The Big Lebowski: What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski? Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn’t that what makes a man?
The Dude: Hmmm… Sure, that and a pair of testicles.
There’s no winning this argument. Because the only acceptable deviation from traditional masculinity is queerness; anyone deviating must be queer. Even if they don’t know it. Suddenly what was good in my life is pathologized. Suddenly there is something wrong with him (secretly gay), and there’s something wrong with me (only attracted to men who are secretly gay). This isn’t about style, about guyliner or wearing a boldly pink tie. It’s about something essential in who they grew up to be, something in their nature that my friends — smart, bright, ambitious, dare I say masculinized women all of them — are reading as less than.
I’ve been reading books about masculinity, the authors trying to challenge what we think of as normal. Boyhoods, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, and Mark Simpson’s Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity. All three writers are queer. When I tried to find a book that challenged society’s ideas of masculinity that was written by a straight man, all I could find was a book defending men’s needs to cheat on their wives.
The stark choice between masculinity and queerness; that sounds familiar. But as intrigued as I am by the idea of a straight male challenge to masculinity, I’m also a little confused. Aren’t there quite a lot of guys who aren’t all about “aggression, muscularity, exhibitionism, dominance, and phallic preoccupation”? In fact, wouldn’t it be fair to say that such a stereotypical jock/frat/brute of a guy is often a cultural punchline? What qualifies as a challenge here?
A relative of mine who died years ago was an electrician. High school education, born and raised in a rural small town. He loved fishing, lifting weights, and listening to heavy metal. He also lived alone in his late thirties/early forties and spent a lot of time cultivating flowers in his garden. I don’t think he was closeted; he just preferred a solo lifestyle after having been through the end of a long-term relationship. And as far as I know, he never had any problem with acceptance from his peers. His basic affability trumped any misgivings guys might have had about the petunias and roses in front of his house.
I find it hard to believe that examples like his are a rarity. I suppose if, by challenges to masculinity, you mean boys who play with Barbies or guys who want to weep openly in public, yes, that might be rare. But emotional restraint is just much a middle-class value in general as much as an admonition that “boys don’t cry”, and it’s hardly a big deal for a guy to list cooking as a favorite activity, or for him to have long hair and sport jewelry that would have been unthinkable for his parents’ generation.
Perhaps we’re talking about challenges to manhood as defined by work, wealth, accomplishment. If so, well, as I said before, I’m all for reclaiming the “omega male” descriptor as a positive affirmation. I played the game long enough to prove I can; now I’m walking away from it, uninterested in proving myself to anybody anymore. But I hardly think the pressure to be a success in a professional career, or to be independent of your parents with a family of your own, is a strictly masculine issue either.
And though I know everyone would prefer to forget the phenomenon ever existed, for sheer gender subversion, what about glam rock and ’80s metal? Cool guys wearing makeup and women’s clothes who nonetheless were more sexually successful with women than all the guys who hated them; what more could you ask for?