Performing Masculinity And The “Act Like A Man” Box

I’ve been researching and writing about masculinity recently (as my current dissertation chapter is on masculinity in fairy tales), and Charlie Glickman’s blogging has been really thought-provoking for me, both intellectually and personally. Starting with his post on the performance of masculinity and proceeding to his post about selectively performing masculinity by choosing attributes from the “act like a man box,” I’ve been thinking about why masculinity has such a pervasive, compelling presence–and what we can do about its negative aspects.

By viewing masculinity as a set of traits contained within the “act like a man box,” Glickman has helped give us a language for discussing men’s behavior that is not, as much feminist language is, either very theoretical and abstract or condemning. And yes, a lot of masculine behavior should be condemned as violent, aggressive, misogynist, homophobic. But only using critical language ends conversations rather than starting them; telling a dude off for being a dude shuts down dialogue, and doesn’t give him a way to constructively participate in the effort to fix what’s wrong with hegemonic masculinity.

I especially like Glickman’s point that “Gender isn’t a spectrum, it’s a buffet. And you can have as much of any of the dishes on it as you like.” In other words, masculinity and femininity aren’t inherently opposed identities, despite the fact that they’re often represented that way. Rather, you can take on masculine traits as well as feminine traits to your heart’s content. The only rules preventing you from doing so are culturally constructed, and if a behavior can be learned, then it can also be unlearned.

I had an experience where I got to “try on” a masculine role for a day, and it was instructive and fun. I was helping a female friend get dressed for a formal event, and as it was raining and her outfit was cumbersome (including high heels), I accompanied her to the event, holding doors open for her, holding an umbrella over her, and generally acting protective and chivalrous. I felt… gallant. It pleased me to help her get to and from the event in a way that let her not worry about the logistics (which, obviously, she was more than capable of doing on her own, but I felt like my presence was a relief for her). Now, I’m a feminist, and I sometimes get irked when guys open doors for me, as though they’re implying that I’m incapable of doing it myself. But “trying on” the chivalrous aspect of masculinity for a day was enjoyable, and it helped me realize that once you un-tether this trait from an idealized and forceful performance of masculinity, it can be a caring way to interact with a person.

What do you think about masculinity, or gender more generally, as a set of traits you can “try on” to see what fits you best?

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.

  • Brooke Johnson

    I view gender and sexuality as arbitrary labels. I don’t think gender exists, other then something which we have been conditioned to participate in, but is increasingly not valid. Looking at the human population, separating human behavior from both sexuality and biology I think we find a very cohesive group. I wouldn’t even call it a spectrum. All humans have the same desires, the same wants, the same needs, the same likes and dislikes. The only way in which we differ are based on completely cosmetic things like clothing or makeup or behaviors and activities which are conditioned. For example in this article you talk about acting as a date for your friend. That is a very conditioned “male” activity, not something males do naturally and most these days don’t do it at all. When you really think about it, there is nothing that is strictly a male or female activity or interest or behavior that is not related to reproduction. 

  • SushiSpook

    I thought “penis-love” in the URL was a nice touch :)

  • Tomio_of_delila

    When dealing with gender issues (as opposed to sex and sexuality), I often
    say, “Masculinity/femininity is a mask that society teaches us to wear and
    punishes us for taking off.” And, as much as I’d like to break free of the false
    dichotomy, there seems to be a lack of vocabulary that would allow it. Even in
    this post, you state that masculinity and femininity are not opposed, but then
    fall into the trap of some traits being masculine and some being feminine. It’s
    damned hard to escape!

    I had the wonderful experience of being the primary caregiver to my twin
    sons for the first three years of their lives. Of all the things I’ve done with
    my life, if I were living my life over, this is one thing I would do again, but
    do more of. I provided for their care in every way for three years, twenty-four
    hours a day, seven days a week, with no time off.

    That way of life, I would protest, is neither feminine (though we usually
    think of women doing it) nor masculine, but simply ADULT. I sacrificed for my
    children, and continue to do so. It is my responsibility to do so because they
    are dependent on me. Providing necessary care for a loved one should not be a
    gendered experience! And as long as we think of it as being gendered, we will
    never liberate men to experience the love and joy they are currently deprived
    of, and women will never experience the freedom of not being expected to be
    “…and mother.”

    I also have to say that I have personally fought with redefining my
    masculinity because I simply do not fit into the box society has been telling me
    for over forty years to fit into. So I decided that I won’t do it, and I don’t
    care if anyone likes it or not. I will be the me I am supposed to be. In some
    ways it makes my life more difficult, in some ways it makes it easier, but in
    all ways it makes life more rewarding and enriching.

    I say, “Let’s upend the buffet table of gender and simply let people live
    an honest and transparent life.”

  • Jevad Jackson

    Yes. Let’s forget masculine and feminine and concentrate on things like respect, honesty, compassion, empathy.
    Does the person (not man or woman) respect others, care for loved ones and others, is helpful, is productive rather than takes, has compassion and empathy for others, doesn’t judge.
    Also, I’m a man, hold doors for woman and get many thank yous. Also hold doors for men, also get thank yous (and sometimes strange looks).  It’s the way I was taught, had nothing to do with being a girl or a boy so please don’t judge me!

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    Certainly, people should be free to pick and choose how they want to define their identities, and yes, I agree, caregiving can be thought of as “adult” or “mature” rather than “feminine.” I admire you for deciding to life your life the way you want to live it!

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    Not my doing, but yes, nice nonetheless. :)

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    I don’t think gender universally exists, or exists apart from us – but its effects can be very real. And I think that gender as a historical category has existed (at least in the West) for long enough that its effects are still felt.

    I agree with you that a lot of the differences between the genders are very superficial, though. Hopefully that makes it easier to unlearn some of the more repressive aspects of gender conditioning.

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    Haha, I like your example. I’ve taken to holding doors for people if I reach the door first, and letting them hold the door for me if they reach the door first. It’s just common courtesy.