men, masculinities and gender politics

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Challenging the Performance of Masculinity

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“Women are dumb,” Bryan* said, “they already have a thousand things going on in their mind about you, so when you ask her out, set a specific date and time; don’t leave it open-ended.” I think I almost choked on my dinner as I heard him advise my friend, Dave.* I did not want to get into an argument since I had not seen Bryan since high school, but his sexist remarks needed to be challenged.

Bryan, who is engaged himself, did not participate in a dialogue with me. Instead, he resorted to personal attacks, profanity and high school “humor.” Every point I made about sexism, male privilege and socialization was twisted into mockery and dismissed as “bullshit.” Dave, on the other hand, was still stressing about how he was going to ask the waitress out. I said to Bryan, “You don’t think there are a thousand things going on in Dave’s mind right now?” Dave nodded and admitted that I was right. Bryan shook his head, “Stop being a pussy, Dave. Be a man, that’s what women want; women want a man, just go and ask her out.”

I always find it disturbing nowadays when I hear someone, female or male, say, “Be a man.” It is an expression that is not only commonly used in our language, but also rarely confronted. Before I delve deeper into social expectations of masculinity, I want to point out what is occurring in the situation I briefly described above.

I am convinced that gender is a performance – something that we do at specific times and in specific circumstances as opposed to something that we have. While our performances are acted upon individually, they are also collaborative, meaning that they are heavily influenced and stylized by the socially constructed norms we and others accept about gender. A lot of the messages we receive about masculinity and femininity, for instance, is shaped, established, and standardized mostly by mainstream media, namely television – our society’s most powerful storyteller, as George Gerbner and other cultivation theorists argue – and also by family, friends, schools, religious institutions, and so on.

When Bryan challenged my friend’s masculinity or “manhood,” the response was reactionary. However conflicted Dave was, whether about his confidence, the time and place of his possible date, or the general anxiety that comes along with expressing romantic interest in someone, it did not matter. His masculinity was being challenged and even jeopardized in front of his friends. In order to demonstrate and prove his “manliness,” he needed to perform it. Of course, this is not to conclude that this was the conscious reasoning in my friend’s mind. My argument is that many of our performances, especially in situations like Dave’s, result from processes of internalization.

For instance, where does this singular idea about what it means to be a “real man” come from? Who is telling us to “man up” and “be a man?” What happens to those of us who do not “man up?” What images and messages are young men receiving and/or internalizing about “masculinity?” How does it surface in their language, behavior, appearance, social interactions, and other aspects of cultural life? In what ways does the model for “masculinity” in White heteropatriarchy affect men of color? These are several questions I have been reflecting on for a while and I recognize that I may not address or answer all of them in this post alone. However, I do find importance in at least putting the questions forth.

If we look at the way boys are raised, we find an unwritten rule about masculinity that is immensely widespread in contemporary American society: Don’t be feminine. As Dr. Julia T. Wood writes:

Early in life, most boys learn they must not think, act, or feel like girls and women. Any male who shows sensitivity or vulnerability is likely to be called a sissy, a crybaby, a mama’s boy, or a wimp. Peer groups pressure males to be tough, aggressive, and not feminine.

It is easy to see the anti-female directive in the way Bryan told my friend to “stop being a pussy.” Whenever men want to degrade, insult, and/or challenge other men, attacks are often made on their masculinity. The insults may be very direct with words like “girlie” or indirect with words like “sissy.” The model of masculinity does not actually teach us what it means to “be a man,” but rather says, “To be a man means to not be female.” Men must do the opposite of what women are stereotypically thought to do: men should suppress their emotions; they must be muscular, strong – physically and emotionally – and confident at all times; and they must not deviate from what society deems as “masculine. It would be irresponsible to ignore the homophobia that strongly accompanies this model as well. That is, one is not only “sissy” and “girlie,” but also “gay,” “homo,” or a “fag.” I remember from my own experience in high school, a lot of young heterosexual men, including myself, were afraid of receiving homosexual labels from our peers because we knew how damaging it was. I even had a friend who was always called “faggot” and eventually got beaten up in the locker room. I was spared because I was good at floor hockey and the only one who scored a goal against our gym teacher. I did not stand up for my friend because I didn’t want to be “faggot,” too.

