Tag Archives: stereotypes

Male violence and the problem with masculinity

Increasingly, people are talking about reforming masculinity in an effort to share this world with more kind, caring, balanced males who are better capable of managing their emotions and responding civilly to difficult situations. Implicit in this is the recognition that male violence is real and that it’s at least partly socially constructed through the negative aspects of masculinity. But you wouldn’t get this idea from reading the daily news. The media still portrays instances of male violence as the sole cause of some other factor – passion, heartbreak or mental illness. It’s still not socially acceptable to name male violence and male violence against women and girls is rarely described as the hate crime that it is. Women who simply point out the phenomenon – without threatening any violence themselves – are quickly punished.

 

 

Even when we do discuss the blatant reality that almost all violence is committed by males, however, a few notable things typically happen:

  1. The source of male violence is not adequately explored
  2. Masculinity is usually only critiqued in terms of extreme expressions e.g. violence
  3. The proposed solution is to reform masculinity, thus effectively maintaining it

In this article, I’m going to explore male violence and its root in masculinity, and then I’m going to take it a step further. If masculinity as we know it is toxic, what about it is toxic exactly, how do we change it, and ultimately, why would we want to maintain it at all?

Why does male violence happen?

Naming the problem of male violence is one thing. Understanding why it happens is another. Growing up as children, we’re often told, “boys will be boys”. What would otherwise be interpreted as abusive and inappropriate when a boy harasses a girl is passed off as a simple crush. Time and again we see that girls must be ladylike while boys are allowed to exhibit all kinds of obnoxiousness. They can’t help it, apparently. They’re wired that way.

If males are programmed to destroy, wreak havoc, harm, rape and kill, what’s the rationale for having laws against these actions if we believe men aren’t responsible for their actions? What would be the point of telling boys to be considerate and respectful? Either they’re slaves to biology or they’re not. If we believe that they have an innate propensity for violence and selfishness, then we need to start having a very different conversation about what to do about the male sex. If they’re not, then we need to stop making excuses for unacceptable behaviour and critically examine why women don’t seem to be interested in doing these things while men do. And why despite that, do we talk about these two groups the way we do?

 

 

Is some degree of male violence influenced by biological factors? What would this mean? Is it true that testosterone really does predetermine aggression and violence and that males are born with a gene that makes it harder for them to respond calmly to stressful situations? If that’s the case, then we’re left to conclude once again that violence is inevitable and that men – but more so women and children – must accept that they’re the unfortunate sacrifices of male biology.

Biological determinism raises other unsettling questions: if male biology is so flawed, so prone to irrational, violent behaviour, why are men allowed to occupy positions of power? Why are they allowed to be police officers? Teachers? Spiritual leaders? Politicians? Judges? Doctors? Fathers? If we believe that men can be trusted with these roles, then we can’t logically claim that male violence is a defect of male biology. And if male violence is inevitable, then we’re certainly not doing much to mitigate it.

It’s impossible to observe male behaviour in a non-socialized environment, so there’s no way we can cleanly parse out dispositions as either biologically or socially-driven. But we do know that our current social environment ascribes particular roles and attributes to males which are labeled masculine. If males aren’t all born with the same personality template, is it so far fetched to attribute behavioural patterns to social programming? Could it be that the persistence of male entitlement that boys and men display towards females is learned and excused?

A man who expects his wife to cook for him and clean up after him shares an attitude of entitlement with a man who sexually assaults a woman as she’s jogging in a public park. Though such conduct may be expressed at different intensities and in different ways, it bears the hallmark of masculinity and coexists on the same spectrum: enough men feel they have the right to violate women’s boundaries that it creates a climate of fear among women and girls. It’s why females have separate spaces set aside for them for intimate purposes outside of the home, they’re wary of being in isolated or dark places alone, have their own crisis shelters, and make so many unconscious decisions every day in order to avoid male violence.

We’re supposed to accept this as normal? Even if brain scans showed a significant difference between the brains of females and males – and they don’t – that still wouldn’t explain the difference. In the feminist theory of gender (gender being masculinity and femininity), we have an explanatory model that demonstrates a clear link between male socialization and violence.

