The Performance of Masculinity
I’ve been teaching workshops on male gender socialization for about 15 years or so. The foundation of my presentation is the Act Like a Man Box, which I learned about from Paul Kivel’s book, Men’s Work: How to Stop the Violence That Tears Our Lives Apart. I like calling it the “Act Like a Man Box,” rather than “The Man Box” (which is a title I’ve also seen used for the basic idea) because it highlights how masculinity is a performance.
When I do this exercise, I ask the group to brainstorm words that describe “real men.” And while I influence the responses by asking leading questions like “what does he do for a living?” or “what does he do for fun?”, the responses have been pretty consistent, regardless of the age, gender mix, sexual orientation, or racial makeup of the group. As long as the participants grew up in or have spent significant time in the US, they know what this guy looks like:
|25-45 years old||Able-bodied||Heterosexual|
|Drinks||Watches & plays sports||Play poker with his buddies|
|Doesn’t show emotions other than anger, excitement||Stoic||Violent|
|Always wants sex||Has lots of sexual partners||Sex is about scoring|
|Has a big penis||Gets hard when he wants||Stays hard|
|Gives his partner an orgasm (or multiple orgasms)||Ejaculates when he wants to||Sex is focused on intercourse, blow jobs (receiving), possible anal (giving)|
After we come up with this list, I ask the group to name the things that men are called if we’re not all of these things. Here are some of the more common responses:
One of the primary reasons that boys and men gay bash and bully queers is that they need to perform masculinity in order to show the world that they’re in the Box. And since very few guys can always be in the Box for their entire lives, the trick is to act like you are in order to cover for any lapses. In effect, the performance of masculinity requires constant vigilance to make sure that nobody sees any missteps. Since the logic of the box is an either/or, you’re either all the way in or you’re all the way out.
On the other hand, all of the words on the outside fit into one of three groups: gay, female, loser. I think that says pretty interesting things about homophobia and sexism. The way I think of it, those are the bricks that make up the Box and shame is the mortar that holds it together.
The Box is one of main reasons why men harass women on the street and why catcalling and violence tends to escalate when men are in groups. Since the Box is hierarchical as well as performative, the guy at the bottom of the heap is at risk of being cast out. So each guy has to compete with the others in order to not be the one who’s outside the Box. And as each one’s performance becomes more vigorous, it forces the others to do the same.
As a sex educator, I often see how the Box affects sexuality. The guy in the Box has lots of partners, a really big penis, and always gets it up, gets it in, and gets it off. So it’s no wonder that lots of guys look for a quick fix for their erection difficulties like Viagra or cockrings. Just to be clear, I don’t think that there’s any inherent problem with either meds or toys. But when you’d rather use them than deal with whatever the source of your erection challenges might be, that’s a problem. And when it leads you to buy non-prescription erection pills, that can also be dangerous.
For example, I once had a guy ask me if cock rings would help his erection. With a little inquiry, I found that he had lost his job, his house was in foreclosure, and he & his wife were talking about divorcing. With all of that stress, the fact that he wasn’t getting erections wasn’t a dysfunction, it was how his body was supposed to work. Adrenaline (which is one result of stress) keeps the blood vessels in the penis from relaxing, so you don’t get erections. There’s a difference between a dysfunction and your body not doing what you want it to do. But he wanted a quick fix so that he could get back into the Box and “perform”. And isn’t it telling that when we talk about “sexual performance,” we’re always talking about men? Shouldn’t a “sexual performance” be what strippers do?
So the notion that masculinity is fleeting and requires vigilant reinforcement isn’t new to me, but there’s some new research to back it up. Time Magazine has an article about a new paper, Precarious Manhood and Its Links to Action and Aggression, in which the researchers looked at the ways that men deal with the fleeting nature of manhood. Men have to constantly prove and re-prove their status, as they showed in three experiments.
In the first, participants finished 25 sentences that began “A real man…” or “A real woman…” and they reported that:
Findings revealed that men, but not women, described “a real man” with more fleeting actions than enduring adjectives, and they described “a real woman” with more enduring adjectives than fleeting actions. Notably, this pattern emerged when we controlled for the gender-stereotypical content of the sentence completions. When men completed “real man” sentences with gender atypical content (e.g., “A real man cooks dinner”), they still used action language to do so. Thus, men define their own gender status in terms of the active things that men do rather than the ways that men are.
