The problem of masculinity is not with the behaviour itself, but over what society interprets and shapes the term into. A superficial understanding of the term enables the subjugation of men who must adhere to certain behavioural patterns to be deemed “manly”.
The Absurdity of Masculinity
It had been an agreeable wedding, and while I did want to sit and appreciate the beauty of the newlyweds, the hunger pangs from my stomach dictated my exit from the colourful tent. My mind was particularly mesmerised by the faint whiff of the succulent mutton cooked with an army of spices, which drifted lazily through the crisp winter air. As the distance between me and the decked up plates grew shorter, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that my mouth contorted itself into an involuntary smile. It was then when I could realise sniggers and remarks. I had committed the unforgivable mistake of ignoring the unsaid rule of “Ladies first!” which had surprisingly found its way to a remote village in Odisha, to taunt me during the reception I was attending. “He can’t wait for the ladies to serve first?” “He thinks he is a lady?” I ignored the jeers, served myself a plateful, and sat to eat like a king. It was a win for menfolk everywhere, or so I thought!
This isolated incident made me wonder, how much of freedom do men really have today? The world may be patriarchal; our language, our traditions, everything; yet, aren’t men also being subjugated to several expectations and demands? By expecting women to have a “correct” existence, society has also placed several limitations on men. Take for instance the television ad for ‘Wildstone Talc for Men’ where a man is about to apply an unnamed “ladies’ talcum powder”. The voice-over for the ad taunts the man for using a ladies’ talcum powder, saying he is exasperated with the sight of effeminate men everywhere, which apparently is a crisis of epic proportions, and a contributing factor is the usage of women’s beauty products. In conclusion, the voice-over says, “Use Wildstone Talc for Men, Be a Man!”
This sexist ad almost portrays feminine behaviour as a disease: that one could ‘catch it’ and be ruined. It establishes the kind of masculinity our society has traditionally expected from men. However, one must realise that masculinity and femininity are just behavioural patterns, with fluid attachments to one’s gender. Psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud both concluded that the divide between masculinity and femininity is more of a social construct. Male children are taught to be masculine as they grow up. “Don’t cry like a girl!”, “Don’t throw like a girl”, and “Be a man”; reinforcements like these automatically create the pattern for masculinity in young adults, and then the cycle is repeated when these children have kids of their own.
Anything outside the set norm is considered ‘deviant’. Biological males who do not fit the standards set for them are often deemed ‘unmanly’, a term used to justify bullying. A study conducted by Audrey Ruth Omar of the University of Iowa found that men who tend to be masculine, are more accepting of violence, and often bully men who aren’t masculine. This was depicted in the ABC musical comedy-drama series Glee. Finn Hudson (played by the late Cory Monteith) being the quarterback of the football team, is at the top of the high school social hierarchy. He is considered masculine and even participates in bullying others. Later, he himself gets bullied after he joins the Glee club and performs in the choir. His football teammates feel Finn is turning effeminate, now that he sings and dances, and call him ‘gay’.
This fan favourite television show portrayed a fundamental fact, that orientation is unrelated to masculinity or femininity. The fallacy of a correlation is propagated by the society, which leads to shaming and bullying. Men have to be masculine to be accepted and respected by the society. The obsession with masculinity is a leading cause of homophobia. Several studies show that a contributing factor to alcoholism in men is to fulfill certain social expectations of ‘manliness’, with college men being the risk group for this kind of behaviour. In a research conducted by R L Peralta of the University of Akron, it was found that 68% of college going men reported that they equated the ability to consume large amounts of alcohol without vomiting or fainting as a characteristic of masculinity, and the inability to do this was considered as a sign of femininity, weakness, and even homosexuality.
It’s not just alcoholism. Across societies, men engage themselves in several risk behaviours to prove their masculinity. I have several male friends who think eating large quantities of meat while avoiding vegetables is manly. Manly behaviour also includes engaging and boasting about sexual promiscuity, which is deemed synonymous with masculinity. Men are venerated by peers for their sexual conquests and treated like the alpha male. This leaves them susceptible to HIV and STDs. Traditional masculine behaviour encourages violence; from images of Beowulf battling a dragon, and of the ‘knight in shining armour’. Tattoos and piercings are also seen as signs of masculinity.
In popular media, especially in advertisements, the ‘macho man’ stays away from domestic chores at all costs. He is never shown cooking or cleaning but emerges as the one who must be served and respected. Certain colours, professions, expressions and words are off limits for the manly man. Our society adores the masculine man, and men have over the centuries striven to be identified as masculine. I agree that women have suffered more owing to social norms and gender stereotyping; however, it is also necessary to acknowledge that men are definitely not free from this vicious trap they have unwittingly constructed for themselves.
Maybe the first step in doing away with these absurd identities is not obsessing over what she/he should be, but rather appreciating the uniqueness of each individual.