Why Bother With Masculinity?

Why exactly should I, or any man, bother with masculine performance? What is there to gain from masculinity?

Photo by Mean Shadows on Unsplash

Most men take it for granted that masculine performance is something they ought to do. Manliness is assumed to be good for men, period. Many don’t even realize they have an option, since they’ve come to identify as masculine, and are therefore unable to see a difference between it and themselves.

I’m skeptical, though. What reason do I have to bother with masculinity? I can find none. Nor can I find any good reason to make ‘masculine’ a part of my identity. Because of this I no longer bother trying to confine myself to masculinity.

Forthermore, I believe every man would be better off letting go of masculinity entirely, since beyond those limitations is a life of wholeness and freedom and love.

Why should I be masculine? Why should any man be masculine? I want to explore these questions at length. In the process, I want to make an argument for all men to move beyond the prison of masculinity. Beyond it lies a life of genuine freedom and self-possession.

Masculinity and Me

I am lucky. My parents celebrated and loved me as a complete human being. I was never punished for feeling deeply or crying or being nurturing. I was never once told to ‘be a man’ in response to needing love and reassurance. Not once was love withheld because I didn’t perform some aspect of masculinity. They gave me a chance to be masculine or not.

I understood from a young age that masculinity was something out there in the world. I would need to deal with it out there, but at home I was safe to just be me. As an example, I had to choose a color for my name tag when I started kindergarten. I wanted to choose pink. Why not? It was the early nineties and hot pink was just one of many shades of neon that looked cool to me. My mother suggested I pick green instead, though. When I asked why she said it was because kids on the bus might not like it if I used pink. I accepted that answer. Pink was fine at home, but kids out there had some idiotic problem with color. I would discover that kids out there have a lot of idiotic notions.

I suppose in addition to the fortifying love of my parents I was also insulated by a feeling of separation from my peers. I was insensitive to their reactions positive and negative, which gave me perhaps more freedom to enjoy being myself. For example, when I was very young I didn’t realize that books also had gender. I read everything and anything and never thought to filter my tastes based on what was masculine, and my parents never asked me to. When in the first grade we were asked to tell the class what we read over the summer, I said I had read The Secret Garden. Everyone laughed. I had no idea why, but was untroubled, since I felt secure in my tastes. I figured they were all just embarrassed by their own inability to crush chapter books like I could.

It would be many years before I realized they laughed because I had read a girl book. I read a lot more girl books, too. I loved Little House on the Prairie and read every single volume. I read books from the Baby-Sitter’s Club series, and a lot of other girl books I can’t remember because I didn’t categorize them as girl books. They were just books to me.

I was slow to realize that gender is attached to damn near everything. It took me perhaps more time than most to see how the barriers between genders were marked everywhere. It is encoded by color and fonts and other symbols that take something inert, like a book, and couple it to the abstract notion of gender. Everything, it seemed, had some kind of gender stamp on it, even things that had no sense being gendered. How could something like a vegetable or a beverage possibly be masculine or feminine? The mind boggles.

Later, though, adolescence happened. I couldn’t escape feeling Not Normal, and I wanted desperately to be Normal. Being normal meant performing according to social expectations, which meant being masculine. My problem was I didn’t have any innate desire to do that. My solution was to draw a sort of mental Venn diagram of Things I Do in one circle and Manly Things in another and see what was in the overlap. I was left with Quiet Withdrawn Emotionally-Cold Asshole. So that’s what I leaned into as a young man.

Even while I nurtured plans to go to a military academy — where surely they would bestow an unassailable masculinity on me — I understood that there was me and there was masculine performance. Two separate things. I worried that I wasn’t very good at fitting inside the max box, but I knew, even then, that the box wasn’t me.

During my first attempt at university I tried to be tough. Perhaps I even was in my own way. I was also completely alone. No friends, and no idea how to make friends. The rules of masculinity I was provided by society gave me no insight into how to connect and cooperate, only how to be more alone. I held on for two years then collapsed.

My identity went up in flames after failing out of university. I was left to question everything. I left my former religion, I broke up with my fiancée, and in all other ways was set to drift. Who was I? I no longer trusted any past assumptions. Tradition meant nothing to me. I wanted concrete reasons I could trust. Masculinity was just one of many parts of my identity I doubted. It would not make the cut.

I Will Not Obey

I had followed the rules as they were given to me and my reward was pain and isolation. I had already failed to be that thing I thought I should be, which meant that I was now free to be something else entirely. I wanted to know why I should do anything at all. What matters? What am I? What is a good life? I wanted to start from scratch. I didn’t want a single thing that wasn’t real and justified. I didn’t want to take one step that wasn’t in the right direction.