In another project, researchers asked people to read a mock police report about either a man or a woman who punched a person of the same gender in front of a potential romantic partner. When they were asked to evaluate the motivations of the hitter, there was a difference in responses. Women attributed their actions to intrinsic factors like “his/her own immaturity” or “the kind of person he/she is typically, ” while men mentioned extrinsic factors like being provoked by the stranger” or “being publicly humiliated.” I’m assuming that the “potential romantic partner” was not of the same gender as the recipient of the punch, and I’d love to see how this plays out when the characters are queer.
As a follow-up, they asked men to braid hair (the control group braided rope) and tested their actions afterward by giving them the choice of solving a puzzle or punching a bag, and they were more likely to punch. In a similar experiment where both the hair-braiders and the rope-braiders were given a pad to punch, the hair-braiders punched harder. And in another version of the braiding experiment, all of the participants braided hair and were either allowed to punch a bag or not. The ones who punched it felt less anxiety.
What does all of this tell us? Well, it helps explain why so many men resort to violence when they think that their masculinity is threatened- it’s an easy way to demonstrate that they’re in the Box. And it also shows how delicate masculinity can be. If all it takes to hurt it is braiding someone’s hair, it has to be pretty fragile.
Unfortunately, while masculinity is pretty delicate, the construct of Box is quite resilient. When I get up in front of a group and start talking about it, I immediately put myself outside of the Box because the guy in the Box doesn’t talk about it. The difference, of course, is that I reject the entire notion of the Box. I’ve learned to pick and choose what aspects of masculinity work for me and which ones don’t, since some of the things in the box are positive or at least dependent on one’s relationship to them. In effect, I’ve queered the Box but to the guy who’s stuck in it, the only place he can imagine me being is outside the Box. And he’s so used to not listening to those men that it’s hard for my message to get across. That makes the task of helping get rid of the Box really difficult.
It’s also pretty telling that the Time article ends with this:
The authors said this research also begins to illuminate the negative effects of gender on men — depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and violence. And, at the very least, it may persuade ladies to cut their guys a little slack. “When I was younger I felt annoyed by my male friends who would refuse to hold a pocketbook or say whether they thought another man was attractive. I thought it was a personal shortcoming that they were so anxious about their manhood. Now I feel much more sympathy for men,” Bosson [one of the researchers] said in a statement.
There’s a difference between having understanding and compassion for the men who are trapped in the Box and cutting them slack. After all, it isn’t as if the dude in the Box is giving any slack to women, queers, transgender or genderqueer folks, or for that matter, heterosexual cisgender men who refuse to pretend to be Real Men. And cutting men slack is another way of coddling them instead of helping them learn to let go of the Box and discover the freedom that comes from being who you are. Having compassion without coddling people is fierce. It’s powerful. And it requires the ability to hold onto both the fact that the Box hurts us all and that it gives heterosexual cisgender men privilege.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t the effect of gender. It’s the effect of a limited and limiting ideas of what gender means. It’s the result of rigid rules of masculinity, of fag bashing, of homophobia and sexism and gender-based violence. It’s the result of kyriarchy. And yes, it’s the result of how we’ve created gender, but it isn’t the effect of gender.
I don’t have slack to offer men. What I have is the alternative to a life spent swallowing one’s emotions and feeling a constant anxious insecurity where one’s contended self-esteem should be—and that seems a lot more valuable to me than “slack.”
Update: In response to some of the comments below, I wrote a follow-up piece: Picking and Choosing from the “Act Like a Man Box”
Also, I recently found this amazing video, so I added it to the post.
Note: This sentence originally read: “When I get up in front of a group and start talking about it, I immediately demonstrate that I’m not in the Box because the guy in the Box doesn’t talk about it.” After I read a thread on Reddit about this sentence, I realized that the way I wrote it wasn’t what I had intended to say, so I edited it.