Male and female, and departures from that physical polarity, among humans can be observed and described, anatomically and genetically. I carry both X and Y chromosomes, and which one I might have contributed to the creation of a human embryo before my vasectomy was a kind of biological coin toss. I do not have ovaries. If I am diagnosed with cancer, and opt for hormone therapy, I will receive estrogen, not testosterone — the latter would be like throwing gasoline on a fire. For a woman, it is just the opposite.
Secondarily, and not quite so definitively, when I begin to store additional lipids in my fat cells, they concentrate mostly above my waist first, instead of below it. The hair on my arms and legs is comparatively long and thick, and I can grow a full if not luxurious beard. It is harder for me to get a bladder infection than it is for my partner, Sherry, because my urethra is around 18 cm long, and hers is around 4 cm (if I remember my A&P correctly). On the other hand, I am more likely to manifest recessive genes that are associated with the “sexual” chromosomes because I don’t have a matching X chromosome to contribute a dominant counterpart.
So far, I have limited my descriptions to things that can be fairly confidently traced to a genetic sexual inheritance. Now I want to shift.
I have the habit of calling small children “sweetie.” So does Sherry. When boys reach around seven or eight years old, they will ask me to quit calling them that, though they won’t ask Sherry to quit calling them that.
When I get into my car at night, I never check the back seat first. She always does.
I can walk around the trail at Lynn Lake at dusk without feeling I’m risking anything. She doesn’t dare.
Mechanics generally don’t try to get over on me, even though I know very little about auto mechanics. They almost always try to get over on her.
She automatically notices what needs to be done around the house, and I have had to learn to consciously look for it.
I have never been sexually harassed, and she has.
She does not like shaving, but does shave her armpits and legs when we go to public places to swim — in order to avoid people staring at her. I only shave occasionally, and then only part of my face; and if I shaved my face completely or did not shave at all, no one would find either particuarly remarkable.
Strange men pass me with stern emotionlessness to let me know that they may be dangerous. They do not do that with her.
I can watch television and films and see frequent images of men my age (54) and older who are still portrayed as leading men and sexually desirable. She is six years my junior and seldom sees a “sexually-acceptable” woman-lead in these media below the age of 35, and then often only with massive cosmetic and surgical intervention.
If I am assertive in an antagonistic exchange with another person, I am considered either “no-nonsense” or an asshole. She is considered a bitch. I once met a woman who was Naval officer. She commanded a group of sailors; and she had to be very assertive at times. She told me that behind her back, they called her a bitch. Her notion of future equality was when she could be promoted by her subordinates to “asshole.” She wanted to be an asshole and not a bitch.
Men and women both refer to women they are angry with as “bitch.” Further down, I will assert that femaleness is “under-valued.” This is one example.
Some men who have only the most superficial apprehension of “what feminists want” will point this out — that women say it — when they are confronted for referring to a woman as “bitch.” But Black men who assault other Black men will generally accompany the assault with the epithet “nigger.” That does not mean it is okay for a white person to say the same thing; and it does not mean that there is some kind of equality at work here. In relations characterized by relative power and powerlessness, be these gender relations or racial-national relations, it is not uncommon for the powerless to incorporate the ways of thinking of the powerful into their own world views. People internalize their oppression, just as the oppressor internalizes his belief in entitlement.
Nancy Hartsock did a very good job in the first half of “Money, Sex, and Power” of showinig how capitalist (and I would add consumerist for US culture) culture continually reproduces a “market” epistemology of possessive individualism that confuses us about “power.” We think of power as a thing that someone HAS… like I have a bicycle and you don’t. But power is a relation, and so always embedded in what happens BETWEEN human beings, in “community.”
Social structures of unequal power employ behavioral expectations that are often highly ritualized, complex, and learned over the course of a lifetime. Learning these expectations is often necessary to function within a system, and over time they become “normalized” — just the way things are. With regard to biological men and women, this polarity of expectation-complexes in linguistic shorthand are called “masculinity” and “femininity.”
Masculinity and femininity are not free-standing or static behavioral constellations. They exist first and foremost in relation to one another — in a unity of opposites. They are defined in relation to one another. Masculine is NOT feminine. Feminine is NOT masculine. It is tautological. Right is the opposite of left, and left is the opposite of right. Up and down. In or out. Masculine and feminine are both opposite and inseparable, like East and West. But they are not mutual like East and West. East and West are not unequal in value over time. One does not dominate the other as a condition of its existence. They co-exist as equals. With masculinity and femininity, the former is fundamentally defined as superior against the inferiority of the latter — as inherently unequal in power. Masculinity IS the expectation of an exercise of power — over all that is “natural,” be that colonies, women, or the environment (all of which are feminized). The masculine-feminine polarity is not mutual, it is complimentary… like master-slave, like boss-worker… without mutuality.
