This is Briar, they/them.
I was supposed to be on this week's episode of Jala-chan's Place ((episode 13: Engaging With Masculinity)). Unfortunately my internet was not cooperating and we had a really tight time table. When my internet service was dropping every few moments it was just more responsible for me to step back and gather my thoughts.
Well here we are now, a blog post, and I have the privilege of being as verbose as I want!
First I want to say that I was looking forward to this conversation, I have a lot of thoughts on masculinity and a lot of them are critical, maybe not even fair. *I think conversations like this are vital for undoing damage, especially if we have done it to ourselves. *
While there is still a little levity I want to just point out some of the funnier ways some men perform masculinity. I recently went to a bonfire that I expected to be with my peers. I had my hair down and a cute crop hoodie over my t-shirt to ward off the evening chill. Anywhere else I would have felt fly as Hell, I put the effort in and felt cute. The moment I stepped out of the car I was met with hostile stares from about twenty men between the ranges of twenty five and sixty years old. Each one sported at least one piece of camo and a ball cap, nothing wrong with either of these things, but it was like getting invited to a uniformed function. The property was acres and acres wide, private and had a home that was pushing into the territory of being a mansion (it probably was). If I sold my house today I wouldn't be able to afford half of the "man toys" that littered the yard. What I'm trying to get at is that these people have spent hundreds and thousands on the ascetization of rustic masculinity. Now don't mistake me, these things all have their place and are fun and fine but there was an air of performance to the whole thing that was obvious the moment I pushed the edge of gender norms. It was more clear as to where I was not welcome than where I was. I spent approximately four hours that night having the men take turns staring me down. Half of them didn't know each other but they all knew they were part of the clan, and I wasn't. If I had put as much effort into making it look like I put in no effort I would've had a perfectly fine evening. Why I think this story ends up being funny is the sheer lack of authenticity to any of the performances. The sad part is none of those guys looked like they were having fun.
I hate that I learned that having a reason for things is just "making excuses" because my relationship with masculinity is very cause and effect. As an AMAB Trans person in a very conservative area I frequently have to blend in or face very real threats of violence. This has skewed my perspective on masculinity, for every awesome dude in my life there's five who are capable and willing to do bigoted violence against others. Blending into these groups has had negative effects on my health - mental, physical and spiritual.
My default state in public is that of an infiltrator. The signifiers I have to adopt to ensure my safety alienate me from people and groups that I truly belong to. As someone who spent years practicing to be a man, before I came out about seven years ago, I have a lot of experience of doing the bare minimum to not be singled out. I worked with a group of outspoken bigots for a long time, they would feed into each other and hold their audience captive. This behavior was inextricable from masculinity because in this group it was all a means of consolidating and hoarding power. They were awful to women openly and worse in private, they would call each other to the window to leer at women walking outside, it was even better for them if a woman they didn't want sexually overheard the conversation. Women were their favorite group that was non cishet white men. Any further deviation from cisheteronormativity warranted even worse treatment. Three men of their group went absolutely rabid about a man wearing skinny jeans on a work site. Their ranting carried on not days but weeks. I didn't partake in these conversations and even pushed back when I could but every second of silence in the face of this abuse feels like endorsement. I didn’t know what to do, even the gentlest pushback threatened to show that I could be one of their victims. The kicker was that I was just trying to work. I had a job to do and my only defense was flying as solo as possible and taking on as much field work as I could. I think this experience for the better part of a decade is what soured my relationship to masculinity, but to them they were men just doing as men did.
The topic of the day when we recorded was engaging with masculinity. I hope my sanitized and brief tale is more than enough to help people understand why engaging with masculinity is something I do with a ten foot long pole.
