“Masculinity, a delicate flower”

I laughed when I read the above phrase, the title of a kind of absurd TIME article by Meredith Melnick on masculinity and male gender identity. It so perfectly captures the contradiction at the heart of patriarchal claims about masculinity. According to complementarians, masculinity is all about being strong, aggressive, independent, attracted to women (and only women), leading and protecting the “weak” (because proper men can’t possibly be weak and anyone who isn’t a man is by definition weak), rational, etc. All of these characteristics are supposed to be inclinations that come “naturally” to men – recall Mark Driscoll’s statement that “Men want to be men.”

At the same time, complementarians constantly obsess over whether men are behaving in a sufficiently “manly” fashion; no detail of appearance of behavior is too trivial for them to assign a proper gender to it (true story: I once heard a pastor say that canaries are not an appropriate pet for a real man). Any departure from conventional masculine gender expression is an “assault” on masculinity, and a disqualification from it. They’re constantly wringing their hands over the inadequacies of modern men, supposedly emasculated by feminism. Driscoll’s derisive claim that “Sixty percent of Christians are chicks, and the forty percent that are dudes are still sort of chicks” perfectly captures both complementarian anxieties about emasculation and complementarian contempt for women and “inadequate” men.

How resilient can such masculinity really be if it’s so easily disrupted? How confident can these men be  in their “natural” masculinity if they’re so easily emasculated? How rational is a masculinity that perceives pink nail polish as a threat to its integrity?

This kind of masculinity is the complete opposite of “natural.”  It’s a carefully orchestrated performance, a facade that must be constantly maintained (“gender role” is an apt phrase for it, come to think of it). The moment the act of manliness is dropped – or simply fails to be convincing – one ceases to be a “real” man. This explains complementarians’ ever-present anxiety over male gender expression and sexuality, and their constant need to vigorously demonstrate their “manliness” in these respects.

To wit, Mark Driscoll’s latest bizarre, exhibitionist assertion of his heterosexuality:

Mark Driscoll isn’t satisfied with condemning actual gay sex; he must also distance himself from anything that could be remotely construed as implying it, even harmless, meaningless Facebook memes. Mark Driscoll, despite being a 40 year old grown ass man, seems to think “poking” is a serious synonym for sex. And Mark Driscoll really needs you to know that he would never think the idea of “poking” another dude is anything other than gross. This and other public comments by Driscoll betray a terror of being perceived as anything other than 100% straight, a need to be ever vigilant against any and all associations with anything even kinda sorta maybe queer-ish. Even poking other men on Facebook. That’s mature, manly leadership for you.

Of course, this anxiety over gender and sexuality is hardly unique to complementarianism. This is another lie of patriarchal Christianity, i.e., the claim that its definition of real masculinity is “countercultural.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s merely one manifestation of the constant societal pressure that men and people perceived as male are under to “act like a man”:

Manhood is a social status, something a guy earned historically, through brutal tests of physical endurance or other risky demonstrations of toughness that mark the transition from boyhood to manhood. But while that masculinity is hard-won, it can be easily lost.

Once earned, men have to continue proving their worth through manly action. In modern society, that may no longer mean, say, killing the meatiest wooly mammoth, but there are equivalent displays of masculinity: earning a decent living or protecting one’s family. One misstep — losing a job, for instance, or letting someone down — and that gender identity slips away. (from the article linked above; Melnick makes some seriously problematic assumptions about gender identity and expression, but on this point she’s spot on).

Patriarchal fantasies like Driscoll’s Ultimate Fighting Jesus are merely less subtle, more overtly violent and misogynistic expressions of pervasive cultural associations of masculinity with aggression and dominance. Likewise, the perpetual vigilance with which complementarians police masculinity and indeed all gender identities mirrors broader cultural anxieties over and limitations on sexuality and gender expression. The phrase “no homo” is a secular example of this:

The sad and awful irony is that all this angst over acting real makes it remarkably difficult for men and people perceived as male to actually be real, i.e., authentic and true to themselves in their gender expression (and sexual expression as well, not only by making heterosexuality compulsory, but also by insisting that specific gender roles be observed in sexual encounters between men and women).

Far from encouraging realness in masculinity or any other gender identity, our society actually punishes people for being real. Even men who buy into the act are harmed by the severe limitations it places on their emotional expression and behavior, the impossible standards of godlike dominance and control it imposes on them, and the damage it wreaks on personal relationships. Such masculinity is by nature fragile and constantly under threat.


