Sometimes the simplest ideas can help to shed light on the most complex issues. It doesn’t happen that often – life’s not that simple – but when it does it is undeniably life affirming.
Like bumping into someone you were at school with thousands of miles from home on the streets of Tokyo, there are times in life when all the right synapses fire and you experience an all-encompassing sense of anything and everything being possible. That’s what it’s like when a simple explanation marries itself to a complex issue.
It’s the sort of bullseye trick that political populists delight in, and that fact alone ought to warn us to be wary. Complex issues tend not to be well served by bumper stickers alone.
Modern masculinity is undeniably complex (it’s also complicated, but that’s not quite the same thing). It is multi-faceted, contextually dependent, subject to alternative, variable and even contrary definitions and interpretations and above all, it is the source of considerable uncertainty. If it was straightforward, none of the above would make any sense. But it isn’t straightforward; getting to grips with masculinity is anyone’s (and everyone’s) business.
An infinite Venn Diagram…
It is tempting to suggest that some of this uncertainty derives from the words we use to describe the condition of being male — there have been any number of women who have been described in terms of their ‘masculine’ traits, from Boudicca to Margaret Thatcher. And by the same token, just think how many ‘feminine’ men there are. The qualities of femininity and masculinity are not limited to either men or women.
American sociologist Michael Warner is perhaps best known for his celebration of the concept of ‘publics’. Publics are simply ideas that we have about ourselves as belonging to a particular group. At its most simple, Warner’s idea is that our social lives and identities can be broken down into different overlapping ‘publics’ in the manner of an infinite Venn diagram.
The simple idea of the Venn diagram – is at the core of this explanation of how masculinity does its work. Once you recognise that different sets and subsets are turned on and off at different times and in different settings, the different ‘publics’ that constitute our different masculinities – the different sectors on the Venn diagram – begin to make sense.
Rugby or Chess?
The categories of masculinity may be reliably recognisable, and they may make for signifiers that we can use to identify ourselves and that others can identify us by, but that isn’t the same as knowing exactly which version is best for any one setting. What counts as manly on a rugby pitch is not the same thing as it is in a chess tournament.
So the categories that we define ourselves by – and the ‘publics’ that we make ourselves part of – are like electric neon rings that turn on and off. Sometimes we’re assertive and uncompromisingly male, other times we’re a bit of a pussycat.
Of course the real world doesn’t make that easy. As long as we remember that we are fundamentally defined by how we deal with those difficulties, complications and complexities then we will be well on the way to feeling good about ourselves.
Imagine an activity that is wholly masculine in tenor. I’ve touched on rugby so professional darts might be a better example. It’s a sport that embodies a very distinct form of masculinity.
Fluid and mobile
Whether it’s a matter of knowing the odds for the World Matchplay or how to negotiate a finish from a given number, the mental as well as the physical aspects of the sport carry a deeply gendered charge. There is no ignoring the electric loop around these details that marks them out as incontestably, shiningly masculine.
As far as the media is concerned, darts is a man’s sport. But what if you stop to ask, on what basis should men and women compete in different categories in darts? It is not like football – to take a topical example – where the physical distinctions between genders make sense of a gender divided sport.
There is no practical physical reason for ‘women’s darts’ (which is also to say ‘men’s darts) to even exist. Except that darts is what a certain sub set of men do. It is, at the same time, a different subset of what women do. The two appeal to very different ‘publics’ but in their difference they are illustrative of a unified conception of what it means to be masculine and – conversely – what it means to be feminine. Importantly, as the example of darts is meant to illustrate, that is not the same as what it means to be a man or a woman.
There are ideas of masculinity and femininity that traditionally fall outside the standard Venn diagrams for certain activities. But in 2015 these are more easily accommodated. The boundaries demarcating male and female professions have shifted.
What we need to remember is that these ideas have a life of their own. They are fluid and mobile, they can pop up in a new form anywhere and anytime and – most important to remember of all – there are lots of them.