Thankfully, it was during this time that I happened to cross paths with some wise and argumentative women who were ready to challenge me to take feminism seriously. They helped give form to my emptiness and rage. I heard and actually listened to sentiments such as this by bell hooks:

The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.

It became clear that what I wanted was to be validated and to feel valid, to be secure and feel secure, as a complete person being enjoying the full range of human experience. I no longer wanted to be alone. It was OK, finally, to look inward and see a need to connect with others.

This need for connection — to love and be loved — contradicted the rules of masculinity, though. I knew as much as any man knows that it is against the rules to be nurturing and to ask to be nurtured.

Why should I care about these rules, though? Why should I try to squeeze myself into a man box so confining that I would need to cut entire parts of my off just to have a chance to fit inside? Why would I abandon my personal freedom in order to play out some performance for the sake of others?

It is a blessing that in the throes of youthful rebellion a person has enough self-obsession to outweigh all the rest of society. I would not behave as I was told. I would not cut myself down to size to fit what society told me a man should be according to some ancient caveman bullshit rules that didn’t make sense anymore if they ever did. I wasn’t going to don a dress and hit the runway, though. I didn’t want to. The decorative trappings of masculinity didn’t bother me. It was the core aspects of masculinity I took issue with. I would rebel first in my heart, then by being in practice what man are told not to be: caring, considerate, and gentle.

Casting Aside the Laws of Lesser Men

The first act of rebellion against the tyranny of masculinity is to let go of it inside your own mind. Identity is a powerful thing. We will protect our identity, so if a man identifies as masculine he will react defensively to anything that threatens that aspect. This makes that man reactive and vulnerable to manipulation (as does any part of our identity). All it takes to rile one of these guys is to question their manhood, and they feel compelled to react.

If you let go of masculinity, though, there’s nothing to defend. If someone tells me I’m not man enough I don’t react because I don’t identify with being masculine. I feel no threat since there is nothing inside me to be threatened. I am not masculine. There is no masculinity button for anyone, man or woman, to press and use against me.

Letting go of masculinity does not mean avoiding all things masculine. I still do things which happen to be masculine, I just don’t feel like those things are my only valid way to perform. Some things worth doing might get assessed as masculine, but that’s incidental and no concern of mine. It’s the difference between being locked inside a house and simply visiting while free to come and go as you please.

This internal release of masculinity also frees a man to examine himself with more objectivity. If you take a step back from gender, it’s clear that there are a collection of traits with gendered labels that are good or bad unto themselves regardless of the color-coding applied to them. Things like ‘resiliency’ and ‘fortitude’ might by typically coded as masculine, but they really have no intrinsic gender. Similarly, being nurturing and a good listener are usually coded feminine, but their is nothing intrinsically gendered about them.

Once a person mentally lets go of gender, they’re free to let go of the negative aspects of their old gendered performance and take up good aspects they were denied. A man can let go of self-destructive masculine aspects like isolation and lack of emotional expression, and pick up self-actualizing feminine aspects like enjoying touch and being generally caring.

This mental shift leads to a behavioral shift. For me, this meant calming down and opening up. My anger faded. I didn’t feel like I had to prove anything anymore. There was no more Masculine Me to maintain or defend. I listened to people around me with less apprehension. I was better able to join with their happiness and sadness alike. I stopped feeling lonely. It was when I started to overtly break the rules of masculinity that I learned of the one argument society has for men being masculine.

False Defenses of Masculinity

When confronted with a challenge to the merits of masculinity, most men react first by reaching for positive aspects of it and defend those as if that were a defense of masculinity itself. They say stuff like: “Oh, so I guess we just don’t need anyone to be strong/brave/courageous, who will defend us at night, who will fight all those wars etc. etc.” This, however, this isn’t actually defending masculinity. Every specific aspect of masculinity is, by itself genderless. There is no gender for courage or strength or any other specific component of masculinity. Masculinity is the ensemble of many aspects, and it is this I don’t see any need for. Of course there are good parts of masculinity, but these can be maintained as good unto themselves separate from any notions of masculine identity.

Letting go of masculinity also does not, as some confused men think, mean being feminine. That would just be switching prisons. It’s a false dichotomy to think there are only two sets of identities and behaviors to choose from, and that to let go of one is to necessarily adopt the other. Letting go a masculinity means just that: no longer confining yourself to masculinity. A man who has let go of masculinity doesn’t need to put on lipstick, but he is free to do so if he wants. It’s about choice and freedom, not any specific performance.

I also don’t think it’s meaningful to try to rescue the word ‘masculinity’ by redefining it such that it’s no longer what is and has been understood as masculinity. This is some kind of marketing ploy by most likely well-intentioned people trying to soft-pedal arguments for why men should be better while trying to avoid triggering their defenses by leaving the symbol and label of ‘masculinity’ intact. It isn’t really intact, though, since it’s been redefined, and in any case the problem cannot be truly addressed while a man is still attached to such a notion. It’s perhaps useful to denote particularly virulent modes of masculine expression as toxic, but the root cause is still masculinity itself. Trying to save the label by convenient redefinition is misguided. (This particular point probably needs a much longer section but I’m running long as it is.)

