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“Today’s Masculinity Is Stifling”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 13, 2018

For The Atlantic, Sarah Rich writes about how stifling masculinity can be for some children and their parents.

As much as feminism has worked to rebalance the power and privilege between the sexes, the dominant approach to launching young women into positions that garner greater respect, higher status, and better pay still mostly maintains the association between those gains and masculine qualities. Girls’ empowerment programs teach assertiveness, strength, and courage — and they must to equip young women for a world that still overwhelmingly favors men.

Last year, when the Boys Scouts of America announced that they would begin admitting girls into their dens, young women saw a wall come down around a territory that was now theirs to occupy. Parents across the country had argued that girls should have equal access to the activities and pursuits of boys’ scouting, saying that Girl Scouts is not a good fit for girls who are “more rough and tumble.” But the converse proposition was essentially non-existent: Not a single article that I could find mentioned the idea that boys might not find Boy Scouts to be a good fit — or, even more unspeakable, that they would want to join the Girl Scouts.

If it’s difficult to imagine a boy aspiring to the Girl Scouts’ merit badges (oriented far more than the boys’ toward friendship, caretaking, and community), what does that say about how American culture regards these traditionally feminine arenas? And what does it say to boys who think joining the Girl Scouts sounds fun? Even preschool-age boys know they’d be teased or shamed for disclosing such a dream.

While society is chipping away at giving girls broader access to life’s possibilities, it isn’t presenting boys with a full continuum of how they can be in the world. To carve out a masculine identity requires whittling away everything that falls outside the norms of boyhood. At the earliest ages, it’s about external signifiers like favorite colors, TV shows, and clothes. But later, the paring knife cuts away intimate friendships, emotional range, and open communication.

Rich talks about her young son’s current penchant for wearing dresses and wishes there was room in society for activity like that.

What I want for him, and for all boys, is for the process of becoming men to be expansive, not reductive.

Reading this, I thought about the amazing one-step process for getting a bikini body I read recently: “Put a bikini on your body.” It’s not perfect and this is a lot to ask of society, but perhaps an analogous definition for masculinity is that when a man or boy does something, that’s masculine.1 Chugging a beer is masculine. Wearing a dress is masculine. Being brave is masculine. Crying is masculine. Playing sports is masculine. Not playing sports is masculine. Comforting a friend whose team lost before celebrating with his team is masculine. Anything and everything is masculine. You might argue that broadening the definition of the word to this degree diminishes its power to denote anything meaningful. And you’d be right, that’s the point.

  1. Correspondingly, when a woman or a girl does something, that’s feminine. And when someone who identifies as, for instance, genderqueer does something, that’s genderqueer. Playing sports is feminine, wearing a dress is genderqueer, etc.