By Daniel Johnson
Performative masculinity traps you in a cocoon of unrealistic expectations. If you aren’t physically strong enough, you are constantly considered weak. If you don’t perform well at traditionally masculine tasks or don’t particularly gravitate toward structured trades, and instead express your desire to write for a living, you have your sexuality questioned or are told your work is a hobby.
Masculinity is constantly positioned as the only way to become a man in this society. Yet it is an incredibly destructive force for those who are actively looking to become their own person, and I am continually informed of this duality. Which is better: being free, or becoming whatever is the expected outcome and being crushed because the mask you wear is siphoning your blood?
The realization of the term “cutting off your nose to spite your face” is captured in this juxtaposition. The only acceptable ways to express your masculinity seem to be personally disadvantageous. As a masculine-identified person, there does not seem any way to have meaningful relationships with others that doesn’t raise questions about why you are so closed off to your emotionally expressive side.
In conversations with my own father, I see this manifest in the absence of affection in my adult life compared to a deeply affectionate playfulness in my childhood memories. The older I became, the less affectionate and playful our interactions. My experiences with my father make me question the effect of masculinity on the willingness to be expressive about your love for your male children. Is it because any expression of love towards any man is related to homoeroticism in the eyes of toxic masculinity? Or is it because expressions of love for boy children is seen as a weakness in the culture of masculinity?
Performative masculinity is a mask that men wear in the place of developing emotional intelligence. It is a poor mask that comes apart at the seams when pressed upon, which makes it a poor choice when one can also choose to be vulnerable. Yet vulnerability is not often chosen because the idea of masculinity is one which has been set in the plaster of our fathers who were taught by their fathers either explicitly or through imitation that hardness or toughness made you a real man.
This particular conceptualization of manhood or masculinity may not be solely the possession of Black men, but it is the prevailing conceptualization of manliness within the borders of Black masculinity. And it is a rigid concept that desperately needs to be challenged. This toxic masculinity does more than imprison our sons in an emotionless state. It endangers women and our daughters in a unique manner, as in the casual violence hidden in “manly” conversations around treating women like animals on safari, wherein we discuss and determine which ones meet our aesthetic approval.
The more “performative” the masculinity, the more dangerous it is for a woman to reject an advance from its practitioner, as the practice is tied into the self worth of the person performing masculinity. This is evidenced most clearly in the experience of Janese Talton Jackson, the Pittsburgh woman who was shot and killed outside a bar by a Black man whose advances she refused. Rejecting these men becomes indistinguishable from a rejection of their masculinity, and since this way is the only acceptable way to perform masculinity, men then feel the danger of losing ourselves.
We are also guilty of treating women as pieces of meat for our sexual fulfillment by casually referring to them as sexual objects, and this carries over into a lack of emphasis on consent. If we are to eliminate the risks presented by toxic forms of masculinity for future generations and even this one, we have to abandon the old ways of teaching our sons too well how to hide their emotions. We may have been socialized to never show our emotions as a result of being taught it is a weakness or a defect, but that does not mean we keep that mistake going.
Although some would say that there is no redemption for masculinity, and they are certainly within their rights to believe so, I think we have a responsibility to try, as functionally I do not see the concept of masculinity being destroyed within our lifetime. If it will not be destroyed, the sword must be beaten into a plowshare. The instrument of death and destruction must be transformed into an instrument that benefits the culture as a whole.
The oppression that women experience due to masculinity shapes their resistance to it as an institution similar to the way police brutality has exposed policing as inherently violent at the same time it has shaped a radical resistance. Whatever path we take, I think we as men have to radically engage and break down how we identify ourselves as something that is not used to destroy Black women and femmes, but into a force that affirms their rights to exist as people. There must be a revolutionary shift in the way that we function so that women or non-binary folks are no longer oppressed by us.
If there is a way to evolve masculinity into something that is healthy for everyone, then we have to create new ideas around it, ones that are rooted and grounded in freedom instead of chains used to oppress women, particularly Black women. This new version of masculinity must be emotionally intelligent, open, honest, and willing to engage with the thought that there are different paths and neither is inherently “more manly” than the other. This new version of masculinity must seek to defend the femininity that the current performance of masculinity is so violent towards.
As is, masculinity is dangerous and destructive, it is an aid to the oppression of women and men whom we deem not masculine enough. As I envision men becoming, we will be an aid in revolutionizing our ideals and practices of as it regards the freedom of all people. Masculinity may currently exist as a double edged and dangerously wielded sword, but we does not have to continue down that path. We can change, and we can change for the better.
Daniel Johnson studies English at Sam Houston State University. In his spare time, he likes to visit museums and listen to music. He has self-published two collections of poetry and has written several short stories.