16 Comments on ““Masculinity, a delicate flower””

  1. Kristin says:

    I’ve long made the same argument but from the flip side. If I, as a woman, am so naturally inferior then why do you need to work so hard to “keep me in my place”? This applies equally well to racism, cis-sexism and every other form of oppression.

    Thanks for a thoughtful and well written post.

    • Grace says:

      Thanks for the comment, Kristin. And great point – these folks are similarly threatened by any woman who believes herself to be equal to (or, heaven forbid, better than) a man in any respect. What are they so scared of? It’s very telling.

  2. Beady Sea says:

    The first thing I did after reading this was check to see if there’s some way I can poke Mark Driscoll on Facebook, but it looks like no dice #sadface

  3. relaxmammal says:

    Excellent post. There’s a chapter in Men’s Lives called “The Man Box”, which details the rules and roles of patriarchal manhood, the ways people perceived as male may deviate from it, and the specific punishments allotted by society for doing so.

    The punishment is an important point to make, and its ramifications are far-reaching and often subtle. Elderly men who commit suicide often cite being called “cute” in the notes they leave for their families. There are alarming studies published on men’s expression of grief or sadness – according to the men polled in my class, it’s “okay” to cry only when your dog dies and your mother dies. Extensive longitudinal studies into psychological ramifications of this imposed standard of masculinity have yet to be published widely to my knowledge, but if you’re looking for it you see it everywhere.

    I have some hope for our boys, but I feel like there is a lot of damage control to be done for our men of every age. We are all held in thrall somehow, in minor and major ways, to the institutions that keep us from personal and public authenticity.

    • Grace says:

      I’ll have to check that article out, thanks for mentioning it! Your comment re: elderly male suicides is a heartbreaking example of how harmful and toxic this model of masculinity is, in concrete, devastating ways.

    • Faith says:

      The “Man box” really is much smaller than the “Woman box.” I spent most of my life in the man box, and now I’ve spent a little more than a year in the woman box.

      The walls are a lot more rigid in the man box. As a woman, I can do things that are outside of the woman box (like work as a truck driver or fix my own car), and people just think I’m amazing and perhaps a little eccentric. I feel patronized at times, but it’s better than back when I was constantly checking my appearance, speech, and behavior to make sure I was staying inside the man box. I feel bad for men, even those for whom masculinity is their natural inclination. Their box is tiny, and there is no mercy for those who don’t fit.

      • Grace says:

        Yea. Feminism has worked on making the “woman box” bigger. I can’t remember who it was that commented a few weeks ago that there hasn’t been any movement analogous to women’s lib to demand more freedom in male gender expression. I think we’re starting to see inklings of that now…I hope it’s an issue that feminists will begin to address more aggressively. For one thing, it’s not gender equality to say that women can “act like men” but men can’t “act like women,” but on a more concrete level than that, the pressure of trying to stay within the constraints of normative masculinity must be absolutely crushing. I can’t even imagine.

        • timberwraith says:

          That was me, I believe. :)

          Btw, I’m a trans woman, too. I transitioned quite a while ago. After the passage of a good number of years I can say with full confidence that there are innumerable, terribly confining gender expectations on all sides of the sex/gender divide. I just want to be clear: my previous, linked comment is by no means meant to indicate that things on this side of the sex/gender continuum are a paradise… far from it.

          As best I can tell, there’s a kind of counter-intuitive imbalance going on. Men are limited to a smallish box of expected behaviors, and yet, men still collectively wield the bulk of power in society. As time has passed, women have come to occupy a social space where we can move around in a slightly bigger box with permeable walls, but we still struggle with surviving the effects of living in a society governed by male dominated power structures. (And, if given half a chance, regressive, patriarchal forces in society will try to push everyone’s boxes into increasingly smaller dimensions.)

          So, perhaps the grass is both greener and browner on both sides of the fence? Or maybe all of the grass is patchy and growing in various shades of brown while some of us are spreading grass seed and water, while others are spraying kerosene and tossing matches…

          to stay within the constraints of normative masculinity must be absolutely crushing. In a number of ways it is pretty awful and in spite of that, there are quite a few useful advantages that are granted to you… particularly if you are living in a western nation, you are cissexual/cisgender, and you are white. I’d say that it’s a mixed bag of unconsciously held power intermingled with deeply uncomfortable accompanying limitations. In some cases, the limitations are easier for people to personally recognize because they’re so painful. (However, I suspect that plenty of men have no clue as to how deeply their own repressive sense of masculinity hurts them.) Of course, the advantages can be harder to recognize because they are beneficial.

