Monday, February 07, 2005

Studies in Masculinity

Over the past week a few different things have come up all leading me to spend some time thinking about the nature of masculinity.

First of all, I was trawling the web looking for something - I forget what - when I came across a curious question. If an alien were to come to Earth and was presented with a naked man, a naked woman, a skirt and a pair of trousers and then told to match the clothing with the gender, how would he answer?

:) Now isn't that an interesting question...a question perhaps for Bravehearts?

When I first stumbled across that website I thought it a hoax, but upon reading through the entire article on the opening page I couldn't help but see the reason behind the author's argument. The only reason most men wouldn't wear a kilt or other MUG (male unbifurcated garment) is because trousers=masculine. All of a sudden I found my viewpoint changed quite considerably. Before my encounter with the Kilt Men I would probably have reacted with surprise and maybe a snigger at the sight of a guy wandering around in a kilt, and thought him quite odd. If it had been a more modern kilt, absent of tartan, I might even have questioned his morals or even sexuality. Now however, my reaction is more likely to be one of a smile with admiration and congratulation. I've even considered trying one myself; becoming one of the ranks of the Bravehearts!

Thinking about that, it made me wonder about the way in which my concept of masculinity is formed. More specifically, I considered how something as trivial as current fashion trends had influenced my understanding of what was male and female.

Then yesterday I was sat with my friend and co-worker Matt as we did our weekly hour-long radio show. For those of you outside the USA, yesterday, February 6th was SuperBowl Sunday, a very big sporting event that has pulled in more television viewers than any other single program - ever. That being the case, Matt and I provided our 'SuperBowl alternative', at one point bringing up the question of masculinity. If any of the US sports can be called a masculine sport it would have to be American Football. Where there are female leagues for Baseball and Basketball, there are far fewer for 'football', and although it might not be PC, I don't think I would be amiss in suggesting that the majority of viewers of the superbowl, especially those interested in the game itself, were male. Now why is that?

Perhaps it's the very physical nature of the sport - a lot of hard tackling and aggression along with involved tactical strategy - aspects more common to the male gender than female I would venture. What occurred to me though is that a many men reinforce and express their masculinity through physical or mental prowess. On the field the players are able to do that by playing hard and well. For those not quite up to the professional physical or strategic game, there are always the amateur leagues, and if that's still to much, or 'you're just too old', then one can resort to knowledge of the game - statistics, information. Finally, for those who have not the ability or the will, there is the simple act of remembering the past or daydreaming in the present.

Suffice to say, I think it's true that men need to feel that they are good at something. That even if the'yre not the best in the world or nation, they are at least the best in their field in their local area or family, or even just good at something and a valuable asset. For a man to feel like he isn't good at anything or of no use, is crippling. A man can feely ugly, unloveable, immoral or misunderstood just don't make him believe that is he not in any way useful, or that he is not worthy of, or holding, respect (whether it's true or not).

As the radio show progressed, a memory came back to me from the school playground. Happy mornings during 'snack-time' or lunch, where we'd gather together to play games of various kinds. On this occasion in history the game of choice was Thundercats! It wasn't a game of any particular strategy, but rather a chance for some role-playing along the lines of the classic 80's cartoon series. Minutes prior we were just children in school, but within moments we became Lion-O, Panthro, Tygra or one of the others. Each person chose their favourite character - or the closest to their favourite character if someone else of 'higher school-yard rank' had chosen your initial preference. That particular game I found myself left with...Cheetara...the girl. My heart momentarily sank - but only momentarily - for the playground is no place to show insecurity, weakness or disappoint. No, a challenge had been made to my young masculinity - I had been given Cheetara...the girl...something had to be done. Quickly I opened my mouth and made my 'genuine' satisfaction known at being elected to play as the FASTEST of the Thundercats. Girl or not, it didn't matter, gender was not an issue. As all guys know, speed is a worthy trait and deserving of respect, and it would be in that representation of speed that I would display my prowess.

As I recalled all this something occurred to me. It was doubtless that the others there, mostly guys, knew the source of my outburst and the fact that the only reason no-one else wanted this 'prize' character was because she was still a girl - fast or not. The school playground can be a very painful and cruel place, but none was shown that day and I wondered why. The answer that came to me is, I think, something most can relate to. Safety in numbers. If there's a cake out and I take a piece and eat, and then someone finds out I'm in trouble. However, if there are two or three or more of us and we all take some, then if we get into trouble, somehow it doesn't seem so bad, because we were all in it together.

I think the reason the guys didn't turn on me that day is because we've all had a piece of the cake before, or if not, we know we may have be served a piece later. The challenge to male prowess and respect has come before and will come again and defeat on this point is not acceptable. It doesn't even bear thinking about. Such challenges are far too serious a matter, even for the usual playground politics and one-up-manship. No guy wants to lose in that regard and most would not wish that loss on someone else whom they did not hate. So, when a play must be made to maintain respect, even a weak one, the play stands, sometimes is even reinforced, but it's never to be challenged. It is a common enemy.

Okay, so some of this in tongue-in-cheek, but whether it's how we dress, the ways we express our prowess or other 'physical matters', it's startling how often a man's sense of masculinity can hang by so trivial a thread. Extreme feminists might find such a fact amusing, and point to what they might call the essential weakness of men or masculinity. For me however, it begs a question, "I know within myself that masculinity must be more than that, more than cars and sports and size and style, so if it is not these, what is it?"

That men have a need to feel useful and to feel able, worthy of respect, is I think, the first clue to the answer. What's more it's an answer that needs to be sought. I get sad today when I see so many people who are unable to distinguish 'equal' from 'the same'. Because of this, they move down their road trying to extinguish the differences between the genders in the name of 'equality' because they are unable to maintain 'equality' and 'difference' at the same time. "The truth", however, "will out" and I think those societies and individuals who try to live their lives as androgenous will find their lives not what they hoped they would be. Tolerance and equality it seems to me, are best expressed and enjoyed when done in a celebration of differences. This though can only be done when what we are celebrating is reality and not a farce or a mistaken notion.

As a Christian male I believe that a lot of the answer is to be found in an exploration of the concept that we are created in the image of God, and also of the purposes God had in creating two genders in the first place. However as Lewis said, though nature cannot teach us anything she does a wonderful job of helping to show what things mean. That being the case, there will be much joy and clarity had as the issue is explored in the reality fo life in this world, as we apply the teachings and purposes of God to the question.

Perhaps as we go this exploration will take us down the roads of nobility, honour, work, success, and strength, but for now I refer you back to Kiltmen and the Bravehearts. Men willing to challenge some of the superficial notions about masculinity and move it beyond the realms of contemporary style. These masculinity of these men must go beyond style, and lie within something deeper. Whether you ever wear a kilt or not the question you must ask is, "Is my masculinity tied up with my trousers?"