Guest Post by Fox: Masculinity, Tools of Violence, and Embracing Femininity

Ziya touched on gun violence briefly, and in the weeks since Sandy Hook a whole lot has been said about it and the issue of gun control itself. I’m sure most people have heard enough speculation about Sandy Hook, so I’m going to stick to a matter that perhaps has not been touched on enough – one of the key reasons why the gun control fight has been so hard.

There seems to be, in the American psyche at least, an inherent bond between traditional masculinity and the desire to own/use at least one gun. And for many of these men, the more guns they own (and the more powerful they are), the more manly they feel. I have to imagine this is part of the appeal of hunting, and one of the reasons shooting ranges exist in the first place. And this is a lesson that men learn from an early age – from the moment they are exposed to the flashy duels of westerns or the massive fire fights of many action films and shows, as well as the ads for kid safe guns (like Nerf products).

Certainly, I recognize the other reasons for wanting to own a gun. The ability to defend one’s self and one’s family, especially from a distance, has to be a powerful incentive (particularly since we, as men, are taught that we need to protect our families). But I believe that the gun ownership drive is merely one example of the greater lesson society teaches to men.

That lesson is this: Men are socialized to be comfortable with, and even like, violence and aggression. This includes socialization toward the tools that get used in violent and aggressive acts: fists, bats, hammers, knives, guns, etc. Sure, bats are a critical tool for baseball; just like knives and hammers have their own, non-violent uses. But we don’t often glorify these uses for boys and men. Instead, we show just how much damage these items can do to someone who threatens us. And for the male who has been fed this version of masculinity, any attempt at controlling these urges very much feels like an attack. The perceived aggression begets more aggression, and the cycle promises to never stop.

I myself am no stranger to this sort of socialization. I own a few Nerf guns, and will admit to some curiosity towards learning to shoot a pistol. But unlike many American men, I’ve always seemed to favor the melee items – knives, swords, axes, and other medieval weapons. Even my choice of ranged weaponry (the one I’d love to learn the most), is the long bow. When I was younger, I used to design cool looking swords and axes, with all sorts of interesting blade and hilt shapes. I still have the pictures somewhere of those designs too; one of those designs I was even able to have made in wood to complete a Halloween costume.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve played a number of LARPs (Live Action Role Plays – one of which I helped write), sparred with friends and Ziya (using bokken, foam weapons, and even high-quality light sabers), and I’ve even built up a small knife and sword collection (some meant solely for costuming, and others that can actually be used). So I can understand the weapon collecting many men do. Aside from the actual metal blades, I have a small personal armory of foam and training pieces, too.

But I consider myself different from many men, even though I very much identify as one.

Why? Partially, it’s because I know the difference between fantasy and reality, and so as much as I might fantasize about life in the (albeit romanticized) medieval era, I know that attempting to live that way in the main of life is foolish. Partially, it’s because I was taught how to solve problems through discussion and compromise.

But mostly, it’s because I was never fully socialized into traditional masculine culture. I’ve been surrounded by strong feminine influences; my mother, sister, aunts, and grandmothers are all strong women. So the interdependent, in control, proud woman model that scares so many men today is the norm for me.

I was never taught by my parents that boys couldn’t cry, and I was never talked out of interests that society deems feminine. Nor was my sister ever forced to conform to traditional gender norms. So, I suppose one could say that I am not a man in the traditional American sense of the word.

That’s okay with me though. I wouldn’t want to conform to those norms anyway – from where I’m “standing” they seem like a rather restrictive cage. I rather enjoy the freedom to be who I am, not who society thinks I should be. I thoroughly believe that the more “masculine” aspects of my personality are tempered by the “feminine” ones – allowing me to be a more balanced individual; not another man whose hyper-concentrated masculinity is butting heads with a world that cannot support it anymore.

I sincerely believe that men everywhere would be better off living in a world where there is not just one way to be a man, and where both the “masculine” and “feminine” can happily live at peace in one person.

First Masculine Monday … erm, Tuesday: Prepare to Be Confused – but in a MANLY way!

On Monday, Mom and I had adventures in being furious with the (male) contractor for messing up the simple task of following the tile and accent pattern we had laid out for him on Friday. He had more vertical space than we’d anticipated, so he added an additional row of plain tiles between the rows with accent pieces.

When he showed me what he had decided to do, he already had several of the pieces in place, and I assumed that he would not be able to move them. I didn’t like what I saw, but I didn’t feel comfortable telling him to change it or calling Mom over to get her opinion, so I said it was “okay.” Later, after Mom had seen the work and expressed her disapproval, and we’d agreed to make him change it, I wished that I had been more confident and assertive. Clearly, I have a long way to go before I can claim my “Man Card.”

