Deconstructing Masculinity

Sheryl Plant argues that masculinity needs to be questioned and critiqued just as much as the concept of femininity; only then can male violence be fully addressed.

, 11 February 2006

The other day I watched yet another news bulletin about the increasing violent behaviour towards others on our streets in Britain. The ITV bulletin quite solemnly declared that violent crimes such as mugging, GBH, ABH and assault, sexual or otherwise, were once again on the rise. The bulletin started looking into various reasons why such violence may be on the up, factors such as unemployment, yob or youth culture and poverty were taken into account.

However, the news media (or any other media for that matter) has never even considered that the vast majority of violent crime is carried out by men. There has never been a newsflash or piece of analysis in the media headlined with; “XX% of all violent crime is carried out by men: what is it about men that makes them so violent?” It is quite simply assumed, ignored, taken for granted, ‘common sense’.

I believe that masculinity is a feminist issue

Now, I am aware I am writing on a feminist website, and feminism is larely concerned with women, but I do believe that masculinity is a feminist issue. When we consider that one in every four women in the UK will be subjected to some kind of domestic violence in their lifetimes, and men are also frequently victims of violence from other men, we have to start questioning why the men are doing it; what is it about men that makes them so violent?

Another reason why I believe we should question the apparent violent natures of our menfolk is exactly this common sense assumption that it is simply normal behaviour for men. When something is ‘common sensical’ in our society is when it is at its most powerful.

As Jackson Katz notes, when we think of issues around race or gender we think of the dominated groups in our particular society (e.g. Black, Asian, Women). We don’t think of the dominating groups (White, Men) as having gender or race considerations – because they are seen as the ‘norm’. As it is considered ‘normal,’ masculinity is rarely deconstructed in the same way as femininity has been, and I believe this is how masculinity shores up on much of its power. Men never see the need to change their ways to accommodate greater equality between men and women, in contrast to the way that women have changed as a result of feminism.

masculinity is rarely deconstructed in the same way as femininity

If we consider how young women who brawl violently and drunkenly in the street are treated in the media – with outrage, suspicion, shock; whereas with young, drunken, violent men nobody bats an eyelid. Of course they are violent, people say, they are men, it’s the testosterone running through their veins! Erm, really? Is that it? Is it quite simply that men think in a Tarzan like fashion – ‘I am man with crazy hormones therefore I will beat everyone up?’ Now this isn’t very fair on passive, calm, non-aggressive men who wouldn’t hurt a fly is it?

This view of men is illustrated also by how male victims of domestic violence are often treated: with ridicule and hilarity, almost as if they have lost their masculinity because they were beaten at the hands of a woman.

So in order to further the feminist cause, I believe it is men’s turn to take the spotlight. Masculinity must be deconstructed if it is to change. If we want greater equality between men and women, men must begin to learn that their ‘true masculinity’ may not be particularly true after all and that they too are confined within a gender box. And if they learn to escape this box, then both men and women can live fuller, happier lives with a greater understanding of each other.

men must begin to learn that they too are confined within a gender box

Putting my naive utopia to one side for a moment and getting back to reality, we must get back to the deconstruction of masculinity. I’m not saying that biology does not play a part in the male psyche. Of course the higher levels of testosterone in the male bloodstream have some affect on men, but I do not believe that it is the sole or even defining factor of violence in young males.

So what is it making men ever more violent? Is it that almost passe chestnut of a male identity crisis now more women are in work? As Susan Faludi discusses in her book ‘Stiffed;’ men are now becoming ‘hyper masculine’ because they feel they have been betrayed by a society that has promised them everything, and due to feminism they think that women have taken what is ‘rightfully’ theirs. Well, perhaps this is the case, but if we consider that on average women in the UK are still paid 1/3 less than men and that it is still men who run most businesses, get the most promotions, and that most women tend to work part time and in the service industry (yep, that means cleaning, and we think things have changed!), I really don’t think men are getting their knickers in a twist too much about that and if they are, they are over reacting just a mite.

Male identity crisis may be a factor in the increase of violent male behaviour but in truth, the construction of masculinity itself is one of the biggest contributing factors into such violence. Ask anybody what they think a ‘real man’ is and they will point to images of big, hard muscles, big guns, the ability to fight and win, images of aggression, strength, power. Need I go on? You only have to watch movies such as Sin City or Fight Club to see what this society thinks a ‘real man’ should be.

Ask anybody what they think a ‘real man’ is and they will point to images of big, hard muscles, big guns

Consider Hip Hop artists, with their huge muscles and impressive swaggers; they have all the money they could ever want, not to mention all that attractive female ‘totty.’ No wonder young men are aspiring to be them and thus, copying their violent way of life. These two examples of male culture and how they influence masculinity are merely the tip of the iceberg: consider male athletes, film stars, TV programmes and video games aimed at men. It seems that all male culture is violent in some way and in recent years, this violence has only been emphasised, thus the construction of masculine identity is inevitably going to become more violent as well. I am not going down the ‘violent media make people violent route,’ I am just saying that it is a factor in the rise of male violence, as it can and does influence young men into thinking they have to be a certain way to be a ‘real man.’

Masculinity as it is currently expressed links strength with aggression. Yet, aggression is a form of weakness, not strength; if you have to resort to aggression to sort things out, you have done something wrong. True strength comes from perseverance, rationality, an ability to deal with a situation in a calm and fair manner.

To finish, I will mention a comment a male columnist on a Newspaper I work on made to me a few months back; he told me that ‘if women want to be equal they should learn to be able to take the punches.’ When I mentioned that feminism was about women not having to put up with the punches (for example, in a situation like domestic violence) he replied with ‘no, women should learn to stand up for themselves and be able to fight.’ Is this the case? That the masculine way is the right way, the baseline of human behaviour, therefore women should change (i.e. become more aggressive) to become equal? I hope this article suggests something different. I hope this article suggests that in order to help women be equal, maybe men should learn that it is time to put their fists away and get out of that constraining little gender box that society has made for them.

Sheryl Plant loved Susan Faludi’s first book ‘Backlash’ (although she was not as sure of ‘Stiffed’) and thinks Jackson Katz is a genius.

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