Masculinity and the fear of losing it

Cormac is twenty-two months old. I love seeing Cormac cuddle his doll. Ditto, on walking into the kitchen to see his father and he sitting on the floor together because he has asked his father to paint his toenails. Bill, who has little in the way of a feminine side and who has never worn nail polish himself, happily obliging his son with pink nails.

Last year I had an incoming link to this post from a men’s site complaining about feminist mothers and their anti-male parenting. It was mostly amusing to me. Lots of shock and horror over the idea that I would dress my baby in anything but boy’s clothing. Lots of assumptions that this meant I hated my son for being male.

It took becoming a mother of a son for me to realise just how fearful the world is of losing masculinity. I mean, god knows there are lots of rules about gender binary and how girls and women perform femininity, too, but I don’t think we’re as frightened of femininity being corrupted and lost as we are of masculinity being diluted. It is a strange fear.

I don’t love Cormac’s stereotypical ‘boyish’ behaviour any less – the constant growling, the rough play, the obsession with trucks and trains and diggers – than his more stereotypical ‘girlish’ behaviour (it’s all cute to me), but I confess to privately celebrating the girlish moments a little more. It is not because I entertain notions of undoing masculinity, it is because I recognise its dominance. It is because there is an onslaught of hyper-masculinity coming Cormac’s way.  Cormac’s masculinity, or the ‘cordial concentrate’ version of it anyway, is taken care of without me having to lift a finger or purchase a single item of ‘camo’ clothing. The world will ensure that he is fully tutored in its expression (some of which I will enjoy in him and some of which I will not), at the expense of his fuller personality.

But every moment of softness and twirling and nurturing in him is proof for me of his personhood; proof that he is still freely roaming the spectrum of options in developing his identity and indeed, his own masculinity.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: gender & feminism, parenting

Tags: , , ,

13 replies

  1. It’s amazing how soon the onslaught begins once they’re at school. Most pre-schools, I think, do a very good job of letting kids explore their self-expression in non-stereotypical ways. School is when the conformity training starts, and it seems that within 6 months many boys who used to happily play with girls and “girl toys” feel the need to prove themselves by avoiding that side of their options. If the girls want to play with “boy toys” with them then that’s allowed though (at least for a few years longer).
    But it’s all a “natural preference”, amiright?

  2. The one gripe I have about my son’s school is the focus on him having male friends. I don’t care who he is friends with as long as he has a friend. It has taken some time, because of reasons, for him to find a good friend. He is friendly with a lot of kids which is fine, but I would like him to have one friend, who would choose him above all others, of any gender. He used to have that, but she was a girl and so they were pushed in different directions. Not only because she was a girl, they also got up to a lot of mischief together so I’m not concerned that they wanted to separate them for that reason. But I think trying to force friendships is a bit much. Perhaps they were concerned that in later primary where everyone suddenly discovered boy and girl germs he may have been left out, but from what I remember as long as you identified as ‘one of them’ you were included.
    But back to the post, which is a great post btw Bluemilk. I am always surprised (I don’t know why I used to do it myself) that the assumed gender of a baby unless it is swathed in pink (and sometimes even then) is male and to show that a bald baby is actually a girl you need to put on one of those headbands which Danny Katz (a writer for the Sydney Morning Herald weekend magazine) once described as making baby girls look like “demented Easter Eggs” probably because they were trying to coordinate their arms to get that irritant off their heads.
    I have heard of a father who will not let his son play dress ups for fear of him becoming gay, as if it is a virus residing in dress up clothes or nail polish [the mother who told me this let this child play to his hearts content when playing at her place with her kids (girl and boy) and swore his sisters to secrecy and carefully removed all traces from him before he went home (with the full knowledge of the child’s mother)].
    So I think perhaps that it is not only a fear of men being feminised but also of them being made homosexual./gross generalisation
    I guess it all comes down to you fear what you don’t understand. Clearly what they don’t understand is that the son they purport to love has always been [whatever it is they don’t like] and hasn’t changed, it is them who has changed; and that is sad.

  3. Oh I love this, it’s beautiful. He’ll be told by society that he shouldn’t be ‘girly’ or even hug his mother too much soon enough.
    People forget that because masculinity is dominant and default, you’re right you don’t have to ‘do’ anything active for it to be reinforced. He’s at no risk of not being exposed to traditional masculinity.

