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.

Two views of black masculinity

Circumstances have once again robbed me of the time and energy to dig too deep into blogging. Part of this is a massive paper that I have just finished – it looks at whether or not mandatory childhood vaccination is legally, ethically, and scientifically justified in a Canadian context. Part of it is prepping for my Eschaton2012 presentation that I will be giving in Ottawa this weekend. Part of it is prioritizing my personal relationships above blogging, given how much of a time suck these other two things have been. At any rate, no post for you today.

In lieu, I want to highlight two essays on a topic I’ve had some call to think about recently. The first is by Robert Reece, perhaps better known to some of you as PhuzzieSlippers, a former guest on the SERIOUSLY?! podcast*: [Read more...]

Movie Friday: Anthony Griffith

My apologies to those who have missed this series. As much as I’d like to blame it on the fact that I’ve been spending my Thursday evenings with my ladyfriend, she is not to blame for the disruption to my usual writing schedule. I started writing this post literally a month ago, and it sat at 90% completion – I just couldn’t work up the motivation to finish it off. I hope to resume Movie Fridays henceforth and forevermore.

I’d like to think that my suspicion about gender roles started from a very young age. Growing up as I did, spending most of my middle childhood and into adolescence as the child of a single father, I had a good chance to observe up close the abundant reality that men are caring and nurturing. My father was a social worker, meaning that conversations about emotion and the language we use to express it was never hidden from me – I was never exhorted to “be a man” when experiencing sorrow or frustration, I was merely encouraged to talk about it. As a result, the pop culture narratives about men as needing to tough things out or bottle things up never really resonated with me.

Also peculiar to my upbringing was the fact that, for most of my life, I grew up almost entirely surrounded by white people. White folks made up most of my peer groups, my schoolteachers, and the main characters of most of the shows I watched. It has almost always been true that I was more likely to interact with non-black PoCs than I was with fellow black folks, except obviously for family and Caribbean cultural gatherings (and even in the latter case, not always). Similarly, I never really had to grapple with what it meant to “be black”, except insofar as my racial identity was thrust upon me by circumstance. I’ve had few occasions where I felt pressure to “act black” – I just acted like me, and that was my version of black.

However long I have been skeptical of male-typical and afro-typical behaviour memes, I am definitely incredulous when presented with them today. This has made me somewhat insufferable in casual conversation, but I make up for it by having a ready supply of dick jokes. What it also does is make the following story particularly fascinating:   [Read more...]

Newton’s first law of racism

Having studied a tiny bit of mechanics, I find the subject extremely useful in explaining things like privilege, racism, sexism, and many of the other concepts that are the keys to reading this blog. You simply cannot successfully solve problems in mechanics without being able to recognize all the forces at play on an object, whether it be still or in motion. Failure to account for an extant force, or adding a force that does not exist, will result in you reaching an erroneous conclusion about the behaviour of whatever body is under observation.

Similarly, one cannot look at human behaviour or the impact of institutions and systems without taking all the relevant factors into account. When we allow ourselves to succumb to our privilege (or, put another way, when we fail to account for all of the forces acting on us), we draw conclusions that are not based in reality. We make decisions based on those conclusions, and on our predictions of what consequences those decisions will have. Failure to recognize either or own privilege or the prevailing forces of racism, misogyny, cissexism, heterosexism, you name it, will result in the creation of rules and systems that have unintended results.

Sometimes those results are disastrous and tragic: [Read more...]

A legitimate Republican

Trigger warning for rape dismissal, extreme misogyny.

So I’ve been walking around angry for the past couple of days. Undoubtedly you’ve heard the latest pearl of idiocy to drop from a member of God’s Own Party:

“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Mr. Akin said of pregnancies from rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

Republican Congressman Todd Akin has decided to impart his second-hand medical wisdom on the rest of America, and undoubtedly legislate based on it. First of all, no Mr. Akin you absolutely did not get this ‘understanding’ from doctors. Nobody who has had a conversation about reproduction with any medical professional who isn’t deep in the anti-choice* camp could possibly walk away believing that the human body can recognize rape and stop conception from happening. One would think that nobody who has taken a high school sex-ed course could possibly believe this kind of mythology, but since Todd Akin is likely opposed to sex education as well, there is no inconsistency. [Read more...]

