This is not the most helpful topic, but it’s been kicking around my head and I want to get it out.
epistemic status: rambly semi-connected shower thoughts
Let’s play a game! It’s called: Who Is the Manliest?
I mean, I keep hearing that masculinity is an incredibly confining thing with super-restrictive boundaries. Allegedly it prescribes a very narrow range of behaviors and choices, and punishes men harshly for deviating from them. But I’m not sure I understand exactly where all those super-restrictive boundaries are. So you’re all going to help me!
Here’s how you play —
I am going to give you a list of men, and you are going to rank them by Successfully-Performed Masculinity Score. What is the pecking order? Who gets to look down on whom? Who will be crushed under the weight of society’s toxic demands? Who is the manliest?
- Aaron is a gym-tan-laundry bro who never skips leg day. No one ever called him a genius, and he doesn’t have much in the bank, but that’s never slowed him down. He’s classically handsome and well-muscled — in fact, he works as a personal trainer at the gym. He carries on numerous liasons with his rich lady clients, and in the evenings he’ll often hit the club and pick up some hot girl with whom to spend the night.
- Bradley is a suburban dad with two kids and a respectable white-collar job and a very nice house. His pretty wife adores him, and talks him up to all her envious friends, which has a lot to do with how faithful and attentive he is. He is a pillar of the neighborhood community, and everyone around looks to him for guidance on issues from barbecue technique to local zoning policy.
- Charles is a financial executive who pulls in tens of millions of dollars per year. He spends his days bossing people around and negotiating colossal business deals. He’s kinda old and kinda ugly, but somehow there are gorgeous young women hanging off him whenever he spends an evening out.
- Daniel is a brilliant mathematician who, in his short career, has proved a couple of major previously-unproven conjectures; he just became a Fields Medalist. He doesn’t get out much, and he’s kind of eccentric and skittish in person, but the people who read his papers (or his blog!) regularly describe him as “the smartest and most insightful human alive today.”
- Edgar is a monastic kung-fu warrior who lives out in the mountains. He spends all day, every day, training to hone his body into a weapon and his mind into an invulnerable fortress. He hasn’t seen a woman in years, and has no interest in doing so — as far as he’s concerned, women are distractions from the pursuit of martial enlightenment.
- Frederick is a long-haired musician who writes and sings songs about the depth of his heartbroken sorrow. He’s no millionaire superstar, but he gets plenty of gigs, and he has a reputation for being excellent at his craft. Certainly there are lots of groupie-type women who throw themselves at him, and sigh over his broody tormented genius.
- Georg lives in a cave, from which he rarely emerges, and eats over 10000 spiders every day. He’s unwashed and crazy and widely mocked, but his confidence in his way of life is unshakeable. He just keeps on keepin’ on, happy to let the rest of the world go to hell. And, much like Diogenes and Emperor Norton before him, he actually gets a lot of applause for his self-directed will and his ability to follow his own star.
- Harold is a decorated soldier who has, several times, saved the lives of his squadmates by dint of personal valor. He has PTSD, but bears up under it with stoic grace. He is quiet, withdrawn, and has no substantial experience with women.
- James is a street pimp with ties to a major drug gang. He manages a small stable of women, who are always available to him as well as to their customers, and whom he keeps in line with threats and violence. He has spent a couple of years of his life in prison.
That’s the lot of them, my friends. Now: who is the manliest?
And the answer, of course, is: this is a stupid game. Whatever your ranking is, it’s wrong. You can’t possibly rank these guys according to their masculinity. That’s not how masculinity works, not even a little.
Is the sexy working-class gym rat manlier than the well-to-do suburban dad? Is the hoodlum pimp manlier than the tycoon, or the Byronic artist? I promise you, there’s no clear answer, and no methodology that will generate one. That shit is contentious. Whoever you are, you will probably believe that some of these men are paragons of Worthy Masculinity, and you will probably believe that others of them are pathetic losers (at least in comparison). And other people will disagree strongly with your findings.