Do It Or Else

Moving past all the non-justifications for masculinity, there is only one response society has to the question of why should a man be masculine: we’ll kick your ass if you don’t act like a man. That’s it. That’s the only reason: do it or else. In all the land and in everything I’ve heard and read and been told that is the single only reason given as to why I should bother with masculinity. There is only a threat.

At the core of masculinity there is only rage for the sake of rage and violence for the sake of violence. There is no deeper foundation, nor any profound reason for it.

The problem for champions of masculinity is they can’t kick my ass. Civilization gets in the way. I could send them to prison via assault charges if they so much as lay a finger on me, and if I’m dead the greater machine of criminal justice might avenge me. Society no longer tolerates such aggression. I can go ahead and break their stupid rules and continue to make a mockery of masculinity by living happily without it and they can’t do anything, at least not without consequences.

It burns masculine men that you can avoid the pain and suffering they endure for the sake of their masculinity and still get all the rewards they think they’ve earned via their pain. Not only do I enjoy things like sex and validation and financial security, I also enjoy things well outside the masculine sphere like togetherness and emotional support and the freedom to ask for help when I need it. I have what they crave and then some, all without Being A Man.

The freedom and joy of being a complete human being as a man is insulting to masculine men, but they can’t do anything about it so long as civilization gets in their way. This is why masculine when want to break down civilization. This is the emotional core of libertarianism and fascism and primitivism. The manosphere wants a world in which being masculine is once again a necessity for men to be rewarded with a good life. On some level they understand that there’s no longer any reason in a modern world for men to hew to masculinity, but instead of shedding the bonds of gender they instead want to undo civilization to such a degree that their masculinity means something again.

The purest expression of this might by the Unabomber Manifesto, which does a lot of hand-waving about what is best for the planet and humanity, but which is really about the isolated and hollow existence of a purely masculine mode of living. There is a reason so many new fascists quote that Manifesto, and it doesn’t because they are overly concerned with the effects of industrialization on the environment. Civilization and all other modes of peaceful collective cooperation make masculinity a liability instead of a benefit, and so masculine men seek to end all of that and return, in their minds, to a golden past where strong men exert their will according to their strength and will without respect to any law.

The rise of Trump and of right-wing populism in general, including the new fascism, may also be seen as part of a reaction to a way of peaceful civilization which makes masculinity not only unnecessary but as maladaptive. Traits like aggression only hurt a man who lives in a peaceful society, while more traditionally feminine traits are adaptive, allowing someone to live in better harmony and thereby secure more social rewards.

The Cost of Freedom

Even though those still stuck in the cult of masculinity can’t violently attack me for my insolence, there are still costs to breaking ranks. Many of the tangible rewards systems in place via capitalism are tuned to reward masculinity. A man who is aggressive and controlling will often be rewarded as being a good leader. A man who has low empathy and enjoys taking advantage of others can easily get more done in business than a man who cares for people and is unwilling to exploit others for his own gain or that of his employer.

Men who are fully invested in the masculine way of living will go out of their way to punish men who don’t submit as they have submitted, which means getting denied opportunities if you step out of line. If a man has tact, however, he may still embody all that is good about masculinity and thereby still command respect, though without the negative aspects he’ll never truly be a good ol’ boy. The halls of power are still guarded by these lizards of men and so are reserved for those who demonstrate a sufficiently low level of empathy, which excludes those men who have shed the negative aspects of masculinity.

There can be interpersonal costs, as well. Women aren’t always ready for a complete man. They understand men according to what they’ve known in their lives. If what they’ve known is only a masculine variety they might not know how to handle a man who expresses emotions and dares to be vulnerable. This is in large part because a man who breaks with masculine performance is often signaling that he’s lost control of himself, which is scary to everyone around him, but especially scary to women. A wise man takes this into account when opening up to women so as not to let his expressiveness be mistaken for the warning signs of an incipient psychotic breakdown. Women have every right to stay safe, so it’s up to aspiring good men to be good enough communicators to overcome these barriers to emotional expression.

These costs are minor, though, compared to what is gained.

Real Freedom, Enduring Happiness, and an End to Loneliness

Masculinity is limiting. It denies a man huge swaths of the human experience. It impinges upon every facet of his life, hemming him in so tightly that he can’t even decide what length to cut his own hair to. The hair which is part of his own body! He loses freedom over his own body, he no longer owns even himself! This is how terribly confining masculinity is.

