Updated: Apr 7, 2021
By Irisa R. and Mariam H.
“So what we learned was masculinity is the ‘one size fits all’ that seems to fit no one.”
In the past few weeks we interviewed some of our male readers, both friends and strangers. The patriarchy is framed as a system that oppresses women, and protects men. It creates a simple narrative of good versus bad, where men are always benefiting and women are always suffering. It depicts a story where our experiences are separated, or in direct opposition to one another, where their struggles are theirs and ours are ours.
But this story doesn’t exist; the reality is far more intertwined. Most of our interviewees highlighted that at some point in their adolescence they had either aspired to or been rejected by the traditional confines of being a man. Only upon failing to fit the mould did they start to unpack their own relationship with masculinity.
I’ll make a man out of you
We asked all the men “what does masculinity mean to you?”Such an enormous question and at that point, three minutes into meeting most of them, it was a big ask. Most listed characteristics that they thought were more generally accepted; strong, dominant, authoritative and rational. But this answer shifted when we asked, what does being a man mean to you? They all changed their responses. Most identified a greater purpose, being able to serve society and the responsibility they feel towards their family. Some shared their thoughts on gender fluidity and how the term masculinity has lost meaning.
Most of the men didn’t identify with one or more of these characteristics and at first, they saw that as a fault within themselves. They described how after high school they learned to accept that maybe they just weren’t “manly men” because they weren’t the loudest in a room or the most authoritative. One interviewee said that in his past relationship his partner would be disappointed in him for not being assertive enough. He said, “I don’t mind making decisions but if I had to do it all the time it would become mentally draining.” He identified a really interesting dynamic - where being assertive was seen as masculine, while being soft - spoken or sharing decisions was seen as being less so. One interviewee concluded that by defining masculinity you are defining what it is not, and ended with this, “[to me masculinity] is a system that reinforces heteronormativity, patriarchy, all these conservative ideas about what being a man is and in doing so reinforces what it means to be a woman, or queer or straight.”
Two of the men that we interviewed spoke on how their understanding of masculinity is informed by their religion. One of the interviewees is a devout Catholic and explained that when he looked to Saintly figures, most of the male Saints had what we would consider to be feminine traits, and that these traits were respected and admired. Similarly, one of our interviewees who described himself as a practicing Muslim explained that he would often turn to the Hadith where he learned that Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) would be vulnerable with those around him and that it was seen as sign of a strong heart. Yet, they both felt that many of the ideals they were taught in their religion were in contradiction to what they internalised from growing up in a secular society.
Most men explained that masculinity existed when it was performed for an audience, so it needed to be seen. It was in the breadth of shoulders, in how tall they were or in the timbre of their voice. One interviewee described it as the amount of space a man could take up in a room to make an impact. Contrary to the body standards present for women, which is tied to ideals of attractiveness or beauty, men’s body image is tied more closely to whether it shows strength and dominance. Most of the men identified that they had to perform their manhood, not just in how they were perceived but in what they did - so the career they chose.
How do we value men?
Bell Hooks wrote that “[the value of males] is always determined by what they do. In an anti-patriarchal culture males do not have to prove their value and worth.” It reminds us of how growing up, we would always see all the men in our community sacrifice so much to make sure that they could care for their families. Usually, at the expense of their mental or physical health, which meant that they would raise daughters and sons seeing the role of the provider taken to an extreme. Where instead of having present fathers, who were emotionally available or able to give time, we would have fathers who gave all their time to earning and providing, which created family dynamics that were hard to change. It meant that the women had to give immensely when it came to emotional support and the men had to give immensely as providers.
There are countless stories of how men in our communities after losing their jobs would stop socialising because they felt their worth had been diminished. Which begs the question - why aren’t we valuing men for their emotional maturity, for their ability to compromise, to be kind, to actively serve others and their communities, to be confident in how they show affection, to dress how they please, and to be able to speak how they want to, without feeling like it would affect how others perceive them?
One of our interviewees said that, “your masculinity does not have to be defined by how you withhold your emotions.” This isn’t surprising but most men are taught to feel less of a “man” if they cry, or if they communicate hurt or tenderness. One of our interviewees explained that growing up, anger was always an acceptable emotion, he was always given the space to be angry. However, he wasn’t allowed or encouraged at any point to cry or to share how he felt. On the contrary, another interviewee expressed that by learning from his father, and how available and open he was with his emotions, he learned to cry comfortably and often. This was a very singular response, because most men said they didn’t feel like there was space for this with either their family or friends.
