Over the years , I have become aware of the fact that the version of masculinity accepted as the hegemonic ideal in the Western Imperial Core is based on white supremacist, bourgeois, patriarchal, misogynistic, transphobic, and ableist values. I have also learned there is an alternative to this ideal: positive masculinity. The most basic definition of which is choosing to consciously deviate from societal pressures or stereotypes that dictate what makes a person more or less of a man.
This definition is a great starting point, however I wish to address two of the main points I see repeated when people attempt to promote or discuss positive masculinity. These are people who excoriate many men’s general obsession with increasing their ability to physically dominate another person, without understanding and addressing the possible causes of this desire. Discourse around positive masculinity also focuses heavily on calling for men to get in touch with their emotions. While both of these points are worth your consideration, the framing of these messages can come across as denigrating aspects of the hegemonic ideal that are central to many people’s identities as men. I feel this to be something of a miscommunication that can be solved with the inclusion of a little nuance.
Stoic Philosophy, Buddhism, and Emotionality
So many (usually cis/het and white) men resonate with the philosophy of the ancient Stoics that it has literally become a joke these days. I understand where this is coming from, as the people who typically espouse the virtues of Stoicism often use it as an excuse to do little else in the way of self-examination. However, I argue that Stoic philosophy is not wrong in and of itself.
I believe that training yourself to avoid immediately reacting to situations can be useful to most people. Incorporating techniques designed to lower my reactivity has been healing for me, as a person who has been primed by trauma to react to every situation, often before I am able to fully understand what is actually going on. As a physically diminutive, and legally disenfranchised child this ability kept me alive, but as an adult this reactivity has taken a toll on my personal relationships. My mental safety systems are immature and in need of some renovations. Stoicism and Buddhism are two of the many different tools I have used in pursuit of this change.
However, I do not wish to engage with this philosophy uncritically. I do agree that the classical teachings of Stoicism are incongruous with a healthy relationship to your emotions. Classical Stoicism teaches the rejection of all human emotion on its face, a requirement with which I vehemently disagree. I have found that attempting to permanently reject all emotions that would disturb my “inner quietude” only leads to the sublimation of all emotions to anger, or to depersonalization and derealization. Often, my psyche is best served by fully experiencing my emotions, but I do not believe this must always be done at the exact moment they begin to occur in order to be effective. Positive masculinity discussions should include methods of handling big emotions and situations of extreme conflict.
Extreme situations often require one to be fully present, and focused on physical survival, which can often mean that it’s imperative to your (or someone else’s) safety that you not be bursting into tears or screaming your head off because you’re upset. Crying and screaming certainly might help you process what you’re experiencing but there are many situations where this would lead to worse outcomes than would simply putting a pause on emotionality, and pushing through to safety.
This imperative to maintain control of one’s behavior is where my accordance with Stoic philosophy ends, as we humans are not masters of our emotions. We could not possibly be. Emotions are signals and drives from our bodies that are intended to convey messages to our conscious mind, usually in the interest of preserving our sense of self or physical safety. While I agree with Stoic philosophy only insofar as we should not be beholden to these signals, or driven solely by them; I disagree with the Stoics in that I have learned1 the healthiest method of handling emotions is to address them consciously as quickly as possible. This allows the conscious mind to take these signals into account when planning how to address the situation causing the emotional response. In my experience, conscious awareness of one’s own emotional state is only an advantage when handling interpersonal conflict. Stoicism does not offer substantive help in developing this awareness.
Though Buddhism can. Incorporating certain Buddhist teachings into my daily practices has helped me endure some fairly traumatic experiences and given me more tools to keep myself safe in situations such as deadnaming and misgendering in public. These experiences are deeply scarring for me, but using breathing/walking meditations and mantra I am better able to keep a handle on my behavior until such a time as it is safe to process my emotions. Sole credit is not due to either Stoicism or Buddhism, but these are mental frameworks to which I can turn when I need to process the ongoing trauma that is my existence.
The Desire for Physical Power and the Necessity of Vulnerability
The desire for physical power is not inherently wrong. Wanting to be big and strong is not a bad thing. However, we must not engage with this desire uncritically. We should question our motivations for physical strength else we find ourselves driven to unhealthy extremes such as eating disorders, and/or steroid abuse. Often the fitness industry, and products associated with it, will sell you a sense of invulnerability along with whatever pill, shake, or workout plan they’re shilling. This is a problem because everyone needs to work on their relationship to disability and the vulnerability that comes along with it.
Personally, I want to increase my physical prowess in order to better support and protect the people in my life who are less capable of defending themselves or may have mobility issues that require physical assistance. I also use strength training to improve my personal relationship with my bodymind. These are noble goals. Many men who, like myself, were fed patriarchal ideas of what constitutes manhood feel that the call for men to “be soft” is a direct challenge to the traditional condition of manhood that is striving for greater physical capability. True strength is all encompassing. This call to strength, and the necessity of vulnerability should be cultivated simultaneously. It is wrong to argue that men need to work on one of these without also addressing the other.
Unless you die abled, you will become disabled at some point in your life. Put another way, even if you get to live a long, and relatively healthy life you will still be disabled simply by dint of your age. This means the vast majority of us will be very vulnerable at some point in our lives. If you can’t handle this fact emotionally, you are not a strong person. Focusing on the physical development of the bodymind is an honorable pursuit, but it must be accompanied by developing a healthy relationship with the mind part of one’s bodymind. This includes addressing your attitudes and anxieties around disability. Lean into this anxiety. Do the hard thing and learn more about what it’s like to move through the world as a disabled person.
