KAMPALA – It would not be fair to discuss masculinity, its stereotypes and gender definitions without considering to what it is contrasted. Traditionally, masculinity and femininity were opposing identities, polarized in almost every dimension: sexuality, social roles, physiology, stereotypes. In the last century or so, with the rise of feminism (first, second, and third wave), the sexualisation of modern societies, and the differentiation of identity, these opposing gender roles are being mixed up. The growing emancipation of different faces of sexuality (e.g. homosexuality, transsexuality) and the subcultures that construct their own stereotypes rather than adhere to existing ones (e.g. metrosexuality or the lumbersexual) make it harder to define specifically what it means to be a man or a woman in modernised societies.
My analysis of the (American) man as inherently interested in violence therefore falls short of nuance. Naturally, there are culture differences to be found in the spectrum, and I do think that countries like the U.S. foster more traditional and conservative gender roles, however, across the board, there may be some generalisations to make that would be more helpful than the ones I made in my post on the American Sniper. In this series, I’d like to expand on modern gender roles, sexism, and feminism.
First of all, looking at what defines gender roles, and what associations are to be made, it is obvious that there are fundamental differences in the way we define masculinity as opposed to feminity. To be clear, a gender role is not your personal perception of how your sex influences your identity, it rather consists of a set of values and norms that you are socialised in throughout your life. These sets of values and norms and the extent to which they are internalised can of course differ from person to person, -geographically, culturally and socio-economically.
Masculinity is mostly defined through character traits, like “dominance”, “assertiveness”, “self-assurance”, or “self-confidence”. There are physiological features as well, such as a muscular build, jaw-line, or height, however, at the core of masculinity, I think, lie character traits.
If I request a definition of the word “femininity” in my text editor application, the sample sentence is: ‘she celebrates her femininity by wearing makeup and high heels’. The associations people tend to have, and the norms dictating what it means to be feminine, have an emphasis on appearance. Words like “elegance” and “beautiful” come to mind. Clothing, style, makeup, hair products, that is what femininity is based on.
Because masculinity finds its definition mostly in character traits, which are expressed through behaviour, it makes it much easier to challenge one’s masculinity. One of the (many) reasons “gay” is still considered an insult amongst men is because it challenges their masculinity. In fact, there are a scala of insults, behaviours, remarks, body-languages that can imply a challenge to masculinity. In my experience, if masculinity plays a very prominent role in the construction of identity, men tend to be more sensitive towards rejection of, or challenge to it. Imagine these insults for a second. How would you challenge a man’s masculinity? By calling him a pussy. A homosexual. You call him weak and pathetic. You say he’s “not a real man”. I do think we have identified here one of the reasons having a big ego is typically a male phenomenon.
In contrast, the sentence “she’s not a real woman” does not challenge a woman’s femininity. It rather questions her sex. If you were to imply a lack of femininity to a woman, what would you say? That she is ugly, lacking finesse, and unattractive. She doesn’t have that walk, doesn’t have the breasts, or the taille. She’s fat, and most importantly: she’s not sexy.
The second sequence of insults are easier to counter, and countering it is exactly what a majority of advertisements nowadays are focused on. Buy this, and you’ll be sexy, and attractive. Your hair will look amazing and your skin will glow with particles of pure light. Your eyebrows will be perfect and your nails just the right colour. Just buy it. You know you want to. Buy it. Buy it. Buy it. A large part of consumerism is geared towards promising exactly these cures through products or services.
What it means to be woman, then, is mosty limited to appearance. The representation project and #askhermore already made a point out of asking why actresses on the red carpet get questions solely about their dress, or their hair, while actors get to talk about their work. This is the reason why we are so focused on what a female politician is wearing while her male counterpart can just show up without anyone even considering his suit, providing it isn’t purple with golden bells attached to it that jingle every time he walks.
This is what meant with objectification of women, reducing them to appearance-based creatures. Not making the mistake of generalisation, it is also true that most superficial judgments of people we make are based on face-value evaluations of one’s beauty. We assign to beautiful people a scala of positive characteristics: they are more likely to be evaluated as more intelligent, having integrity, or being nicer. This tendency is called the halo-effect.
This does not change the fact, however, that being feminine is defined by looks, and a large part of the behaviour that constitutes feminity is sitting someplace and being pretty. At the same time, female sexuality is supposedly pacified. Whereas the assertiveness associated with masculinity results in a conceptualisation of male sexuality and male sexual urges as “natural”, while female sexuality is much more the result of deliberate efforts to control these urges. A woman is supposed to tame the wild sexual urges of “her” man so he can “settle down”. Female sexuality is streamlined. Paradoxically, women are also expected to use, and carry with them, their sexuality, in order to be perceived as feminine. A woman at a fancy dinner party is stuck between the expectations that dictate her dress should show her body, and the repressive sexual norms informing that engaging in her sexuality might not be deemed acceptable.