Being brown, South Asian, and Muslim in a predominately White Judeo-Christian suburban town wasn’t easy for me despite earning some respect based on the talents I displayed in gym, art, and filmmaking classes. During high school and at an age where I was not thinking so deeply or consciously about masculinity, I felt the pressures of doing things that broke from the values I was taught at home. I understand that the South Asian and Muslim communities are not monolithic, therefore anything I say about my experiences and personal decisions should not be interpreted as generalizations about all South Asians and/or Muslims, but my refusal to date and go to the prom was grounded in my personal cultural and religious beliefs. In retrospect, I can interpret how my resistance to dating and school dances were treated as “unmanly” – since having a girlfriend showed other young men that you were, first and foremost, heterosexual and worthy of respect and admiration – and “non-Western.” The attitude I got from many peers was, “He’s not one of us anyway.” Plus, he’s a “faggot.” I remember being laughed at a lot of times when I wore my shalwar kameez to school during “cultural appreciation” days. Young men would ask, “Why are you wearing a dress?” Because White men don’t wear dresses, but apparently South Asian men do.

Within the Muslim community – and I speak from my experiences in my college years since I did not have enough exposure to other Muslims in my childhood – I take note on how financial success is stressed upon for men. The goal is to emulate the example of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, but I find it interesting how some Muslim men (but not all) I have encountered discourage what would be classified as “feminine” traits such as showing compassion or writing romantic poetry. Loving, compassionate, and merciful – these were the characteristics of the Prophet, but when we challenge the strict gender segregation practices in Mosques, we hear harsh condemnations from scholars and others who dismiss it as un-Islamic. Men are traditionally taught to control their sexual desires, while women are taught that they are the cause of male sexual desires, hence justifying gender segregation. Men are taught that they represent the community; they are at the forefront; and they play an active role in marriages, while women are passive and pushed to the background. This is not only an example of our male unearned privilege, where we are oblivious to the advantages we have over women, but also an example of stereotypical roles we are expected to fulfill as men. In other words, if a man is not assertive in his community or not the dominant partner in a heterosexual relationship, he will be criticized and stigmatized for it.

The mainstream Muslim community also places pressure on men to focus mostly on establishing a career and being financially independent. Success, on these terms, means men are qualified to get married and support a family. The mufti at my local Mosque once taught young men that their goal should be about pursuing careers in fields that would earn them money and respect. The arts were completely discouraged because, according to him, “no one will marry you.” I wonder how this affects other Muslim men who are artists at heart, but are pressured to study in fields they have no passion for. As a result of these pressures, I believe a lot of Muslim men project an image of content, displaying to others that they are secure and comfortable with their circumstances, no matter how dissatisfied they really are.

I do not deny or exclude the Muslim men who are passionate about their career or ambitions in non-artistic fields, but I still think it is significant to examine how societal and community pressures on men relates to the idealized “strong man” or “tough guy” image, which, in many cases, must be projected to prove one’s “manhood,” not just to other men, but to women as well. It behaves as a shield to hide “cracks in the armor,” so to speak. If a heterosexual man believes his sensitive and/or emotional side will stigmatize him among other men, and subsequently be seen as a “turn off” to women, his defense mechanism is to suppress those traits and replace it with the guise of “toughness” (which I will discuss further in the next paragraph). Especially in the Muslim community, if women are socialized to be caretakers and homemakers, therefore conditioned to seek men who are confident decision makers, career-oriented, and financially independent, why would they want to marry a man who shows his weaknesses and doubts? This leads me to the conclusion that all men, not just Muslim men, are taught to be machines, not human beings. The latter are three-dimensional, flawed, and complex, while the former are programmed to conform to socially constructed codes of one-dimensional and rigid prototypes of masculinity.

Conforming to the “Tough Guise” model is not exclusive or unique to Muslim men at all. This is very prominent in Western society among men in general. Anti-sexist male activist, Jackson Katz, writes about masculinity being a “projection, a pose, a guise, an act, a mask that men often wear to shield our vulnerability and hide our humanity.” In his documentary, “Tough Guise,” he elaborates about the mask men wear:

This mask can take a lot of forms but one that’s really important for us to look at in our culture at the millennium is what I call the Tough Guise. The front that many men put up that’s based on an extreme notion of masculinity that emphasizes toughness and physical strength and gaining the respect and admiration of others through violence or the implicit threat of it.

Recently, I noticed the celebration of the “Tough Guise” in the Muslim community when Amir Khan, a British-Muslim boxer of Pakistani descent won the world boxing association light-welterweight title in New York. Interesting enough, Rima Fakih, a Lebanese Muslim-American from Michigan, won the Miss USA beauty pageant around the same time. While much has been said about Rima Fakih – some arguing that her victory was worthy of celebration, despite acknowledging the sexist history of beauty pageants, while others found it exploitative and objectifying altogether – I heard no criticism about Amir Khan and what his victory said about masculinity.

