Masculinities: What Maketh a Man?

Illustration by Alessandra Felloni

Paul P Mathew | SIPA Class of 2018 (With inputs from Bhagirath Iyer) | October 10, 2016

The Gender and Policy Working Group at SIPA organized a discussion on masculinities on the 6th of October 2016. Titled “Masculinities Redux”, the discussion had five panelists – all of them students at SIPA. The panel was well-balanced, ensuring an even flow of ideas and thought processes that helped transition between commonly misunderstood mindsets. The speakers were quite articulate in breaking down deep emotions and subconscious assumptions regarding masculinity. The addition of a female speaker on the panel was an excellent move. It really helped push conversational boundaries and bring in a perspective about the topic from an interesting vantage point.

The discussions started by considering the challenges of growing up and functioning well in society, when the gender that a child is christened with at birth, is expected to be what that person should grow up with, act and live like for the rest of their life. When adults, peer groups and community come together to drill a sense of who you should be, what you need to wear, and how you need to behave from the moment you enter the world, it obviously causes stress and considerable mental agitation which increases with time. If you feel differently and have the courage to act on your convictions and dress the way you want to, it generally does not go down well. Emotional tactics and social exclusion are used with varying degrees of success to bring you back in line, and it largely works to suppress outbursts of personal expression.

The stereotypes that boys grow up watching and imbibing are those I am familiar with. Gender and gender equality problems have always been tinted with a view of developing countries for me, than the sort of expression that was evident from the discussion. In a well-developed society like the US, the problems regarding gender identification are more complex.

Men are portrayed as protectors – strong, tough and brave. Any diversion from these lofty ideals, is seen as failure to be fully male. This casts unfair assumptions and stereotypes about a person’s character based solely on sexual classification. Consider a young boy who has a genuine fear of dogs or bugs, maybe caused by bad childhood experiences. If ridiculed by a girl who has a pet dog, or by peer groups who do not share his phobias, he is made to feel lesser of a male than he is. Sometimes this method of contempt and displeasure could even be expressed by parents or other role models whose approval the child might long for. Why should personal feelings be judged by people who do not understand it? There is no logic to causing unnecessary pain to people simply because they do not follow the same unwritten assumptions of society. Being different cannot automatically be viewed as a bad thing. That is plain shortsightedness.

The conversation ranged from how different factors have significant influence on the presumptions made. For instance, men are generally assumed to have more of an interest in sports than women. Now, if a man is not interested in sports, he is considered weird. Conversely, if a lady is very passionate about following sports, she is considered more masculine than feminine. What we all need to understand is that we are very often the people who make it worse for others, either knowingly or unknowingly. As one of the speakers put it, if a woman decides to change her gender, and afterwards is still remains attracted to men, people are generally puzzled. Why change sex if your interests remain unchanged? The agitation this would cause in individuals facing this sort of reaction is obvious, but it is also understandable why people would react this way. It could be presumed that this is more a matter of ignorance than outright malice. This is not to undermine the fact that such a questioning attitude is unwelcome, rather it is a matter of hope to differentiate this as a situation which has a fairly straightforward remedy.

Young boys are led to believe that they can only truly be “manly” if they are well built, aggressive and brash. There is a line of thought that links this sort of mindset to terrorism and sexual crimes. It seems true that this could be an effect stemming from exaggerated issues of masculinity and power. One of the panelists also linked over-expressed masculinity and aggression to the feeling of being “emasculated” or the frustration arising from a feeling that one has been denied of one’s rights. However, another panelist countered this point, stating that this may not necessarily be the case as not everyone who has been denied his or her rights becomes aggressive or overpowering.

Sexual orientation has always been a point of extreme disagreement in many cultures. Though times are changing, the world has not yet reached a point where each person has complete freedom to sexually express themselves freely and without judgement. Even something as simple as how a person prefers to answer to gender pronouns is their own right, but this is yet another issue that is not understood by everyone.

The audience agreed that the time allocated for the discussion was too short to allow for in-depth interaction on such a controversial yet relevant matter. But what it did do was whet our appetites. The next event in this series is sure to gain considerably more attention than it already has. What would be interesting to explore is where the gender stereotypes in current society come from and how it might evolve in the future. Is it more affected by culture or by natural and biological factors that influence gender differences? Are men truly from Mars and women from Venus? Then which planets are people identifying with the LGBTQ community from?