  4. When my 15yo was starting school he and his best friend liked to hold hands walking around the playground. The mother of the other boy complained to the school that my son was trying to initiate her son into some sort of homosexual behaviour! 5yo’s holding hands! She felt that boys should not show affection as it was a feminine quality.
    I would like to think that this attitude was isolated but my younger children have proven to me that it isn’t. My 5yo’s favourite colour is pink. He loves things that are pink and sparkly because they are pretty. He also likes having his nails done because it is pretty. I have had to battle against ridiculous comments from many of his peers. He has come home from kindy and school distressed because someone (usually a girl) has told him he can’t like pink because it’s for girls. As he gets a bit older he is more self assured. He understands more now that a particular colour being for girls and another for boys is ridiculous. It’s everywhere though.
    A friend’s son, who also loves pink and particularly wants to wear dresses because they are lovely and flowing has had the same problems. They have opted not to let him have too many feminine things because of how he might be treated by other kids. That’s the thing, parents are forced to be complicit in promoting this attitude sometimes to protect their children from persecution.

  5. I have raised two boys as a feminist mother, one already an adult, and the other just starting high school, and I can testify that neither one of them has developed as any less “masculine” for being taught feminist principles from earliest childhood. Both are happy, well adjusted people with friends and interests across a wide spectrum– as it should be.

  6. Wow, one of my fave topics.
    I’d always assumed that guys in particular are reluctant to see anything other than “boyish” stuff as being suitable for boys because of their own fears about their own masculinity.
    When I was a kid, I used to try and wear my Mum’s high-heels, and am pretty sure I used to try and wear her lipstick. Not even sure if my parents even remember that. Hell, I’m not sure I remember it.
    I had a girlfriend in standard 4 and would go around to her place to play “elastics”.
    I love “girly” things. I feel far more comfortable around women than I do men. I cry. When my wife and I went to Hawaii, I wore one of her bright blouses until I could buy myself a genuine Hawaiian shirt – and still wear the blouse sometimes.
    The way I figure it, my masculinity is what I say it is. It isn’t determined by outside influences. It isn’t controlled by what certain sectors of society say a “man” should be. But it took a long time to reach that point. A long time. Growing up a boy with a moderate amount of stereotypically feminine behaviours is kinda hard. Especially when all around you are messages of how you are supposed to be. And I think all these “girly” influences have helped me become a better man. They have helped me gain a greater awareness of women.
    Weirdly, one of the peaks of masculinity is drag. For some reason Kurt Russell in Tango and Cash springs to mind. Masculinity is internalised. Who gives a toss what is on the outside?
    And you know what? It wasn’t until I found my fave feminist forums that I realised just how strong my feelings about this were/are. I love the idea of the duality of male and female being broken. I love the idea of people being treated for who they are, not what they are wearing or even what sort of dangly bits they might or might not have.
    All I can say is I really wish I was brought up with the sort of attitudes you describe here.
    From a man who is pretty damned happy to be one, just a little disappointed with many of my gender.

  7. THIS is goin STRAIGHT to the pool room.

  8. Just wondering if feminist mothers would actually be more worried about their daughters wearing nail polish? Mothering dolls? Pink?
    I worry, but alas I let her.

  9. It is a strange fear of losing masculinity, definitely. At its worst, it’s socially licensed violence against male-assigned children (“harden up”), trying to shape them into patriarchs who will pass on the violence further.
    One thing that bothers me about justifications of femininity for male-assigned children is the one that goes well it doesn’t make you a girl, or gay (if you like pink, wear dresses, whatever). I heard that so many times and it was never helpful, cos well, what if you *are*? It seems to reserve cis maleness as a “good” outcome, which makes a trans woman like me.. decidedly not.

  10. Queen Emily, that’s something I’ve tried to get through to a few folks in my life when I’ve heard them say exactly that “well, it’s OK for just play-acting” sort of message. That still very much sends a message that not-just-play-acting would NOT be OK.

  11. Read this after getting up from sitting on the sofa with my three-year-old, who was wearing his tiara and a t-shirt pulled down to be a skirt so he could be a ballet dancer. I fear, however, my delight in these moments is not as nobly motivated as yours, much as I do hope he always has the strength to be himself, whatever that involves. Mostly I love seeing him do things like this because it’s concrete, primary source refutation of all the infuriating insistence we encounter daily that girls are just one way and boys are another. Those people can go choke on my son’s pink rainbow-patterned umbrella, which he chose himself.

  12. I have the same sense of glee, orlando, when telling people about the Tiny Tyrant’s extremely decided preference for the colour pink. I know that I’m quite probably encouraging his love in lots of subtle ways because I get many happies from seeing “concrete, primary source refutation” of the gender binary being genetic, as well as the ways he is smashing it AND being totoally and utterly himself, untrammelled by society’s ideas of what he “should” be.

  13. Yes! This is an awesome post. It’s disturbing how our culture is so obsessed with the masculine/feminine binary. People freak out when a boy likes pink or when a girl chooses an “unfeminine” style of dress. news flash: colors, haircuts, toys, etc. can’t make you gay. I refused to wear a dress until I was practically in high school. Did it turn me lesbian? no.

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