Being Manly

Whenever I need a break from whatever studying or grading I happen to be doing, I often go on little adventures around the internet. I type a random word into the Googles and then click on one of the resultant links at random; I then randomly click on links found on those pages, thus winding my way through blogs, tumblrs, forums, and other strange and wondrous environments in the digital frontier. And just as all roads in the ancient world lead to Rome*, all digital roads eventually lead to Reddit.

Reddit is a strange place. It’s like every clichéd bazaar in every orientalist (of the Said variety) movie ever made; anything and everything can be found there, from pics of kitties, to pics of corpses, to pedophile-apologism and the ever-so-edgy racist jokes. There are also a few of the smaller subreddits where interesting questions are asked by genuinely curious people. The other day, someone asked the following: “Is there a problem with me, as a man, liking to do manly things?” The questioner was trying to reconcile what seemed to be genuinely feminist beliefs, with his predilection for doing ‘manly’ things. Rather quickly, someone answered his question in a way that I found myself in solid agreement with: the problem doesn’t lie in doing manly things; the problem lies in thinking those activities are ‘manly’ in the first place.

One of the ways that society ensures that ‘acceptable’ gender roles are maintained is by firmly – and often invisibly – policing gendered divisions of labour. Consider farming; the typical image of the modern farmer seen in advertisements for everything from cranberries to eggs to cereal is that of the white, tough, frontiersman (and sometimes his quiet and supportive wife and family) who provides for his family by the sweat of his brow and the skill of his hands. Farming = manly.

The same sorts of divisions are present in other, primarily blue-collar fields, such as manufacturing; factory workers are most commonly depicted as being male, as are miners, heavy equipment operators, and other tradespeople. There is a reason for this that has little to do with the worn-out ‘bu… But… women are unsuited for such work, because biology’ argument, and a lot to do with social expectations in labour. Men are supposed to be the outdoorsmen, the builders, the factory workers, the tillers of soil; women are supposed to be data-entry workers, secretaries, or housewives; they are supposed to work in the front office, away from the scary, loud machines.  But, as I’m sure many of you already know, there’s nothing biological about any of this. Women have always been capable of doing the same jobs as men do; and how do we know this? Because history tells us so. History gives us innumerable examples of women who farmed (and who still do today), women who worked in the mines, and women who built the tanks and pressed the ammunition that won the Second World War for the allies. We know that women can be warriors, because women have been warriors; and because of all of this, we know that there is nothing intrinsically ‘manly’ about ‘manly’ things.

What there are, however, are a myriad different social cues that hint – both subtly and blatantly – to men and women what their ‘natural’ roles should be in society. These are normative cues; they exist to convince us of what we ought to do, how we ought to live, and what forms of labour we ought to think are acceptable for our gender. And so many of these signals are contradictory; is kitchen work ‘manly’ or is it ‘woman’s work’, and if it is ‘woman’s work’, then why are industrial kitchens almost always male-dominated? If women ‘lack’ the ability to do the work required of coal miners, then how is it that so many women worked in the brutal conditions of Industrial Revolution-era coal pits?

What I am getting at, in a roundabout way, is that gendered divisions of labour are hardly ‘natural’ or derived from biology; there is nothing intrinsically ‘manly’ about the sorts of work that is most commonly associated with male labour today. Like so many other aspects of social life, the sorts of labour that are considered ‘manly’ become that way because society (through any number of different social institutions) concludes that engaging in certain forms of labour are part of the project of becoming men. If I wished to be a ‘manly’ man – the kind of man often associated with the dominant, hegemonic forms of masculinity – I’d be engaged in tough, demanding, physical labour, or I’d be involved in tough, ‘practical’, technical trades like engineering, mechanics, etc. As Kris Paap points out in her book, “Working Construction”, the sorts of activities and rituals engaged in by men who work in dangerous, traditionally masculine trades often have little to do with improving the quality of their work, and a great deal to do with reinforcing established gender norms. Men are not simply engaging in labour, they are engaging in a project of building men.

As I’m sure many of you have noticed by now, this discussion has pivoted around the notion that gender is a binary, that to be a man is to not be a woman. This is because for vast swaths of society, the gender binary is all that there is. Of course we know that such binaries aren’t really very accurate, and there are literally millions of people in society whose lives reveal the hollowness of gender dimorphism, but as is the case with so many of our social institutions, even socially constructed and maintained fantasies have very real effects. To be ‘manly’ in North American society (and Canadian society more specifically) often entails subordinating other forms of masculine identity (such as gay or PoC masculinities), to say nothing of how such hegemonic forms of masculinity demand the subordination of virtually all expressions of femininity. What’s more, the most commonly understood patterns of manliness are actively hostile to trans* persons, whose very existence strikes at the heart of contemporary hegemonic masculinity; how can one ‘truly’ be a man without the ‘correct’ genitals and, even more terrifying, how can a ‘real man’ know that they are dating a ‘real woman’ and not some kind of ‘imposter’? How can ‘real men’ recognize other ‘real men’ with all of this deviant gender-bending taking place all around them? What’s a ‘manly man’ to do?

