Learning to be yourself: why we need to liberate masculinity from its self-inflicted shackles
What does it mean to be a ‘man’? To play sports, drink beer, ‘get laid’, work out, and drive fast cars?
Of course, this is 2017. No one really thinks like this any more. We all know that, by now, we have accepted that masculinity is a nuanced, multifaceted, even elusive, concept that can encompass various ways of living.
Except, the reality is, we haven’t. We may believe that we have evolved from a time when the only ‘real’ man was one who fulfilled the ‘alpha-male hunter-gatherer’ archetype, but the truth is, we still view masculinity in a very one-sided way. And just as feminism has been working for the past one-hundred years to liberate and empower women, it is time for there to be a true liberation of men: one which is fundamentally informed, and a part of, the feminist movement.
What would ‘liberation’ mean, within the context of maleness? There are two pillars which uphold ‘toxic’ masculinity, as it has often been called: the first is the need to assert one’s physical strength at all costs, to the expense one’s own emotional health; the second is the intrinsic hyper-sexualisation men’s identities. Indeed, these two elements are so closely identified with the male being that they are brought together in the word ‘virile’ (stemming from the Latin ‘vir’, meaning ‘man’). Thus, in order for masculinity to be liberated, it is essential that these two foundations are systematically analysed and challenged.
“Man up”, “grow a pair of balls”, “don’t be such a girl” — these are phrases that every single boy, in any continent and in any language, has heard at least once in their lives. While often used in good faith, this kind of language is detrimental to men’s psychological development. First of all, it continues to establish a sexist trope of cisgender male superiority over women. Attaching values such as strength and courage to the male genitalia reinforces the idea that these are intrinsically masculine values, while continuing to entrench the notion that women are the “weaker” sex. This kind of damage not only affects the way men end up relating to women, but most of all ensures that women are still victim to chauvinist patriarchal mores. The second reason is that it permeates the concept that vital human values such as empathy, emotional expression, or sensitivity are somehow perceived as signs of weakness. Guys should never be taught to shy away from crying, communicating their feelings, or being creative beings — and yet, we continue to be told this, even through the smallest of idioms.
From the need to show physical strength, we are brought to that of asserting sexual prowess. Amongst straight men, there is a peer pressure to objectify and sexualise women to prove one’s own masculinity, one which isn’t spoken about enough. I can recount how, throughout all my teenage years, I have witnessed countless conversations where female friends, acquaintances, or celebrities had their bodies figuratively dissected and scrutinised on a basis of attractiveness. Now, sexual objectification is by no means unique to a specific gender — however, within men, it’s the specific pressure to objectify in a way that I fundamentally believe is alien, or at least far less present, within women. If a guy is in a conversation with some friends over the appearance of a girl they know, he would easily be ridiculed or ostracised for making a passing comment along the lines of “you know, I don’t like to talk about women that way” — something I have experienced first-hand whenever I have openly expressed my discomfort and disapproval at certain kinds of discussions. The fact that the current POTUS has openly boasted of being able to attract women through unsolicited advances shows that this kind of sexual objectification is being held at the highest levels of political power.
The sexist concepts of promiscuous women being deemed shameful or condemnable (resulting in a set of insults which we all know) emerge from the notion that ‘ideal’ womanhood is quasi-virginal. For men, it is the opposite. As guys, we are expected to be fundamentally sexual beings, to fulfil the role society has assigned to us from birth. A man who is uninterested in pursuing sexual relationships is perceived as weak, unmanly, abnormal — a ‘loser’. This extends beyond heteronormative male sexuality to that of gay and bisexual men, who themselves are stereotyped as being promiscuous and hyper-sexual.
Ultimately, the problems which are present within the male identity are not comparable to those which women face, in that our issues are self-inflicted and do not cross-over directly into a socio-political sphere. We have not been victims of centuries-old systematic injustice, nor do we have to still fight for equal pay in the workplace. Rather, the kind of oppression that women face derives from the same kind of idealised, artificial masculinity which we impose on ourselves. At its most brutal, when the powers of machismo and hyper-sexuality are combined, we see the creation of a rape culture which gravely damages the relationship between the sexes, and creates a hostile, dangerous environment for women to live in. In order to combat all of this from within, we can see why feminism is essential to the liberation of men — it is only when we realise that women are fully equal to ourselves that we accept that manhood is not some competition to assert one’s physical and sexual superiority.
So what does a liberated man look like? To me, it’s someone who can do and be whoever it is they want without having to ask themselves if they’re “masculine enough”. A liberated masculinity is one which facilitates men to be their true selves without doubting their value as human beings. This isn’t to say that men can’t be interested in traditionally ‘male’ hobbies — rather, they shouldn’t use these as exercises to prove their self-worth. Exercises which, as we know, have been central to the oppression of women, and ultimately, of men as well.