The interaction between these guys is less like a pecking order, where everyone has a defined place, and more like an ongoing cultural war. Each of them is trying to secure his place in the world by building up his own model of masculinity — the thing he’s doing correctly, the thing at which he excels — and trashing all those rival models of masculinity. And, at least to some extent, each of them is succeeding. Each of them feels humbled, intimidated, emasculated, by some (maybe all!) of the others. The ones who don’t have money often envy and fear the ones who do. Same goes for sexual charisma, and for sincere personal love from women, and for invulnerability to female charms. Same goes for intellectual respect, and cultural achievement, and tough-minded give-no-fucks integrity, and the ability to glide urbanely through life without getting hassled. On and on and on.
There is no standard you can meet, no code you can follow, that will make you secure in your right to your Man Card. Your manliness will always be called into question by some different kind of person, living a totally different kind of life, who has Masculinity Advantages that you lack.
…to be sure, there are some commonalities amongst those models-of-masculinity that I listed above. All of them are discernibly and unusually “successful” on some axis, even if that axis is just “being yourself as hard as you can.” All of them are aggressive enough to push out through the crowd, so that they can become successful. All of them have earned the respect of some substantial community of people. Most of them have sexual access to women, or at least could probably get sexual access to women if they wanted it. But these things are not tightly-defined behavioral restrictions; these things are basic universal markers of high-quality human life. If “being a man” means “doing anything that will allow you to win plaudits and sex,” then it is really not a very confining box at all.
There are two lessons we can learn from this.
We can say: oh my god, masculinity is even more toxic and oppressive than we realized! It’s not even that men have one safe cultural option — they have zero safe cultural options! Gender expectations crush everyone! We must work even harder to dismantle the system!
And that’s not wrong. Not the positive empirical claim-making part, anyway. It is indeed true that masculinity provides zero safe cultural options, and that this is crushing. Probably there are a few good gender-studies theses to be wrung out of that. (Probably, in fact, they’ve already been written.)
But I’m leery of going down that road, largely because it implicitly promises an alternative that I don’t think is real. If we’re going to free men from the chains of masculinity…well, what are we going to do with them afterwards?
GENDER ABOLITIONIST: We could try, y’know, just treating them like people. No gendered bullshit. Regular default human expectations for regular default humans.
It’s a good plan…
…except that, well, it’s precisely the thing that we’re already doing.
Feminists used to talk a lot about markedness. I don’t know whether this is still a thing, particularly, but it’s one of the most useful concepts ever generated by feminist theory.
The short version, which I think makes up one of the content units in Feminism 101, goes like this —
We’ve structured our worldview such that the ordinary default human is male. When it comes to any given aspect of any given trait, men are capable of manifesting the “normal” null version of that trait, the one that doesn’t say anything about anything. Women, meanwhile, are a Special Kind of Person. Their female-ness “marks” them. It colors everything that they do, everything that they are.
This means, inter alia, that most of our conceptual archetypes look like men…not because we’re trying to connect those archetypes to some Very Manly Thing, but specifically because we’re trying not to connect them to anything. A hypothesized doctor, who is a man, can be just a doctor. Everything else is held in the normal null state, at least potentially, and you don’t get any information except the information that makes up the concept-suite of “doctor.” Because “man” somehow isn’t providing information, here. A hypothesized doctor who is a woman is not just a doctor, she is a “lady doctor” or a “she-doctor” or some shit like that. The very fact of her femaleness is noticeable, and it seems important. So do all sorts of associated subsidiary traits — her attractiveness, her sartorial choices, etc. — because they reflect on, and further define, her female nature.
(Hell, you can hold everything in its normal null state, and get the Default Human With No Characteristics At All. Who is a dude. In particular, it’s the supernally bland dude who serves as the player character in dating sims. The idea is that you can project yourself onto him because he’s such a total nullity. Leaving aside the question of whether that’s a good idea, narratively speaking…you couldn’t even begin to do that with a girl, right? There would be no way to approach that level of non-distinctiveness, no matter how hard you tried to avoid characterizing her. Even her hairstyle would be a Choice, a symbol of something and not-something-else. So would her facial expression. So would a million other things.)