Doing the Harder Thing and Positive Masculinity
That’s what this is all about, taking the more difficult path by leaving room for learning. Do the harder thing, and instead of shying away from your emotions, address them consciously, and immediately. Do the harder thing, and question your view of the world, and yes, maybe even your sense of self. In these ways, positive masculinity is not just getting in touch with your feminine side or learning how to cry. It can be these things. But positive masculinity, to me, is the active pursuit of being a better person in service to my self-actualization and to the people around me. Don’t most people want to have better, more secure relationships with themselves, and the people they hold dear?
So, what exactly is positive masculinity?
Men should be encouraged to feel their feelings, and, in fact, would be better served by learning how to address their feelings appropriately. Men need to criticize the motivations behind their quest for greater physical capability, and the anxieties that could be at the heart of this desire. No, it’s not right that men are by and large afraid of publicly expressing some personal qualities that may be deemed “feminine” because of society’s toxic expectations of them. These are just a few of the great things that positive masculinity promotes and I encourage you to learn more about the above concepts.
But we can go beyond this. When speaking about masculinity as it shows up in our society, we need to be offering a substantive framework of aspirational masculinity as well as pointing out the flaws of the current system. This mental framework does not have to be a set of standards to which to adhere, however it should consist of some guiding principles that are as inclusive as possible without being so broad as to be impotent.
When engaging with masculinity as a concept, most people will use the phrase “Whoever identifies as a man, is one” and leave it at that. I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. But it doesn’t do much for people who are questioning themselves, or seeking any greater understanding as to the nature of their gender itself.
I do not seek to define what masculinity is in concrete terms because this is not necessary and promotes gatekeeping manhood. Rather, I see my own relationship to manhood as more of a journey that I am continually on, instead of a destination or ideal model for which I must strive. Or as the artist Mars Wright likes to say, “Gender is a game, and I’m having fun playing!”
I recommend taking some time to think about how you would like to play this game that we call gender. Below are some substantive questions you can ask yourself to discover more about your current relationship to your gender, and how you might like to change it.
What are some things you like about your gender as it is now?
How does it feel to move through the world as you are now?
How do people currently address you? Does the way people treat you reflect the person you know yourself to be more of the time than not?
Can you name some expectations society places on people that have your body type, wear the type of clothes you wear, have your skin color, or hair texture?
How do you fit into these expectations and where do you diverge from them?
How do these differences make you feel about yourself?
How important to you is it that people’s perceptions of you align closely with your inner understanding of yourself? For some, this may not be a concern, for others this could be the primary driver of the choices they make around their gender.
Even if gender isn’t important to you, still consider the impression you wish to give others. What do you want others to see when they attempt to perceive you? If this is confusion then by all means, confound the masses with your gender. If you wish to be seen as an average Joe Schmo even if that could never explain the multitudes you hold inside yourself, that is just fine too!
I also understand not wishing to be perceived at all, I spent quite a bit of time in that space myself. What I found is that I could not stay there forever. The world imposed it’s own ideas of who I am onto me. These ideas were so off base that I was eventually forced to acknowledge the dissonance this caused and assume responsibility for relieving this distress. It is not my fault that the system of gender exists as it does today, but it is my duty (and yours) to actively take control of what I can about my gender and my relationship to it.
From these questions we can start to paint a picture in our mind’s eye of the kind of person we can aspire to be. This picture can fluctuate and grow, it can be very defined and concrete, or more ephemeral and changing, like a quick sketch or an elaborate oil painting.
To continue the game metaphor, your gender could be a highly structured, and elaborate game like D&D, or Settlers of Catan. Or your relationship to gender could be more like a quick, pickup game of basketball in the park. Recently, my relationship to my gender has felt more along the lines of Calvinball, a game invented by the protagonists of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip with rules that are invented on the fly, and are often self-contradictory.
Wrapping it all up
My ultimate point is that positive masculinity is so much more than getting in touch with your feelings. We need to deconstruct our entire understanding of what gender is, in order to make sure that our relationship to it is genuinely our own, and is not solely the reflection of other’s perceptions or lack thereof. Our gender should not be based on transphobia (i.e. I want hormones and he doesn’t. I’m more of a real man), misogyny (Men are just so much smarter than women), ableism (I’m stronger than him, so I’m a better man), racism (He’s a thug, I’m such a nice guy), or classism (I make a lot of money because I’m not lazy, that makes me a good provider).
It is simply a waste of time and energy to define ourselves by what we are not or how we measure up to other’s ideas of us. No, the true self is exactly that, self-oriented. When we attune to this true self, we can begin to take active steps towards embodying who we really are, and focus less on who we are not. I argue this is the crux of a truly mature relationship to gender and what the message of positive masculinity does a decent job of promoting.
I highly recommend you look into some resources for learning more about positive masculinity, which you can find here, in article form, and here is a great video breaking down the basics of the concept.
1 – Gibson, L. C. (2015). Adult children of emotionally immature parents: how to heal from distant, rejecting, or self-involved parents. Oakland, CA, New Harbinger Publications, Inc.