I follow the blog of African-American author Steven Barnes, largely because his commentaries on writing were recommended by another author. Mr. Barnes has an an impressive set of credentials and has written novels with such Science Fiction luminaries as Larry Niven (look right) and the late Jerry Pournelle. But while I find some of what Barnes presents on his blog interesting and useful, I can’t say I agree with him about everything (although to be fair, I’m sure he wouldn’t agree with me on a lot of things as well).
However, in a recent blog post of his called What Are You Offering the World?, he made two seemingly unrelated points that I found highly useful. I’ll present them over two blog posts here because each topic deserves individual attention.
The first is about masculinity. Now, given many of the topics upon which Barnes writes, I can reasonably assume he leans more left on the social and political scale than I do, probably quite a bit more, but here’s the important part. The important part is that we shouldn’t stereotype (and I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone) and here’s why.
The stereotypes go “liberals believe this…” and “conservatives believe that…” One of the things I often hear attributed to progressive liberals and particularly feminists, is something like “men are just no damn good.” Northwestern University Professor of Sociology and Director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program Suzanna Danuta Walters even went so far as to ask the question Why Can’t We Hate Men?.
I feel sorry for her male students.
In general (well, from social media anyway), I get the sense that “masculinity” in any form is undesirable in men. As I already mentioned in When Masculinity Isn’t Toxic, there are programs on some university campuses designed to purge male students of ‘toxic’ masculinity and one University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor suggests starting ‘toxic’ masculinity training as early as kindergarten.
So what about Mr. Barnes and his take on the subject? In relating a conversation he had with a friend some years back, he stated:
He was lonely, and I remember one day he rather miserably said:
“I don’t understand why I can’t get a girlfriend.”
Such grief in his voice. I said, “well, tell me what it is you feel you have to offer a woman.”
“I’m loyal, and honest, and warm. I listen, I’m supportive, and kind.”
I didn’t want to hurt him, but the words just tumbled out: “she can get all of that from one of her girlfriends. What is the specifically MASCULINE quality that will motivate her to project her specifically FEMININE qualities? What is your demonstrable power? Your ability to build a nest?”
He looked at me as if I was speaking Martian.
So in spite of our differences, Mr. Barnes and I have a viewpoint in common. Apparently, not only does he believe there are specific masculine and feminine qualities, but that they are uniquely possessed (or should be) by men and women respectively. In fact, it’s my understanding that he defined feminine qualities as being loyal, honest, warm, a good listener, being supportive, and being kind. Masculinity is defined in part by “demonstrable power” and “ability to build a nest,” which I suppose could be mapped to physical protection and wage earning ability.
It’s not so much that men can’t be possess more nurturing traits (my three-year-old granddaughter often comes to me when she scared or hurt), but from the context here, they are designated as feminine qualities and, in my interpretation, he is also saying that women look for masculine traits in men and find them attractive and desirable.
This is consistent with at least one study that says even young feminist women desire men who display “chivalrous attitudes and behaviors, since those men are seen as more likely to invest, protect, provide, and commit.”
In a related story, Game of Thrones star Kit Harington was recently quoted as saying:
“There’s a big problem with masculinity and homosexuality that they can’t somehow go hand in hand,” Harington said. “That we can’t have someone in a Marvel movie who’s gay in real life and plays some super hero. I mean, when is that going to happen?”
He made the statement within the context of how he believes that the Marvel (comic book and film) Universe doesn’t have enough LGBTQ actors and/or characters (his statement was somewhat ambiguous).
Supposedly he also said something along the lines of “comic book blockbusters should feature more gay superheroes in an effort to combat ‘toxic masculinity.'”
The article went on to cite a number of gay and gender fluid actors who have appeared in comic book related television shows and movies (and there are quite a few of them), as well as stating that there have been gay superheroes and other LGBTQ characters in comic books for decades.
However, how those characters are portrayed in comic books is not without controversy. African-American speculative fiction author and activist Dennis Upkins graphically related how Marvel brutally killed off openly gay superhero Freedom Ring in his 2016 article at Nerds of Color. In general, most people killed in comic books don’t stay dead, but to the best of my knowledge, Freedom Ring was never resurrected.
I can’t attest to the specific masculine traits possessed by LBGTQ+ comic book characters since the last time I regularly read “new” comic books was around 1994, but Freedom Ring aside, I can reasonably believe that they are generally presented in a positive light, and that they display masculine characteristics, particularly being protective relative to them being super and heroes.
So what’s my point?
On the one hand, toxic or not, generally the traditional concepts of masculine and feminine continue to persist in our culture, and for the sake of this essay, I’m referring generically to western culture, though I don’t doubt at some level that those two concepts are universal, since:
In a Williams Institute review based on an June–September 2012 Gallup poll, approximately 3.4 percent of American adults identify themselves as being LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender), though that number has increased to 4.1% in 2016. An earlier report published in April 2011 by the Williams Institute estimated that 3.8 percent of Americans identified as gay/lesbian, bisexual, or transgender: 1.7 percent as lesbian or gay, 1.8 percent as bisexual, and 0.3 percent as transgender.
