Before you start reading this, I’ll put it out there that I’m sure a lot of people are going to skim two or three sentences of this, extrapolate the rest, and misinterpret my meaning. I encourage people to read the piece in it’s entirety before you start writing me angry letters. Thanks much, I appreciate it.
I was recently linked to a website dedicated to Men’s rights. There are a lot of pretty important causes being championed over there, like the effort to bring attention to domestic abuse towards men and father’s rights in divorce cases. Anyone reading this comic knows that I am as pro-dads-who-want-to-be-there-for-their-kids as it gets, though I will admit to taking issue with some of the posters who seem to be matching extremism with further extremism (if you’re trying to argue with a woman that it’s wrong to portray men in the media as incompetent children without their wives, calling yourself a member of the “Superior Male Race (Female Sexual Re-Education Unit)” doesn’t make your argument seem particularly sympathetic or rational) But I suppose that is to be expected from any internet community that aligns itself with a specific cause.
Ignoring the threads regarding “Women Under 30 Losing ‘Lady Skills’ Like Cooking and Cleaning” I noticed one arguing that women are scoring better than men in school these days because the education system has been feminized. It is an interesting debate, one that I think it really depends on the specific school system you’re brought up in. I, for one, was raised in Manitoba and know that the same man who taught me how to canoe and skin a wolf was on the committee that rewrote the high school chemistry and biology curricula, so take that as you will.
Anyway, this particular passage caught my attention; “Because doing well in school involves no manual or physical activity but requires instead sitting quietly, reading and writing, the most vulnerable boys view learning as feminine and `uncool`. And being feminine is their deepest dread.This is because men’s sense of their masculinity is far more vulnerable than women’s sense of their femininity. Biology reminds girls what they are every month. Boys, by contrast, need to prove their identity and role, particularly among those with poor prospects and few confidence-boosting attributes.”
Presumably because I am writing and drawing a comic called “Manly Guys Doing Manly Things” and am as I’m sure many of you have deduced am not a man myself, I am very frequently asked to give my thoughts on gender equality, feminism, modern masculinity, and all that business. One question that seems to come up a great deal is “what do you consider a manly guy doing manly things”. As a slight tangent before I get to the point, yes the title of the comic did come from a gay club song, it was chosen as something of a nod to men’s adventure pulp magazines of days gone by boasting titles like “TRUE MEN”, and “MAN TO MAN” that were meant to sound macho and intimidating at the time but presently come across as… well, frankly, kind of gay.
But that’s beside the point. What really made me think was the point that a boy’s masculinity is a fragile thing compared to a girl’s femininity. First off, I’m sure people will argue this with me, but I honestly don’t see menstruation as a badge of femininity so much as a biological quirk that rewards me for succeeding to not get pregnant in a given month with excessive bleeding and crippling gut pain. I would argue that having to shill out twenty bucks on a box of tampons and a bottle of tylenol every so often does not define femininity any more than the ability to get boner defines masculinity, but that still doesn’t clear up the question of what makes a person manly and why that state is so fragile for so many people of the dude-ly persuasion out there.
If you hang around the Art of Manliness site (as I recommend you do because it’s awesome), you’ll find articles regarding things like planning out your future, preparing your car for the winter, getting what you want out of life, cooking delicious soup, and a multitude of other useful bits of knowledge. I gotta say, those are pretty cool things. I think a lot of people would be a lot happier it they knew how to plan ahead and not crash their car in winter and make awesome stew. The Library of Random Man Knowledge on the site has given me the quote “The true test of a man doesn’t come down to one moment, anyone can overcome an obstacle if trapped in a corner, a real man is the guy who shows dedication. The long road may be the harder path to take but if followed you are rewarded two fold with both the satisfaction of a job well done and the experiences you have along the way.”
I will concede that there are individuals out there who have told me I’m the “manliest girl they know”. Keep in mind that I like wearing skirts and corsets and I cry at almost every sentimental movie I see and my favourite colour is hot pink. Taking all that into account, it seems like what defines “manliness” is a drive to be capable and self sufficient. I saw this shirt proclaiming that “The World Belongs To Those Who Hustle” and felt momentary disappointment that there were no women’s sizes available to help me show off my pro-hustling attitude (wait, I don’t think that came across the way I wanted it to) until I remembered that I was looking at shirts on a site called “The Art of Manliness” and I guess their intended marketing audience probably doesn’t have a big female presence. What I’m getting at is that big muscles and beards may superficially make a person look manly, but masculine qualities all seem to revolve around being a capable individual who prepares themselves for whatever the world has to throw at them and toughs through the obstacles in life without complaint. Whenever people call me manly, I tell them they’re confusing “hard work and perseverance” with “manliness”.