I decided that the first step I need to take is to learn a bit more about masculinity. Frankly, it’s even more confusing than femininity. At least with femininity, you know you’re supposed to look good and be nurturing and submissive (etc). The first rule of masculinity is “don’t be feminine” – so, before you can even start trying to be masculine, you have to learn about femininity and how to avoid anything that might even remotely remind anyone of its existence (Psychology of Men, Urban Dictionary). Then, you can start to learn about things you should do.

The Art of Manliness (exists and) lists 7 vital characteristics a man must have:

  1. Physical – be physically fit, strong, healthy, and interested in physical pursuits
  2. Functional – be the breadwinner for your family
  3. Sexual – have sex with many different women and be the one to actively initiate romance
  4. Emotional – never show emotion or allow it to influence decision making, except occasionally in private with a very close friend
  5. Intellectual – made decisions based on intellectual knowledge, not feelings or intuition
  6. Interpersonal – be a leader
  7. Other attributes are associated with men, including “ambition, pride, honor, competitiveness, and a sense of adventure.”

wikiHow: How to Be Manly describes “7 pillars of manliness” that are identical to the characteristics listed above, except that the 7th is called “Distinctive.” The advice in this article consistently contrasts ways of being manly against femininity. The manly man is self-assured, individualistic, competitive, and wild – free. One of the suggestions in the “Distinctive” pillar is to buy a gun – a topic many people have been expressing concern about and that I’ll address in next week’s Masculine Monday post (not that it should wait another week, but I don’t want this post to get too long …).

The article is also contradictory in that it advises men to look a certain way (e.g. like Paul Bunyan) and “then stop caring what people think of your looks.” Well, if you don’t care what people think of your looks, how are you supposed to maintain that image? Why even bother looking like Paul Bunyan, if you don’t care what people think? If you really don’t care what people think about your looks, you can walk around in a pink tutu – that is, a manly pink tutu.

But the contradictions don’t end there! The tips at the very end list several additional characteristics men should aspire to, including: moral, loyal, helpful, caring, supportive, trustworthy, strong, kind, obedient, and brave (etc.). I’m all for encouraging these characteristics in anyone! But some of them – particularly caring, supportive, kind, and obedient – seem extremely similar to the very femininity these articles about masculinity advise so strongly against!

Does it have to be done in a masculine way? Is it masculine because a man does it? Are men supposed to do “feminine” (e.g. decent human being) things in secret while flaunting their machismo in their public lives?

Crazy Stupid Masculinity Norms discusses contradictory expectations contemporary society imposes upon men through an exploration of the movie: Crazy Stupid Love and related articles. The different expectations men must juggle can lead to their masculinity being questioned and/or set them up for failure. Just struggling with the social pressure to simultaneously embody contradictory forms of masculinity – especially while not being feminine! – can have a devastating effect on men’s mental health, leading to depression and suicide.

There is hope of these contradictions being clarified, though, as efforts are made to expand our understanding of masculinity. Back Off, Masculinity Patrol describes ways in which gender rules for boys are becoming more relaxed, and how that might help reduce problems such as violence and bullying. Psychologists are also in the process of Redefining Masculinity to maintain focus on the positive aspects of masculinity (e.g. strength, assertiveness) while removing negative aspects such as aggression. They are working with boys to help them develop awareness, interpersonal skills, and actively serve others as part of their development of their own male gender identities. The conversation, currently conducted by men, will expand to include the knowledge, insights, and perspectives of women as well. (Not that women haven’t been offering those for a while now.)

Finally, Men’s Lib: Why it’s time to reimagine masculinity at work and at home describes ways in which traditional ideas about masculinity can hinder men – and society as a whole – and provide men with escapism instead of practical solutions. Instead, masculinity needs to adapt to a changing world that includes more “feminine” than “masculine” job openings, more women with more power in the workforce, and increased need and opportunity for men to be caretakers at home. Men can be men with less need to differentiate themselves from women, while taking active and valued roles in society.

Challenging Cultural Assumptions About Sex and Gender – Part 1

For easier reference, I’m re-posting the previous post‘s list of assumptions that are generally taken for granted in American (and other) culture(s):

  • There are two biological sexes, male (penis) and female (vagina). All humans fit into one of these two categories.
  • Social roles and behaviors, attributes and capabilities, interests, etc. are determined or at least heavily influenced by biological sex. In other words, males naturally adhere to a set of norms considered “masculine” and females to a set of norms considered “feminine.”
  • Masculinity is inherently better than femininity. It is acceptable and even necessary for a woman or girl to exhibit some masculinity, as long as she ultimately remains “in her place” as a proper female (sex object and caregiver). Men and boys are severely limited in the amount of femininity they may exhibit; an effeminate male is the greatest offense against mankind.
  • Males must be sexually attracted to females and vice-verse. It is very important for a man to be successful sexually (as well as in other areas) and for a woman to be in a long-term monogamous relationship with a man. Pursuit of these goals is a key factor in social interactions, especially between the sexes.