Quitting: a reason for optimism

Because I live in the same city as Natalie Reed, I occasionally have the opportunity to bump into her and talk about stuff outside the medium-constrained environs of the internet. Our most recent encounter happened the afternoon before she posted her hard-hitting piece about the casual ease with which cis-privileged assholes can dehumanize a trans person. I suspect it happened after our chat, because she didn’t say anything about it to me. Instead, the subject of our conversation that day was the thesis of the article that would appear the next day:

Let them have The Movement. Let it be a club for entitled little white cis straight dudes to get together and tell each other how fucking smart they all are to know that John Edwards is lying, and there’s no bearded sky daddy doling out favour on the basis of how rarely you eat shellfish or have hot queer sex. Let them go right on thinking of themselves as the few insightful rebels who could see through The Matrix and now fight against the evil machinations of Andrew Schlafy and Jennifer McCreight. Let them live in their mythologies. Let them sink, bit by bit, into self-congratulatory, insulated irrelevance, while the rest of us get on with actually trying to help make the world a bit less of a mess.

Natalie expressed, in her inimitable way, her exasperation over the seeming intractable assholery of the atheist movement and offered some potential explanations for why these problems not only keep resurfacing, but why they may be a feature (rather than a bug) of who the movement is and how we interact. The most compelling hypothesis she offers is that atheism may serve as a civil rights issue for those who otherwise have no fight with which they can identify – middle-class cis white men have finally found something they can get outraged about, and can do so without having to confront any of their own privilege or sloppy thinking when it comes to non-Bigfoot-related subject matter. [Read more...]

I get (ridiculously sexist) e-mail

I have no idea why, but my fears of getting hate mail or death threats simply have not (yet) materialized. Knowing what I know about what happens to those who poke their heads out of anonymity long enough to point out societal racism or the need for anti-racist and feminist dialogue in a community that may not be the most welcoming to that conversation (yet), I expected the worst. What I’ve gotten instead has been nothing short of amazing. The only unprompted blog-related e-mails I get are either a) people asking me for advice on some sticky piece of ambiguity or another; or b) telling me how amazing I am. I am always happy to do what I can for the ‘a)’ people, and the ‘b)’ people consistently knock me on my ass and leave me sputtering to convey adequate thanks.

That being said, I do get a fair amount of spam from people who advertise themselves as ‘publicists’, hawking this book or that one. A lot of them are pr0-religion or talking about some miracle cure for some disease; a very precious few are about interesting and useful scientific studies; most of them, however, are useless and deleted immediately. Despite my repeated attempts to unsubscribe from whatever mailing list I’m on, they flow in at the rate of one or two a day, which I am happy to chalk up as a minor annoyance.

Until today, when I received an e-mail entitled “Fake it Till You Make It” – 10 Fantasy Football Tips Every Girl Should Know ASAP: [Read more...]

Having Gender, or Doing Gender?

I began my stint here at the Manifesto with a post discussing the current state of gender studies with regards to men and masculinities. That seemed to go pretty well – especially after it was linked to a rather notorious MR forum. Good times were had by all. While the primary purpose of the post was to illustrate how far research into masculinities has come since the early (and embarrassing) attempts of the early 1980s, there was another element that I chose to gloss over. It wasn’t that this topic isn’t important, or that I thought it might bore you all but rather that I felt a discussion about the structure of gendered behaviour would have made an already long post longer. I still think the topic is important for us to take a closer look at though, so buckle up, adjust your sociological monocles*, and let’s drive on ahead into the world of gender performativity.

