What makes a man a man? Is it biology? Cultural narratives? Societal expectations? All of these certainly shape gendered identity and dictate masculinity and femininity, establishing those characteristics that are considered male, and those that are considered female. As a woman writing about men, I am besieged with stereotyped notions of masculinity and what it means to be a man – a conundrum that I am not sure any of us can avoid. Our current cultural climate has blurred the demarcations of gender roles, as well as the attributes that go into definitions of masculinity and femininity, so that gender and how it is embodied has become more fluid and porous. Nonetheless, I think that there remains a palpable specificity to what being a man (or a woman) is all about.
So, as I began thinking about writing about men, I decided to start with a cultural icon of masculinity known to all – James Bond: The man that embodies masculinity par excellence because he embraces stereotypes and creates some of his own. James Bond made his first appearance in 1953, with Ian Fleming’s book Casino Royale, and continued to visit us yearly thereafter until 1967, when Fleming died. Fleming had a decisive image and version of Bond that remained consistent throughout his writing because it represented his view of masculinity and manhood. Bond is serious, cold, brutal, flawed, tortured and a killer, but he is also loyal, dependable, protective and caring. Ah yes, Bond. The man. The icon of masculinity for multiple generations of men. The knight for many a princess. James Bond has followed many little boys and little girls to their adulthood, shaping their ideas of masculinity, and what it means to be a man along the way. Mention the name James Bond, and everyone, recognizes it. He is the man that all of us love.
Bond captures masculinity in its purest form – he represents the ideal, and perhaps that is why he speaks to both genders. Bond embodies a specific set of attributes that are associated with masculinity and with being a man. He embodies generations of cultural records on masculinity, presenting a powerful image of what a man can or should be. These images have changed over time and with each particular Bond: the movies responding to the cultural emphasis of each generation, while the books live on with Fleming’s unperturbed interpretation. James Bond has the advantage of re-incarnating according to the generation that he lives in, and thus the success of the movies. Throwing in the possibility of bisexuality (in the latest film Skyfall) makes Bond the gender bending icon of the 21st century, while still embodying multiple representations of masculinity that come together in his interpretation of manhood. James manages to change while retaining the essence of what it means to be a man.
By contrast, psychology and psychoanalysis have been slow to develop theories of masculinity. After Freud’s initial and misguided forays into female sexuality and the “dark continent” it constituted for him, psychoanalytic literature had little to say on the subject of men and masculinity, borne as it was from Freud’s dealings with his mostly female patients’. Early ideas about masculinity and maleness centered on genitality, and later, on the need to dis-identify from the mother, so that masculinity became a repudiation of femininity. There existed an inherent paradox to becoming a man, where it was necessary to strip away a boy’s identification with his mother in order for him to identify with his father, and take him as a role model toward manhood.
Then feminism revised Freud and psychoanalytic notions of sexuality and gender. Where men and masculinity had been identified with the phallus, and with attributes such as strength, logic, and firmness, feminism swept them up (particularly heterosexual men) and delivered them into more rounded, softer, interior versions of themselves. It also rendered masculinity a more dimensional sphere of male identity, one that included women and the feminine and did not require un-identifying with them.
This is where things got blurry and more complex. Or perhaps this is where we unintentionally returned to Freud’s original observation that human beings are essentially bisexual, and what that actually looks like in real life: softer masculinities and tougher femininities, caught up in a permeable gendered space which makes it possible to play with one’s sexuality. Undoubtedly Freud stopped short of elaborating just what that bisexuality looked like; instead he took it down the road of biology. However, in deconstructing gender from its solid Lego-like quality and assembling it in softer form, we have opened up space for possibility and also potential confusion. In the current climate, what is masculinity about
Queer theory has advanced this conversation the most. Masculinity is now seen as a “false” idea that can become too rigidified in cultural stereotypes or so porous as to put one’s sense of identity in question. Now, masculinity holds numerous representations of what it means to be a man. Current theory holds that boys use their identification with their mothers in order to integrate the more “feminine” aspects of themselves, and that separating from her is a much more organic process that continues throughout the adult lifetime and involves relationships with other women. Such a developmental integration and separation of/from mom allows the space to form multiple identifications on the way to identity formation and renders a plurality to the notion of masculinity that liberates it from an essentialist/biological position.
Or does it?
There are others, like myself, who argue that the body is a container that necessarily limits the ways that identity and sexuality is elaborated. In this case, the interiority of a man is shaped not only by his relational field, but also by his physicality and the requisite experiences that it dictates, and that the question of what it means to be a man is best answered by looking at how a man copes with his (internal) uncertainty about who he is versus the reality of his gendered body (yes, the phallus again), and whether this leads to psychological constriction and a stereotyping of the self or to a sense of possibility.
And then there is the fact that men need other men. The essence of all that is masculine requires the input of other masculinities. Not because women are not important, but because they are different and validate men through their difference. Men gift each other with identification – the implicit knowledge that comes from embodying the same developmental experiences which shape expectations and visions of manhood. Take men’s identification with their penises – consider what a lifetime of being able (and needing to) see your genitalia and hold it in your hands might do to establish that member of your anatomy as a crucial part of your identity, something that physically represents one’s sexuality, desire, sameness and difference. Women, on the other hand, grow up shrouding their sexuality, not being aware of it or what it looks like unless they go looking for it (and this is not so easy to do!). There is no reason to touch ones’ vagina other than to pleasure oneself, and that takes women and their relation to their genitalia in a whole other direction – that of sexuality and societal prohibition. You may laugh as you read this but consider the psychological impact of this. For men, the connection to their genitalia is encouraged and culturally approved. That member of their anatomy becomes not only an identifying characteristic (it’s a boy!), but also a physical part of their sense of self that embodies and shapes much of their identity and what is to come. Men are literally out there in the open, and amongst other men, from the very beginning. Perhaps this is why the comparison of size and “whose is bigger” translates into what it means to be a man and conceptions of strength, vitality, stamina and power. Turns out size matters – but not in the way that we joke about.
Men offer each other something that women can never give them – an implicit and embodied knowledge about being a man and all that it means and may come to mean. Conflict and aggression, and the ability to play and work it out with each other, to survive each other in relation to each other is part of the equation of masculinity. Men need to consort with their own kind, in inherent understanding, connection and validation. Men recognize each other in a million different ways that are specific to being a man. Men need other men and they need each other’s company. Identification, validation, support and creativity all stem out of male-to-male experiences. Intimacy between men turns out to be a most important aspect of their identities and a source of creativity. There is a hunger in men for other men and a need to turn to each other for sustenance and definition, for company on the quest of defining and embodying masculinity. There is an implicit understanding, at a physical level of what being a man is all about, and women cannot share in this. The connection between men is primal and elemental. It is based on their shared anatomy and the way that it gives body to their subjectivity and individual notions and elaborations of masculinity.
What do women want? Asked Freud before embarking on his convoluted theory of female sexuality. Interestingly, he never asked this of men. Perhaps it is time that we ask.
Parts of this article have been published as posts in Dr. Ceccoli’s blog: Out Of My Mind