There are times when masculinity feels like a panopticon. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it was a cruel system meant to minimize the effort it took to control imprisoned people. The panopticon as a structure is a large round holding area with a central watch point. People imprisoned inside can see the watch station but never know if they are being watched. The watchers and the power they exert are known as hard power, their attention and opposition is clearly stated. The dubious and intended benefit of the panopticon is the soft power, which expresses itself in a few ways. Firstly the obvious part of never knowing when your being watched makes it so you don't need to be watched to achieve the same "benefit" as the hard power of an active watcher. The second more insidious benefit is that it stops prisoners from organizing on each others' level. If you don't know if you're being watched you are then encouraged to narc on your fellow prisoners. This is because if they have had a witnessed bad behavior and you are seen as observing that behavior and not reporting it you can experience consequences as well. The role of enforcer in this case is mercurial, its edges are fuzzy, it deforms to punish and reward edge cases almost arbitrarily. In these ways the panopticon deprives imprisoned people of even the quiet moments; it removes their ability to be authentic and relate to others even in the same position as themselves. The forces within the panopticon even curbs behavior that would be okay within that system.
Now understand that treating masculinity like an actual panopticon is a faulty framework; in this simile it is a social panopticon. The men of the previous story were upholding patriarchy through their enforcement of masculinity - an aggressive and virulent version. You may notice I've alluded to toxic masculinity without naming it at this point. I wanted to establish that this type of masculinity is just that, an offshoot. Toxic masculinity is one of those vocabulary words that gets consumed and warped by discourse, but I think it's important to remember where it came from. Toxic masculinity was originally coined by men saying "hey this hurts us too." It by no means is the status quo of masculinity, and I think the poetry of men inventing the term is important. Toxic masculinity at large reinforces the patriarchal hegemony, even if it can hurt men individually. I think the urge for men to want to improve things even when they have the potential to benefit from it is important. While selflessness is not inherently masculine I would like to acknowledge the recognition of toxic masculinity is just one step of masculine improvement and masculine selflessness.
Full disclosure I wrote my afterword at this point, due to its nature and content I think it belongs at the end, please duck out after the content warning if it doesn't sound like your thing. For now I want to talk about the positive aspects of masculinity.
The traits I'm going to be talking about don't have to be masculine but I think that there is a version that can be masculine-coded.
I've seen a masculine version of stick-to-it-iveness seeing men and masculine people devote themselves to something that can be a thing of beauty. I think it's important we draw the line between this and raw stubbornness though.The masculine urge to improve things is something special. I've seen fathers integrate with their families with more love and care than you could imagine. I've seen masculine people heal themselves to be better for those around them, I just think that that is noteworthy. Masculine self-sufficiency is another great trait, I think when masculine people can identify what they want and need and how to attain it, through work study or even relaxation, they are close to self-actualizing in a healthy way.
As I write out just a few examples of restorative masculinity I want to note that a lot of these things can be a double-edged sword. Determination can become pigheadedness, devotion can become fanaticism. The men I mentioned earlier all are capable of restorative masculinity. It was a choice, conscious or not, to partake in masculinity the way they did. My masculine traits when taken to their extremes are a direct path to burnout and depression. I've put real time and effort into engaging with these traits in a healthy way.
I felt that the conclusion I came to about masculinity was incomplete, like I had only observed the tip of an iceberg when there is more underneath. As much as I was raised in masculinity I have to admit that I'm now an outsider and some nuance may be lost on me. The conclusion I had about masculinity was that it is a reactive force, that it's a response to things we've labeled feminine. Most of the most toxic parts of masculinity exist in opposition of things even remotely perceived as feminine, see the skinny jeans earlier or the backlash against pumpkin spice every fall. The reality of these things is that those pants were on a man and PSLs smell delightful. More often than not feminine is to fullness as masculinity is to emptiness, you can't have something that's empty if there wasn't something to occupy that space. Look I know that's a clumsy metaphor but I think it makes sense in a bizarre cosmic way, absence and abundance are not inherently good or bad. I guess what I'm getting at is that loud and easy observable masculinity is reactive, but I think proactive masculinity must exist. This also falls down when you apply the same framework to femininity, who's to say that traits perceived as feminine are not reactive as well. There is a solid argument under this framework that femininity is just a response to cultural and social norms. I think it's all a matter of perspective and that as elemental concepts femininity and masculinity are value neutral.
