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Challenging Masculinity Is About Much More Than "Unloading This Junk"

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A recent article called "5 Stupid, Unfair and Sexist Things Expected of Men" by Greta Christina raises the important questions of how "sexism hurts men" and why feminists and pro-feminists should care, and goes on to discuss five key examples. I agree that this is an important conversation that men should be having with each other and with people of different genders, and her examples, though I might have chosen different ones and would have talked about them differently, are definitely important. However, I think the article falls down to the extent that it frames the issue largely as individual men wrestling with "expectations." It is more useful to see it as men who exist in specific social contexts struggling with norms that have material consequences far beyond how we as individuals listen to particular "cultural messages."

Those two terms -- "expectations" and "cultural messages" -- are how the article describes what men struggle against. Such messages act, it tells us, as "voices in the back of our heads" that "shap[e] our reflexes." The article urges us to seek "ways out of this, and around it, and through it" by "rejecting" these "cultural messages" or selectively embracing them. We need to "unload the...crap." We must start "unloading this junk." And to do that, at least some of us "need to consciously drag these messages into the light so we know how to recognize them and have an easier time tossing them overboard." In other words, the problem is some generally held ideas that many of us adopt even though they hurt or limit us, and we must decide (and, for many of us, work) to reject (or selectively embrace) them.

This captures one part of what goes on, I think, but it leaves a lot out. I would argue that unless we understand how what the article calls "expectations" and I would be more likely to call "norms" also play a role in the organization and regulation of our experiences in material ways and are not just ideas we can take up or reject, we will have a great deal of difficulty effectively resisting the ways in which masculinity harms and constrains us.

How We Relate To Expectations/Norms

Before I go on to talk about what this framework leaves out, I want to emphasize that "unloading this junk" -- how we relate to the content of the dominant norms of masculinity -- is important. In some moments, there is nothing standing between us and choosing to act in ways that more truly represent ourselves or that are in some sense more liberatory except how we understand ourselves in relation to these norms, and how we feel about these norms.

For instance, though I would go farther than the article and say this is not the only sort of pressure, how we feel about ourselves when we act deliberately counter to one of these dominant norms is important -- it shapes how likely we are to act in that way, and it determines the emotional cost to us of acting that way. A good example in both directions from my own experience is the first of the five "expectations" discussed in the article, the norm that men must be ready and willing to engage in physical fighting when it is called for. In most areas of my life, for whatever reason, I have tossed this one overboard. I don't understand myself in relation to it. I don't conform to it. Best of all, I don't feel bad or conflicted about not conforming to it. (This is, I acknowledge, eased by privilege of various sorts. My daily life contains basically no circumstances where my survival or thriving might be helped by the ability to engage in violence. And white middle-class masculinity has a strange, mediated relationship to this expectation, which in most circumstances for us makes it more about posturing, rhetoric, and vocal or tacit support for the violence done by/to others that maintains our privilege than about actually getting our own knuckles bruised.)

There is, however, one area of life where I still feel this expectation. That is around certain practices of street-based political militancy. My political analysis of such tactics is complicated and can be, for a variety of reasons, somewhat skeptical of them in the contexts in which I live, but I am definitely not dismissive of them. Yet I know that even if I thought them unequivocally called for in a given situation, I would have immense personal difficulty engaging in them. I know this. Yet this disjuncture and the lingering impact of this norm on my conception of what masculinity is/should be leads to moments of me feeling conflicted and inadequate.

Obviously, "unloading this junk" makes it easier to act as we wish in the world by reducing potential sites of inner conflict and self-criticism.

Another reason why taking up or rejecting these expectations of masculinity matters has to do with how we respond to the reactions of other people. Not all responses by other people grounded in these dominant norms are without significant material effect, but lots are -- a raised eyebrow, a tone of voice, a word of disagreement. At least when there is no other threat of consequences, how we react to these cues is largely up to us. And how we personally relate to the norms in question helps shape how we react to these minute signals of judgment. Can we just ignore them or do they profoundly effect us? Does the possibility of such reactions make us behave in ways that conform to norms of masculinity even when we would rather not? Or -- and this is the alternative that I struggle with on an ongoing basis -- does excessive sensitivity to such cues cause us to hide our true selves or to avoid certain contexts completely?

Organization

As the last example hints, these norms are not just ideas that we can choose to take up or reject. They don't just exist in some amorphous ether "out there" and in our own heads. They also shape the lives and actions of lots of other people and the ways in which institutions function, and those can have material impacts on us both subtle and gross. More specifically, they can shape the landscape in which we are making decisions about acting in the world, including decisions about how to enact masculinity, regardless of how we feel about the norm in question.

For instance, I was the primary, stay-at-home caregiver for L, my kid, from when he was 9 months old until he started going to school full-time. One strategy common for mothers with young children who are looking for support and solidarity is to attend either formally organized or informal public spaces frequented by other people in similar circumstances. I did lots of this too. Most of the parents in these places are women, though when I was doing it this was not as exclusively the case as it had been even ten years earlier. I never felt unwelcome and I had some very positive interactions over those years. Nonetheless, those spaces and the scope for interactions within them were organized by patriarchal norms around gender and caregiving, by patriarchal and heterosexist norms around gender and interpersonal relating, and by widespread social legacies of gendered violence. That meant that my experience of being a primary caregiver in and beyond those spaces was not just a reflection of my own feelings about the various norms that disdain men who take on that role. It was also shaped by the gendered organization of these spaces in ways that had nothing to do with how I felt. Again, these spaces were very positive and they definitely helped me make it through, but they just could not be a source of the same kind of support and solidarity that they are for (at least some) women. I don't say this to whine, and I acknowledge that my shyness and social reserve probably exacerbated things. Nor do I want to undermine the important role these spaces play for many women. It is just one example of how my experience of parenting was organized in gendered ways.

