Walk Like a Man

Femininity in men


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Would you be the same person if you were a different gender?


  • Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities by Ken Corbett. 288 pages. Yale University Press. $26.
  • The Metaphysics of Gender by Charlotte Witt. 168 pages. Oxford University Press. $24.95.
  • Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. 232 pages. AK Press. $17.95.

This question opens Charlotte Witt’s The Metaphysics of Gender. Witt reports that when she asks this to the people around her — her colleagues, her family, her students — she gets mixed responses. She doesn’t get too specific about who says yes and who says no, but I wonder if it breaks up along boy/girl lines. How many of the men she encounters say yes, they would be the exact same person, essentially, had they been born female. I’d guess that few did.

After a couple hundred years of questioning, protesting, philosophizing, and dissecting, femininity has become fluid. For all the scare articles about the pressure on little girls to be Disney Princesses™, from girlhood to womanhood, females have a lot of options for gender expression. For the most part, women can stand wherever they want on the masculine/feminine spectrum and it’s not shocking. We stopped freaking out about the “Oh my god, women want to wear pants!” thing a really long time ago. Women wandered into the traditionally masculine realms of self-expression and ambition and now it’s just normal.

Not so with masculinity. It is still as rigid and well defended as ever, despite a few David Bowies or Johnny Depps in the mix. Just look at last year’s total freaking meltdown about a J. Crew catalog that carried a photo of a woman painting her young son’s toenails. Just look at the way the more delicate boys of the world are bullied by their classmates and accused of being gay. Just look at the gender imbalance in the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder in children, with gender disordered pre-pubescent boys outnumbering girls at a rate of up to 30 to 1. When a girl is boyish, or even claims she’d rather be a boy, it’s cute. She’s a tomboy. When a boy is girlish, wanting to wear dresses or try on some makeup, it’s a mental disorder and needs an immediate medical intervention.

It’s bad form in the academic philosophy and women studies’ world that Witt inhabits to believe there is something essential that gender provides, that your identity is formed by it. But I wonder how many men actually believe they would be the same person if female instead of male. How many men have thought about some sort of feminine identity.

There are GID boys aplenty in Ken Corbett’s Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities. Corbett is an analyst specializing in the condition, and he has to assure a lot of parents that their sons are not doomed. That the bracelets or the pink clothing or playing dolls with girls rather than wrestling with other boys is not a sign that he’ll turn into some sort of tragic transsexual like the kind on the cop shows, hustling on the streets and then murdered and left in a dumpster.

“Traditionally,” Corbett writes, “boys and masculinity have been characterized by aggression, muscularity, exhibitionism, dominance, and phallic preoccupation. This view of boys is something of a normative mainstay. It is what we expect of them: ‘Boys will be boys.’ … Modern efforts, my own included have mostly been directed at understanding phallic narcissism as a symptom, a defense, or a manifestation of character pathology.”

In other words, not only can young boys survive experimenting a little with their psyches intact, but perhaps the behavior we expect from boys, the dick-swinging machoness of it all, is actually a sign that’s something wrong.

The parents become tragic figures, huddled on Corbett’s couch. They love their sons, but they can’t help thinking there is something terribly wrong with them. They find them embarrassing, really, when they are out in public and a stranger tries to let the boy know that, gender-wise, he’s out of line: “No, that toy is for girls.” One boy’s mother feels obligated to push back: “It’s a toy, a toy, not a gender,” and later tells Corbett, “I’m giving this woman a lecture in gender theory. Not good.” The parents feel fiercely defensive of their sons, but without really understanding why they are this way. The same mother, a women’s studies academic, chafes at her son’s “parodic femininity,” with his focus on pink and princesses. Another father mourns the fact that he did not get a son, he got someone in between that he cannot connect with. He wants to take the boy fishing, but the boy wants to “princess dance.”

The parents seem like they would prefer the defense, the phallic narcissism, the overly aggressive, fights, troublemakers, because that at least would be recognizable. If the parents have anxieties that their sons are gay, they don’t voice them, or at least Corbett wisely omits them. Because that is just another layer of assumption, that the feminine boy is gay, that he has to be gay, because then we would once again be in the realm of the understandable.

This has happened repeatedly: I will be at a party, introducing my new beau to friends for the first time. Someone will pull me aside: “Honey, I hate to break it to you, but that guy is gay.” All my life I’ve been attracted to men who creep a little further down to my side of the gender spectrum than most. Or, let’s face it, men who meet me somewhere in the middle, as I’m not off in the far reaches of femininity myself. Men who are a little more fluid. And so this scene has played out a few times in my life.

“No, he’s not,” I say. Now, anything I offer as proof will only solidify their assessment. Such as, “But I am having the best sex of my life.”

“Well, yes, he’s probably good technically,” a friend will say. “He probably had to learn to be to disguise the fact that he wasn’t into it.”

There’s no winning this argument. Because the only acceptable deviation from traditional masculinity is queerness; anyone deviating must be queer. Even if they don’t know it. Suddenly what was good in my life is pathologized. Suddenly there is something wrong with him (secretly gay), and there’s something wrong with me (only attracted to men who are secretly gay). This isn’t about style, about guyliner or wearing a boldly pink tie. It’s about something essential in who they grew up to be, something in their nature that my friends — smart, bright, ambitious, dare I say masculinized women all of them — are reading as less than.