I struggle to imagine any other regime or ideology as comprehensively restrictive as masculinity. It touches every part of a man’s existience inside and out. I just cannot get over how brutally it cuts down a man. And for what, exactly? For nothing, ultimately.

It’s ironic, then, that masculine men are so loud about their freedom to do as they please. It seems to be the men who wave Gadsden flags around the hardest who are the most committed to shrinking themselves down so obediently and never ever doing anything outside the narrow confines of manliness. Maybe it’s because of all that internal tension over being so restricted that makes them rage about their freedom?

If they really wanted freedom they would drop masculinity entirely and simply be human beings. Again, this doesn’t mean avoiding all things masculine. That wouldn’t be freedom, either. It means choosing what you want to do according to higher ideals that allow for a more complete human experience.

A perhaps more trivial freedom is wearing whatever clothes you want to. A more substantial freedom is to express yourself with sincerity and candidness so that you can experience real togetherness with those you love. Genuine personal freedom isn’t possible without shedding the chains of masculinity.

To even desire happiness is seen as not masculine. One of histories more recent masculinity advocates, Jordan Peterson, implores his followers to abandon happiness as a goal entirely, since men ought not to even strive for joy but instead merely find some kind of meaning in their endless lonely suffering. If a man no longer cares to be masculine, though, he is free to drink deeply from the cup of life and enjoy happiness not just as a fleeting respite from pain, but as a persistent mode of living. Happiness may be a lifestyle.

Moving past masculinity lets a man reconnect with himself. He can revive those emotional parts of himself he had to kill, as in the words of bell hooks. The parts of his soul he boarded up can be embodied instead of resisted. There is a lightness to being whole once again. There is a lack of tension and anxiety.

To rephrase the above paragraph in more concrete terms: an internally-reconnected man can feel an emotion like fear and not hate himself for feeling it. He does not need to feel as though that emotion is denying is masculine identity as a fearless manly man. He may still feel fear, but this is all he feels, and he feels it with clarity. He can communicate this feeling to others without needing to hide his emotion of out masculine shame. This might sound minor when laid out like this, but masculine shame is the core emotion that drives a lot of male violence, both towards themselves and others. Being able to feel any emotion without having his core identity threatened makes a man able to accept himself for who he his. He no longer needs to fear his own emotions, worried that his feelings might betray his masculinity at any moment. He will still suffer for feeling something negative like fear, but he’ll only feel just that without the additional masculine spiral of shame.

In the cult of masculinity a man may only relate to others as adversaries and competitors, as either bosses to be obeyed or slaves to drive. This makes men afraid of everyone; they fear the power their rivals have over them, and they fear the possibility of losing control over those beneath them. There is no peace for the masculine man. If he is too ill to exert his power, or otherwise falters, there is nothing he can do to protect himself, since the masculine man is by necessity alone.

However, beyond masculinity is the ability to relate to others as peers and equals. A man who enjoys relationships based on mutual trust and love can rest easy knowing that his loved ones will come to his aid if he needs help. This is a priceless level of security and peace.

Too many men see sex and romance as just another game to play, with women being just another prize to win. This leaves them fundamentally unable to connect with their partners. They remain alone even in marriage. A man who is unafraid to be loving, nurturing, and vulnerabilty, however, may be able to achieve real romantic connection. Being able to be in harmony with a romantic partner is yet another benefit of being a complete man unfettered by masculinity.

I wish I could give those men still suffering alone in the cult of masculinity even just a few minutes to feel what it’s like to be at peace with both yourself and those close to you. Self-possession without self-loathing is a kind of living bliss men can secure if only they’re willing to let go of the limitations of masculine performance.

The Future of Men

There are almost no male voices calling for a life beyond masculinity. Lots of men are howling in rage over a world that no longer rewards it, of course. A few men are calling for a kind of better masculinity, but still insisting that masculine performance is something worth preserving.

I can see no reason to hew to masculinity as an individual or as a society. I can see no merit to it. I’ve experienced only benefits from letting to go, both internally and in action. There is no salient reason to maintain something which no longer serves a good purpose. Ironically, masculine men often pride themselves on being coldly rational without sentiment, and yet it is sentiment and irrational traditionalism that keeps them stuck in masculinity.

I want more men to feel as free and peaceful as I do. I hope more decide they’re strong enough to go against the confines of the man box they’ve been handed and live as complete human beings instead.

The reality of the world is that we are all interconnected. We share one global community. It would be best to come to terms with one another so we can cooperate as equals instead of causing so much pointless suffering by competing in never-ending games of masculine supremacy. Masculinity had its time. That time is over. We can live according to higher ideals and enjoy the substantial rewards that come with a complete and whole human experience. Beyond the prison of masculinity is happiness and joy and an end to the hollow loneliness that drives so many men to despair. Men have nothing to lose but their chains.