Or take another example, this time an illustration of a particular casual and seemingly innocuous interaction among men organized along the lines of dominant norms of masculinity. I'm thinking of a particular space constituted by myself and a handful of other men. Sometimes, the conversation turns to things like movies and books and music. Now, I have my own particular preferences around popular culture, which tend to be idiosyncratic and which sometimes conform to dominant understandings of "boy stuff" and sometimes do not. Moreover, I have particular ways that I talk about popular culture when I do not feel otherwise constrained, which involve close and critical readings and attention to lots of things that are almost universally not consistent with expectations of dominant masculinity outside a very restricted set of academic and activist spaces -- things like race and gender and queerness and struggle -- which this space is not. At times, in the space I'm talking about, I've found ways to engage with the conversation and inject some of what interests me. But at other moments, it has felt much less possible -- moments which feel like a self-conscious kind of bonding between other men who are present through talking about stereotypically masculine elements of popular culture in stereotypically masculine ways. In these moments, the fact that it is a part of the dominant commonsense that these are guys talking about guy things means that there is not much space to visibly deviate from the norms without seeming to be disagreeable and disruptive. That's not to say it is impossible. However, the landscape is such that someone wishing to comply totally with dominant norms about masculinity can do so in comfort and with minimal effort, whereas for someone for whom an authentic expression of self is not consistent with these norms has to choose between being less authentically present or engaging in particular kinds of work that the other people present do not have to do.

Obviously that is a very close dissection of one specific kind of moment, but gendered norms organize our interactions such that different moments like this happen all the time. Other oppressive norms function similarly. In fact, many situations in which the most superficially obvious impact of dominant norms around masculinity is the possibility of the putatively harmless cues of disagreement or disapproval are in fact organized in this way, so that even many of the areas in which our personal relationship to norms are most relevant are actually more complicated than that. Even if we can make ourselves not care what other people think, often deviating from dominant norms of masculinity imposes particular kinds of additional work in navigating situations. Individual instances of that work are not necessarily particularly onerous; having to do it all the time can become a significant burden.

Regulation

If the kinds of things discussed in the previous section are hard to see because of how integral they are to our lives, some of the examples in this section are so blatant that ignoring them is hard to understand.

The plain fact is that in certain workplaces, if you do not adhere to certain dominant standards of masculinity, you will face overt hostility or a silent limit on advancement. This is tightly tied to the barriers that women face in the same workplaces. If you deviate from masculine norms in certain ways on your recreational sports team, you may face overt hostility, and you may end up having to choose between the sport you love and behaving in ways consistent with your values and self. If you deviate from masculine norms too openly in many high schools, you may face ridicule and even the threat of violence. If you deviate from masculinity in certain ways, including but not limited to enjoying sexuality with other penis-bearing entities, you might get kicked out of your home. A non-trivial proportion of homeless youth are on the street because they came out and got kicked out. All of which is to say that if you consistently and overtly refuse to conform to some dominant norms of masculinity, and even challenge oppressive behaviours by other men, even if you don't face physical violence, you could still face ridicule and exclusion from social networks within a school, workplace, religious institution, or family.

In other words, refusing to comply with dominant norms around masculinity can result in very material punishment of various kinds. Not always, not for all renunciations, and in ways that are hugely dependent on intersecting experiences of privilege and oppression. But it happens.

Tying It All Together

All of this is to make the point that men struggling against what the article calls "expectations" and I call "norms" is not just a matter of changing our individual relationship to ideas. That matters, but it is only one part of the project. Instead, we need to be aware of the constant interaction among gender as an axis along which the field in which we act and make choices is organized, our conscious and not-so-conscious relationships to gendered norms, and the possibility of punitive responses to counter-normative enactments of masculinity.

Thinking about masculinity and the process of resisting its harms and constrictions in this way has a couple of implications. When we see the act of resistance as no longer solely centred on changing how we feel about amorphous "expectations," it makes a lot more sense to think about doing it with others instead of on our own. It is important to talk to other men, and to people of all genders, about these issues. And to find ways to act together to challenge the ways in which harmful norms organize our experiences and regulate us.

And it is important for men not to get so caught up in the ways in which patriarchal gender norms constrain and harm us that we lose sight of everything else. Even as we are constrained and harmed, our actions -- our practices of masculinity -- help shape the space that other people have to act. We, too, can play a regulatory role, even when we do not realize it. We are, in the context of patriarchal social relations, oppressors, even as we are harmed ourselves. So as we struggle to challenge the ways in which masculinity harms and limits us, we must simultaneously be conscious of acting deliberately to create space for others to act counter to patriarchal gender norms, including in ways that are very different from our own; and we must struggle to work against the ways we benefit from the oppressions of women and other gender-oppressed people.

Reprinted with permission from Scott Neigh's blog, A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land.