Do Young Men Need A New Kind Of Masculinity?S

Courtney Martin writes in the American Prospect about groups of young men who are trying to shake off the homophobic, misogynistic, Tucker-Max-inflected aspects of modern masculinity. The problem is: what's left?

In a way, Martin's article is optimistic — she writes about young men getting together not to slam feminists or domestic violence victims, but rather to "share strategies for getting college men involved in gender-based activism" and say "no to toxic masculinity." But what does nontoxic masculinity look like? For young, feminist men — and yes, there are some — this is a difficult question. Martin writes that "we've certainly got plenty of pictures of men who are stubbornly clinging to the old paradigm of maleness," but relatively few examples of any new paradigm (the closest, she says, is Stephen Colbert). As a result, Martin explains,

Many young men, it seems, are stuck in stage one of gender consciousness. They want to prove that they are one of the "good ones" and separate themselves from all the gendered behaviors and beliefs that they now see as oppressive. That, or they wallow in guilt. (This is not unlike the stage many white kids get stuck in upon fully realizing their role in perpetuating racism.) At worst, this point of view is paralyzing. At best, it leads to burnout.

It's tempting to say that there are so many misogynist men in the world that we don't need to worry about the feminist ones. But men can be incredibly useful allies — a young Tucker Max fan might be more inclined to listen to a couple of right-thinking buddies than the women he's been conditioned not to respect. And men themselves could benefit from the removal of calcified standards of old masculinity. Martin writes:

Guys who reject traditional masculinity, for starters, have a greater chance of finding fulfilling work that isn't just a symbol of their provider status. They might explore the joy of relationships — being nurturing with their kids, real with their friends, open with their partners. They have the opportunity to shed their socialized skin and all the anxiety that comes with trying to be a "tough guy" and make a happy life defined, not by their paycheck or their size, but by their humanity.

If men weren't constricted by the expectation that they behave like emotionless dick-bots, they'd be a lot happier — and so would women, children, families, and society. But it's true that men currently have little to put in place of this expectation. I know several young men for whom feminism manifests itself as guilt, and this doesn't really help them or the feminist cause. As Martin says, men need to acknowledge their privilege and work around it, rather than being obsessed with it. Women can help by accepting men as allies and friends, and by not censoring ourselves in front of them — men can handle discussions of feminism, relationships, vaginas, and periods, and we can help them realize this by not treating these as women-only topics. Men can help by listening, and by offering women the same openness, rather than reserving some types of conversation for dudes.

But do men need, in addition, "a positive, masculine gender identity?" It's something of a strange concept — few feminists would ever say that women needed "a positive, feminine gender identity." While plenty of women take pride in being female, "femininity" is so loaded with patriarchal expectation that, for feminists, it's kind of a dirty word. This may not be a bad thing — in fact, I'd argue that "masculine" should go the same way.

Gender is incredibly complicated, and the ways in which we construct it for ourselves are myriad, fascinating, and worthy of celebration. As the "Men At Their Most Masculine" project shows, both cis- and trans-men have built identities that they see as "masculine," and these identities are satisfying for them. But the idea of a top-down "masculinity" for men to aspire to, of "models," as Martin puts it, just seems restrictive. Yes, young men need to see thoughtful, feminist men, especially if they're not yet truly comfortable with women. But said thoughtful, feminist men don't necessarily have to offer a new masculinity — rather, they can simply teach that how men understand their gender is up to them, and that they shouldn't feel the need to fit themselves into any particular mold. This might be difficult — young people, despite their protestations of rebellion, kind of like molds — but it would move us one step closer to a world in which gender was an opportunity for self-expression, not a cage of expectations. The lack of a new paradigm for masculinity may look like emptiness, but it's also freedom.

Image via Beard Revue.

What's The Alternative To Tucker Max? [The American Prospect]