The Definition of Masculinity Needs to Change

By Van Badham
Illustration by Jess Cruickshank

My father’s only memory of his own father, who died when my father was three, was through a transparent plastic wall in a tuberculosis hospital. The boy left behind was an orphan to economic reality; the second world war was not even over, the welfare net not built, and as the unsupported situation of my widowed grandmother obliged her to become industrious, my father was minded and raised by his sister, who was only five years older than he.

He was also raised in a time of stringent gender roles and a community that policed them. Surrounded by women, he was still made aware that different behaviour was expected of him as a man, though there was noone close to teach it. Many aunts visited this poor cell of a struggling clan, but the masculine influences in my father’s life were distilled from the men he encountered in positions of authority and those offered him to him by pop culture; he constructed his own masculinity from the observing repetitions of types, tropes, symbols and habits. So, Dad played sport, and in the manner of a dogged field-warrior, absorbing brutal injuries with a John Wayne grit that masked the kind of damage that later in life would cripple him. He went to work in what is now politely known as “the gaming industry” as it celebrated all the male values of competition and risk he understood, and was one of the few places a clever man forced to leave school early could advance and get along. He affected a James Coburn disdain for expressing emotions, knotting himself into double binds of grief and repressed feeling when bereavements inevitably came. When his sister died aged only 40, I don’t remember him crying. I do remember him at the dining-room table when Grandma died a few years later, spitting out tears, choking on sobs, his body shuddering with a wracked tension between maintaining a facade of male invulnerability and the human instinct to weep. Dad gambled, and drank beer, and smoked most of his life. When he was stressed at work, which was often, he chain-smoked, wordless, like the Marlboro Man. He died of lung cancer.

His was a powerful lesson to me over my youth and young adulthood that obeying the dictates of a stereotype is dangerous.

Maybe because he grew into a man smart enough to be, at least, self-aware, my father chose as a partner no girlish feminine complement but, in my mother, a fierce, staunch and worldly companion. My father may have wished for a son to fill the space he vacated on the sporting field, but he was given only one child, and it was tiny, bookish and intractably female — so he adjusted his expectations, not only of girls, but of his own role as a man in fatherhood. He named me — Vanessa, after Vanessa Redgrave because he saw her play roles of tough independence he wanted me to emulate. My mother had life-long chafed against the limitations of her own gendered experience, so they mutualised their parenting into a deliberate, co-operative enrichment. The infant Badham had no talent for sport but she was taught to enjoy and understand it; I watched games with Dad as much as I was left alone to dither with dolls, I learned how to catch and gut fish as well as bake cakes and when Dad broke out a chess set, backgammon or a pack of cards, I was expected to match the competitive standard of an adult man. Dad may have specialised only in what he had learned as a boy were manly skills, but as first his work grew more stressful and then his health worsened he and my mother saw the survival value for their only child to have a broader range of equipment to engage the human experience than their gendered roles had allowed them. Mum encouraged creativity, expression and feelings, Dad was most insistent I persisted with maths. Dad fostered my interest in politics. Dad fed my fascination with technology — no man was so enthusiastic to supply gadgets to a little girl, gifting me a microscope when I was only five, a tape-recorder at 6, a computer at 12.

The facilitator of his daughter’s unrestricted ambition, John Badham had been raised to be a cowboy, a wiseguy, a sporting man and a big boofy bloke and he died one of the greatest feminists I’ll ever know.

I am a feminist like my father before me because observing his life was a feminist lesson. Feminists are often dismissed for waging campaigns against pop culture, but they are right to fight cultural war against the restrictive, binary options that imprisoned and damaged my father, bored the mind out of my mother and, had I been raised without their influence, would have starved and stunted me. I talk about my family a lot when I discuss the feminist mission to liberate men and women from the straightjacket of gender roles because the family remains the place where through tradition, habit, ignorance, laziness, narcissism and/or fear, poor little boys and girls are first strapped into the crippling things. The act of containment is heralded with the thoughtless mutter that “boys will be boys”, which is not a statement that reflects nature, but the vocalised imposition of a role. When social institutions assist the realisation that children “will be” whatever their parents encourage, those parents realise, too, that daughters are valuable and families are able to make change. I was born in the 1970s where the cultural demands of the feminist movement had made my namesake a role model. With feminist electoral, legal and industrial agitation the Equal Pay Act had been passed and the preponderance of “Girls Can Do Anything” posters in public buildings across Canberra had affirmed my father’s instinctive suspicion it was probably true.

This symbiosis of civic campaigning and domestic awareness results in an integrated, happier, more productive and safer community for all. We know that societies with the greatest amount of gender equality are those with the least amount of gender violence, we know that families that live the values of gender equality raise the sons most unlikely to rape. We know these things because feminists fought for the resources to research what they knew to be important, and there were enough wise men around to realise that confronting a reality of unfairness was in their interests, too.

For wise men there are, despite the promptings of a culture that continues to foist on men the distraction apparatus of a mythical superiority, manifested in easier promotions, wider opportunities and higher pay. There are those whose privilege has not managed to separate them from empathy, or sever the imagination that makes empathy possible when one person looks at another and registers disadvantage where there should be parity. Because its internal relationships are the closest and its propaganda the most intimate, the family can, in the example of my father’s childhood, reinforce established roles with rigidity. But, in my own life, I’ve experienced the family as a crucible of social change — for when transformations in understanding do occur they’re not merely shared, but refined, and passed on — beyond the family, into the world in which its members live. This is why the Women’s Pay Equality Agency sends bottles of “daughter water” to company bosses, with a hopeful “blessing” attached to each one, wishing that the CEO should have a daughter — because gender pay disparities within companies and organisations shrink when they do.

There is a way to be liberated from a “straightjacket” of masculinity, and it doesn’t come from intuiting a “feminine side” or buying cushions, watching rom-coms or talking about feelings — men engaging behaviours just because they are “feminine” just perpetuates blue-for-boys, pink-for-girls binary nonsense. Simultaneously, pretending the binary suddenly does not exist is no act of liberation, for it fails to restructure an underlying status quo that is both unequal and unfair. No, the real act of liberation exists in the liberation you facilitate in and for those who come after you. Acknowledge disadvantage — and fight it. What’s required is your enthusiasm to create the concrete opportunities — in the home, workplace and community — that encourage the development of individual tastes and realisation of individual talents. If you want liberation from masculinity, the first step is a refusal to propagandise human life as a narrow set of choices derived from one of two categories.

Such encouragement wasn’t what my Dad was given — but it was what he gave to me. And to me, it has made all the difference.

Van Badham is a Melbourne-based writer, critic, trade unionist, feminist, activist and occasional broadcaster, an internationally award-winning theatre-maker and one of Australia’s most controversial social commentators. She tweets via @vanbadham

Van is part of the panel discussion, “The Boys Club” at All About Women on March 6 at the Sydney Opera House. She will be speaking about why it’s difficult for ambitious women to hold leadership positions in the arts. 
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