An identity that is often left undiscussed is queer women who embrace their masculinity. Historically, masculinity has been a trait that only men could proudly embody. If a woman is assertive or courageous, she is portrayed as a bitch and problematic, whereas if a man has these qualities he is patted on the back and assigned the position of leader. The truth is that everyone has masculine energy, some more than others. In this TED Talk Nalo Zidan explains how we are conditioned to believe masculinity is reserved for men, and women who do not present as hyper-feminine are deviant. She makes a great observation that we do not typically see masculine women in tampon adverts or giving birth.
Cis-heteronormativity leaves many women feeling displaced in society as they cannot fit into rigid gender norms. Binary standards of gender, where women wear dresses and men wear suits, is limiting and quite frankly boring. People should not have to live exactly the same to avoid being ostracised. Society needs to move forward and accept that masculinity and womanhood can coexist in one body. A great comedy show that centres on a masculine queer woman is Twenties by Lena Waithe.
It was an odd moment. It was the day after the Euros. England had lost – paying the penalty from 12 yards – and within 24 hours we’d seen the whole spectrum of masculinity. There was so much to take in. The blues of the tears (or sirens), the multitude of white beer bellies, the green envy of Scottish fans, the Black skins of the young footballers being racially abused for missing crucial spot kicks, and the red mist of anger, vitriol and violence that was alarmingly apparent.
The media’s portrayal of masculinity seems to be potentially dependent on the weather, the football and, well, Love Island. In the red corner – the media industry throws its weight and male traits around, leading to an abashed sense of what is right or wrong. In the blue corner, Love Island’s hunks make the rest of us jealous of their zero percent body fat. But phew, let us quickly sigh with relief as the media tells us all that it is fine not to be ashamed of our love handles as dad bods are now in.
If traits maketh the man, then what are the traits that men should equip themselves with in the 21st century? Fearlessness? Wholesomeness? A fearless, wholesome sense of self? I’d say that the three Black Lions (as a darling of the Darlington public referred to the unlucky penalty-takers) tick all the above boxes. They showed no fear about taking a penalty in front of the Wembley crowd and the millions watching from home in a European final. They could have buckled under the sheer weight of expectation and the potential repercussions, yet they still backed themselves, rising above the hatred with wholesomeness and fearlessness.
These three men are more fortunate than many others. They have time on their side to grow stronger and become better prepared than many of those who spat bitterness into the deep wound of England’s loss. These three men will grow (hopefully fearlessly) to show many people that masculinity isn’t about body types, personality traits or media messages as we so often define it, but rather about the strength of character when tested.
Like many others in their 20s who identify as male, I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that the traditional definition of a man, like many other definitions recently, has become forever outdated. Growing up with a stern, disciplinarian, Alpha male-type lawyer for a father, and an extremely loving, caring and in-depth, emotionally led mother, the stereotypical roles of mother and father as woman and man were my only definitions to go on during my teens. Throughout school, words to condemn and bash those from LGBTQ+ communities were used both casually and pejoratively during most schoolboy conversations, to the point where to even seem as though you represented the above community in the way you spoke, walked, dressed or talked would mean public humiliation among your peers.
This way of thinking not only segregated the toxic from the shamed and in hiding, it also completely suppressed both sides: from being their true selves, and from seeing things from a perspective of understanding and equality, far away from peer pressure and wrongly formed, traditional definitions of manhood. From being the breadwinner to being the man of the house to holding back tears to the point where you no longer know how to shed them, both the rise in female empowerment and the growing outspokenness of the LGBTQ+ community have challenged and torn apart the traditional frameworks of whatever nucleus we are used to following.
With large strides to go and generational curses still to break, what has become clear is that whether society is progressive or not, in order to progress as a species, learning new perspectives and growing towards a more peaceful, joyous planet, embracing other human beings of all backgrounds and genders has become just as important as unlearning our unconscious, implicit and explicit biases towards historically fixated, rigid definitions of what it is to be a man.
Whether it’s Noah Beck in heels or Harry Styles in a dress, the discussion of dismantling toxic masculinity is largely co-opted by beautiful white men. Explorations of unconventional masculinity often disregards its historical roots within communities of the global majority. Over the past decade the beauty industry has become a space for championing creativity for young men, selling products as tools of self-expression, but ultimately men of colour are largely excluded from this movement. In David Yi’s book Pretty Boys he explores the origins of men of colour and masc-identifying folx of colour, and their quest for self-acceptance using make-up. As notions of hyper-masculinity are contested and reconstructed for a new generation, space for men of colour will need to be legitimised.
Unfortunately, like all big behavioural changes, there is still some way to go in detoxifying masculinity. And the systemic change required is much the same as the Allyship training we have all taken part in that clearly sets out to stamp out inequality. There should be a similar movement towards changing the bias of what it means to be a modern man. A good starting point would be helping to take the pressure off teenagers, who, sadly, more often than not, succumb to peer pressure from more dominant individuals – those who are hell-bent on proving their masculinity via manipulation, bullying, aggression, violence and being part of, unfortunately, the influencing majority. You only have to look at the shocking statistics on knife crime in our capital and how prevalent this still is. Are these influencing groups too powerful to subjugate? And the idea of bringing these situations under control challenges the very nature of an individual’s right to freedom.
As a teenager, I was severely bullied for being the odd one out, quirky and having the confidence to voice my own opinion in debate. In my younger years it was soul-destroying and brought on bouts of depression during these very tender years of adolescence. As I matured, I soon learned that the only way I could come away unscathed was by fighting fire with fire. This was completely out of character for me, and in order to overcome the situation, on occasions I had to nurture this alien infliction of harm, a conundrum I found myself in that thankfully new masculinity today aims to dispel.
We still need to tip the balance and help educate impressionable teenagers about what it is to be a man and a woman to avoid escalation before it becomes too late to reverse any inevitable damage. A charity that sets out to do this, Beyond Equality, works with teenage boys to ‘create safer streets’ – it also works with adult men towards achieving the greater goal of gender equality, inclusive communities and healthier relationships. For those who would like to be involved with Beyond Equality, you can volunteer here. There is also an article in The Guardian from earlier this year that provides more context on their quest here.
This article is part of our Diversity & Inclusion work at The Future Laboratory. Explore our work on D&I on our blog and discover what steps we are taking to make a better tomorrow happen.
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