If we accept that as what defines manliness, what exactly have we decided defines femininity? The opposite of that? I think if you look at qualities that are typically considered “feminine” a good deal of them revolve more around the outer perceptions people have of an individual than how they feel about themselves. If dressing in utilitarian clothing suited to the environment or task at hand is manly, wearing clothes that make you look pretty is girly. If going into the wilderness with the knowledge and preparedness to survive off the land is manly, going into the wilderness with a man who has the knowledge and preparedness to help you survive off the land is girly. It seems the women who are most often accused of being masculine are the ones who try the hardest to be independent self-sufficient individuals who excel at their jobs.
I think this is where a lot of the debate over the portrayal of gender roles in the media comes into play. The studio heads with money know that generally girls will watch shows about boys but boys do not like to watch shows about girls, so any property meant to cater to a gender neutral audience needs to star a male lead. This is not speculation, it is a statistic I have been bluntly made aware of of through my time as a working professional in the entertainment industry. People who argue that women are exaggerated to damaging ideals in things like video games are met by counterpoints that men are just as idealized and stereotyped through characters like Kratos or Duke Nukem or Marcus Fenix. However the exaggerations of the male characters seem to be based on the idea that men should be big strong lone wolves who live life the way they want to while the exaggerated female characters seem to be more based around the idea that they should look nice for men. Both have an equal potential to be damaging, but one is damaging while being patronizing at the same time. It’s similar to the trend in television that portrays men as lazy buffoons who can’t function without their wives, except imagine while they were being incompetent they were also being smoking hot and scantly clad. That is an essay for another day or possibly never, however.
I think the important thing to remember is that a “macho” person is not the same thing as a “manly” person. A macho individual is the type who needs to constantly boast and showboat about their strength or popularity or sexual prowess. A manly person doesn’t need to rub his accomplishments in people’s faces because he knows he’s strong and cool and sexy. It seems a rarity to see people champion any kind of “screw the haters I’m going to live life the way I want it” attitude in regards to femininity without being accused of being too masculine, and I think that’s why telling people they are effeminate will more often come across as an insult than a compliment. I’m sure it has happened out there in the big wide history of the world, but I have never met a man who took offense to being called a manly individual. Macho or butch, maybe, but not manly. Calling someone girly, lady-like, effeminate, however, that’s a whole different can of worms. It seems to me that it’s considered an “effeminate” quality to obsess over looking pretty and pleasing people, but it’s “masculine” to say you don’t care what makes other people happy because you’re going to go out there and take what you want out of life.
To bring this all back around to a convenient little mantra that you could go off and post on twitter or facebook or whatever without losing people’s attention; it’s wrong to tell men that they should act less like “men”, but it isn’t any better to tell women that they should act more like “women”. “Manning up” doesn’t have to be a gender specific thing. Pretend they mean “man” in the “hu-man” sense of the word, I can’t think of a person out there who would be worse off if they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made it their goal to become a confident and self-sufficient adult human being.
Again, just to assure you that I am not trying to be insulting to people in any way with this, This essay is only my attempt to rationalize why calling something “girly”, “feminine”, “Woman-like”, or “effeminite” seems to be more likely to insult someone than calling it “manly” or “masculine”. I do not think that saying women who stand up for themselves and act independently are behaving like men is right, this is just me trying to figure out why that has become the case. I have listened to other women accuse women who prefer video games and comic books to shopping for accessories of having “masculine interests” and “thinking like men”. As well, I have heard women who do like those kind of things proudly boast that they are more masculine than the other women in their lives and act as though their Halo achievements somehow make them superior to girls who are the envy of all their Farmville pals. After I stopped being mildly insulted that such old-fashioned ideas were still being validated and perpetuated by fellow women of all people, I decided I wanted to try to rationalize what might be leading to that kind of thinking. Deduce why manliness is such a respected trait with reasons other than “patriarchal society told us it should be that way”
Wanting to be strong and independent and have adventures is not a y-chromosome specific trait. I believe in equality in the truest sense of the word, everyone out there deserves the same opportunity to be the hero or the villain or the comic relief or the love interest if that’s what they want out of life. Thanks for understanding.