What Do We Mean When We Discuss Masculinity, Femininity, and Feminism?
Updated: Mar 5
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 want to make clear up front that the following discussion is based on a Western context and may not translate fully into the role construction of 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, transgender, or third gender identities, only to recognize that both our current political structures and conceptions of femininity and masculinity are largely constructed in the binary with all other gender identities being self-deterministically informed at the site of struggle within the prescriptive nature of this binary, by opposing, resisting, and in some cases performing this binary. Thus, when we discuss conceptual masculinities and femininities, these discussions are not limited to the experience of men and women but to all who question, perform, and are perceived within or impacted by binary gender.
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. Gender, sex, and sexuality are categories of being informed by cultural and historical ideas and social conceptions, rather than biological imperatives, that have become naturalized and institutionalized over time. 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. Thus, femininities and masculinities are social taboo, or cultural punishment and ostracization. In turn, it is through these reproduced acts that we come to define gender, creating a pattern in which our adherence to gendered assumptions and emulation of masculinities and femininities informs these cultural expectations and taboos at the same time as we are limited by them. 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 they are part of an infinite combination of ways to perform all these different traits and still be a man or a woman. Everybody, man or woman, will at various times in their life perform a large variety of masculinities and femininities from both sides of the binary spectrum. What we are discussing then is not the gender of those who practice these acts nor a biological imperative to commit these acts, but how we culturally perceive, define, and categorize them along gendered terms.
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 the hyper-fixation on domination and control as well as abusive and violent behaviours within hegemonic masculinity. Also 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. 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 notable exception to this is a phenomenon in which women who present as more "butch" are sometimes policed, largely by other women, when they access traditionally feminine spaces, such as bathrooms or change rooms (though it is worth highlighting that this act of policing femininities focuses more heavily on appearance whereas the policing of masculinities focuses more heavily on behaviour).
Hegemonic Masculinity is also troubling when it is used as a set of standards for reinforcing what is known as the patriarchy. The patriarchy is defined by Heidi Hartmann as "relations between men, which have a material base, and which, though hierarchical, establish or create interdependence and solidarity among men that enable them to dominate women." We see this imposed in our society as a set of systemic barriers that bar or hinder women from fully accessing or participating in public spaces or positions of power.
A necessary consequence of Hegemonic Masculinity and the upholding of patriarchy is also the perpetuation of homophobia. Queerness most often bears the brunt of punishment for deviations from hegemonic masculinity, or expected performances of manhood. Where femininities are devalued, women are often devalued, but as are men and displays of manhood that are perceived to be too close to femininities, whether this is by way of fashion, career, mannerisms, or sexual habits. In this way, the advancement of patriarchal institutions not only harms women but actively disenfranchises men at large, but especially gay men.
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 hegemonic masculinity and 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.
For more information, I would also encourage you to read and watch:
Bell Hooks,The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity,and Love (2004) Bell Hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre (1984)
Butler, J. (1988). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal,40(4), 519-531. doi:10.2307/3207893
The Youtube Channel Pop Culture Detective https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHiwtz2tCEfS17N9A-WoSSw - 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.