01: Conspiracy, Problem, Solution cont’d

with 8 comments

For starters, what is masculinity? Getting into this is rather premature, as the manipulation of its meaning is at the very heart of the conspiracy. Nevertheless, some immediate definition is required to progress. To begin with, masculinity is not what “men do”: this is a very common misconception that causes all sorts of trouble. To get to the meaning of this, it’s useful first to explore the sex/gender distinction. Sex and gender are routinely used interchangeably. For example, I often see a section on administrative forms called “gender” in which I am asked to tick the “male” or “female” box. Here’s the difference between the two, largely accepted by researchers of sex and gender: sex is biological, gender is socially constructed.

The concept that sex is biological is easy enough to grasp. We are generally born either male or female (even if the percentage of people born with ambiguous sexual organs—hermaphrodites, now more accurately referred to as intersex—is surprisingly high). Again, biological sex is “male” and “female.” When those administrative forms ask us to tick male or female, that section should more accurately be called “sex,” not “gender.” But, gender is socially constructed? This requires some more careful thinking.

Gender is a spectrum of codes that can be applied to and describe men’s and women’s behaviors. Gender is “masculine” and “feminine.” As we shall see, gender is described as “socially constructed” because it is society which defines or constructs gender, not biology. There are two important things to remember about gender. First, that which is recognized as gender (in our case, masculinity) changes in space and time. For example, in Detroit it is not the done thing for two men to hold hands in the street unless they want to be considered gay. The gender code of the space of Detroit says masculinity is not about holding hands. However, if you hopped on a plane to Delhi, you would see men holding hands all over the place without any assumption of them being gay. The gender code of the space of Delhi says masculinity is about holding hands. That’s space, but what about time? Think about fashion. Today, back on the streets of Detroit (sorry, Detroit: you don’t deserve to be singled out like this), it is not the done thing for men to wear frilly shirts unless they want to be considered effeminate thespians. The gender code of today’s time in Detroit says masculinity is not about frilly shirts. However, if you hopped in a time machine to Tudor England, you would see very manly men wearing frilly shirts all over the place. The gender code of the time of Tudor England says masculinity is about frilly shirts. So, what we mean by “masculinity” shifts constantly depending on where and when we are.

The second thing to remember about gender is that it is not as obviously connected to sex as you might imagine. The feminist philosopher Judith Butler makes an excellent case for this in her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. The common assumption is that masculinity (even its differing forms in space and time) is something done by men, whereas femininity is something done by women. Often this is true, but it doesn’t have to be. Men can be feminine, and women masculine. The obvious (and rather blunt) example is feminine gay men and masculine gay women. However, it applies in all situations, to all people: all men have feminine aspects, all women have masculine aspects. Sometimes these are very subtle; sometimes they are so extreme you might have a hard time telling if someone is a man or a woman. And all of this is perfectly normal.

In short, masculinity is a vast spectrum of differing gender performances: in other words, something we enact, not something that’s innate. Indeed, to use the term “masculinity” in the singular is rather misleading: it should really be “masculinities,” in the plural. And masculinity can apply just as easily to women as it does to men. Now that we see how much more complex gender is compared to sex, it becomes easier to imagine that there is plenty going on that might be feeding into the Masculinity Conspiracy. So let’s look now at what “conspiracy” means.



Written by Joseph Gelfer

April 25, 2010 at 1:25 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Joseph, I very much appreciate your distinctions between sex and gender. It’s the best I’ve seen, including my own!:) I’d like to add one more distinction to the mix, and that is the concept of “sexual essence,” which transcends both sex and gender, and is just another way of acknowledging whether an individual, male, female, straight, or LGBT, carries a masculine or feminine sexual energy. I learned very early in my book talks that I needed to clearly clarify all of these distinctions or I would be called on the carpet.

    As for the conspiracy(?) to equate men, and masculinity, with patriarchy—or false male power—It’s time for us to recognize that men have also been patriarchy’s victims and for men to develop and model a new way of being in the world. The “patriarchy” seems to be made up of a very small group of people, and the noose around the power elite seems to be tightening. But patriarchal attitudes have trickled down into our cultural consciousness to the detriment of us all. I look forward to reading more.


    August 27, 2012 at 2:46 am

    • Hi Gary: Yes, my basic takeaway as the book progresses is that the conspiracy has mobilized men to oppress via patriarchy, but at the same time has no interest in men as a privileged category. So, in different ways, it’s a yes to men being the oppressors, and a yes to men being oppressed (although not by political correctness, as some MRAs might suggest).


      August 27, 2012 at 7:13 am

  2. This is incredibly insightful. Thanks for sharing it with the world.


    August 8, 2012 at 9:08 pm

  3. Absolutely. It is imperative we move beyond a narrow masculinity/femininity dichotomous reading of gender identity, and instread view gender as a composition of multiple and intersecting layers, with the implication that there exist multiple masculinities and femininities, a plurality of masculinities and femininities. At the same time, we might caution against such a reading, from a femininist perspective anyway, given it problematizes the nature of power relations between men and women.

    January 7, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    • Hello Andrew: thanks for dropping by.

      I think by pluralizing masculinities we go some way to neutralizing those power relations between men and women. Your caution highlights why queer theory may be more compelling than feminism as a theoretical lens, as I think we are looking here more at power relations between socially-constructed entities which happen to be played out in most cases by men and women, rather than biological entities. The conspiracy (as the power agent) mobilizes men, but curiously has little interest in them as men. The kind of feminist perspective which sees “men” and “women” as final (and essentialized) power categories misses the required nuance.


      January 8, 2011 at 6:20 am

  4. So far so good! Like your way of connecting with the reader by laying the table of terminology, so to speak. The misunderstanding between gender and sex is partly a result of authors neglecting this basic gesture of explanation.

    The term ‘masculinities’ is great. I am however amazed when I analyze the rhetoric of thos who advocate this plurality- they often dont want your ‘patriarchal conservative masculinity’ in the mix. Thats right, they want it gone, hardly a level of acceptance is it. Lol

    I certainly don’t see this extreme need to omit conservative patriarchal masculinity in your own writings (just to be clear) but I do find it in perhaps the majority of reformists writings. This utter ridding is akin to an atom bomb approach, a final solution if you will.

    Not that i for a second advocate the conservative patriarchal masculinity, but as a TRUE believer in diversity and choice for men and women I can appreciate why those kinds of men resist the plurality of masculinities idea- they are aware there is no place for them in the so-called pluralistic model.

    Yes lets whittle down the numbers of the conservatives and essentialists, I’m all for it in order to reduce thier influence. But complete ridding -a patriarchicide- really requires a bit of unpacking, wouldnt you say?

    Again this does not apply to your writing or beliefs whatsoever, but to a popular viewpoint proffered by others.

    One final point, there are numerous definitions of patriarchy, not all of the descriptions pointing to something toxic. But that takes us into a whole new conversation so I’ll stop here.

    Viva la diversity.


    April 26, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    • I appreciate your point. I am anti-patriarchal and conservative ways of doing masculinity, but we cannot deny the fact that they exist as part of the spectrum of masculinities, certainly. Let’s counter them by education and argumentation, not denying their reality. Outlawing something simply because of the whim of the political regime of the time is totalitarian; eradicating something through reason is progress.


      April 26, 2010 at 5:22 pm

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