of masculinity, none of them felt like “real men”. And this does not only apply to my interlocutors. Sociologists have coined the concept of so-called precarious masculinity. This theory boils down to the feeling that masculinity must be proven forever, while femininity is more static, permanent. Women are more often allowed to deviate from traditional norms – men have less leeway. Women can wear pants, have male names like Charlie or Riley; they can even wear a tie or a tuxedo to the wedding. As long as they stick to the basics of what is traditionally feminine, they are allowed to adopt certain masculine traits, which is seen as bold, sexy – sometimes it even adds prestige to them. Of course, this does not apply to all women equally, but more on that later.
Masculinity has much more rigid boundaries and requires constant control. Consider the term “real man”. A “real man” does not cry. A “real man” does not wear makeup. A “real man” does not wear skirts. There are no similar phrases that apply to women. Even if someone squeezes a hundred and thirty pounds in the gym, or bites into a piece of jerky held in one hand, and the other fights a hungry bear, their masculinity can be questioned when ordering a drink with a cherry in a tall glass during happy hour. Gender may be a social construct for women and men, but femininity is not lost through social behavior. Its gain or loss mainly occurs through normal changes in the body, such as puberty and menopause.
There are no steps to restore femininity because femininity is not something that has to be earned. For men, the opposite is true. Masculinity is acquired through ritualized and often public social behavior. It’s a fairly consistent rule, regardless of time, culture or place in the world. For example, in the Russian lands, during the Bronze Age, a boy had to kill an animal, often his own dog, to become a man. Boys from the Karo tribe of Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia still jump naked over a bull. In Papua New Guinea, Sambia boys are taken from their mothers and subjected to a series of rituals, such as stuffing sharp blades of grass into their noses until blood flows.
As Esther Perel said during our experience: “We are born women, we must become men. – We do not have equivalents to the expressions “deprive of eggs” or “chicken” which would apply to women. In all societies, the level of masculinity depends on the abandonment of feminine qualities.
The excerpt above is from the book Alpha Male Must Go by Liz Plank.
How do women and men understand “masculinity”?
Rebellion against the patriarchy. What is compulsory heterosexuality?