You can see this everywhere, if you look. You can see it in the very-gendered way that people talk about female public figures, and the usually-not-gendered-at-all way that people talk about their male counterparts. You can see it in the way that “women’s issues” are a thing and “men’s issues” are just…issues. You can see it, explicitly, in the creative process of the Bojack Horseman writers.
The key insight here is that maleness, by itself, is not a trait that comes with any real baggage. Masculinity is not a real thing. It never was.
The simple fact of being a man doesn’t mean anything, socially speaking. It doesn’t lock you into specific expectations or place specific burdens on you. Society responds to men in a more fine-grained way, evaluating them based on the particular traits that they actually possess, and (especially) on their ability to live up to the particular roles that they’re trying to play. In a hyper-diverse hyper-specialized society like ours, where men are going down countless different lifepaths, there are countless different incompatible standards of “masculinity” — because “succeeding as a man” just means “succeeding at your thing, whatever it is.”
This is not entirely a good thing. It’s a form of tremendous existential freedom, which is nice as far as it goes…but, as they say, freedom don’t come free.
Before I unpack what that means, it’s worth taking a moment to talk about the other half of the equation.
Femininity is a very real thing. Female-ness is marked. “Woman” is a trait in and of itself, a big important complicated trait, a template that gets applied to generic person-ness. It comes with tons and tons of baggage. Simply being female, independent of anything else, means that the world looks at you a particular way. You’re faced with specific expectations, hit with specific penalties, and granted specific bonuses.
…I’m not fool enough to try and spell out exactly what those expectations, penalties, and bonuses are. I don’t have anything like the necessary expertise; I’ll leave that to actual women who have actually dealt with this stuff.
(The basic recipe for the demand, in the modern US, is something like “one part domestic competence / two parts emotional availability / five parts sexual allure.” This will change a lot from culture to culture.)
That said, a couple of important points:
- Men — most men, anyway, or at least most straight men — hunger after femininity. (I know, I know, this is probably obvious.) Having access to this thing is culturally defined as one of the most important parts of the good life, for men, which makes it an essential status symbol…and which also makes people really really want it for its own sake. As a boy grows up and defines himself and figures out what he values, every social narrative tells him that he desperately needs a girl-shaped entity in his life, radiating all that allure and availability and domesticity onto him. Men-as-a-class catch a lot of flak for being shallow and indiscriminate in the way they pursue potential partners/conquests, and maybe in some ways they are, but this is a natural outgrowth of the asymmetry in gender construction. Wanting a generic man is pointless, because a generic man doesn’t have anything to offer until he stops being generic. Wanting a generic woman makes a lot of sense, because even a generic woman has femininity, and that’s a large part of what’s wanted.
- Femininity is a package deal, but the terms of the deal can change. Recent social shifts have made it a lot less onerous overall. For much of history, almost everywhere, chastity was a central element of the memeplex; here, now, it’s not. Femininity used to be totally incompatible with most lifepaths and most social roles; here, now, it’s not. (Again, obvious, but it’s good to be explicit.)
- There are some women who, for whatever reason, can’t live up to the baseline expectations of femininity within their culture. Old women and very-conventionally-unattractive women provide the most obvious examples, but there are also sexually-active women in societies that place a premium on female chastity, and minority women in sufficiently-racist societies, and so on. The way we treat these women is monstrous. They are seen as failures, rejects, in a way that cannot be escaped no matter what they do. At best they become un-persons, ignored by almost everyone who can get away with ignoring them, their unsatisfactory female-ness always threatening to overshadow any contributions they might make. The possibilities get a lot worse from there.
- But on the flip side, an even-moderately-feminine woman is valued by society. Inherently valued. Not necessarily valued in any way that she would particularly want, all else being equal…but, at the very least, she can always be someone’s concubine. And in a relatively egalitarian society where women have a lot of agency, men who want access to that femininity spend an awful lot of time trying to make those women happy by giving them what they want. Being feminine means that, pretty much anywhere you go, your welfare and your emotions will be matters of interest to someone. Probably lots of someones.
