I have been keen to write about masculinity and men for some time now, and am aware that in doing so I am traversing the great divide of difference between us. As a woman, I cannot avoid these differences, nor would I want to, rather I intend to speak from a position of difference. This may not earn me points with my feminist colleagues, and may be viewed as essentialist, but here I go anyway. You be the judge.
In thinking about men, and what makes them men, I was immediately catapulted into the cultural and societal spheres which dictate masculinity and establish -early on- those characteristics that are considered male, and those that are considered female. It became increasingly obvious to me that in our current cultural climate, and its emphasis on being politically correct and all inclusive, the demarcations of gender and gender roles have increasingly become blurred and that the definitions of masculinity and femininity, as well as the attributes that go into those labels have necessarily become more fluid and porous.
In psychoanalysis we have been slow to develop theories of masculinity. For that matter, we have been slow and awkward in addressing sexuality and gender all together. After Freud’s initial and misguided forays into female sexuality and the “dark continent” it constituted for him, psychoanalysis has for the most part continued to build theories of sexuality and gender around pathological formulations rather than healthy and functional development. It is indeed an occupational hazard that, psychoanalysis often begins by focusing on what goes wrong. So, early psychoanalytic literature had little to say on the subject of men and masculinity, borne as it were 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. A reaction against. A necessary distancing from the all-encompassing maternal/woman, based on a fear of being ‘penetrated’ or eaten up (recall the vagina dentata) by anything female. There existed an inherent paradox to becoming a man, where it was necessary to strip away the boy’s identification with his mother in order for him to identify with his father.
Then feminism came along and began to revise 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 up men (particularly heterosexual men) and delivered them into more rounded, softer, interior versions of themselves. It rendered masculinity a more dimensional sphere of male identity, one that included women and the feminine and did not require dis-identification with them.
Male sexuality was now allowed and instructed to become as fluid and multi-dimensional as female sexuality has always been.
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, tougher femininities – caught up in a permeable gendered space in which to play with one’s sexuality. Undoubtedly Freud stopped short of elaborating just what that bisexuality looked like or would mean, instead he took it down the road of biology. But think of it, in deconstructing gender from its solid lego-like quality into a softer assembly, we have taken the hard edges that defined separateness and difference amongst the sexes and opened up space for possibility and also potential confusion. In the current climate, what is masculinity about?
Again, psychoanalysis remains sluggish in this area. It has been queer theorists that have advanced the conversation the most, perhaps because of their “other” status and the potential space to think outside the proverbial box. The current generation of analysts speaks about masculinity as the impossible quest, 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. Current psychoanalysis views masculinity as involving multiple representations of what it means to be a man. For example, we no longer believe that a man must repudiate his mother in order to become a man, rather the opposite. We now think 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 adults lifetime, and involves relationships with other women. Such a developmental-integration-separation of and 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 position.
Or does it?
There are others, like myself, who, while privileging the early relational dyad as constitutive of personality and psychic development, also argue that the body is a gendered container that necessarily limits the ways that identity is elaborated. In this case, the interiority of a man is shaped not only by his early relational field, but also by his physicality and the requisite experiences that it dictates, and so 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. Masculinity embodied.
Consider the developmental experiences that are exclusively male: The ability to touch oneself for purposes other than pleasure, or what a lifetime of holding one’s genitalia, privately and publicly and with cultural and societal approval, might do in terms of establishing a sense of male identity, to say nothing of sexuality. Think of how aggression is rewarded in the male world, along with competition and strength, and how these notions begin to weave the texture of masculinity. Consider what the specificity of the male physique encourages and limits based on its particularities. This is true regardless of sexual orientation. A man is a man is a man. There, I’ve said it. And how he embodies masculinity is best answered by attending to the interplay of his internal world and the relationships that have configured it, and his gendered reality and the developmental experiences it has occasioned.
Difference is a good thing.
First published on Dr. Ceccoli’s blog, Out of My Mind, on October 14, 2013.