Monday, May 10, 2010

Sinclair Sexsmith - A Manifesto for Radical Masculinity


Sometimes it takes an outsider to get to the heart of an issue. In this article from Carnal Nation, a feminist, butch lesbian offers her insights into how she came to appreciate the box in which many evolving men find themselves stuck.

Favorite quote:
Radical masculinity is strong enough to be vulnerable and receptive enough to put his foot down. Radical masculinity is trans men and fairy fags and butches who do girly drag. Radical masculinity is straight women with cropped hair and tool belts marrying men, not apologizing, refusing to take the lesbian jokes personally. Radical masculinity is a new form of fatherhood, of manhood, of adulthood, of humanhood. Radical masculinity is feminist men doing real work for equality and liberation for everyone. Radical masculinity is football games with your daughter's ballet class and ice cream sundaes with your high school son's best friends. Radical masculinity is big cuddly bears and vicious hardcore dharma punx, urban cowboys and the sexiest MMA fighters, yogis and your brother with his new baby and yes even sometimes your dad, showing everyone that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
There is a very limited range of acceptable male behaviors - and there are two essential tools the dominant traditional model uses to keep transgressive men in line: calling them gay or calling them little girls.

So I find it very cool to read this manifesto on masculinity from a woman, a woman who "gets it" in ways most men don't even get it. And certainly, few feminists understand this point of view - for all the reasons she presents in her own process of coming to this reality with which men must deal.

A Manifesto for Radical Masculinity

Remember back in the Spring of 2009 when two young boys committed suicide within a week of each other, both eleven years old? Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Massachusetts and Jaheem Herrera of Georgia were both being subjected to unbearable anti-gay bullying at school. Whether or not these boys were actually gay, using homophobia to police masculinity is practically the oldest trick in the book. In the aftermath of these suicides, and in the discussions that ensued on the Web and in print, there was extensive lip service given to gender and the inevitable complaint that boys have it so hard, that feminism has stripped men of their manliness, that men don't know how to be men anymore, that we've got a Crisis In Masculinity.

That might seem like anti-feminist rhetoric, but I agree with it—at least in part. I agree that masculinity is changing, for some in dramatic, drastic ways. I have witnessed and observed cultural changes around the masculine and male gender roles which are shifting, yes, as a direct result of the recent feminist and other gendered social change movements.

This bipolar—I mean polarized binary—gender system is built for the masculine and feminine to be in sync with each other, built to be in friction, built to be in an elaborate dance of give and take. The ideal of the "American Dream" suburbia that we think of from the 1950s and early 1960s laid out precisely just how the masculine and the feminine are supposed to be dependent upon each other and interact. The problem is, that system is completely prescriptive, with exactly one option for everyone. We are used to hearing the oh-woe-is-my-gender tales from women and the feminist movements in the recent past, but it is rather new to begin to untangle the ways in which this system damages men and prescribes certain traits within masculine expression, too.

I know; my inner feminist starts rolling her eyes. Oh yeah, sure, men have it so hard. Running the world and being 485 of the top 500 CEOs (and hey, that's more than last year! that means women are on the rise! Women are now taking men's jobs!) and never having to worry whether their work shirt is cut too low to be 'appropriate.' I spent too many years examining the plights of women and the plights of queers and the plights of people of color and the plights of all sorts of other socio-economically degraded and marginalized groups—I was raised by feminist parents and majored in Women Studies, after all—it takes some work for me to be convinced that men have the short end of the stick in this system that has set up masculinity to be superior.

But I know there's something wrong with masculinity, and I know it's hard to express one's self as masculine without falling into the many, many harmful trappings of the limitations of a masculine gender, because I'm butch.

I did not grow up that girly, mostly more due to the rural mountainous landscape of my upbringing than a lack of interest. I climbed trees in my dresses, snuck my makeup to high school, studied femininity and feared myself a failure at it. Femininity was never encouraged by my parents—they still have trouble separating gender expression, celebration, or presentation from prescribed gender roles, therefore taking on an attitude that all gender is oppressive. When I came out easily into lesbian communities that value androgyny, it was easy and comfortable to don "fuck your fascist beauty standards" tee shirts and chop off my hair. It is a rite of lesbian passage, you know.

But coming into my own masculinity was harder and took much longer. I wanted to go further than androgyny; I knew I was drawn to and wanted to be butch, but I wasn't sure what that meant. Hell, I'm still not entirely sure what that means (but I do love trying to figure it out).

Not knowing what it meant to "be masculine" held up my adopting a butch identity for many years. As a feminist, as a lesbian, I was constantly asking myself, and my boi-ish friends: what is masculinity, if not misogyny? What is masculinity without misogyny? How can I be a feminist and be masculine? Does feminism devalue masculinity? Isn't that the same problem as devaluing femininity? And more personally, what does masculinity look like on me? I could recognize it on other people, but I couldn't quite figure out how it translated, or how to break it down into its individual components so I could play with presenting it myself.

As I began making a serious study out of learning masculinity, I started seeing more and more parallels in the oppressive gender roles, regardless of where individuals fall in the hierarchy. The prescriptive roles are limiting and restricting, and predetermine too much which I would now separate out and call personality. I don't believe hobbies and interests should ever be determined by your particular gender identity—if you're into fashion or ballet or football or baking or knitting or home repair or cars or video games, why should it matter what your gender is? Your hobbies might interact with your gender—they might tickle your gender in just the right ways, which may or may not align with the prescribed gender role, but they should never restrict or determine what you do or do not like.