This last is important. It’s particularly important to note that it’s not just a matter of horny men, or horny people-attracted-to-women, valuing femininity in an instrumental way. For most of human history, men and women alike have been writing encomiums to womankind, right down to today’s “omg why are all girls everywhere so pretty” Tumblr posts. As the tradcons would point out, uh, something something chivalry superior-virtue angel-of-the-home women-and-children-first. And while it’s always a bit silly to argue from fictional tropes, I do think it worth pointing out that the narratives in our media are largely enthusiastic about female solidarity, while the message with male solidarity — going back at least to Shakespeare — is pretty much always “you need to toss it out when it comes time to support the right woman.”
Why should we be surprised by any of this? The actual practices of femininity, the behaviors and mannerisms and so forth, are engineered to emphasize how appealing and supportive you are. Of course people like that. Of course that effect spills over, beyond the direct target audience, onto society-as-a-whole.
(…and, yes indeed, there are also lots of tropes about how women-as-a-class are evil or manipulative or shallow or something. Femininity is a powerful thing, and it generates lots of reactions in people; sometimes those reactions are negative or embittered. But those negative tropes are in tension with all the positive tropes about women-as-a-class, which permeate pretty much everything everywhere.)
Men, by contrast, are not inherently valued. Why would they be? Manhood is not, in itself, a desirable thing; it’s not a thing at all.
A man can do things to make himself valuable. He can become strong, wise, rich, accomplished, creative, charming, lots of options. He can fill any of a thousand roles. But doing so will always require talent or effort or luck or some combination of the above. And it’s always very, very contingent on demonstrated success. It is not a default. It cannot be a default.
And a man who can’t call upon a substantial degree of excellence, in something, is worthless. There’s nothing he can offer. There’s no role for him to play. There’s no real reason for anyone to show him any respect. If you want to get anything at all out of this life, you have to earn it, you have to carve it out for yourself. No one will love you, or even pity you, just for being yourself.
(Is it any wonder that our lowest-status men have traditionally gone in for short lives of aimless violence and idleness? Is it any wonder that they’re perennially available as expendable foot soldiers for any cult or cause promising them that someone will care?)
Most men have an inarticulate understanding, way down in their guts, that this is how things work for them. I think most women don’t. Just as it’s hard to really get the feeling of being constantly objectified, when you’re not, it’s hard for a valued person to get the feeling of being completely disposable.
At any rate: this dynamic accounts for many of the phenomena that are perceived as being part of “toxic masculinity.”
“Men aren’t allowed to show vulnerability. Men aren’t allowed to have emotions other than anger.” Really? Then how come Frederick, with his mopey lyrics and his soulful broken voice, has all kinds of women chasing after him? How come Romeo and Don Juan and Lord Byron, with all their flowery heartfelt protestations of longing, are still archetypes of masculine success? Of course men are allowed to be vulnerable and emotional. They can even be rewarded for it, if they do it right. But they have to do it in a way that produces or demonstrates value. They have to make their vulnerable emotions sexy, or artistically compelling, or something. And, in any given case, the display has to fit into some particular role (like “artist” or “tall dark mysterious tormented man”) that the guy can claim to be playing. It all adds up to a situation where, in many instances, men can win only by being stoic. Vulnerability and emotionality, on their own, are just pathetic and worthy of scorn. Even if you have a viable social narrative in which you can wrap yourself, it may not have any real place for those things — who wants a weepy street pimp?
“Men are hyper-competitive and self-aggrandizing and often violent.” Well, yeah, that’s what happens when your value to society is wholly contingent. High-risk strategies, and ambitious grasping strategies, are a lot more appealing when you don’t have some kind of low-risk baseline on which you can fall back. For a lot of women, if they don’t find a way to Win Big, the worst plausible outcome is some variant on “you become someone’s concubine” — for a lot of men, if they don’t Win Big, the worst plausible outcome is “you die in the street, and people are relieved that a disgusting threatening creature has been removed from the world.”
You see how this goes.
So OK. What actual relevance does any of this have?
