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.


  1. baal says

    I would hope feminist men don’t avoid ‘manly’ activities for want of appearing feminist enough. I keep pushing that the dominant narrative moves more towards people get to be people and you don’t get to complain about them unless it harms you. Playing Parcheesi in the next room doesn’t count as a harm no matter how much the game bothers you; Advocating for limits or marginalization of most (but nearly all) groups does do harm.

  2. says

    I would hope feminist men don’t avoid ‘manly’ activities for want of appearing feminist enough.

    “For want” usually means “due to a lack of”, so I’m not sure what this sentence means. Could you rephrase, just for my own clarity?

  3. says

    Edwin: based on your Post Scriptum, you would be interested in Natalie Reed’s Eschaton2012 presentation on the emergence of microgenders in monogendered environments. It was something I hadn’t considered before, and definitely worth chewing over.

  4. says

    I’m always interested in just about anything Natalie has to say on the subject of gender. I’ll definitely have to check it out!

  5. says

    I’m interested in this too; I wasn’t quite able to figure out exactly what they were getting at with this comment. I feel that I have an idea, but I’d prefer to wait for some clarification before replying more fully.

  6. bobo says

    Great article as always Edwin!

    Regarding the farming example, I was reading an article about violence against women in Africa, and in some regions farming is considered 100pct the woman’s job, while the *manly* thing for men to do is…sit around all day. If a man lowers himself to do the sissy woman’s work of farming, he will lose the respect of his peers…

  7. says

    Much appreciated, Bobo! The article you mention seems to reinforce one of the central tenets of my post, which is that the idea that certain forms of labour (like farming) are ‘intrinsically’ gendered as either male or female seems to be directly contradicted by the observable, empirical facts present all around us – a few of which I linked to in the OP.

    If we want to maintain that some forms of activity are intrinsically – that is, biologically or psychologically ‘hardwired’ – ‘male’ or ‘female’, we’d need to find a form of labour that has always been a) massively dominated by men, and b) corresponds directly to some sort of hardwired psychological or physiological state or structure. And if such a form of labour was identified, it would then need to be shown that its gendered nature is somehow largely immune to the cultural mores that surround its performance, rather than having actually been influenced by them.

    Why do men tend to farm, fight, and rule in our society? Is it because they are somehow, intrinsically destined to do so, or is it because centuries of social history have seen the emergence of normative claims about how men ought to behave?

  8. wondering says

    I popped in here to say exactly the same thing. Good thing I read the other comments first!

    I will simply add:

    It’s not just Africa. Asian women routinely participate in farming activities as do Eastern European women. Like Africa the Eastern European stereotype is for the women to farm and the men to sit around drinking slivovitch.

    I recall seeing historical photos of Eastern European immigrants to North America doing farming. These photos included several photos of 20 women hitched to a plow, doing the plowing, while the men and horses were off logging timber.

    And even though the NA stereotype is of male farmers, as we know, the whole farm family contributes to the farm work on family farms. We also tend to consider gardening more of a woman’s thing – but gardening is farming, just on a smaller scale.

  9. baal says

    I’m commenting about what I find to be appropriate basis for criticism on behavior. I rather dislike the gender binary – its use in arguments flags for approaching BS. I don’t view myself as particularly straight but occasionally get feedback that suggests I’m manly (I occasionally find it unsettling but then again strangers think I’m conservative when I’m liberal).

    Edwin started with a guy having angst over liking ‘manly’ activities (nothing sexist has been mentioned so I’m assuming the activities are not otherwise offensive, maybe it’s just watching the game on Saturday while drinking a beer).

    I rather folks didn’t have angst over their gender performance (or feminist street cred) regardless of their gender. I don’t think that’s a healthy model for behavior. I don’t criticize the guy for feeling that way so much as the context (or which we know next to nothing) that makes him think he should feel bad. A better basis for judging whether or not he should feel bad is to look at the impact of his behavior on others. If he’s harming others, it’s bad or needs justification. If he’s not going to play catch with his son because he feels that it’ll make him less of a feminist, he needs to get over that and go play catch. If he wants to teach his son knitting, great! I’m all for it but he should not teach his son to knit soley to embellish his adherence to his views on feminist teaching (unless it’s part of an overall program to teach his son a variety of things).

    FWIW, viewing farming as “manly” is somewhat culture specific. In Minnesota, the USFEDGOV reduced or offered limited lands to the indigenous populations based on the argument that the tribes could farm rather than hunt for food. The former takes less land than the later. Culturally to the tribes, however, farming was ‘women’s work’ so the tribes took it not only as an additional taking of land but as a snub to the tribe’s men’s masculinity.

  10. says

    Absolutely. The idea that there are some forms of labour that are ‘intrinsically’ masculine – or ‘man’s work’ – is an artefact of culture, not biology, and when the chips are down (as in the case of subsistence agriculture or homesteading during earlier settler-coloniser periods) gender doesn’t seem to matter nearly so much.

  11. bobo says

    Some troll on Amanda Marcotte’s Pandagon blog tried to argue that women were genetically suited to cleaning house because “women have always been housekeepers, they are good at it.”