There is a very common and predictable reaction to this assertion — always by men — that while women and men don’t “have” the same power, each “has” his and her form of power. But in making this claim, invariably men equate the power of sexual availability as a bargaining lever, or the power exercised by greater familiarity with the details of household management, or the power of “trickery” (referred to disparagingly as “female wiles”) with male structural power — higher pay, control over institutions, male privilege in daily intercourse, male standing before other male authorities, control over police and military, etc. etc.
But this is like the slave owner complaining that if he doesn’t give an extra ration to his slaves, they will malinger — childlike and ungrateful creatures that they are. It is comparing transient suvival advantage to structural power… a common tactic of the powerful in blaming victims, by claiming victimhood for oneself.
This reaction is the “separate but equal” reaction. But when you live in the same society, and even in the same family, separate is seldom equal.
There is another dimension in which masculinity and femininity are not free-standing ideological constellations. That is in their intersections with class, sector of employment, and race/nationality. There is not one masculinity and femininity, but multiple masculnities/femininities. The masculinity of the academic male is not the same as that of the military male. The femininity of the white woman is not the same as that of the Black woman or the Latina or the North American indigenous woman. A poor Black woman is always relating to the world and the people in it from the perspective of limits and expectations related to poverty, national oppression, AND patriarchy. How other people see her AS a woman, and how she regards herself AS a woman are related to the particular femininities that are available to poor Black women… which are defined by the masculinities available to poor Black men…. and so on. This further informs the situation of poor Black lesbian women, as well as that of poor Black gay men. The gendered expectations that define and circumscribe social conformity and acceptance for all these categories are influenced by all those other categories — nonetheless there are expectations that are clearly held in common based on gender.
The wife of a rich man is a wife. I am paraphrasing a feminist author here. The wife of a white worker is also a wife. The wife of a poor Black worker is still a wife. While there are class and national differences in each case, there is also something here that transcends without escaping class and nationality. Expectations of the WIFE in relation to the HUSBAND.
Though I have pointed out that there are multiple masculinities and femininities, they are bound together as gender expectations that are different yet the same — and sometimes I will refer to them in the singular — reflecting that commonality.
Masculinity and femininity are more than roles, though they relate to roles. They are, in fact, how we learn to BE male and female in the world. They are implanted very early, consolidated affectively, and are stubbornly imbedded in even the most politically conscious psyches. Masculinity and femininity form the very basis of our personalities. Before we are ever aware of class, race, nation… we are aware of sexual difference and the different expectations that are associated with it.
Note that even the concept of “roles,” which is widely accepted in discourse related to sexuality, is in fact an epistemological convention that can trace its origins to the theater (“All the world’s a stage…”). It is important to point this out now, because in any attempt to unpack this sexual dualism, we will likely rely on unexamined epistemes, or “ways of knowing.”
Let’s shift now from the more familiar convention of the term “roles” to another Thespian metaphor, and use the term “scripts” to emphasize the multiplicity of roles available within the more general ideologies of masculinitiy and femininity. For a very thorough discussion of the historical development of epistemological conventions related to sexuality, see R. W. Connell’s book, “Masculinities,” Chapter 1, “The Science of Masculinity.”
Anyone reading this blog, however, is also unlikely to be convinced of the omnipotence of social norms in establishing conformity. Most of you have displayed nonconformity in your lifetime, probably more than once. People have the potential to resist. This does not mean that all resistance is equal or equally effective. Efficacy depends on the depth and breadth of insight.
Early sex role theory was very functionalist in its approach, and described the complimentarity of masculine-feminine with no reference to social power. In fact, this approach tended to see these ideologoical and behavioral polarities as norms — even medicalized norms — that is, using medical terminology to describe conformity as “well adjusted” and “healthy.” The implication, of course, is that failure to conform is maladjusted and unhealthy.
Relate this episteme to compulsory heterosexuality and you can easily see into the attitudes displayed toward homosexual behavior by the post-WWII generation… those who didn’t eventually revert to the more atavistic description of homosexuality as an “abomination” before God. It’s interesting that both the “modern” medical description of homosexual behavior and the “pre-modern” clerical version agree ultimately on the importance to society of enforcing compulsory heterosexuality as a way of preserving a particular and static version of the family — which is actually an economic unit with the sanction of the state.