        • timberwraith says:

          I also wanted to toss out an idea that I’ve seen explored in plenty of other feminist venues: the continuation of sexist oppression—and quite arguably, LGBT oppression—is deeply dependent upon maintaining notions of male/masculine ways of being that are distinctly defined as existing in contrast to female/feminine ways of being. Maintaining a social environment where one group of people is dominant and the other is subordinate depends upon well defined boundaries between the two groups. Should the boundary between the two become too permeable, the social structures that maintain a power imbalance between the two groups will start to deteriorate.

          The Mark Driscolls of the world are, on some conscious and/or unconscious level feeling threatened that their social basis of power is eroding. Hence, we have his insistence upon rigidly defined gender roles for men. When talking about conservative Christians, I suspect that they see the evolving, loosening roles of women and men as a threat to the power base of Christianity itself because Christianity has traditionally been a deeply patriarchal religion.

          Similarly, the increased acceptance of LGBT people is seen as a threat because LGBT people express their sexuality and/or identities in ways that challenge the traditional constructions of maleness, femaleness, masculinity, and femininity (that is, they are traditionally constructed in relation to heterosexuality and within the context of a power imbalance between women and men). If you listen to the rhetoric surrounding the Christian right’s opposition to same-sex marriage, you’ll hear a lot of fear surrounding “improper” gender roles and their effect upon society and children. Again, this all goes back to what conservative Christians conceive of as the “proper” boundaries between being a woman or a man. If you violate those boundaries, you violate the hierarchy of power supposedly established by God, and thus challenge the validity of Christianity itself.

          At the end of the day, it all boils down to social power and the maintenance thereof. If we want to effectively challenge the existence of that power imbalance, then we need to work toward ways that dissolve the boundaries between oppressor and oppressed. How society defines the boundaries of manhood should be focused upon just as strongly as the ways in which society defines the boundaries of womanhood.

  4. Mark says:

    Amazing post, Grace. I never cease to be amazed on how pervasive this cultural obsession with “manliness” is. Just recently, a Facebook “friend” insisted that he only is sexually attracted to men who act like men, who are truly masculine, and who are pure in essence, male in essence, simply men.
    Even in groups that, supposedly, have had to face the contradictions and limitations of the dual gender paradigm, and the immense hatred, segregation, and violence that comes to those who challenge this paradigm, the obsession with “manliness” is ever present. The despise that very often gay men who “don’t look or act masculine” (whatever that really is) are segregated further by their own community, and isolated. They are constantly told it is not okay to be how they are, they are not desirable, and need to change or will have no possibility for real happiness.
    Confronting a gay men who defends this binary gender paradigm is often a battle against a wind mill. The end message: women are not human.

    • Grace says:

      Internalized prejudice is so incredibly sad. I’m wonder if he has any idea that calling other men ‘unmanly’ is basically self-hatred.

      One thing that’s amazing to me is this dogma that all men can be macho, or whatever – we all know that’s not true. We all know men who will never pass for macho no matter how hard they try. It’s often not that hard to tell when men are putting on an act of “manliness” – and they get punished even for that, for trying to be macho and “failing.” It’s like there’s some collective consensus to ignore the truth staring everyone in the face – variations in masculine identity are innate and very difficult to suppress or hide (and no one should have to do that, anyway).

      The end message: women are not human. – it always seems to come down to that, doesn’t it?

    • Faith says:

      Oh, this one kills me too, and it’s also prevalent in the lesbian community. Women who present more femininely are looked down on, there is immense pressure to conform to the lesbian “dykey” stereotype. Not even women who love women want to be associated with femininity.

  5. i struggle all the time with my own values about who i am — gender-wise and otherwise. there’s a constant need for updating & becoming more open. as a 50-something human being, i am carrying so much baggage! this reflection on manliness is esp helpful as i evolve in my current relationship with the man in my life. you’re getting my week off to a solid start. thanks for sharing this post and keeping me real. :)

  6. acme says:

    Hi, Grace, I got to hear Ursula Le Guin’s commencement address in person 25 years ago — I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time in a patriarchal church/marriage, losing my voice, myself for too long.

    Here was her call to action to me and my fellow graduates.

    “When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. That’s what I want–to hear you erupting. You young Mount St. Helenses who don’t know the power in you–I want to hear you.”

    Here’s the full text:


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