But in reality …

Biological Sex

Biologists have found that sex cannot be accurately understood exclusively in terms of someone being “male” or “female.” Sex is fluid and can even change over time based on an individual’s experiences.

There are a variety of factors that influence a person’s biological sex, including chromosomes (genetics, X & Y), hormones (testosterone vs estrogen), prenatal influences, and changes in one’s anatomy. The sex chromosomes can take on more than two possible configurations. Relative hormone levels vary among individuals. Sometimes a baby is born with genitals that cannot easily be labeled as “male” (penis & scrotum) or “female” (labia, clitoris, vagina). Combinations of these factors may influence an individual to identify as “intersex.” I have even watched a film in which an individual shared the experience of being neuter (no genitals).

Therefore, an accurate understanding of biological sex needs to go beyond putting people into one of two mutually-exclusive categories.

Gender Identity and Expression

People vary greatly in their gender identity and expression – the gender they perceive themselves to be and how they dress, act, etc. to communicate that to others. All people act in ways that can be labeled “masculine” or “feminine” to varying degrees; no one is exclusively masculine or feminine. Our systems based on assumptions about sex and gender limit the ability of gender-nonconforming and non-heterosexual people to participate fully and feel respected as equals in society.

Even people who “play by the rules” – that is, according to the assumptions listed at the beginning of this post – are limited by gender norms in their ability to: express themselves fully; develop their full range of abilities; effectively address intra- and interpersonal problems; avoid being perpetrators and/or victims of violence; have genuine relationships with other people; and contribute to positive political, legal, economic, and social change.

Therefore, I believe everyone can benefit from an expanded understanding of gender that takes into consideration and normalizes the experiences of people with diverse sexes, gender identities, and sexual orientations. (Please note that gender and sexual orientation are two different things; a person with any gender identity may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc.)

Some variations are listed below:

Cisgender individuals identify as the biological sex and gender they were assigned at birth.

Transgender individuals challenge cultural assumptions about gender in a variety of ways:

  • Transsexual individuals identify as men and women, but their gender identity is the opposite of the sex and gender assigned to them at birth. They often use hormone therapy and may undergo surgery to make their physical bodies (biological sex) conform to their gender identity.
    • A trans man was born with a vagina and raised female, but identifies as male.
    • trans woman was born with a penis and raised male, but identifies as female.
  • Gender queer individuals are diverse and may or may not identify as men or women. Some prefer to be identified as a third gender, while others would rather avoid labels entirely. Some gender queer individuals prefer to be referred to using the gender-neutral pronouns ze, zir, and hir.
    • An androgynous person consistently exhibits both masculine and feminine characteristics in approximately equal proportions.
    • A gender fluid person experiences change in hir gender identity and expression, depending on the situation ze is currently in.
    • Similarly, a bi gender person alternates between a masculine gender identity and a separate, feminine one. It is also possible to be trigender or pangender.
    • Gender queer individuals who identify as men or women do not conform completely to the expectations for their gender. They may be flexible in their gender roles and expression.

Transvestites identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and that matches their biological sex, but sometimes dress in clothes associated with the opposite gender.

Gender and Sexual Orientation

Some lesbian women exhibit more masculine traits than are generally expected of women. This does not mean that all lesbian women are masculine, nor that all masculine women are lesbians.

Similarly, some gay men exhibit more feminine traits than are typically expected of men. This does not mean that all gay men are feminine, nor that all feminine men are gay.

Masculinity vs Femininity & Sexuality will be addressed in Part 2.


Kelly, S., Parameswaran, G., & Schniedewind, N. (2012). Women: Images and Realities: A Multicultural Anthology (5th ed.). New Yoark: McGraw Hill.

Sedgwick, E.K. (1991). How to bring your kids up gay: The war on effeminate boys. Social Text, 29, 18-27. [PDF]

Teich, N.M. (2012 April 18). Transgender 101: 15 things to know. The Huffington Post.