Some people will say that men who are violent and abusive toward women are outliers; they conjure the image a monster, a rogue archetype. When men do these things to women but don’t fit this profile, the media and courts feign ignorance about whether the guy can possibly have done it on purpose. Contrary to popular discourse, these activities aren’t being spearheaded by exceptionally idiotic, socially maladjusted men.

Many people who admit there’s a problem do this funny thing that makes you wonder if they really mean it when they say they care about women. They revert to biological determinism when particular aspects of male behaviour are inconveniently questioned – especially when it’s of a sexual nature. Male batterers and mass shooters are exhibiting some sort of extreme masculinity, something gone terribly wrong or taken too far, whereas men who engage in all manner of predatory and exploitative activities are just guys being guys. Some people will go so far as to say that men need a release valve; if you don’t allow them to get their aggression out or indulge in their sexual fantasies – no matter how depraved or harmful – they’ll become so frustrated they’ll have no choice but to take it out on those who are vulnerable or just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We hear the tired old arguments that men are just naturally more visual and have greater sexual interest. Few people question whether this is actually true. The moment you evoke biology as a reason for a man’s choices, male violence and privilege are protected and reinforced.

Is it enough to just tweak masculinity?

Change is not necessarily improvement and not everyone who says they want to change masculinity for the better means the same thing. Pro-rape men’s rights activist Roosh V has coined the term neomasculinity in the hopes of ‘rescuing’ masculinity and ‘restoring’ men to their rightful place. His vision is a gendered version of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric: just the title of his Return of Kings website makes it clear who he thinks should rule in this new masculine landscape.

What about calls to reform ‘toxic masculinity’, then? Tom Hardy, for example, urges men to “be masculine, not macho”. In this article, The Red Bulletin anoints Hardy as a Real Man, which insofar as the piece is concerned appears to just mean being a good person while having a penis. Hardy says that men can and should be caring, considerate, patient, and respectful. This is encouraging. Here’s a male celebrity who’s a great actor and role model for young men saying that masculinity as it’s been practiced for a very long time isn’t so great after all. Maybe this does represent a shift in societal attitudes about gender. And why wouldn’t we want to encourage males to be more of these things we’ve traditionally associated with femininity?

Why do we need gender anyway?

The concepts of masculinity and femininity aren’t accidental or neutral. They define appropriate behaviour for males and females which orders them into a hierarchy, such that whatever characteristics make men dominant are deemed masculine and therefore encouraged in males, and whatever characteristics make females submissive are deemed feminine and therefore encouraged in females. To ensure this social hierarchy is well understood by all, supposedly masculine characteristics are valued as superior to supposedly feminine characteristics. Many people recognize the existence of sex-based inequality but are unable to explain its origin or dynamics. The sexual and reproductive exploitation of female bodies is enabled and sanctioned through this social engineering – an entrenched and seemingly natural and inevitable ideology of misogyny.

The problem isn’t that traits are bad in and of themselves. Aggression or violence might be required in survival situations or where personal safety is threatened, for example. But why aren’t particular behaviours expected from people on the basis of need or context rather than because they’re assumed to be inherent or natural to, or appropriate for, males or females only? Why would we associate the traits ‘caring, considerate, patient, and respectful’ with either masculinity or femininity if we want both sexes to exhibit them? If we believe everyone should do the things that good people do, then there’s no need for the categories of masculine and feminine where mannerisms are concerned.

It only makes sense to speak of masculinity and femininity in terms of the biological attributes specific to male and female sexed bodies, for instance, as they relate to the different healthcare needs of males and females. No matter what biological differences exist between the sexes, sex should not determine how people are expected to think, feel and act, and the only way to challenge these expectations is by doing away with gender – the social categories of masculinity and femininity – altogether.

 

 

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Children don’t need to change – gender stereotypes need to go

Folks who see equality as a good thing readily agree that gender roles are discriminatory and oppressive. Despite this, it appears that many people have difficulty applying this knowledge to everyday situations. Perhaps this is because it’s far easier to agree with concepts when they’re presented as straightforward and conciliatory rather than as confrontational or requiring critical analysis. Acknowledging the harm caused by gender roles often incites derision and dismissal, which speaks to the reality that these tropes are status quo. They’re so ingrained in our culture that overcoming them is a constant struggle.