Power is always concealed in dominant discourse by what is NOT said, and by what is naturalized by not having been said.
There is a danger that we will continue to ignore systemic social power as the key dimension of masculinity-femininity even if we substitute the more flexible notion of scripts for roles, but only if we fail to put this metaphor into the context of a system as postmodernists fail to do (because they are allergic to “metanarratives”). I would point out only in passing here that the bound foot in feudal China, the spiked heel in today’s Atlanta, and the burka in Mazar-a-Sharif are costumes for different feminine scripts, but they also have one thing in common. They all limit the mobility and reinforce the male-dependency of women.
The universal reality of male violence to police female behavior, and male economic power to consolidate female dependency on males, exist in a world where structures of power are being destabilized by ceaseless change and providing opportunities for resistance. So, in most periods masculinity-femininity are relatively stable categories. Yet in every instance of destabilization there is a struggle by women against men’s power… and often a violent backlash by men. Masculinity-femininity are contested.
The tempo of change in late capitalism is such that destabilizations occur almost constantly. The question, of course, is whether patriarchy as a system of power that is inextricable from class, imperialism, and white supremacy, will be destabilized to the point where it can be decisively overthrown or only restructured. Thinking about the probability of overthrowing patriarchy is a good way to appreciate how deeply entrenched patriarchy is, and how difficult this overthrow will be.
Ti Grace Atkinson quipped once that, “compared to feminism, communism was child’s play.”
Nonetheless, these norms, scripts, expectations, rules… are contested all the time, and the backlash that occurs takes many forms.
Struggling against power — as Robin DG Kelley noted in “Race Rebels,” where he described all manner of unorganized resistance to American Apartheid in the South — can be spontaneous and individualized or planned and collective. When a Black restaurant worker spits in an obnoxious white patron’s food, that is individualized resistance. When a group of young people go to a restaurant to “sit-in” as a way of exposing Apartheid, that is collective.
On the other hand, when men who are threatened by women’s decreased dependency and increased organization, they often adopt an individual strategy of “overconformity,” where they compulsively acquire “masculine” accoutrements, be they giant automobiles, guns, or attack-breed dogs, and just as compulsively behave as if they are trying out for a role with the World Wrestling Foundation — affecting a kind of bright-eyed homicidal aggression becauese they equate fear with respect. When they work with the Republican Party and the Christian Coalition to legally strip away women’s control over their own reproductive capacities, then this is organized backlash.
Divisions of “male” labor and divisions of “female” labor respond to changes in economic and political struggle. Look at the more “respectable” masculinity that prioritizes responsibility to the family — which keeps men who are not in the ruling class working. Compare that to the “fascist” (used here as a descriptive term, not a system) masculinity displayed by the masculine over-conformers described above — which merges easily with the idealization of military masculinity in times when warfare plays a more central role in society — for example, during crises of (economic & social) destabilization. War becomes necessary to “rescue” the power of the dominant nation and-or class.
Of course, the marriage of fascist individualistic masculinity with the soldier-ideal does not fit with real soldiery, the latter requiring high levels of collectivity and suppression of the individual will. There is no “Army of One.” That is an oxymoron, but that’s another story.
The rise of fascist masculinity, however, does constitute a precursor to systemic fascism. Masculinity contains femininity within it, not apart from it, because the system of male power is phallocentric yet requires its opposite. Femininity becomes a strategy for relating to masculinity. The destabilization of masculinity accompanies more general social destabilizations, because male power is inextricable from class and national power.
Destabilizations threatening entrenched power (class, national, and gendered) threaten the “respectable” power holders, whose control over the state and civil society translate into control over this renegade-masculinity. But in crisis, the bourgeoisie often “releases” reactionary forces into the political arena as a counterweight to strengthening currents of class, national, and gendered resistance.
The danger inherent in this deployment of descriptively-fascist forces is that they can wrest control of civil society and the state away from the “respectable” masculine bourgeois and become structurally fascist. The Trojan Horse for this incursion is generally masculine populism — and analysts of fascism have generally paid only token attention to the gendered aspects of this discourse (a monumental oversight). As we saw with Mussolini and Hitler, however, the fascist state doesn’t survive long without the re-incorporation of bourgeoisie, with their technocrats, professionals, and managers. Getting everyone worked up into racial-national-masculinist frenzies prepares them psychologically for war, but it doesn’t get the plain work done to build the weapons or circulate capital through the society.