Gender Bender January 2013: Challenging the Gender Binary

genbenjanDuring the Fall 2012 semester I took two very eye-opening courses: “Introduction to Women’s & Gender Studies” and “Introduction to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer (LGBTQ) Studies.” Between these two courses, I became much more aware of assumptions that are generally taken for granted in American (and other) culture(s):

  • There are two biological sexes, male (penis) and female (vagina). All humans fit into one of these two categories.
  • Social roles and behaviors, attributes and capabilities, interests, etc. are determined or at least heavily influenced by biological sex. In other words, males naturally adhere to a set of norms considered “masculine” and females to a set of norms considered “feminine.”
  • Masculinity is inherently better than femininity. It is acceptable and even necessary for a woman or girl to exhibit some masculinity, as long as she ultimately remains “in her place” as a proper female (sex object and caregiver). Men and boys are severely limited in the amount of femininity they may exhibit; an effeminate male is the greatest offense against mankind.
  • Males must be sexually attracted to females and vice-verse. It is very important for a man to be successful sexually (as well as in other areas) and for a woman to be in a long-term monogamous relationship with a man. Pursuit of these goals is a key factor in social interactions, especially between the sexes.

These assumptions are central to how people raise their children; they influence parents’ plans and expectations before the mother even becomes pregnant! They shape our interactions in school, the workplace, at home, and in everyday life. They’re in every form of media – from movies and TV, to music, to video games, to social networking that require one to select “male” or “female” on a form in order to register, and beyond.

Advertising. Clothes and hygiene products. Housing in institutionalized settings (e.g. colleges, prisons). Public restrooms. Employment. Healthcare. Laws and social institutions. All aspects of our lives are at least partially governed by assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality.

On the surface, the gender binary seems to work for most people. They are heterosexual and/or identify as the sex and gender they were assigned at birth. They believe that the assumptions listed above are true, at least to some degree. Most probably don’t even realize they’re being influenced by those assumptions.

But it doesn’t work for everyone.

I’ve always felt like there was something not quite right about the gender binary. I’ve never understood why there is one set of expectations for boys and a different one for girls. I’ve never taken kindly to the idea that I should like certain things because of the gender I was raised, nor that I should not be interested in something because it is intended for the other gender. My interests and activities are representative of both genders. I believe people of all ages can be fully equal friends regardless of gender. I am attracted to both men and women.

For years I have felt my sense of my own gender change throughout a given day, depending on my current situation. Sometimes, such as while writing, I don’t really have a sense of myself as either gender. I tend to feel very feminine when engaged in or talking about more creative pursuits, especially coordinating visual elements. I feel more masculine when engaged in analytical tasks and problem solving, especially if I am directing other people. I think these “feelings” about my gender are a reflection of cultural understandings of masculinity and femininity that I have internalized.

Similarly, when I am alone I usually do not identify with a gender. In social situations I might adopt the gender role and expression most appropriate to fit in, though I find that difficult and uncomfortable when taken to either extreme. Alternatively, I might take on the gender role needed to balance what everyone else is doing: if the people around me are being very feminine I’ll feel and possibly act more masculine, but if they’re being masculine I might feel and act more feminine.

I am uncomfortable being referred to as the gender I was assigned at birth and that people still assign to me based on physical appearance, especially when that influences my behavior and/or how they treat me. It can have a negative effect on our ability to experience a genuine human connection as equals. I am also annoyed with having to disclose my “sex” in order to do register for services online or send emails to representatives in government. Why should I have to disclose information about my anatomy in order to express my opinions or use services on a website? (or do pretty much anything else?)

For the longest time I thought my experience was unique, until I learned the terms “gender queer” and “gender fluid.” The very existence of those terms means that I am not alone!

Writing for Change

I’m still processing what I learned about gender, society, and myself through the courses that I took this past semester. I hope that by focusing on gender during the month of January, I can solidify my understanding of the issues surrounding gender and my own gender identity. This includes how my gendered upbringing affects my ability to cope with difficult situations, express my emotions, and solve interpersonal problems. It also includes working through my emotional responses to cultural messages about the gender binary, now that I am more aware of them and even less willing to accept them.

Reader, I also hope you will contribute your knowledge, ideas, and experience to an informative discussion about gender and associated issues by commenting. All genders, etc. welcome. The more different perspectives can be included, the better understanding can be gained by all.

Come back later for my next post, Challenging Cultural Assumptions About Sex and Gender, in which I’ll share information that refutes some of the assumptions listed near the beginning of this post. I’ll have a few days each week of January that are dedicated to the gender bender theme: Feminine Fridays will start on January 4th, followed by Masculine Mondays on January 7th and Transgender Tuesdays on January 8th. I might post about my experiences living with depression (or whatever else meets my fancy) on other days of the week.

Happy New Year! and happy bending …