In a recent article called ‘“Man-up” – the need for feminists to tackle the crisis in masculinity’, published on the political blog ‘Left Foot Forward’, the author, Siobhan Bligh, states that she believes that more efforts need to be made by feminists to branch out to men who are negatively affected by gender roles, and that feminism should be aiming for ‘a psychologically and socially healthy masculinity for men to work within’ i.e. one which does not rely upon dehumanising women and does not hold men to unrealistic standards. However, as well-meaning as her argument is, ultimately it is fundamentally misguided.
Essentially, she is saying that masculinity, the characteristics and actions which are usually associated with men, should be re-shaped such that ‘being oppressive towards women’ no longer becomes intertwined with ‘masculine’ qualities, thereby allowing the perpetuation of sexism. On the surface, this seems entirely reasonable.
But the uncomfortable truth of the matter is that masculinity has always been about exhibiting traits that are oppressive towards women – likewise, femininity has always been about exhibiting traits which facilitate male oppression. That is the entire reason why masculinity and femininity exist. The very notion of assigning gender roles at all is rooted in misogyny – the masculine exists as the default, the dominant, the powerful and the controlling. Meanwhile, the feminine exists as the other, the submissive, the consumed and the controlled. This has been the case even as the gender roles that compose these two opposing constructs have evolved over time, and across cultures – the only aspect of these gender constructs that never changes is that men are valued above women, and thus masculinity will always be valued above femininity as long as these concepts are given meaning.
However, it is important to note that this is NOT to say that characteristics classed as ‘feminine’ are, in themselves, inferior to those characteristics classed as ‘masculine’. Rather, femininity as constructed by the patriarchy disempowers women by classing anything associated with them as inferior. The actual ‘components’ of femininity are mostly irrelevant – regardless of what constitutes being ‘feminine’, it will always be twisted into a form that privileges men and facilitates their abuse of women.
A quintessential example of this phenomenon would be how the colours blue and pink have been regarded in Western society. Nowadays, pink is considered a ‘feminine’ colour, and blue is considered a ‘masculine’ colour. However, until around the 1950s, the opposite was true – blue was seen as feminine, because it was representative of calmness and serenity, whilst pink was seen as masculine, because it is a lighter shade of red, the colour of blood, thus representing determination and strength. The individual aspects of masculinity and femininity change over time, potentially quite rapidly. Despite this, masculinity is ALWAYS regarded as superior.
In fact, if any particular gendered trait becomes held in a higher regard over time, it is almost always because it was previously a feminine trait, and has since become seen as gender-neutral or masculine. A good example of this phenomenon in Western society would be cooking. Traditionally, and continuing to this day, cooking was considered primarily, or even solely, the domain of the woman. Yet the considerable majority of celebrity chefs are men, and for many years men made up the lion’s share of students at culinary schools. As men have become more involved in cooking (though this has not necessarily translated into taking over day-to-day cooking responsibilities, which is largely still considered the woman’s responsibility), it has become more ‘respectable’ to be interested in it.
Furthermore, in almost every field and business that is traditionally considered ‘feminine’ e.g. make-up companies, the vast majority of those at the highest level, who determine the business goals and the strategies necessary to achieve these goals, are men. All of this leads to the same logical conclusion – femininity is almost entirely controlled by men; the ability of women to determine what constitutes femininity and masculinity is extremely limited.
What is also interesting is that femininity is, in many ways, more ‘powerful’ than masculinity, in the sense that even one feminine attribute, combined with an otherwise entirely masculine presentation, can be enough for the person in question to be labelled ‘feminine’ e.g. a man who is wearing a shirt and jeans, has short hair and a muscular figure, but who is wearing bright pink lipstick, will often be regarded as ‘feminine’, despite there being only one feminine attribute and multiple masculine attributes present. This leads onto one aspect of the article which I partially agree with. This is the part where the author quotes Diane Abbott, who points out that there is “a culture of hyper-masculinity” in Britain. This is absolutely true, because, as noted previously, femininity has more ‘power’ regarding how a person is perceived than masculinity does, and consequently, all masculinity ends up becoming hyper-masculinity by default in order to avoid scrutiny. However, the key aspect of the quote I disagree with is that Abbot suggests that the negative consequences of masculinity are masculinity ‘at its worst’, rather than an inevitable consequence of any form of masculinity.
When all of this is considered, the idea of a ‘healthy’ masculinity becomes patently ridiculous – masculinity has NEVER been healthy for women, because the reason masculinity exists to subjugate women. Gender roles are not something that should be expanded and re-shaped – they’re something that should be abolished altogether.
One final point to make is that the idea of feminism shifting even ‘a small amount’ of focus onto men is an entirely unfair request given the role feminism plays in the world at large. As things stand, feminism is one of the ONLY powerful institutions in society which is led by women for women – almost every other powerful institution is led by men (and almost always for men, with women’s interests being considered secondary, if they are even considered at all). The onus should not be on women to re-shape masculinity – that onus needs to rest entirely on the shoulders of men; the more privilege they have, the larger the brunt of the responsibility they should bear. Cisgender heterosexual men are the ones who benefit unambiguously from gendered violence and oppression, to the detriment of everyone else – the idea that women need to make space for men in one of the only movements that belongs to them is highly disrespectful. Men need to use the space that they have in society, in order to help those women who are trying to facilitate change – taking feminist space and diverting it towards men’s interests does not encourage progress at all.
When all is said and done, the idea of associating specific personality traits, qualities and roles to specific genders simply cannot co-exist with a society where all genders are regarded as having equal value – gender roles are the cornerstone of patriarchy. While gender roles exist, patriarchal oppression will also exist – they are two sides of the same coin. Therefore, it is not ‘imperative’ that a healthy gender culture exists in any way – gender roles, by definition, will always be harmful to someone i.e. women, and to a lesser extent LGBTQ+ men. Feminism is not about seeking a ‘healthy femininity’ – it aims to be rid of the concept of femininity and masculinity altogether. Ultimately, masculinity and femininity can never be ‘healthy’.