It is easy today to see the resurgence of a descriptively-fascist masculinity over and against “respectable” masculinity, and it is not particularly difficult — with the right interpretive tools — to connect this to a state of profound systemic crisis (destabilization). I strongly recommend Jackson Katz’s documentary film, “Wrestling with Manhood,” as a kind of audio-visual primer on this topic.
Masculinity — in every guise — is an expression of domination and latent violence. Even the weird touchy-feely male cults of Iron Johns — who claim to be allies of women (!) — take the “warrior” as their point of reference. Fascist masculinity simply brings this latent violence into full and open expression. It should be remembered that social struggle by women was required to end the notion of domestic privacy that entitled even “respectable” men (including the bourgeois) to physically “discipline” their wives.
During the opening stages of the 2003 full-scale invasion of Iraq, the spin-masters of the Pentagon attempted to deploy multiple masculinity-femininity scripts within the fictions developed around one female war casualty — PFC Jessica Lynch. In this ham-handed attempt to appeal simultaneously to putative feminists, to feminize and demonize Iraqis, then polish off the fables with a stage-managed “rescue” of the “damsel in distress” by Alpha-male special operations troops, a minor crisis erupted when the right-wing rebelled against the GI Jane storyline on the one hand, the fakery of the rescue (making cheap actors out of the idealized macho special operations warriors) was uncovered, and the racial-national contradictions surfaced over the different treatment the press afforded Lynch, as opposed to a Black woman solider (who really was captured) in the same engagement — Shoshanna Johnson.
As Connell points out, “there is gender politics within masculinity.”
Given the paradox that there are certainly differing masculinities (within which are contained corresponding feminities), but that there can be no clear taxonomy of categories in a period where these categories are subject to nearly constant destabilization, it may be useful (if not rigorous) to think of various masculinities as cults — that is, not just a belief system that demands conformity and which is expressed through rituals, but one that is transient. This transformaotin of hegemonic masculinities into more cult-like associations is also a result of the accelerating process of commodification in consumer society. Two differing examples might be the reactionary theocratic patriarchy of a group like the Promise Keepers and the fan base of the World Wrestling Federation. As I said, not rigorous, but at least another perspective from which to view masculinities in the flux of the core countries in this period of late capitalism.
And differing masculinities exist not only in a polar relation to femininities, but to each other. What is the relation between urban Black American “gangsta” masculinity, for example, and the cult of white cop-masculinity?
Over-conformed (fascist) masculinity is actually a response in some respects to the sexual vertigo created by this generalized instability… and attempt to get one’s patriarchal bearings. The irony, of course, is that even this is a highly marketed commodity, requiring certain fashions, expensive vehicles, designer attack dogs, gym passes combined with anabolic steroids, and even cosmetics. Part of the whole package is also that these over-conformed men are caught up in the marketplace of desire and find themselves — just as women in the past — feeling pressured to compete as sexual commodities.
Does that mean there is a form of parity developing between men and women? That women going to male strip shows, etc., is an indication that women have reclaimed their sexual agency? Hardly. One need only look at the actual content of beatuty standards (male and female) and the specific scripts of the come-on (whether it is “real life” or on a stage), and male desire is still constructed as aggression… female desire still constructed as helpless (melting) before that aggression.
Women may be resisting conformity to the Victorian gender binary wherein the women were considered asexual, but the cues and symbols of arousal in modern/post-modern sexuality remain firmly encoded as the strong, dominant male (and the lunar, receptive woman), even when the “masculine” or “feminine” roles are adopted by the female-top and male-bottom (and several other correlatives) as a form of dramatic sex play. The decisive break with Victorianism by consumer sexuality did not crash patriarchy. It just updated the operating system.
Masculinity-femininity is linked to biological maleness and femaleness for its instrumentality – policing compulsory heterosexuality — even though these characteristics are NOT irrevocably bound to biological males and females. To be “masculine” is to be “over-valued” (privileged), aggressive, dominant, and even violent… while femininity exists as an opposite-compliment — under-valued, passive, subordinate, and masochistic. Butch women and effeminate men are seen as Masculine and feminine respectively, even if aberrant. That is because the differentiations in expectation are related directly to POWER.
The most glaring instance of this is rape. What, after all, is a “prison bitch”?