Artist Chad States has taken a series of photos of "Men At Their Most Masculine," and the results are actually both charming and thought-provoking.
The title of States's project initially gave me pause — modern meditations on masculinity often go the mountain-lion-wrestling route, and who needs yet another reinforcement of gender essentialism anyway? I'd be similarly skeptical of a photo series titled "Women At Their Most Feminine." But States's photographs are interesting and often sweet, and his interview in The Morning News is thoughtful and smart (watch out: the opening page of the interview is fine, but if you click through the slideshow you will see some dick). First of all, he's not necessarily a gender essentialist. Of the Craigslist ad he used to solicit subjects, he says,
I intentionally leave it gender-neutral so males, females and transpeople feel free to respond. Most of the respondents are men, but a few are female and a few are trans. I posted to a bunch of different categories to cast as wide a net as possible.
One woman, Liz, appears in the interview's accompanying slideshow. The caption of her photo reads, "When I wear men's clothes I feel comfortable and confident in how I look on the outside which now matches the inside." States decouples masculinity not only from birth-sex, but also from sexual orientation. Mike stands confidently, wearing a Speedo, and his caption reads, "I want to show that, despite stereotypes, gay men can be masculine too."
Not all the subjects have encouraging definitions of masculinity. Luke (NSFW!) says, "I am masculine because I abandon women after taking their love. Because when you study Freud, you don't let him study you. Because I study philosophy, not literature." And a few are kind of silly (what is Michael doing in his attic, wearing a wrestling mask and carrying a wrench?). But taken together, States's photos (there are more on his website) constitute a complicated exploration of how men — and women — feel about their manliness. Take Dennis, who appears blind in his photo. He says, "I feel masculine when I am home, I can take care of myself. I often feel emasculated when I leave my apartment though, with everyone asking me if I need help. I don't need any help." Should "needing help" be emasculating? Maybe not, but what emerges from the photographs is a picture of masculinity as a sense of pride and inner strength — and except in Luke's case, this sense doesn't seem to be achieved at the expense of women. Describing self-reliance as a masculine quality might seem to exclude women, but there's really no reason masculinity and femininity can't overlap, and no reason why a man's pride in his gender has to imply a rejection of other gender identities.
One thing I did notice through the project was that masculinity was mostly seen as an innate characteristic, something the subject possessed regardless of outward appearance. Like Dwight says, "it is an attitude." I imagine that femininity is seen as more of an outward construct (long hair, clothes).
The idea that masculinity comes from within but femininity comes from a salon is sort of a dark spot in an otherwise insightful interview. Does this reveal simply a poor understanding of all the different ways women and men understand their femininity? Or is it proof that, despite the complexities revealed in States's photographs, femininity and masculinity are outdated concepts? Does calling a good quality "masculine" automatically denigrate women? And how, if at all, do you see your femininity — and masculinity?
Image via chadstates.com.