My final point is simply this: the project of becoming men is unending, and it is as subject to social pressure as any other social institution. Over time, what is considered ‘manly’ will change; what it changes into, well, that’s up to us.

[QUICK EDIT] I should probably also make the point that in a perfect world, actions, activities, emotions etc. wouldn’t be gendered at all; in a perfect world, concepts like ‘manly’, ‘feminine’, etc. would be considered anachronisms best left behind. Despite my generally optimistic worldview however, I remain rather cynical about the likelihood of us ever reaching that particular goal, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive.

* Yes I know, they really didn’t, but I didn’t make the expression.

Movie Friday: Optimism

During the panel on social justice last weekend at Eschaton, someone asked us if we were optimistic or pessimistic about the future – whether we saw the world getting better, or if it was in fact getting worse. It’s a complicated question, because we are now more aware of what is going on in the world than ever before. Stephen Pinker’s book suggests that there is less violence today than at any point in our measurable history, so that’s something to be glad about I guess. My answer was pretty equivocal: we are still struggling with the same challenges we always have; we just find different words and technologies in which to contextualize them. Unless we radically change the foundational assumptions of our civilization, we’re going to keep having the same problems forever.

But seeing as how depressing that answer is, I decided to point to some things that made me happy, one of which was the subject of a post here on the blog - a story that reminds us that human beings are capable of finding solutions to completely novel problems if given the time and the opportunity. Here’s another such story:

This kid is undeniably a genius. Imagine what it would have been like if he had been born under the circumstances that, say, I was. Ready access to both the raw materials needed to learn, but an environment that encouraged him to learn and experiment and explore. As it is, there may be thousands of Kelvins all across the African continent who, for reasons having nothing to do with their intelligence, are languishing in poverty and desperation. We are doing ourselves a disservice as a species by not providing the opportunities for all human beings to realize their potential, regardless of their wealth.

Which is why this story makes me a little optimistic. As our borders become more permeable, and as globalization forces an increasing awareness of parts of the world that were formerly completely ignorable, it is possible that we will see stories like this become increasingly common. The way to get there is to begin listening to the stories that we previously did not have access to, and to be willing to expand our notion of “us” wide enough that we can provide opportunities for personal growth and development to people who may not share our geography or ethnicity, but who embody our aspirations for a better world. Not necessarily just for their sakes, but for ours as a species as well.

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More than time needed to heal some wounds

Earlier this week, fellow FTBorg Ashley Miller told a heart-wrenching story of being disowned by her father:

He was with me for Thanksgiving, to meet my mom and stepdad and brother and rest of my family.  Except my dad.  My mother, who is much wiser than me and deserves full credit for being right, told me not to tell my dad until she could grease the wheels, but I, who wanted to make the boyfriend part of my family, foolishly overreached and talked to my father thinking that she was underestimating his fundamental human decency.

And now my father has just disowned me.

I suppose I am thankful that he waited until the day after Thanksgiving to do it.  Not that he told me, he made my stepmother his proxy as he was too angry to speak to me directly.  I have been disowned for loving someone my father does not approve of.

If you haven’t read it yet, you should. Maybe locate some tissues first.

Many people in the comments and on Twitter expressed dismayed shock that such disowning could happen in this day and age. After all, Ashley’s dad’s justification for refusing to talk to or interact with his daughter is that she’s dating a guy… who is black. How could such a thing be possible in 2012? Surely we are a more enlightened society and culture now than we were in the distant mists of our shameful history, aren’t we? After all, racism was so… yesterday. We’ve moved on, into this “post-racial” utopia we’ve been hearing so much about, where people are “colour blind” and racism just isn’t a serious problem anymore. [Read more...]

God, Jesus, Dad, and Me (part II)

I was asked to contribute my ‘deconversion’ story to a book project about black non-belief. Since it’s (in my opinion) a pretty solid piece of writing, I thought I’d add it here. You can compare it to a previous occasion when I wrote this story, albeit in less detail. Read part I here.

I had been enamoured of Greek mythology as a kid. Dad used to read an adapted version of The Iliad called “Black Ships Before Troy” (a book that I am pleasantly surprised to learn that has survived several moves and sits on my bookshelf as I write this). I devoured the stories of Theseus and the Minotaur, Apollo, god of the sun, and his fiery chariot, the several trials of Hercules, and the punishment of the titan Prometheus, cursed to eternal suffering for having the temerity to bring the fire of the gods to lowly humans. I read mythology from the West Indies as well – Anansi the trickster, and Tiger, king of the jungle. I read mythology from various First Nations within Canada; I read African creation mythology.

And so, when I opened my Bible and read the stories of Cain and Abel, the Exodus from Egypt, the punishment of Onan for failing to impregnate his dead brother’s wife, the flight of Lot from the damned city of Sodom, I found myself disturbingly confronted by the familiar syntax of myth. These were no lessons handed down from an almighty god; they were the oral histories of a group of nomadic tribesmen. It was myth mixed in with parable mixed in with law mixed in with fable. The similarities forbade me from seeing it as holy writ. [Read more...]

