April 8, 2020

What it Means to be a Man

So, how’s self-isolation and physical distancing going for everyone? As someone who grew up thinking she was an introvert, only to realize with the clarity of adulthood that I’m actually a shy extrovert, COVID-19 had me coming down with cabin fever after Day 1. However, as tedious as all of this can be, sooner or later, you get into the rhythm of it. It’s like running a marathon (not that I’ve ever run one) or singing 99 Bottles of Beer (not that I’ve ever done that in earnest either because…why. But you get what I mean.)

After all, I’m grateful I can do my duty by simply staying at home. To all those essential workers who don’t have the option to stay at home, thank you for doing what you do. And to all those whose only option is to stay at home because they no longer have a job to go to, we will get through this together. 

One great thing to do while chez toi is to read. I’ve been particularly into non-fiction lately (some personal favourites: Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari, Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion by Katie Watson, and What Happened by Hilary Clinton) and recently finished reading the book Boys: What It Means to Become a Man by Rachel Giese. While I wish the book would have delved deeper into its analysis for a more powerful and cohesive thesis, Giese makes an enlightening point about masculinity amid the waves of growing feminist discourse. I’ve pieced together some excerpts from what I consider the most fascinating chapter in the book:

As a culture, we have poked enough holes in assumptions about femininity and femaleness that most of us now celebrate the idea of girl power…But when it comes to challenging gender stereotypes and their effects on boys, we haven’t been nearly as thorough or thoughtful…we haven’t cast enough of a critical eye on the demands of masculinity—for instance, the expectations that men be physically aggressive, sexually dominant, emotionally stoic, tough and in control—and the impact those expectations have on boys who do and don’t live up to them…The sexual revolution, feminism, civil rights movements, technological innovation, globalization: taken together, these movements have altered, to an unprecedented degree, what it means to be male…And as old notions about masculinity and femininity fall away, there is a palpable angst about what should replace them. This time of instability and change has given rise to a pervasive belief that gains in rights and power for women must mean men are losing out…in order for change to be real and lasting, feminism can’t stop at transforming the lives of girls and women; it has to transform the lives of boys and men too…what can we learn from feminism and the fight for equality for girls and women, to create more liberating and expansive forms of masculinity for boys and men?

If you’ve been wondering why right-wing populism has gained traction over the past couple of years, or why some feel they now have permission to unleash words and acts of intolerance, or why it seems we’ve taken a step back in progress, maybe it is because we have groups of people who feel that what they have known to be true, stable and indisputable—their rights, beliefs and identity—is now under threat. But that’s not their fault. I realize I may be saying this while perched atop my Ivory Tower, but I believe it’s our responsibility as a society to not leave anyone behind nor leave anyone out. Everyone deserves a chance to catch up, to redeem themselves, to find love over hate.

And so I think we need to recognize and address the expectations we put on men. Not just for their sake—but for feminism’s sake as well.

On a lighter note, let’s look at how expanding the notion of masculinity has played out in fashion. Back in 2013, I wrote briefly about how women effortlessly step into androgyny, but that step is more of a leap for men. We were (and still are) far from the finish line in terms of allowing men to express themselves through dress in as many varied ways as women could, yet we did see the slow-but-steady acceptance of men who cared about fashion. At the time, the term ‘metrosexual’ still existed, but its use was starting to wane. It no longer seemed necessary (nor in proper decorum) to single out men who paid special attention to their grooming and style. In 2015, a friend shared with me a subreddit called r/malefashionadvice, an internet community where men provided constructive feedback on each other’s outfits with surprising fervour. I was astonished to see men speaking so candidly about fit, colour, texture, and proportion.

Fast forward to 2020, and not only are we seeing the runways awash with blurred lines between menswear and womenswear, we’re finally seeing men express shameless enthusiasm for fashion.

PewDiePie, who got his start as a gamer on YouTube, has shown considerable appreciation for apparel. In addition to uploading two videos exploring the intersection of fashion and meme culture, he also filmed two ‘Closet Review’ videos where he took viewers on a piece-by-piece tour of his wardrobe, supplemented by sincere commentary that reveals a genuine respect for design. At one point, he brings out a pair of white Balenciaga Lace-Up Speed Knit Runners, which he lambastes himself for buying because he realizes he can’t even bear to wear them outside (like my Tod’s). My favourite part came when he jokes about people accidentally bumping against his Balenciagas in restaurants, and how he has to brush it off with an indifferent “it’s fine” when in reality he’s outraged his white runners are subjected to such careless treatment. OK, RELATABLE. I, too, must put on an untroubled smile to hide the insufferable pain I experience when anyone or anything so much as grazes against my most prized footwear. Just. Don’t. Touch. My. Shoes. And everything will be okay.

j-hope, a particularly sartorial-conscious member of K-pop band BTS, has also admitted to abiding by the maxim of “Don’t step on my clothes. Step on my body instead.” OK, AGAIN, RELATABLE. If an errant blob of ketchup were to ever come hurtling towards me, I would gladly sacrifice my flesh to shield the precious fibres of my attire. I never thought I could feel such kinship with men over something like shared views on fashion.

And as a final shout out, to the men I know in real life who proudly express their personality through coloured or novelty socks (you know who you are), or who show remarkable dedication to keeping their shoes clean, kudos to you for giving us hope men can care about style and for normalizing what it can mean to be a modern man.

When we give men the freedom to define masculinity for themselves, we give them the freedom to redefine their place in the world. We give them the opportunity to find equality. One day, the question will no longer be what it means to be a man, or what it means to be a woman—but what does it mean to be you?