    What he failed to realize is that just because many women find themselves in relationships where they are *forced* to do the housework, this does not mean that they are somehow genetically gifted to do the housework.

    I have known plenty of slobby/messy women, and I have also known plenty of neatfreak men! Many women, given the opportunity to NOT do housework, will not lift a finger to keep their homes neat and tidy, Donna Reed style 😛

  12. Ysanne says

    Thanks for the links to evidence against the BS “only men could ever do this kind of work” claims. My mum’s slightly less patient answer to people telling her that something is a male job is usually: “Wow, so you have to whip out your penis to do it? You’re doing it wrong, one uses hands/brains/tools.”
    I wonder what the guy asking the original question was referring to as “manly” activities.

  13. John Morales says

    Well, yes — but the same logic applies to the concept of men’s and women’s clothing.

    (Just because something is culturally rather than biologically determined doesn’t mean it’s not a social reality)

  14. hypatiasdaughter says

    My grandparents were farmers and my grandmother did every job on the farm my grandfather did, except possibly repairing machinery and making the moonshine in the back forty. And she also did all the housework and raised the kids, too.
    Generally, this “manly” work is based on preserving certain occupations or interests as “men only”. I have heard it conjectured that women grow into their “roles” as a mother naturally; but men have to define a role for themselves. So they make well-defined social constructs for themselves (“This is what real men do and real men don’t do women’s stuff.”) and keep the women out of them.
    There are many problems with that, of course. Number 1 being that being a mother might be something I DO, but it does not totally define what I am. Number 2 is that becoming a mother may sometimes be an inevitability but it is not as natural as people assume. It is a skill one learns, generally through on the job training.

  15. me says

    I travel frequently to China for work. It is quite fascinating to see how perceptions of gender roles differ from those in the the US. Also, I particularly enjoy how culture is so different in the absence of any of the Abrahamic religions, which of course has a lot of influence over perceptions of gender.
    The personal pronoun in Mandarin is not gendered, so I’ve gotten kinda used to my Chinese colleagues mixing up he and she when speaking in English. Part of me wants to correct them, as they generally appreciate advice on improving their English, but at the same time I am really enjoying speech without reference to gender when it is not necessary.

  16. NoAssume says

    I agree that occupations and the like should not be gendered. However, if you achieve your goal, I am declaring heteronormative gendering of stuff an Official Kink and setting up the most hardcore 24/7 community EVER.

  17. smrnda says

    I wonder if the ‘men’s work’ idea can be an area where ideas of masculinity can be harmful. If manly work is supposed to be dangerous or risky, men can be pressured to feel ashamed if they ask about the risks of a job or demand better safety precautions.

    This can lead to some pretty irrational viewpoints. I knew of a case where some women had been more vocal in complaining about workplace safety where a friend of mine worked – a lot of men basically felt that ‘well, they only care about safety now that there’s women working here’ but it’s also the case when they could have brought up safety issues themselves, but just didn’t. So if the job had remained all male and been dangerous, they would have probably complained but never taken any action (do they need the danger to feel validated?) but if women help make the job safer, women are resented even though the women have accomplished something that improves things for everybody. Part of the way that things don’t add up is that I think the whole idea of ‘rugged masculinity’ is just a way to exploit blue-collar workers.

  18. says

    The “manly man farmer” people probably never went near an actual farm run by a heterosexual couple which is usually a fucking ahrd job for both of them. He can plough that field as much as he wants to, if she doesn’t do her part, there ain’t no crop to harvest).

    On the whole, I want the ideas of “masculinininty” and “feminininity” to die. Kill them with fire. Do what youwant to do, do what you like. If you’re a heterosexual couple, share your tasks to your likes and dislikes and abilities and differences.
    Actually, my husband, by being taller is much better suited for hanging up the laundry. For me it’s hard to constantly raise my arms that high over my head, for him it’s not that high, but still that’s traditionally considered “my work”.

  19. bobo says

    As a side note, I love fashion and movies, and over the years have noticed a trend of sorts.

    Forum posters (and gamers, I played WoW for a while) seem to have an obsession with ultra-femininity.

    Angelina Jolie’s jaw is too square, she is called “Mangelina”

    Jennifer Aniston isn’t a 10, she is called “Maniston”

    #1 supermodel, Gisele Bundchen, is often accused of ‘looking like a man’

    When launched, the most popular ‘hottie’ on my server looked like a (and sorry, can’t think of a better word) slutty anime character (she was playing it up, could see her bra and everything).

    And from the gaming forums I have read, the guys seem to have an obsession with either the ultra-fem (anime like girls, miranda kerr, other virginal’ innocent’ porno stars) and the ultra ultra latex suck your cock in a split second type…

    p.s. I apolgise if the above sounds sexist at all. I really don’t know how else to describe the type of porn and girls that these guys have an ‘interest’ in. I am using their own words, more or less. THIS IS what they look for, and is not a judgment on the women. I hope this is clear!


    I really find the emphaiss on ‘ultra-feminine’ to be irritating. Its like, its not enough to be beautiful, no, a woman has to look like fucking Bambi to be considered attractive!

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