I tried to turn to my heavy background in feminist theory and gender theory to try to understand this limiting devaluing of masculinity, but found a gap. Feminism hasn't dug down deep into masculinity the same way it has dug down deep into femininity, and those who are digging down deep into masculinity are often reproducing some sort of essentialist tripe that clashes with feminism and feels completely removed from explaining my own experience. I want a masculinist theory that grows out of feminism, that works with women instead of against, that understands that all the so-called "man-hating" issues of feminism have much more to do with backlash than with fundamental philosophies of the work.

So I have studied butch. I was not born with swagger: I learned it. I earned it. I was not born knowing how to use a cock or tie a tie or match my belt to my shoes or court a girl or refrain from chivalry when it's not welcome or to contain something big and chaotic. I have read everything I can, gone to the performances, asked my friends or perfect strangers for their definitions and understandings and hardships. I've found that most of the misunderstandings come from simple, basic sexism—simple, basic policings of masculinity—like when I ordered a vanilla vodka and cranberry from the bartender at my regular bar and she leaned over the counter, confidentially, and said, "Really? Are you sure? Because that's awfully ... sweet."

Implying, of course, that sweet drinks are for girls and wasn't I a guy? A guy's guy? A butch's butch? Come on, order something that'll put hair on your chest, like whiskey or beer!

Why the fuck can't I just order what I want to order?

It isn't just me, either. As I've been more confident and explorative in my presentation and understanding of my masculinity, I've been observing over and over the limitations of masculinity in others, and the effect these limitations have on all kinds of people with masculine presentations—gay boys, trans men, straight men, women who date men, female masculinity, men who are unemployed in this recession, non-traditional men like my yogi straight cis male roommate, anybody who loves or cares for or is related to or interacts with men or masculine people.

The restrictions and prescriptions for masculinity affect everybody.

There are so many rules of masculinity which are really fucking painful, to ourselves and to others. The competition, the fighting, the physical violence, the anger, the rage, the lack of emotional expression, the policing of each other's weaknesses, the presumption that someone masculine is always sexually available and is probably sexually promiscuous, the issues of commitment, the expectations of "bringing home the bacon."

Of course, it is not all bad. There are beautiful traits, too, care-taking and problem solving and the use of tools and innovative thinking and observation and leading others in passion and entering and embiggening and guiding energy in just the right way. There are many people doing all sorts of Radical Masculinity work already—butches, genderqueers, gender-non-conformist folks, masculine trans women, effeminate trans men, gay men, men who are professional pastry chefs, metrosexuals, guy yogis, feminist men, the "new" stay-at-home-dads, and all sorts of other aspects of masculinity that are still desperate to be explored.

So many questions about masculinity still remain: what are male traits? What makes a 'good man'? What is a positive presentation of masculinity? What are masculine traits? Sure, I can describe physical presentation and some sort of energy movement, but what about emotional traits, what about interpersonal traits? Is there any truth to the broad-sweeping concepts about men from one planet and women from another? Can we really make any emotional, psychological, or interpersonal conclusions by dividing people by gender? I remain unconvinced that those conclusions are much more than stereotypes.

But I do know that we need to continue struggling and stumbling into a new masculinity, a radical masculinity, a masculinity that is not painful for those who wear it or those who fall in love with it or for those who interact with it. Radical masculinity does not hurt. Radical masculinity is strong enough to be vulnerable and receptive enough to put his foot down. Radical masculinity is trans men and fairy fags and butches who do girly drag. Radical masculinity is straight women with cropped hair and tool belts marrying men, not apologizing, refusing to take the lesbian jokes personally. Radical masculinity is a new form of fatherhood, of manhood, of adulthood, of humanhood. Radical masculinity is feminist men doing real work for equality and liberation for everyone. Radical masculinity is football games with your daughter's ballet class and ice cream sundaes with your high school son's best friends. Radical masculinity is big cuddly bears and vicious hardcore dharma punx, urban cowboys and the sexiest MMA fighters, yogis and your brother with his new baby and yes even sometimes your dad, showing everyone that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Radical masculinity is a way to present, perform, play with, celebrate, and liberate masculinity, in thousands of multi-dimensional expressions. It is still being created, recreated, formed, and reformed, and I want to be a part of its ongoing evolution.

3 comments:

Sinclair said...

Hey! Thank you, I've been reading Masculine Heart for a while now and it was a surprise to catch my own name here. Very glad you liked the article! My Radical Masculinity series is ongoing at CarnalNation.com, at http://www.carnalnation.com/radical-masculinity

WH said...

My pleasure - it's a great article. I wish more feminists could take this perspective, but then they do have the incentive to do so - yet. I look forward to reading more of your work.

All best,
Bill

MissMysterics said...

Masculine and feminine just describe traditional ideas of men and women,for example, if you happen to fall into the treaditional image of men, your masculine, there is nothing wrong with this unless you try to enforce your behaviour on others, saying it's the way they 'should act.'
Thats all masculinity and feminity means to me.