Gender roles stretch across the globe and dictate not only how females should behave but also how males should behave. The key difference, however, is that whereas males are punished for non-conforming, females are both punished for non-conforming and made to be subordinate when we conform through a host of expectations designed to make us passive and submissive. No matter what we do we’re set up to fail because not only are we never dominant like males are, but we’re never even equal in the gender hierarchy.

Patriarchy is the most oppressive system in the world. Save for whatever minute percentage of people who might live in matriarchal or equal circumstances, patriarchy controls everyone, impacts everyone negatively, and subordinates half of the world’s population. When we throw in the additional trauma of discrimination based on race, age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and every other form of oppression, it’s a miracle that people who are marginalized and oppressed multiple times over are so resilient.

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Children have a tough time trying to make sense of this when they realize that the things they’re supposed to like and do don’t always match up to their own interests and personalities. They don’t yet have the experience or analytical tools to understand that there isn’t anything wrong with them and that the source of this cognitive dissonance is a system that was deliberately concocted well before they were born. This is mass psychological torture. It’s not up to kids to figure this out. It’s up to parents, teachers, relatives, and other adults. This is not a personal problem, a family dispute, or an identity crisis first and foremost. It’s a social issue. A moral issue.

Yesterday, it was reported in the news that a seven-year-old child was banned from using the girls’ washroom at a Catholic school in Edmonton, Alberta. The child identifies as a transgender girl.

The parents say they knew from the beginning that something was different about their child…

“As soon as she could speak, she would articulate that she is a female and would gravitate towards feminine objects,” the mother said.

“I just told my mom I felt like a girl,” the seven-year-old recalled.

That’s when her parents say they knew their child wasn’t “a boy who liked girl toys — she was a girl who had a penis.”

This is where I have to call a time out. What exactly is meant by feminine objects? Females have specific sex characteristics, so it makes sense to describe females and their unique physiology as feminine; but how are inanimate objects feminine? What about them is in any way female – or male, for that matter? For example, in an episode of Food Network’s Southern at Heart, Damaris Phillips describes her coconut lavender macaroons as feminine. On its face this statement doesn’t make any sense but the viewer understands what’s implied; something about these cookies reminds her of abstract qualities she associates with the female sex. This is the essence of gender and it’s where the problem starts.

It seems highly tenuous that an individual at the age of seven is at a stage in their life where they can elucidate the difference between being a boy who likes “girl toys” and actually being a girl. Children as young as four years old are now being asked to declare their gender identity. So what does it mean to think or feel like a boy or a girl, exactly? How does a boy who is learning to speak know enough about language – about anything – to know that they’re in fact a girl? Surely we should approach cases of potential gender dysphoria in children with extreme caution given their lack of maturity. I don’t know that anyone should be comfortable trusting the judgement of a child on a subject so complex it makes the heads of educated adults spin.

I’ve thought about what I would do if this were my child. Here’s what I’m thinking. A boy who likes stereotypically “feminine” things or has stereotypical “feminine” qualities is simply a boy who doesn’t conform to how society has decided boys are supposed to be. That doesn’t make him female. Associating traits like sensitivity or vivaciousness and an interest in dresses, pretty things, dance, soft colours, dolls, etc. with being female does nothing except reinforce gender stereotypes. There is absolutely no logical basis for associating the things our society identifies as feminine to the condition of being female.

Being female means being a member of the female sex and no doctor will deny that being a member of the female sex means having a female anatomy, which necessarily involves primary and secondary female sex characteristics, and absolutely includes a vagina. Whether any given female can become pregnant is irrelevant; a properly functioning reproductive system is required for pregnancy and gestation and any human being who’s ever been born was given birth to by a female. Being female cannot mean having a penis.

Of course, no one is disputing that the child is of the male sex, so what we’re left with is the question of what their gender is. While sex and gender are often conflated, they are separate concepts.