In other words, the vast majority of men and women tend to seek each other out as if masculinity and femininity are two interlocking pieces that form a whole.
On the other hand, it’s a heck of a lot more complicated than that, and not only can we always find exceptions to the rule, but no two men or two women will express masculinity or femininity in identical ways, though I suppose there must be certain qualities those categories have to contain.
For instance, I’m not very stereotypical male. I don’t watch organized sports, I don’t work on my own car, I don’t have woodworking power tools in my garage, my garage isn’t my “man cave,” I don’t hunt, I don’t fish (and relative to Idaho, that practically makes me an alien life form), and I don’t play poker with “the boys” every Thursday night in some cigar smoke-filled basement.
On the other hand, over the years, my wife has expected me (because I’m male) to acquire skills such as replacing a toilet, bricklaying, laying concrete, and, of course, killing spiders. When there’s a funny noise in our house in the middle of the night, I’m the one who gets out of bed to check it out (so far, it’s always been nothing, but you never know). I wouldn’t call my wife a feminist, at least in 21st century terms, but she is a courageous, compassionate, strong-willed person who doesn’t take guff off of anyone, particularly me.
I should say at this point that my Dad was a pretty stereotypical masculine male. We didn’t have much in common when I was growing up. He was an avid hunter, fisherman, knew carpentry, car repair, reloaded his own ammo, was a military firefighter for decades and had the stories to prove it. He also adored my Mom, my brother, and me. He never laid a hand on my Mom or us in anger, he only drank socially a few times that I’m aware of, married my Mom when they were both twenty, and they were still married over six decades later when he died. The only thing he feared was when he got old and sick, he couldn’t physically defend Mom anymore. I could see the fear in his eyes during my visit to their home when he asked me to make sure the house was locked up before he went to bed. That was less than 24 hours before he passed. It was so painful to see him change from a physically and mentally strong man into a fragile shell of himself.
Like I said, we weren’t very much alike, but as I also said, I don’t think masculinity expresses itself in precisely the same way with any two men, even father and son.
However imperfectly though, most men and women generally possess different qualities that could be identified as masculine and feminine. These days between my wife and I, that’s most obviously displayed in our relationships with our grandchildren. Our nine-year-old grandson and three-year-old granddaughter come to us for different things. Oh sure, we both read to our granddaughter, but she’ll more often come to me when she wants to play outside, doing things like catch or exploring the “wilds” of our backyard garden, or the rocks (flat and “pokey”) on the side of the house. My grandson comes to me to play imaginary adventure games such as those involving humanly intelligent animals fighting criminal organizations and Nazi Fifth Column spies in New York City (it’s complicated). It usually includes gun fights and lots of explosions.
I know thinking of gender as “binary” isn’t terribly popular these days, but again, in relation to watching my grandchildren grow and develop, I can hardly ignore it. My granddaughter is still mentally cementing in things like she’s a girl and her brother’s a boy, that I’m a man and that Bubbe (my wife is Jewish, and “Bubbe” is Yiddish for Grandma) is a woman. I sometimes have this irrational fear that at the moment she’s uttering those words, some radical feminist is going to break down our front door and start chewing me out for the crime of “patriarchy,” while demanding an explanation as to why I’m reading her books like Pinkalicious when I should be reading to her from Rosie Revere, Engineer (actually, her uncle bought her that book and Ada Twist, Scientist for her last birthday, but I think she’s still a little young for them yet).
Is masculinity and femininity taught or is it innate? Maybe a little of both. Perhaps, for most of us, that is, the vast majority of the worldwide human population, aspects of those qualities are innate, but our individual cultures and societies tell us how to express them (with relative degrees of success depending on the people involved).
The bottom line is that I think it’s okay to be masculine and feminine as part of our general make up. I know gay men in the Marine Corps who are pretty masculine, hearkening back to Mr. Harington’s comments, so he should rest assured. Maybe art hasn’t caught up to life yet, or, more likely, art is avoiding real life like the proverbial plague.
What do I mean? Someone I know on Facebook posted a YouTube video called The Inversion of Masculine and Feminine in Pop Culture. I haven’t watched it yet, but my friend commented:
Continued attack on masculinity from DC, Marvel, Pixar, EA Games, Disney, etc. The idiot father. The doltish male quest companion. The flunky moron boy. The woman who beats up a parking lot full of bumbling men with a flurry of crotch kicks. Homer Simpson. Peter Griffin. Maui, an island culture hero recast as a chauvinistic oaf useless to Moana’s plot. And the hits just keep on coming. Make no mistake: this is activism at work.
Assuming this is true, then the response of authors and other creative people who do believe positively in masculinity and femininity, is to create stories what contain people as we exist in the real world, not as a particularly biased perspective imagines we should be. As the aforementioned study concluded, attempting to “beta male” young men tends not to work out anyway.