Progressive contemporary discussions about masculinity typically call for a reframing of the notion. Even the project that this article belongs to has the key aim to redefine masculinities.
The conversation typically centres around two phrases–“toxic masculinity”, which has to do with men reinforcing conventional harmful gender norms that affect society negatively, and “a crisis of masculinity”, which by contrast implies men undergoing a deep identity crisis as they struggle to adapt to the fast-changing landscape of gender norms where women have gained more power and equality.
Both phrases shed light on real societal issues, and they are useful starting points for discussions about the many ways that the abuse of power manifests itself. But if care is not taken, there is a danger that rather than redefining masculinity, the conversation leads to a renegotiation of masculinity.
If truth be told, masculinity cannot be redefined unless femininity is redefined. Toxic and pathological behaviours such as violence against women and sexual harassment rely upon masculinity being conceived as dangerous and controlling, while femininity is contrarily described as passive and submissive. At worst, the logical solution to a crisis in masculinity is for women to give up hard-earned rights and ‘return to the kitchen’.
There is also the risk that speaking about a crisis in masculinity diminishes the continuing victories of masculinity: compared to women, men are actually flourishing – they are earning more money, doing less domestic labour, living longer (than married women), leading more nations and more represented in influential institutions. Nobody talks about a ‘crisis in femininity’, even though it is women who are at the receiving end of societal harm which are often caused by conventional understandings of what femininity is.
But there is a quality that can change the tone of the conversation about masculinity in the twenty-first century–beauty.
By beauty, I am not in this instance referring to physical appearance or appeasing objects but rather to the qualities that are associated with beauty, such as vulnerability, tenderness and resplendence. Such virtues are antidotes to the abuse of power, yet they are excluded from definitions of masculinity. Instead, masculinity is conventionally perceived as expressing a desire to manipulate, control and possess.
Beauty has always, of course, evoked a sense of manipulative possession in the human species as well. History is full of examples where the desire for beauty has led to aggression. Ancient Egyptians fought wars to acquire lapis lazuli, the Ancient Greek story of Midas tells of a king whose obsession with the beauty and power of gold led him to lose everything.
But beauty is also tender. The Japanese kintsugi tradition, which involves turning a broken glass object into something beautiful by patching it together with golden lacquer, is a famous example of this.
Masculinity and beauty are rarely brought into conversation with each other, unlike femininity and beauty. Society is not educated to look at beauty as a quality men should strive for. Men are not judged by beauty. Tellingly, there is no political emphasis on handsomeness as there is on beauty. Instead, female beauty gives men status while the narrative of beauty is used to objectify and subjugate women.
The difficulties posed in discussing beauty when it comes to men, ultimately reveals the meanings of power embedded in the term ‘masculine’.
They also suggest that perhaps, even more importantly than redefining or reframing masculinity, there is a need to beautify masculinity. Were conversations to centre around beautifying masculinities, it would be clear that heteronormative and patriarchal masculinities are the opposite of beautiful. This would open up a space for thinking of masculinities in ways that are less incongruous with social harmony.
This article was originally published in MASCULINITIES: Thoughts and Reflections.
Image is The Man With Masks by Leonor Fini