This is where what is considered controversial to some people is simple for others. If you believe that there is in fact no basis for thinking that being male must involve expressing a prescribed masculinity and being female must involve expressing a prescribed femininity, then you are gender critical. While gender criticism is often described as a central element of radical feminism (radical feminists are gender abolitionists, to be more precise), it’s also key to feminism at large because it’s impossible to challenge sexism without challenging gender stereotypes.

It’s one thing to acknowledge that discrimination against females exists but in order to challenge this discrimination we need to understand how and why it manages to organize different cultures, geographies, classes, and generations. In order for an ideology to endure so many barriers of time and space it must consist of a subliminal and self-perpetuating set of beliefs. Every oppressive system assigns unequal value to different groups of people. This requires that we develop a set of attitudes and assumptions about them that serve to make them unworthy relative to another group. At the same time, these people, should they use their voice or exercise any degree of autonomy or power, are seen as a threat and are summarily ignored, silenced, threatened, harmed, and murdered. How else can we explain white American police officers killing black women and men in cold blood and in plain view time and time again? How else can we explain the alarming number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, which Stephen Harper shrugged off as not “really high on our radar”, the blame for which indigenous men are expected to shoulder all on their own with no consideration of the effects of colonial patriarchy?

How else can we explain why discrimination persists despite the fact that many people who discriminate do so unintentionally and unknowingly? Patriarchy, like white supremacy, only requires that people with privilege go about their daily lives. That’s why even those who are aware of these systems and try to avoid contributing to them end up making mistakes. This is what it means for oppression to be systemic. To be systemic is to be effective.

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Growing up, I was very close to my older brother and was surrounded by boys more so than girls. This influenced my taste in music, my language, my sense of physicality, etc. I did all sorts of “masculine” things as well as “feminine” things and it never once crossed mine or my parents’ mind that this called into question my identity as a girl or a female. I have no doubt that the males who surrounded me rubbed off on me but they weren’t the way they were because of something innate. It was because they were raised to be that way from infancy as a result of the school curriculum, teachers, spiritual leaders, parents, friends’ parents, advertizing, books, movies, etc. It’s telling that this process actually hedged the female socialization that I was simultaneously subjected to. I also have a mother who exhibited femininity in many ways, but not consistently – and this didn’t escape my notice. My mom could be fairly tough with me and I saw that she was brave, outspoken, and did the same hard labour as her male co-workers. She told me about some of the misogynistic things they would say and do. It’s no wonder we’ve always shared a love of Bette Davis movies. Overall, the message was clear: never let people push you around and never let a man tell you that you’re inferior. I wouldn’t be the strong, independent woman I am today if I hadn’t had her example to follow.

Not long ago, I was taking a walk with my aunt, her 10 year old daughter, and two male cousins of around the same age. As she watched them my aunt said to me, “Boys and girls are so different.” I responded, “That’s because we tell them they are.” Silence followed. Later that evening I was teasing her husband and my brother for comparing their scars, which they seemed to think were badges of honour. To me, they just looked like reminders of stupidity. I remarked that they were lucky they didn’t have to go through the shit women do, neither through stupidity nor by choice, simply for being born with a reproductive system destined to hemorrhage every month unless it was transformed (usually accidentally) into an incubator that would eject a baby way too big for the hole it’s supposed to come out of. Whatever the method of delivery, I added, a woman gets ripped open, leaving a scar that will rival anything they can dream of bragging about. At this point my younger cousin – bless her heart – added that girls have to suffer the job of doing their hair and make-up too. “That’s your choice!” my brother countered. And therein lies the difference between sex and gender.

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Femininity and masculinity are arbitrary social constructs. Each of us should be free to express whatever traits come naturally to us without having to worry about how they supposedly relate to our anatomy. If we’re really concerned about equality and the well-being of children who will become adults who make important decisions, this is what we need to teach them.

Going back to the article about the transgender child:

The family has found an ally in Catholic school trustee Patricia Grell, who has publicly criticized the administration’s decision.

“I’m really worried about the impact of this stance we’ve taken on that child,” Grell said. “I’m very worried about that child’s mental health and wellbeing.”

I’m worried too. I’m worried that adults can’t seem to let children like what they like and act how they act regardless of their sex and leave it at that. There’s nothing wrong with these kids. They don’t need to change. Our society does.

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