a disturbing equation, or, musings on masculinity

Tonight, during his workshop at Venus Envy Ottawa entitled “FTM Sexuality,” Patrick Califia said something that gave me a new insight:

“Masculinity is constructed as this thing you can never have. It’s all about striving, competition. If you can lift 50 pounds, you’re supposed to keep working until you can lift 500 pounds. (…) That takes its toll even on cisgendered men, and on women, who have to put up with it.”

Fascinating. Masculinity as something that by its very nature you can’t ever actually attain. That would likely explain a whole lot of the anxiety some people feel around their masculinity – that it’s not enough to be strong, they need to systematically eliminating all traces of vulnerability; it’s not enough to be financially secure, they need to be constantly scrambling for more money; it’s not enough to be successful, they have to be at the top of their field; and it’s certainly not enough to be straight, they have to utterly abhor any sign of gayness, spurn any affection between men, ridicule any possibility of erotic or even aesthetic appreciation of other guys.

The idea certainly brings with it some troubling thoughts about the fear of femininity. And we all know that fear is a very close cousin to hatred, i.e., in this case, misogyny. If this constant striving for masculinity is pursued in some cases with such intensity, it implies a pretty huge fear of what might happen if one were to stop striving. What is so terrifying about femininity? Julia Serano certainly covers a lot of this ground with great eloquence in her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, and I don’t have it handy so I can’t quote her here, but I strongly recommend giving that book a read if you have a chance.

Leo Bersani takes a somewhat different angle on the same question in his essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?” in Douglas Crimp’s 1988 anthology AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism, in which he makes the simple but eloquent statement that, at least in terms of how society tends to view it, “to be penetrated is to abdicate power” (italics his). He places that statement in a much more complex context than I have room to describe here – do read the article if you’re interested, it’s very thought-provoking. And while I do have some pretty pointed critique about his essay, I also recognize that his points ring true – essentially, he’s saying that because penetration is constructed as being a loss of power, men who are invested in their own heterosexuality (and, I would add here, masculinity) are terrified of the idea of being penetrated, and this terror turns to hatred, and that hatred is homophobia.

This terror about the possible instability of masculine or male power would also explain the homophobia of the Religious Right, whose entire concept is built on a top-down structure in which God is at the head of things, men are the next best thing, and women and kids are at the bottom of the heap. If the inherent power of masculinity – expressed most eloquently in the exclusive power to penetrate and the impossibility of being penetrated (i.e. classic heterosexuality) – is shown, in the act of homosexual penetration, to be very easily shattered, then it would make sense that they’d be very invested in suppressing and decrying that act as unnatural and sinful. And they’d also be very invested in promoting and supporting heterosexuality through all sorts of weighty institutions and cultural propaganda. In a big-picture, Freudian sort of way, the existence of homosexuality blatantly challenges the most fundamental tenets of the entire power structure, and shows it to be exactly as flawed as it very much is.

I would argue that in somewhat different form the same concept rears its head in the kink community, particularly in the actions of dominants and tops (of all genders) with fragile egos and in the way the community does not always treat its bottoms and submissives with respect. If dominance = power = penetration = masculinity, and one element of that equation is challenged, then the whole thing falls apart. And the complementary equation is that submission = powerlessness = being penetrated = femininity, then the whole situation does bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the problems with everyday masculinity, the politics of homophobia, society’s tenacity when it comes to the institution of heterosexuality, and the structure of the Religious Right. Yup. Uncomfortable indeed.

I know I’m extending the concept to a rather extreme degree – from individual emotional experience of a trans man to the oppressive politics of a major worldwide institution – but this extension certainly does line up with what Patrick said tonight. If masculinity is something ever-elusive, never quite solidly gained, always up for question, always needing to be re-secured and re-proven both by what one does and what one would never do, and yet that masculinity intensely valuable, even essential, to the most basic forms of social functioning and to retaining power for oneself, then the stretch is not a big one except in terms of numbers. Of course Patrick was making his statement in service of a talk about FTM identity and sexuality, where the elusive character of masculinity as we construct it can be quite poignantly discouraging in a personal sense, and can leave trans guys feeling like they’re never going to quite measure up. But they’re just the latest people to find themselves trapped in a structure – emotional, psychic, societal, religious, and more – that has trapped all of us for millennia.

7 thoughts on “a disturbing equation, or, musings on masculinity

  1. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick made much this point in her work on homosocial desire: one takeaway notion being that, given patriarchy, how best to allow the dominant group — men — to police one another: bingo! homosexual panic! categorically inadequate masculinity!

  2. Huh! Whaddaya know, I’m 20 years late in figuring it out. 😉 Thanks for the reference – is that in book Epistemology of the Closet? If so I’ll have to read the whole book sometime, at this point I’ve only read a couple of the essays. If not, I’m curious, where?

    1. It’s in the ‘Introduction’ to Between Men by Sedgwick – a useful essay to look at in the future. I would argue that she sets up her most useful ideas in the introductions of her books. I am particularly fond of the way that she defines ‘queer’ in the intro to ‘Tendencies’ one of her later texts. I’d be interested to know what you think about Sedgwick – perhaps discuss her work here at some point?

  3. Hmmm . . . that is an interesting way of looking at masculinity but I would say that the idea of it being elusive would apply to femininity as well. When I was living as female, I found femininity (in the socially constructed sense) extremely hard to attain.

    I’m lucky in that I don’t really let any of that masculinity stuff get me down as an FTM. It probably has a lot to do with my ID as genderqueer and my love of genderfuck. I’ve had 2-3 cismen question my masculinity. My typical response: “You try spending 30 years going through female socialization and come out of it with an intact sense of maleness. Then come and talk to me about what it means to be a man.”

    Regarding the whole penetration thing, I actually wrote a small piece on this over a year ago on one of my blogs. http://jackysplace.wordpress.com/2008/03/07/of-sex-and-scamming/

    Re-reading it, I realize there is some work to be done on necessarily associating one set of genitals with a particular sex/gender but I was mostly writing this as a reactionary piece 😉

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