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?