Earlier this week I had the uncommon pleasure of appearing on a panel on 2ser’s Women’s Show, Double X. Together with the two hosts, Farah and Connie, we discussed a new ‘white paper’ aimed at the advertising industry. Compiled by advertising agency M&C Saatchi, and rather inaptly named the ‘The Modern Aussie Man’, the paper claims to “say what every man is thinking” (when not censored by the ‘feminist minefield’). Within is a rather astonishing collection of claims (e.g. men have developed “gender issue laryngitis” as a result of feminism and political correctness), and a rather interesting take on men and masculinity. As part of it’s definition, the paper puts forward seven characteristics that they say can be found in all men, to varying degrees – connector, action man, amateur comedian, nurturing knight, retail ranger, sensitive cockatoo, and unassuming romantic. This kicked off a rather interesting discussion on the definition of masculinity, and I have found myself continuing to contemplate it all week. I don’t think it’s as easy as compiling a checklist that every “man” must tick, or even of pointing out certain commonalities that all men share. For one, what if a man doesn’t share that same commonality. Are they not a man? Are they not masculine? What about others who identify as male or masculine, but are otherwise overlooked by such black/white thinking – hermaphrodites, the transgender and those that biologically female? The people I have talked to this week have similarly failed to provide a comprehensive definition of what makes something masculine (and, for that matter, feminine). As with my own thinking, the longer I discussed discussed ‘masculinity’ with my friends and interlocutors, the more ethereal the concept became. Thus far my conclusion is that ‘masculinity’ is necessarily relative.

 

I am not sure that anyone has the authority to establish a universal definition of ‘masculinity’. Just as my opinion on what is and isn’t Australian is just as valid as any of the other millions who self identify as Australian, it is surely the right of anyone who self identifies as ‘masculine’ to define it for themselves. I have come to conclude that ‘masculinity’ is the result of an interplay of malleable characteristics and factors. On this, at least, I partially agree with M&C Saatchi. For me, then, the first factor is identification. To be ‘masculine’, something must first be declared ‘masculine’ in the context of society and biology etc. This is a major deficiency of many ways of thinking about gender (including the one by M&C Saatchi), which seem to see ‘masculinity’ as some kind of performance art, based on a permanent concept of gender. As if nothing that goes on between the ears has any impact on it. I would argue that once identification has been made, choices are then made to reflect this identification. This is where the performance art comes in, but one that is specific to context. In Australia for example, those espousing ‘masculinity’ are said to “wear the pants”, and more than likely to amp up signs of competition and swagger (look no further than our current Prime Minister for a brilliant caricature). By comparison, in Sri Lanka men often wear sarongs, and it is perfectly acceptable for men to hold hands while talking (a faux pas in Australia). If we want to take this further we can consider time as a factor in perception of masculinity. Where not even a decade ago an Australian man wearing tight jeans would have been considered highly effeminate, men that do so today are still considered bizarre (by me at least), but not necessarily effeminate. If we want to take the factor of context to an extreme, we can look at masculinity across species. While (in Australia at least) ‘masculinity’ is associated with physical dominance, and ‘femininity’ with maternal care. We need look no further than Black Widow Spiders (females devour the males) and Cassowaries (the males incubate the eggs) to find these roles reversed.

 

In short I argue that identification is a major, if overlooked, aspect of ‘masculinity’. For that matter it is an important aspect of gender. Someone or something must first be identified as ‘masculine’. Once that identification has been made, at the very least the visible aspects of ‘masculinity’ are moulded to suit the situation in which ‘masculinity’ must be represented. But this context is also malleable, and can be influenced by societal and biological circumstance (etc.), which are in turn influenced by such things as the progress of social mores. What is ‘masculinity’? I can’t answer that, because it is relative.