First of all, I think that understanding the operational mechanics of the gender structure teach us something important: the whole thing may be arbitrary, and in many cases it may be harmful, but it is not going away. Not anytime in the foreseeable future. Basically no one even wants it to go away — too many people have too much invested in the system. Men like femininity because, well, because access-to-femininity constitutes at least 75% of the things that they think are worthwhile in life. Without the prospect of women being sexy for them and soothing their egos and taking care of them, they wouldn’t even know what to desire. Women like femininity because it serves as very strong infrastructure for identity-building, and because they understand that it gives them a place in the world.
The coalition with an interest in actually dismantling this social construct is…not large. You’ve got a tiny handful of extremely-principled people who really object to the arbitrariness and unfairness of it, other considerations be damned; you’ve got a tiny handful of people with unusual gender issues, who feel uncomfortable in a femininity-obsessed society; and you’ve got a bunch of women who can’t successfully perform femininity, get punished by the system because of it, and want a revolution.
Unless something major changes, this group is always going to be small and struggling. Even its putative allies can swamp it with greater numbers and greater power. Which is why “tear down the restrictive gender binary!” tends to morph so quickly into “make sure that women can Have It All, enjoying careers and money while they look fabulous and consume chick-media and raise their dream families!”
(I know many feminists. I know many feminists who are really serious about wanting to be appreciated for their non-gender-related traits and accomplishments — their intellect, their creativity, their hardheaded business savvy, whatever. And yet very, very few of them object to being seen “as women” in addition to being seen “as people,” at least outside the most strictly-professional contexts. Most of them consider it essential to their social well-being. Anecdata, I know, but…I really don’t think my experience here is unusual.)
The feminist project is not, in any meaningful sense, about destroying or subverting femininity. The most rarefied gender theorists propose that thing, from time to time, but there’s no audience for it. Instead, it seems to be about altering femininity — specifically, about making it a better deal for the women who embody it, stripping away more and more of the restrictions and the bad parts while retaining the good parts where the world desires you and cares about you.
There’s nothing wrong with that, certainly not in the abstract. But it does seem likely to present some issues, down the road, that ought to be addressed.
If nothing else, it continues to punish women who fail to meet femininity standards. If women are defined in part by their possession of the femininity-essence — if that continues to be a big deal, socially speaking — then they’re going to suffer if they don’t possess it. If we keep on rewarding women for being surrounded by a halo of sexiness and emotional availability, if that gets baked into the expectations, then we’re going to be repulsed when the halo isn’t there…even if, independently, we let those same women work as executives and engineers or whatever.
I don’t have a solution for this problem. Seriously. If I did, I’d be a culture-healing genius for the ages. Everything I can think of ultimately devolves to “actually chuck the femininity standards for realsies,” and as I’ve said, that’s not gonna happen, and it would probably be bad for people overall if it did.
But we shouldn’t forget that this is the tradeoff we’re making! And I think a lot of feminists, in particular, do forget that. Having people care extra about you when you’re young and beautiful and personable, because you’re young and beautiful and personable, means that they are going to care less about you when you’re old and ragged and crotchety. The thing where we don’t give Hillary Clinton her due is exactly the same thing that causes us to give Sarah Palin way more than her due. It’s all twined together, and cannot be un-twined.
Perhaps more importantly:
The marked state of femininity carries certain advantages over the default state of maleness. It also, of course, carries disadvantages. Feminists will claim that the advantages are still massively outweighed by the disadvantages, that on balance women are still very Oppressed by society-at-large. Maybe they’re right about that. But, partly due to their own work and partly due to the inexorable processes of liberal capitalism, those disadvantages are getting eroded a little bit more every day. (Not monotonically, I’m sure. But overall.) Women are more and more accepted as leaders, and as fighters, and as workers in every field; women are less and less constrained by expectations of Proper Female Behavior; but even moderately-feminine women, by dint of their femininity, are considered desirable assets and beneficial presences in most contexts.
At some point, unless there’s a real backlash, the advantages are going to overcome the disadvantages. Femininity is going to be a better deal than default (“masculine”) human existence.
