What Do We Mean When We Discuss Masculinity, Femininity, and Feminism?
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Before we can talk about how these identities and ideas are presented in Pop Culture Media, we need to understand what these words mean. I did my Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, specializing in topics in gender and reproductive politics, so the following definitions are based on my cumulative understanding of a variety of readings, lectures, talks, and research. For more sources on this or related topics, please feel free to contact me.
Before we get started, a TRIGGER WARNING for discussions of masculinity, femininity, and feminism. I also want to make clear that the following discussion is based on a Western context and may not translate fully into the role construction in other cultures. This context will also focus on the binary of femininities and masculinities. This is not meant to ignore or invalidate non-binary, two-spirit, X-gender, or third gender identities, only to recognize that both our current political structures and conceptions of feminism at worst are negligent of these identities and at best tend to lump them in with femininities. As such, at this time, I am not in a position to speak to these identities with the same authority, but I would love any source recommendations you could share!
The first thing to make clear is that when we talk about either masculine and feminine roles and traits or masculine and feminine identities we are never talking about individual people and their individual roles and traits. Humans are endlessly diverse and have endless means for self-expression and ways of performing the same base roles and identities. Instead, we are discussing the connotations and generalizations of how society expects men and women to behave and what roles and traits we associate with them.
When we discuss "performing femininity" or "performing masculinity," we are discussing the extent to which an individual is meeting the expectations for these genders as assigned by society.
Let's start by talking about masculine roles and traits versus feminine roles and traits. Again, it does not matter who actually fills these roles, only what society would historically expect. In general, masculine roles and traits tend to be louder and more dominant and set in the public sphere, while feminine roles and traits tend to be more nurturing and set in the private sphere. I'm sure you could think of a bunch more roles and traits that I haven't mentioned here that are tagged as being masculine or feminine.
The combinations of ways we perform these traits are known as masculinities and femininities. These words are plural because there is an infinite combination of ways to perform all these different traits and still be masculine or feminine.
If we put all possible masculinities and femininities on a ladder based on the "value" applied to them by society, the hegemonic masculinity would be at the very top. After this would be all other straight masculinities, then LGBTQ masculinities, then all femininities and non-binary identities.
The Hegemonic Masculinity is a specific style of performing masculinity that is considered the most honoured way of being a man in a given society. In Western Culture this includes being strong and athletically fit, always ready to have and frequently having sex, solving altercations physically (ie. "taking it outside"), being able to defend your loved ones, and being authoritative.
In Pop Culture, we can often see hegemonic masculinity being referred to as toxic masculinity. Again, we need to be clear that none of these individual traits or the individuals who perform them are toxic. What is toxic is the idea that the only way to be a "man" is to meet this ideal and that anything less is a mark of one being a failure. This mindset and subsequent pressure on boys and men is not only unrealistic but creates very damaging, and very toxic, patterns in society. Consider this: as a woman, there is nothing that I could do to be considered not a woman. Whether I wear pants and run a company or join the army or wear only dresses and am a stay at home Mom, I will always be a woman. If a man were to wear a dress and cry in public, he could be labelled a pussy, sissy, girl, not a man, or told to grow a pair. Crucially, the pressure to conform to these values tends to come from other men, not women.
So when we talk about "Feminism", yes, we want equality for women. But that's not why the movement is called feminism. It is called feminism because the goal of the movement is to dismantle the system that prioritizes the hegemonic masculinity (the patriarchy) to allow all masculine and feminine roles to be considered equally valuable in society regardless of who performs them. A stay-at-home parent would be an equally important and accessible role as a Member of Parliament. Emotional intelligence would be an important skill for everyone, not just women.
We can see through history the strides that feminism has made in improving the lives of women, but what does the movement offer men? Well, everything. Men account for two-thirds of all suicides; while there are numerous causes, this number could be alleviated by allowing it to be socially acceptable and valuable for men to express the feminine trait of talking about their feelings. Men are widely discriminated against in custody hearings and when they are granted custody of a child they rarely receive child support payments; having it be socially acceptable and valuable for men to be primary caregivers would alleviate this statistic. Men are also discriminated against when applying for positions in caregiving careers, again the blame for this lies on the current hegemonic masculinity and devaluing of all other masculine and feminine traits - not women. Male beauty standards stem from the hegemonic ideal of being athletic and strong, a trait not present in all masculinities. Sexual assault and domestic abuse against men is under-reported because men are expected to be "stronger" and "always want it" because of expectations created by the current hegemonic masculinity.
There are 1001 right ways to be a "man" and 1001 right ways to be a "woman". The trouble comes when we have an expectation of what one way of being a man or woman is right and therefore devalue and shame all others.
If you want more info on this topic I cannot recommend Pop Culture Detective enough. I was introduced to his work while volunteering at a sexual assault center and his video essays on masculinity, sexual assault, and sexual harassment in Pop Culture are always well researched and get to the heart of this really important issue in a way that is easy to understand.
Until next time: think critically, reflect, and keep reading!