Ok, today I’m talking about men. Well, I’m not really talking about men, but bear with me a moment.
Men do not exist. In some sort of Baudrillardian high concept take on this subject, we can’t really talk about men because they don’t exist. But surely I am a man? Some people may consider me a man, and some may not. It is this variation between perspectives that I would like to focus on here.
And the first thing I need to do before proceeding any further is to separate and clarify two elements I will be working with: Gender and sex.
Gender is the whole man/woman, masculine/feminine thing upon which we base way too many social standards.
Sex is biological. Do you have a penis? If yes, you are male. Do you have a vagina? If yes, you are female. Both/neither? Well, let’s just keep it to male and female for now.
Of course, following the semiotic order of language, male and female are symbols, representative of the human body. They are words constructed to signify between two physical categories. However, where sex and gender differentiate from each other is that sex is denotative, it is representative of something real, something that is no more or less than its physical properties. Gender is a cultural construct. Gender is performative. It is not natural. Male is male and female is female. There are two distinct categories which contain all humans, and a fair amount of animals and plants too.
Men and women are a lot more diverse, more subjective to change. What distinguishes a man from a boy? How does a person behave to fit in with the cultural expectations of men? Are there different expectations of white men and black men? Are there different expectations of fourteen year old men and forty year old men? What is manliness? What is masculinity? Ask someone what a man is and you can expect to hear any variety of expectations based on what that particular person believes to be a man.
It’s all cultural mythology. If males behave like men, it is natural. If females behave like men, it is unnatural. If males behave like women, it is also unnatural. Of course, what it means to “behave like a man” is subjective from person to person, but it ultimately comes down to a variety of stereotypes. What does it mean to be a male in a 21st century western society? Who determines how I should behave, and what are the repercussions if I should deviate? What is normal? What is natural? You don’t naturally act like a man. The process of being a man is naturalised through cultural upbringing.
My upbringing has led me to be somewhat skeptical of the performance of masculinity. Mostly because it is acted out as a way of belonging, of fitting in with the culture at large. While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with belonging (in fact I think it’s a good thing to know where you belong), I feel like the performative nature of masculinity renders itself (at least for me) meaningless, hollow, artificial. A belonging based upon cultural pressures and expectations.
So why don’t men exist?
Well, a man isn’t one set specific thing. It is an idea. While there are many types of men, like there are many types of cups or many types of male organisms, the identity of man is imagined. It is about how one presents oneself, a projected, performed identity. As everything you do says something about who you are and how you choose to present yourself, manliness and masculinity are shaped around image and performance. Our sex is fixed. Our gender is fluid. There is no ‘one’ man, there is an endless supply of what a man is, and yet none of them are real, physical.
On this same note, ‘child’ and ‘adult’ are not real because they are assumptions based around how we behave at a particular age. Gender is not real because we make assumptions based around how we behave based on our sex.
Identity shouldn’t be as complicated as it is, but I don’t think I have anything to gain by acting like something I’m not, or acting like something that everyone else thinks I should be, or everyone else should be.
Gender is fluid. Identity is fluid. It’s your choice. All that man/woman, masculine/feminine bullshit is just society feeding ideas into your head, telling you that you should be acting a certain way. No, you shouldn’t be acting like an asshole or a murderer or a rapist or whatever, but that doesn’t mean you should perform to society’s standards of normality. Reclaim your identity, make of it what you want.
Just make sure that when you’re acting the man, it’s because that’s what you want to do, and not what you feel you need to do to fit in. I like doing man things, but I think it’s important to make sure they don’t form the entire basis of my identity.