A Manifesto for Radical Masculinity
Remember back in the Spring of 2009 when two young boys committed suicide within a week of each other, both eleven years old? Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Massachusetts and Jaheem Herrera of Georgia were both being subjected to unbearable anti-gay bullying at school. Whether or not these boys were actually gay, using homophobia to police masculinity is practically the oldest trick in the book. In the aftermath of these suicides, and in the discussions that ensued on the Web and in print, there was extensive lip service given to gender and the inevitable complaint that boys have it so hard, that feminism has stripped men of their manliness, that men don't know how to be men anymore, that we've got a Crisis In Masculinity.
That might seem like anti-feminist rhetoric, but I agree with it—at least in part. I agree that masculinity is changing, for some in dramatic, drastic ways. I have witnessed and observed cultural changes around the masculine and male gender roles which are shifting, yes, as a direct result of the recent feminist and other gendered social change movements.
This bipolar—I mean polarized binary—gender systemHow can I be a feminist and be masculine? Does feminism devalue masculinity? Isn't that the same problem as devaluing femininity? And more personally, what does masculinity look like on me? is built for the masculine and feminine to be in sync with each other, built to be in friction, built to be in an elaborate dance of give and take. The ideal of the "American Dream" suburbia that we think of from the 1950s and early 1960s laid out precisely just how the masculine and the feminine are supposed to be dependent upon each other and interact. The problem is, that system is completely prescriptive, with exactly one option for everyone. We are used to hearing the oh-woe-is-my-gender tales from women and the feminist movements in the recent past, but it is rather new to begin to untangle the ways in which this system damages men and prescribes certain traits within masculine expression, too.
I know; my inner feminist starts rolling her eyes. Oh yeah, sure, men have it so hard. Running the world and being 485 of the top 500 CEOs (and hey, that's more than last year! that means women are on the rise! Women are now taking men's jobs!) and never having to worry whether their work shirt is cut too low to be 'appropriate.' I spent too many years examining the plights of women and the plights of queers and the plights of people of color and the plights of all sorts of other socio-economically degraded and marginalized groups—I was raised by feminist parents and majored in Women Studies, after all—it takes some work for me to be convinced that men have the short end of the stick in this system that has set up masculinity to be superior.
But I know there's something wrong with masculinity, and I know it's hard to express one's self as masculine without falling into the many, many harmful trappings of the limitations of a masculine gender, because I'm butch.
I did not grow up that girly, mostly more due to the rural mountainous landscape of my upbringing than a lack of interest. I climbed trees in my dresses, snuck my makeup to high school, studied femininity and feared myself a failure at it. Femininity was never encouraged by my parents—they still have trouble separating gender expression, celebration, or presentation from prescribed gender roles, therefore taking on an attitude that all gender is oppressive. When I came out easily into lesbian communities that value androgyny, it was easy and comfortable to don "fuck your fascist beauty standards" tee shirts and chop off my hair. It is a rite of lesbian passage, you know.
But coming into my own masculinity was harder and took much longer. I wanted to go further than androgyny; I knew I was drawn to and wanted to be butch, but I wasn't sure what that meant. Hell, I'm still not entirely sure what that means (but I do love trying to figure it out).
Not knowing what it meant to "be masculine" held up my adopting a butch identity for many years. As a feminist, as a lesbian, I was constantly asking myself, and my boi-ish friends: what is masculinity, if not misogyny? What is masculinity without misogyny? How can I be a feminist and be masculine? Does feminism devalue masculinity? Isn't that the same problem as devaluing femininity? And more personally, what does masculinity look like on me? I could recognize it on other people, but I couldn't quite figure out how it translated, or how to break it down into its individual components so I could play with presenting it myself.
As I began making a serious study out of learning masculinity, I started seeing more and more parallels in the oppressive gender roles, regardless of where individuals fall in the hierarchy. The prescriptive roles are limiting and restricting, and predetermine too much which I would now separate out and call personality. I don't believe hobbies and interests should ever be determined by your particular gender identity—if you're into fashion or ballet or football or baking or knitting or home repair or cars or video games, why should it matter what your gender is? Your hobbies might interact with your gender—they might tickle your gender in just the right ways, which may or may not align with the prescribed gender role, but they should never restrict or determine what you do or do not like.