Text Rik van Zwet
Illustration Laurie Zantinge
If you’re a man, everybody knows it’s important to look the part, especially in male-dominated spaces or structures. Within the locker room of my team, for example, many guys have commented on the feminine quality of the length of my hair, making it clear in several ways that it would be better cut short. But why do they care about my appearance so much, especially when it doesn’t concern them? I believe that the perceived femininity of my hair makes them uneasy, because it makes them unable to place me inside the masculine framework of the team. Yet as I’m part of the team they can’t label me an outsider or complete freak either. As it stands, I remain a special case.
Why is it so important for men to not look gay or feminine? Why does sexist and homophobic behaviour still seem so commonplace in male dominated spaces? In my experience this has much to do with how masculinity tends to be defined through exclusion over inclusion and how men go about establishing their masculinity.
Joël Edgerton’s film ‘Boy Erased’ is a beautiful demonstration of how western masculinity is built on the exclusion of gay and feminine elements over the inclusion of traditionally masculine aspects. The main character of the movie, Jared, is living the teenage American dream: a wealthy family with a house in the suburbs, a cheerleader girlfriend, athletic achievement as a basketball player for his school team; yet all of this is undone the moment his family discovers his sexual orientation.
Despite the fact that he had barely acted on his sexual orientation, Jared is sent to a modern day gay conversion camp. There, the attendees are taught manliness along rigidly gendered lines. The treatment focuses on asserting masculinity, primarily through excluding and rejecting the gay and feminine. They are taught to repress their feminine and/or gay qualities, like weakness or empathy, to ‘become men’ again. Manliness’s primary trait is illustrated to be its rejection of femininity and gayness. It might be that exact rejection of the feminine and gay, that is the key to understanding manhood.
The true power of the movie lies in the way it exposes the harmful and normalized rules and concepts of masculinity. One of the simplest yet most effective concepts is that of masculine identity as a dual choice. In the movie, the camp opens with a speech that states that being gay is a choice, implying that it is an option you choose for in your actions and behaviour. You can choose one or the other, manliness or gayness. The implicit and normalized idea of masculinity as mutually exclusive with any other form of gendered behaviour is here made explicit. Traditional manhood is irreconcilable with being gay or effeminate.
The reason as to why all of this matters is that in my experience, much of everyday toxic male behaviour stems from this assertive behaviour. I find it hard to believe that men catcall women as a legitimate means of gaining their interest, or that they refer to them as bitches because they believe that it’s a good way of addressing them. They do this to assert their own masculinity and gain social validation of it. By defining the other, it becomes clear they are not one of them and simultaneously places them above it. This power to define what the other (in most cases femininity) is, is something men feel compelled to do because their definition of themselves as men stands in direct relation to it. Defining others becomes a means of defining yourself as a man.
These traits of assertion and exclusion can be traced back to military institutions. Raewyn Connell (2005) states that masculine characteristics unalignable with the hegemonic standard come to be ‘symbolically assimilated to femininity’. Bevan & MacKenzie (2012) build on this argument, stating that military institutions have aligned themselves with hyper-masculine cultures, reliant on hierarchy, superiority and the subversion of the gay and feminine due to the aggressive nature of their undertakings. Over time these processes have not only legitimized but also hegemonized these exclusion based forms of masculinity.
I find it necessary to point out here that men tend to subject each other as much to this process as they do women. By defining the ‘manliness’ of each other they assert their masculinity over them. This process not only creates a social hierarchy within male groups, but also coaxes them into both submitting to the group’s definitions of manliness, as well as empowering them to more assertive behaviour to move up the social ladder.
Within this framework assertive behaviour seems to arise mostly out of personal insecurity. In my case, it was the insecurity of being acknowledged as the man I felt I was. As a kid I was bullied for preferring the company of girls over other boys and choosing to make up stories with my female friend over playing football during breaks. Meanwhile a trans classmate was included in the boy-group because he preferred the company of boys and always played football. I felt like a boy, but it became clear to me that the only way others would ever acknowledge me as one, was by conforming. I learned that being a man meant that you look and act a certain way, and even more importantly: that you did not deviate much from that template. As a result, I forced the same hurtful dichotomy onto others during my teenage years, because it had become the way I made sense of myself in relation to others.
What is to be done? A good start would be to embrace a standard of masculinity that stands on its own and doesn’t need to be defined in relation to an Other. A better step would be to stop defining our identities so much in relation to our gender. At the very least, we need to hold each other accountable for transgressive behaviour and stop using excuses that ‘it is just what men do’. Real men don’t use others to define their manliness. They define themselves on their own merit. But that is only my definition anyway.