HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around masculinity in the 21st Century, and the pressures men face around identity. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, from bringing up young boys to the importance of mentors, the challenges between speaking out and 'manning up' as well as a look at male violence, body image, LGBT identity, lad culture, sports, male friendship and mental illness.
It might seem counter-intuitive, impossible even, to separate men and masculinities. Surely if we're talking about male gender then we're talking about masculinities, and if we're talking about masculinities then we're talking about men? But as conversations about masculinities increase in number and depth, both of these ideas need to be challenged.
At a 'think in' for the Southbank Centre's Being a Man Festival that I attended earlier this year, many of the participants told the room what 'being a man' meant for them; "For me, being a man is about being a good friend," I remember one saying. Even though I too want to be a good friend, I was struck by how little I could connect with this idea, or indeed any of the suggestions for what being a man in 21st century Britain involved, and I wasn't the only one. Because while many of the suggestions overturned 'traditional' conceptions of masculinity, they still maintained a link between being identified as male, and what actions and qualities were deemed appropriate. Others in the room tried to explain that, while they identify as male, and would be recognised by others as male, the idea of 'being a man', of conforming to any version of masculinity, was deeply alienating. Looks of bemusement quickly spread across the room. After all, in the words of another contributor, "we all share the same body," which, at least on the most literal level, seemed questionable.
In reality, of course, all human bodies are similar to each other in some ways and different in others. But any conclusions that people draw about how 'we' should behave based on certain physical similarities are never a simple or straightforward reflection of biological reality, but express our social ideas, and relationships of power. In societies where strength is valued over weakness, autonomy over dependence, and reason over emotion, those models of personhood (i.e. those masculinities) that people associate with strength, autonomy and rationality, empower some and disempower others. We need a space for those who identify as male, but for whom 'being a man' is a meaningless slogan. Just re-working the definition of what 'being a man' is to bring it in line with societal changes doesn't go nearly far enough.
Many men reject behaviours typically associated with people who 'share the same body', and many thrive and delight in performing femininity. It's not like all men are, or want to be, masculine, nor is it the case that everything men do is somehow an expression of their masculinity. Also, because men are differentiated by class, race, sexuality, and a host of other factors, models of masculinity will in any case be easier for some to achieve than others. Similarly, many women perform and enjoy masculinities, without them being, or feeling, any less female. As Jack/Judith Halberstam argued nearly twenty years ago in Female Masculinity, we should fight the idea that masculinity is a privilege reserved only for males. Females are very often judged, criticised, and attacked for performing masculinities, but we should respect everyone's right to perform their gender as they see fit, and support their freedom to do so, however unorthodox their gender might be.
Our discussions, our ideas, and our spaces have to be open to the whole range of experiences of gender that people have, and understanding the connection between men and masculinity is an important step in that direction. By thinking about the ways that men and masculinities aren't connected, we open up space to think differently and creatively about men's and women's bodies and lives. Of course the patriarchal society that we live in is saturated with unhealthy ideas about masculinity, and of course men shouldn't have to conform to any particular version of masculinity, but we need to think more radically that that. Men shouldn't have to be masculine at all.
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