Traditionally, the concept of gender was pretty much built around the concept of biological essentialism – a woman was a woman because everyone with her genitalia and physiology shared certain intrinsic traits, including mental ones. In the same way, there were some things that were intrinsic to being a man, like being strong, brave, honest, and forthright. Notice that men somehow ended up with all of the ‘noble’ traits. Weird, I know. In any case, being a woman or being a man had everything to do with biology, and the social, political, familial, and even religious roles, duties, and privileges were merely expressions of those innate biological elements. That understanding has moved on somewhat – which is to say that in large part, the essentialist model has been abandoned altogether.** The reason for this move away has been a steady march towards increasing our understanding of the social aspect to the formation and maintenance of gender. Social scientists began to ask themselves, “if gender is biologically determined – if it is hardwired into the human brain and body, then shouldn’t its expression be rather narrow in scope? If there is an essential ‘maleness’ or ‘femaleness’, then shouldn’t it manifest plainly and consistently across national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries? If it does not, then how can it be universal?” [Read more...]

No, but seriously… what ABOUT the menz?!

One common complaint about feminism is that it is inherently anti-male. “It’s right there in the name,” say critics “you should just call it humanism if it’s not inherently gender biased!” As tedious as I find arguments over semantics, I will allow myself to be drawn into this one long enough to say that the reason it is called feminism is because it came as a response to the prevailing misogynist culture. The fact that it has grown and developed since then doesn’t require the existence of a new word, it simply requires our understanding to grow along with it.

But there is something besides simple semantics to the complaint. Feminism, at least as popularly practiced, tends to focus on issues relevant to cis women when compared to cis men. To an outsider’s view, it would certainly seem as though feminism is based on the overriding axiom that women are always treated as lesser than men. Cases in which men suffer are thus dismissed as either of secondary important or simply illusory complaints by people who have all the privilege anyway.

It certainly raises the question of why any man would self-identify as a feminist, considering that he will spend his entire life having his complaints ignored and dismissed. Lurid fantasies about the intentions of male feminists bubble to the surface – they (we) must be working an angle to be accepted by women feminists in order to have ready access to the orgy tent or something. While that is certainly a parsimonious explanation (especially when passed through a filter of bitter resentment), it is a particularly odious (and internally incoherent*) lie.

But the question remains, why don’t feminists care about stuff like this: [Read more...]

But what about Teh Menz!?!1!

Part of the problem with starting a new blog (or joining an already stellar one) is hitting on the right tone for the first post. Come on too strong and the writing appears forced (“ALRIGHT EVERYONE! HERE ARE MY WORDS AND YOU WILL LIKE THEM ALL AND YOU WILL KNOW HOW AWESOMEANDWITTYIAMBYTHETHIRDSENTANCEBLAKJSRSR!!!”), but exercise too much restraint and the blog post may read more like a detailed analysis of proper moisture content for haylage (yes, it’s a real word, and it’s 30-50%, by the way). I had originally written a fairly lengthy article about the current state of research on masculinities in the social sciences is but, you know, haylage. So here’s the plan: I’ve scrapped the post and written a new one, and done my best to lighten the tone a bit while keeping the core argument intact. I probably won’t have too many links contained in the body of the post, but I will absolutely put a small bibliography at the end (complete with Amazon.com links) for some of the more important works in the field.

The study of men and masculinities in the social sciences has been taking place since the very birth of the social sciences. Of course, back in the day just about everything that could be talked about with regards to society and social institutions was about men, by men, and for men. It wasn’t until the arrival on the scene of those uppity wimmenz with their ‘rooms of one’s own’ and their radical demands to be allowed to vote – or even be considered ‘persons’ under the law in the first place – that the analytical lenses of sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology, etc. began to swivel to scrutinize women and women’s lives. And what they found was that women had it pretty bad. Horribly bad, in fact and perhaps it would be wise if some small amount of time was devoted to trying to understand why they had it so bad, don’tcherknow? [Read more...]