HIV/AIDS & Stigma (Canadian Edition Lite)

A post by Jamie

This past Saturday was World AIDS Day. If you didn’t know, that’s OK. Now you do. As I was walking up to the site of an anti-abortion hate group demonstration to go picket them, a group of people in my city were giving out free hugs to anyone who wanted one, and passing out red ribbons to spread a message of compassion for everyone who is presently living with or at risk of HIV/AIDS. And while prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS and raising awareness to reduce stigma faced by people living with HIV/AIDS are both really important sides of the conversation, there’s another side to it that often gets overlooked or completely ignored: institutionalized HIV/AIDS discrimination. For the purposes of relative brevity only, I am limiting the content of this post to HIV/AIDS discrimination in Canada, and will not be addressing the racial component (i.e., which racial groups are at highest risk). It should go without saying that this is already a loaded topic. I’m going to warm this post up by providing you readers with a video link for the trailer of a powerful documentary about the life-long effects of discriminatory North American laws (specifically in the U.S.) on HIV-positive people, before I break down some basic terminology:

HIV Is Not A Crime – A 2011 Documentary by Sean Strub

[Read more...]

God, Jesus, Dad, and Me

I was asked to contribute my ‘deconversion’ story to a book project about black non-belief. Since it’s (in my opinion) a pretty solid piece of writing, I thought I’d add it here. You can compare it to a previous occasion when I wrote this story, albeit in less detail.

I can’t tell the story of my ‘deconversion’ – my escape from faith – without telling the story of my father. Dad was born the youngest of seven in Guyana, a country geographically located in South America, politically located in the Caribbean, and geopolitically located in the third world. A British colony, Guyana was home to a simmering political dissatisfaction (which would be resolved during Dad’s adolescence with independence), ever-present racism, and serious poverty.

Dad, taking one of the few opportunities available to a bright young man, entered the Catholic priesthood. He was educated at the seminary, growing up with other priests in training. Dad also grew during this time as a musician and photographer. His missionary work took him all over the Caribbean, and eventually to Toronto, Canada as part of a foreign mission organized out of Scarborough.

Facing his own doubts, particularly around the church’s teachings on birth control (he would tell me, many years after I was born, that he felt as though he was contributing to the suffering of people he was supposed to help), Dad left the priesthood in the late ‘70s. It was also around that time that he met my mother, although he has repeatedly assured me that those two developments were not related in any way. [Read more...]

PPP looks about to snap

Imagine you had to talk to Republicans. Every day. And pretend they weren’t idiots. How long do you think you’d last before you just snapped?

Public Policy Polling looks like its patience is wearing thin:

49% of GOP voters nationally say they think that ACORN stole the election for President Obama. Wefound that 52% of Republicans thought that ACORN stole the 2008 election for Obama, so this is a modest decline, but perhaps smaller than might have been expected given that ACORN doesn’t exist anymore [emphasis mine].

An animated .gif of an elephant calf getting booted

Give in to your anger, PPP. Come join us on the snark side.

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Hilarious parody site skewers Catholic sainthood

I am not sure why, I assume it has something to do with the fact that my name and e-mail is out there and searchable, but I regularly get spam e-mail from people hawking a book or offering me an “exclusive chance” to interview someone I’ve never heard of for my blog. Usually I reply with a simple “please remove me from your e-mail list”, but they continue to pour in unabated. Because I occasionally talk about religion, I often get this unsolicited spam from people hawking religious books on behalf of their clients – a feat of irony that tells me they don’t bother to read the blogs before they start pimping to them.

The joys of internet notoriety, folks.

Most of the time I delete them without reading, but yesterday I received an e-mail that, to the untrained eye looked like the same kind of spam, but was, upon closer inspection, actually an extremely clever bit of anti-Catholic parody: [Read more...]

Say hello to the new neighbours!

Those of you who browse the front page may have noticed that it has grown by one name. What you maybe didn’t know is that it actually grew by two names. That’s right, folks, we’ve got some brand spankin’ new FTBloggers!

First up, Miriam Mogilevsky of Brute Reason:

Miriam is a progressive feminist atheist currently attending a Large Midwestern University and studying psychology. After that, she hopes to get a degree in social work and pursue a career that combines activism with counseling. When not doing school things, Miriam spends her time reading and writing about social justice, mental health, sexuality, and politics. Occasionally she also interacts with people and sleeps. A few of her other interests include Russian literature, photography, and Cheez-its. In addition, she enjoys asking people about their feelings.

We also have Near Earth Object, a blog by Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo is a writer, actor, musician, and professional skepto-atheist. As communications director for the Center for Inquiry (which totally does not endorse anything on this site), he writes the daily blog series The Morning Heresy, and is also a contributor to Friendly Atheist. He holds a master’s degree in political management from George Washington University, and his original music can be enjoyed here. He lives in Maine with his wife Jessica and children Toby and Phoebe. You can endure his tweets as @PaulFidago.

Both Miriam and Paul are crazy-talented and friendly individuals, and I am quite psyched about their joining. Go and say hello!

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