What Do We Mean When We Discuss Masculinity, Femininity, and Feminism?
Updated: Jan 21
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.
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 femininity and masculinity are at worst negligent of these identities or stringently binary and tend to lump such identities 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 traditionally expects men and women to behave and what roles and traits we associate with them. We are also then discussing the different ways men and women are socialized and taught what constitutes acceptable behaviour.
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. It is critical to understand that in this conception the roles, behaviours, and appearances we associate with masculinity and feminity are not inherent or biological. Instead, they are social constructions that find praxis and meaning in their performance and embodiment.
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. Similar to how romance languages use masculine and feminine forms of various nouns and verbs, English subconsciously applies binary, gendered meaning, to ways of being and of being perceived. 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.
Below are a few examples of words the English language associates with masculinities and femininities, though there are many more:
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. 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 where the man is in the dominant position, solving altercations physically (ie. "taking it outside"), and largely being in control or authoritative.
In Pop Culture, we can often see the current 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 inherently toxic. Nor are men or the performance of manhood bad. Further, isolating this singular and limiting version of masculinity is not meant to condemn all the many and varied versions of lived masculinities.
What is toxic is both the hyper-fixation on domination and control as well as abusive and violent behaviours within hegemonic masculinity and 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. Being controlling and violent is not inherent to manhood. Such actions are not biological nor do they represent the only version of masculinity available. Rather they are social constructs that have damaging impacts on everyone involved. Crucially, the pressure to conform to these values tends to come from other men, not women. (I highly recommend this video by Pop Culture Detective for a more detailed definition of toxic masculinity)
Conceptions of masculinity have largely proven to be more fragile than constructions of femininities. Consider, when a man wears a dress or cries in public, he unjustly risks being labelled a pussy, sissy, girl, not a man, or told to grow a pair. Largely, there are very few modes of presentation or behaviour that could lead to a woman being considered not a woman or less than a woman the same way performance of masculinity is held to a high standard. Whatever combination of masculinities and femininities I perform, 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. The exception to this is a phenomenon in which women who present as more "butch" are sometimes policed, again by others who share their gender identity, when they access traditionally feminine spaces, such as bathrooms or change rooms, though it is notable that this act of policing femininities focuses more heavily on appearance whereas the policing of masculinities focuses more heavily on behaviour.
So when we talk about feminism, yes, we want equality for women and there are large parts of the movement that are rightfully concerned specifically with women's legal and human rights as well as sexual and reproductive politics. But that's not, I believe, why the movement is called feminism rather than any other proposed term. The emphasis on the feminine in feminism acknowledges that a 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 as important of a skill for everyone to learn as leadership.
We can see through history the strides that feminism has made in improving the lives of women and the work that continues to be done. 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 talk 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. Many limitations in forms of male friendships, as well as romantic and intimate relationships between men, stem from conceptions of hegemonic masculinity, alleviating this would allow more readily for closer, more meaningful relationships between men and would alleviate homophobia.
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 that 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. 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.
I would also encourage you to read:
Bell Hooks,The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity,and Love Bell Hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre
Judith Butler, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution Judith Butler, Gender Trouble