I think that trying to solve this is not the point. Masculinity and femininity are inexorably linked, their relationship could be something fundamental to the human experience, or even just a reactive feedback loop. Either way it exists here and now and is part of our expression. I think the important takeaway is that** masculinity and femininity are tools that have multiple functions.** The use of these tools frequently overlap, but for most individuals I think it's important to know their personal distinction.
One of the topics we had was how to fix things that have resulted from toxic masculinity and patriarchy. The common suggestion is more diversity across hard and soft power. That helps but I think we all have an individual duty to recognize that cishet men are not solely responsible for the state of the world. Yes they as a group have had a lot of effect in shaping society but we as individuals don't exist in a vacuum. The capital P Patriarchy requires adherence by more than just men. We see the current patriarchal system upheld by women, LGBTQ individuals, not to mention the intersection of racial and cultural dynamics. We currently are suffering through astroTerfed campaigns by people to get women on board with rigid gender stereotypes, all in the name of hurting Trans people. We see people who should know better in our own communities swinging at the targets of hate campaigns for a multitude of reasons. It's a sad truth but bigotry is always more intersectional than advocacy. We as a society prefer perfect victims to advocate for bigots don't have to hold their nose when an LGBTQ person is a bit of a shit - to them we all are. I think for representation in soft and hard power to matter we need to concern ourselves with whether or not what we stand for is controlled opposition. A good example is to look at the civil rights leaders who are still alive vs the ones whose names are used in vain.
To anyone who read this far I want to say thank you, it means the world to me that anything I say could be taken under your consideration. There are several topics that I haven't even touched on, my personal relationship between masculinity and transness is not even close to the whole picture. I encourage you to seek purposefully trans masculine people to understand their perspective on masculinity. For me meeting people who opted into being men did a lot to inform me that I, like many, need to continue my education on the subject.
This is the content warning I mentioned earlier.
I know my cavalier attitude when being conversational can be a problem. So I wanted to take a moment to talk about self harm. If that is something that will ruin your day or you just don't want to read about it I get it. Please duck out now and go in peace. I hope my writing was additive to your day and I don't want to take anything from you, not even your mood.
I was like seven or eight when I first thought about committing suicide. Thanatos as in the death urge was always strong with me. While I recognize that this may be a younger age than most have this feeling I see a lot of men struggle with it. If you're worried about me, first thank you, and second I can proudly say my last attempt was when I was twenty. However the compulsion is still there, it's something I have to reckon with even on good days. I can confidently say that if I was still a man I'd be a dead man. I'm sorry I don't know how to sugar coat it. I'd prefer to be more delicate. After taking a step back from being a man I saw my own behavior laid bare. My worth was determined solely by my partner and my output. If I needed help I couldn't ask, and even what I did ask for was always the minimized version of what I needed. My first back injury occurred when I was six, and I never had any help with that, and dealing with my neurodivergence was not something that happened until adulthood. My masculinity, or attempt at it, was awful for me. I now have the same back issues as people twenty five years my senior, and some of my behavior feels like a broken bone that healed wrong. Every scar I earned through masculine stubbornness was unnecessary. Hell I usually have my partner read everything I write but I have a masculine urge to protect them, and I know this would hurt them to read.
It kinda sucks to put this out here because I've been conditioned to think this kind of vulnerability only comes about from wanting something. I genuinely don't want anything from talking about this, but it informs my perspective. I think why I bring this up here is because I would rather see complete men happy and healthy. People who partake in masculinity need to be aware of its pitfalls, its shortcomings. Recognize when you need help, realize that the type of sacrifice we fetishize is fake. I want you all to know that your value as a person here now and tomorrow is more important than anything you could gain by suffering.
Briar - @13briars