Now, once again, to be perfectly clear: there is nothing inherently wrong with this. Unless you’re really very radical in your vision of social equality, some traits are going to provide advantages to the people who possess them, and there’s no reason that “female” shouldn’t be one of those traits. (Certainly no reason that this scenario would be worse than “male” being generally advantageous, and we’ve had plenty of that one historically.) People value intelligence and creativity and hard-headed business savvy, and thus intelligent and creative and savvy people do well; if people also turn out to value femininity, well, ultimately we construct the society that we want.
But when men see this happening, they get very very scared, and it’s hard to blame them.
Women have suffered greatly over the course of history, but they’ve always been needed and wanted. Men, as I’ve said, are (mostly) the ones who have justified fears of being disposable. For the most part, historically, they’ve dealt with this by making their own resources artificially scarce and therefore artificially valuable — in Ye Olden Times, women couldn’t do most things and couldn’t acquire most things on their own, so they had to trade their femininity to a man for that man’s access-to-everything-else.
In the Gender-Realigned Future Soon to Come — which some believe is already here — women have access to everything else on their own. In fact, by dint of being female, they have better access to most things than men do. All else being equal…why would you ever want a man when you could have a woman? The woman can do everything the man can do, plus she has femininity, which is a valuable asset. People will be inclined to like and trust her. People will take her emotions and her desires seriously. People will not regard her as a threat or a leech or a dangerous barbarian. People will find her sexy and charming, which at the very least will make her more pleasant to be around.
This leaves men in a bad place. They are being systematically outcompeted. They can’t organize against their competitors, because they all still hunger for access to femininity, and the game theory will always militate in favor of “defecting” and making women like them (which has direct personal benefits) rather than standing in hostile solidarity. They can’t even take the reverse version of the deal that women used to have — women don’t want harem slaves and rent boys and house-husbands in large numbers, because there’s no masculine essence that women have been trained to want for their entire lives. Women still want men, of course, and will so long as they’re straight. But they want excellent men, men who successfully exemplify desirable traits. And it gets harder and harder for men to be excellent as women become better and better competitors.
The solution that’s usually proffered amounts to something like: reward men more for doing feminine-coded things, give them status for being nurturing and gentle and so on. I am…skeptical. Even leaving aside the general issue that it’s really really really hard to change the basic structures of status and respect and desire for reasons of expedience, which it is. In the “marketplace of human capital,” gentleness is cheap and widely available. Doubling or tripling the demand for it won’t do much to raise the “price” so long as there’s so much supply. Women have historically done well selling gentleness, but that’s only because they were able to bundle it together with sex and motherhood and some other stuff into this thing called “femininity,” which is the single most widely-desired commodity there has ever been. This kind of solution basically requires building a sort of feminine-flavored masculinity from scratch, and then selling the entire world on it at once, replicating thousands of years’ worth of cultural development in a very short timeframe. Good luck.
It is this dynamic, I think, that underlies the weird gender politics of 4chan and similar communities. Certain groups of mostly-low-status men perceive — rightly or wrongly — that the world has no use at all for them, and that they would be doing much better on all fronts if they were cute girls (even if nothing else changed). This can inspire resentment, as everyone has noticed by now. It can also inspire an odd strain of gender envy. It is very true that our culture has become more tolerant of transgender-type issues, and thus that lots of people who would otherwise have been closeted about their gender-identity issues are coming out publicly to various degrees…but, if you actually go read 4channers talking about how they wish they were girls or “traps” or whatever, it’s very hard to match it up to the traditional social-justice-y identity-liberation discourse. It does not sound like once-repressed people who are finally allowed to voice their long-standing yearnings. It sounds like anguished, insecure people fantasizing about status-climbing. It’s rarely framed as an attachment to femaleness, come what may, in the way that transgender dialogue on the left so often is; it’s a belief, deep in the soul, that being female would lead to being accepted and loved and comfortable.
Which says something important about the state of gender relations overall. On some very basic level, you can tell how ascendant a group is by seeing how many people would be willing to switch into it…