Mark Bond-Webster runs the Caring Dads Programme in Norfolk.
Thinking about these questions and trying to answer them, confronted me — again — with a couple of difficulties I have with the way in which much of the current debate about ‘masculinity’ is framed. First, ‘masculinity’ is treated as monolithic and singular, as if there is a complex of traits or characteristics that collectively we call ‘masculinity’ shared by all men across time and place. Hence, for example, question two: ‘what are the characteristics of manhood.’? Or question four, what are the ‘characteristics of a healthy masculinity’ (my emphasis)?
I question whether there is a masculinity, healthy or otherwise, or that one can arrive at a singular set of characteristics that describe manhood. Whose masculinity; whose manhood? Where? When?
I would suggest, instead, that there are multiple masculinities; that they are often at odds with each other; and that they are all constituted by number of variables – social class, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, being among the most obvious.
Is working-class masculinity the same thing as that of middle- or upper-class masculinity? I am a middle-class, ex-public school boy, senselessly over-educated at a variety of universities, and continuously employed in white-collar jobs ever since. Is my masculinity the same as that of a man who grew up on a housing estate, went to the local comp, left school at 16 and has been subsequently, intermittently employed in unskilled jobs (driving, building site labourer, etc)?
Or: I am white — is my masculinity the same as that of a Black or Asian man?
Or: I am a heterosexually-married bisexual man. Is my masculinity the same as that of a heterosexual man; of a gay man?
Perhaps ‘masculinity is, as the saying once went ‘in our genes.’ Perhaps we men are all the same because we are all born with an XY chromosome pair. But I am doubtful. Instead, I would argue that masculinity needs to be treated – to adopt current academic jargon – inter-sectionally. It cannot be treated in isolation. It is rooted in specific locations of class, ethnicity, and culture, and it and must be examined in relationship to those variables that contribute to its making.
Second — question 2, again: ‘In your view what are the characteristics of manhood?’ My only honest answer is, ‘I haven’t a clue.’ I haven’t a clue because I don’t know how something gets tagged or identified as a masculine trait, rather than a feminine trait. Nor do I know who does the tagging.
Are my love of cooking and knitting a manifestation of ‘my feminine side’ or simply that I am a bloke who went to a nursery school where I boys and girls were taught to do exactly the same things. I both learned to knit and learned (extremely rudimentary!) carpentry. (God bless her, Miss Palmer was a very advanced thinker back in 1961.) I can still knit very well, and love to do so when I have the time. I can’t, however, bang a nail in straight and have not the slightest inclination to learn. Why would I? I have a wife who aspires to learn how to be an electrician and (who knew?!) to lay bricks, but could care less about knitting.
I may sound as though I am being flippant, but I am being quite serious. How do you identify a male characteristic or a feminine characteristic?
Men don’t talk about their feelings? Men are interested in practical things, in ‘doing stuff’ — not in sitting around sharing emotions or feelings? I really wonder. I wonder if these are not simply stereotypes and, if so, who the stereotypes serve and to what ends?
Which brings me to my third question/reservation about the current debates on masculinity. They seem to adopt these stereotypical views of (all) men as a given and I worry that, by so doing, they inadvertently reinforce precisely the problems of what ‘blokes’ are and what ‘lads’ do that they claim to be addressing. (By-the-by: why is it that men so often become ‘blokes’ in discussions of masculinity. Or lads. Why can’t they just be ‘men’? This obviously does not apply to your questions below!)
So, in short, are debates on masculinity obscuring our better understanding of contemporary men? Would we be better off starting by interrogating our theoretical assumptions and the terms and questions of the debate?
In some kind of summary, I guess the problem is that I have an old-fashioned resistance to the idea that men’s behaviour and our emotional lives are defined by the possession of an X and a Y chromosome. As a slogan current in my youth pithily stated, ‘Biology is not destiny.’ Or, to put it another way, any characteristic can — and, at the risk of being provocative, usually is – male and female.