The silence comes as no surprise to me. In fact, whenever we discuss gender issues, most of us think exclusively about women instead of both women and men. The same applies when we discuss race; we think about people of color and leave White people unexamined. Men and what it means to be White, in respect to gender and race, are “invisible” and unchallenged by the mainstream. Elan magazine, an online publication on global Muslim youth, published an article, “Amir Khan Crosses the Pond and Dominates,” which wrote the following about Khan’s victory:

Good news, adolescent American Muslim boys – you have a new role model and he looks just like you except with a much better physique! Someone put his name on a kufi for kids to wear to the mosque or give him his own PS3 title, because I think he’s just about to be the next big thing in worldwide boxing. At least, I hope so.

Not only does the author glorify traits that are typically associated with what society and the dominant culture has defined as “manly,” but he also encourages young Muslims to see Amir Khan has a “role model.” Do we really want to teach boys (whether Muslim or non-Muslim) to look up to someone who is simply known for his physical strength and ability to knock someone out? Is that what constitutes a role model or a “real man?” Do we expect Muslim fathers to hold their palms open for their sons and tell them, “Hit my hand as hard as you can?” If Muslim boys experience Islamophobia and racism in high school, should they behave like Amir Khan, throw on the “Tough Guise,” and try to beat up bullies? Is this really “good news” for adolescent Muslim-Americans or is a perpetuation of everything that is wrong with the way boys and men are socialized? I strongly argue the latter.

I am not trying to make this a religious discussion, but there is a famous Hadith (saying of the Prophet) that says the strongest person is not the strongest wrestler, but rather the one who can control his/her anger. The Prophet condemned all forms of violence and only permitted self-defense (and even that had strict rules). I am not making this point to say boxing is “haram” or to “infidelize” anyone, but rather I’m encouraging us to question the stereotypical messages that boxing sends out about “masculinity” and what it means to be a “real man,” mostly because such messages are immensely popular and prevalent. Why do we praise a man for his toughness and physical strength over a man who is sensitive, tender, and compassionate?

Without doubt there is more to discuss about masculinity and I admit that I am exploring this topic myself. I know I cannot deny how boys and men have been insulted, ostracized, and abused for behaving in ways that exist outside of the tight, suffocating box we call “masculinity.” I know that when boys and men express their doubts, uncertainties, and needs for companionship, Love, affection, and even protection, they are discouraged, ridiculed and forced to suppress their emotions and conceal their humanity. This is a danger to men as much as it is to women because, as Jackson Katz argues in “Tough Guise,” much of the violence in the world, whether against other men or women, is committed by men. We just don’t pay enough attention to gender when we talk about violence. When men are taught to “man up” and get physical to solve conflicts instead of communicating, the correlation between masculinity and violence is unsurprising.

The phrases we use for each other are hurtful and even traumatizing for those of us who are very sensitive beneath the “Tough Guise.” Labels like “sissy,” “pussy,” and “faggot” easily train us to become homophobic and hostile towards anyone who doesn’t fit the “right” model of masculinity. I would also argue that phrases like “nice guys finish last” and “mama’s boy” are also hurtful because they can potentially generate insecurity. The sad part is that we don’t ask ourselves: what is wrong with being a “nice guy,” and opposed to what, a “mean” guy? What is wrong with someone having a positive and healthy relationship with his mother? Does that make him less “manly?”

This box is suffocating. I believe many men feel it too, but may not be able to express it. I also believe a lot of men are convinced that they have to be “tough” and that there is no way out of it; it’s simply how they should be. Maybe, as Robert Jensen writes, it’s best for us to throw this whole idea of what it means to be a “real man” out of our minds. We have to break out of this small box and search for something “deeper, richer, and more satisfying.” We certainly need the help of women, but more importantly, we need help from other men, too.

As I watched my male friend Dave hide how conflicted he was about asking someone on a date and then hearing the “stop being a pussy” remark, it made me think about how some deep part of us must be calling for a new model to embrace our humanity. At least, I know this is true for me. There is a longing to be free and not confined to rigid labels or limited by boundaries. To be whole human beings and not the one-dimensional, unemotional machines that society and culture demands of us to be.

* Names changed for confidentiality.

Jehanzeb Dar is a Pakistani Muslim-American who likes to write about mysticism/spirituality, politcs, feminism, and media literacy. He currently blogs at Muslim Reverie.

(Reproduced with permission)