One interviewee explained that, “[my friends and I] now have really emotionally intimate conversations about how much we love each other, and I could never do anything like that with my previous friends.” This would usually lead to other mental health struggles. It was interesting because most of the men shared at some point that they felt the pressure to fulfil certain responsibilities without complaining about them. One person shared that he felt he was allowed to be angry as long as he still did what was expected of him.
Colonialism back at it again!
One of the interviewees spoke at length about how the traditional traits we associate with masculinity like strength and rationality are a colonial legacy. The research concluded that European colonialists would further their agenda by degrading and feminising the Indigenous values of the land they colonised. Thus, anything suggestive of an indigenous identity, for example displaying soft-spoken gentility, spirituality, sophisticated traditional dress, or a cooperative attitude, was seen as representing a lack of virility, irrationality, backwardness, fragility and other characteristics associated with inferiority (Gouda 2007).
For example, in Indonesia it was common for men to share household obligations with women, and the Dutch demoted this behaviour in both their propaganda, and their teachings as a form of weakness, so that Indonesian men would learn to take on more aggressive characteristics (or at least aspire to them). Similarly, in pre-colonial modern day India, Bangladesh and Pakistan it was common for men to wear traditional attire in the workplace, however, the British introduced the idea that educated men should wear suits because traditional wear was ‘delicate’ and ‘womanly.’ These are just two minor examples of how colonisation positioned the non-white man as inferior or lacking and how these ideas have persisted.
Two of the interviewees also expressed that as Queer men they had to actively reject many of the ideals that came with heteronormative masculinity. Similarly one said that he didn’t find a lot of comfort in the LGBTQ space because he saw it as inherently white supremacist. He explained that because Western societies are one of the most heteronormative societies that have ever existed that it gives us a model of masculinity which intertwines gender and sex, many Eastern and Indigenous perspectives on gender are far less binary. He argued that his sexuality shouldn’t be an identifier because historically in the region he is from, a person’s sexuality is seen as a social practice and not as a way to define oneself.
Some said they didn’t feel athletic enough, others felt they weren’t loud enough and the rest felt that they were in spaces where they were expected to make decisions they were not equipped for. One of our interviewees laughed while he explained that he was told that as the man in the family he was expected to protect his sister at all costs, and that he would have a say in who she marries. He laughed and exclaimed, “she was five years older than me I could never tell her who to marry!” Another interviewee amusingly said, “I can’t serve and protect. If there was a war I would be discharged. Of course I wouldn’t participate in imperialism, but because of my moral objections I would be seen as effeminate.”
So what we learned was masculinity is the ‘one size fits all’ that seems to fit no one. The experiences of the men we spoke to highlighted that when choosing to define their own manhood the interpretations were far more fluid and individualised, straying from the rigid ideals of Western masculinity to include attributes such as soft-spokenness, patience and tolerance.
Earlier this year we wrote about the need women feel to take care of the emotional needs of those around them, the caretaker complex, even if it was detrimental to their own wellbeing it was something they often persisted in. In writing this piece a strange parallel emerged: all of the men spoke of an expectation to provide. Some actively rejected it, others saw it as a duty, and others still felt burdened by a future of it. Yet for most of the interviewees it had shaped some of the bigger decisions they made in their lives and this meant that they were so busy fulfilling one role they couldn’t even begin to entertain or have the space to think about the others. We hope that we can collectively move toward a culture where the burden of these ideals are not shouldered as silently as they have been.
Hasan, M.K., Aggleton, P. and Persson, A., 2018. The makings of a man: Social generational masculinities in Bangladesh. Journal of Gender Studies, 27(3), pp.347-361.
Kyler-Yano, J.Z. and Mankowski, E.S., 2020. What does it mean to be a real man? Asian American college men’s masculinity ideology. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 21(4), p.643.
O. de Visser, R., Mushtaq, M. and Naz, F., 2020. Masculinity beliefs and willingness to seek help among young men in the United Kingdom and Pakistan. Psychology, Health & Medicine, pp.1-11.
Prianti, D.D., 2019. The Identity Politics of Masculinity as a Colonial Legacy. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 40(6), pp.700-719.
We interviewed men that were culturally and linguistically diverse from a variety of professions, religious backgrounds and sexual orientations. We tried our best to include people from a diverse range of communities but due to certain time constraints we couldn't interview as many people as we wanted but hey there is always the possibility of part two!