I’ve been reading books about masculinity, the authors trying to challenge what we think of as normal. Boyhoods, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, and Mark Simpson’s Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity. All three writers are queer. When I tried to find a book that challenged society’s ideas of masculinity that was written by a straight man, all I could find was a book defending men’s needs to cheat on their wives.

I did find a used copy of a book called Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men, which did not meet my expectation, didn’t so much challenge traditional forms of masculinity as psychoanalyze some problems men might have with women. But I kept reading it anyway, because the person who had it before me did some heartbreaking underlining. Next to the underlined passage “Out of their rage they wound others, and out of their sorrow and shame they grow more and more distant from each other,” there are two exclamation marks. Next to “A man’s experience of the primal relationship may have been so painful that he expects all relationships can only be painful. Thus his life is a dreary cycle of fearing domination by others and seeking to exploit them instead,” there is a star. “Many men are full of rage against women, and often they act it out” is underlined twice.

I wonder about the man who read this book before me. I wonder what he got out of being told, “Men’s lives are as much governed by restrictive role expectations as are the lives of women.” I wonder what he then did with that information. Because it seems like the kind of book that would be read by one of the men in the 1994 essay collection Male Impersonators. In it, Simpson sits down at one point with Alan, a man who appears in a documentary from the ’90s called Sex Hunters. He’s one of a group of young men profiled in the film who decided to spend their summers living together in a sort of boy commune. They live in a caravan, drinking and carrying on, and they have a contest for who can sleep with the most women. Each sex act is one point.

Under Saturn’s Shadow is saying something true about the expectations put on men. But the previous owner did a lot of underlining about the betrayals of mothers and the absences of fathers, and not a whole lot in the sections where the author advises men to commune with their inner femininity and give it expression. Alan, in the documentary, complains about the duties of masculinity — the providing, the sacrifice, the achieving, the marriage and fathering of children. He has decided life should be more fun, that men should have other options. If you start spending some time on the websites of men’s advocacy groups, things can quickly turn anti-women, with men calling their ex-wives bitches, railing against women’s cold hearted natures, ranting about how “the system” is stacked against them and in favor of women. Simpson says to Alan, “Many all-male communities that get together and talk about common interests, activities — whether that’s fucking or surfing — is based on a kind of exaltation, a kind of worship, of the masculine and a denigration of the feminine, whether that’s the feminine embodied in women, or whether that’s the feminine embodied in so-called ‘effeminate’ men, men who, either in terms of where they put their dicks or how they dress or cut their hair, don’t conform to that masculine ideal.”

Bernstein, writing in Faggots, also finds that attitude in an unlikely place: the gay community. Where once there was a flourishing of gender expressions, she now sees all roles reduced down to one, as found repeatedly in “men looking for men” personal ads: “Masc only, no femmes or fatties. Straight acting, straight appearing.” Even this all-male community has started to denigrate the feminine, clearing out the ranks in fits of self-loathing. Even Simpson, back in 1994, was surprised by the straightness of so much of gay porn, the “straight acting, straight appearing” actors, the protagonist who only fucks and never gets fucked. In the pursuit of — what? assimilation? acceptance? normalization? — the challenges that queer theory made to the accepted notions of masculinity have been discarded to adapt to those same notions. Those girly expressions, the ones that got you bullied, shouted down, taken off to the therapist’s office, are perhaps better off discarded all together.

I have been thinking about that opening question for weeks — would I be the same person if I had been born male? — and can’t even really imagine it. It’s not just the male body, a body that, while I enjoy my proximity to one, I don’t really understand. It’s the impossible pressure to conform. It seems to me, from afar, that men must choose a subculture and mold themselves accordingly. They are not encouraged to drift between as women are. I’ve read enough gender theory to be able to parrot simple reductions like “femininity is a performance” whenever appropriate. But masculinity is a performance, too, and it seems like a much less fun performance.

When I was a teenager, I tried to find a place for my boyish femininity in the world of the marginalized: geek culture. But after years of science fiction conventions and consuming the comics and novels and films, I realized it was a world of the most regressed ideas of what a man was, and what a woman was. All of those beefed up guys in latex and rubber, saving the world and the damsel (also usually wearing latex). And now, watching it from a distance, now that it isn’t so much a subculture as pop culture itself, it seems inevitable. All of those delicate boys reading comics, being pummeled for being weak and girly, being disapproved of by parents, would of course project that weakness, that femininity, onto the page in the form of these tortured, raped, murdered, damsels in distress, to be rescued again and again by ridiculously exaggerated performances of masculinity. I was allowed, through sci-fi and other expressions, to drift between subcultures. But had I been born male, it just looks so easy in today’s culture to get twisted if you feel the burden of the performance.

Masculinity is in desperate need of airing out, but so far it only seems to be becoming more deeply entrenched. With all the news reports of masculinity’s decline — the high unemployment rates, society’s decreased need for the traditional male roles, the increasing achievements of women — it seems to have resulted only in more self-policing, more hysterical protectionism, and more fear and anger toward women.

Corbett writes, “At stake here is nothing less than how we measure the well-being of our fellow citizens, and how much that wellness hinges on genders that coincide with normative expectation. Perhaps norms are not all they are cracked up to be?” Normative masculinity has for so long been the default, and whether or not it was serving men or women had nothing to do with it. It was normal, so we kept it up. Defaults are so very rarely questioned until there is a crisis.

Well, I don’t know what your definition of a crisis is, but it seems to me like maybe we’re having one. Women can tell men that norms are not all they are cracked up to be. And that women are not the only victims of the patriarchy. • 16 May 2012