Saturday, 21 July 2007


I've never felt masculine in my life, and I've never felt the urge to be like other men. Right from childhood, they seemed to have nothing at all in common with me except their bodies.

I was always indifferent to the stereotype masculine interests of cars, booze, gadgets and sport. Even girls didn't register very much except as potential friends or enemies. Sex hardly crossed my mind until my twenties, I was that innocent.

It never occurred to me to see male celebrities as role models I should imitate, just because they happened to be the same sex. Their maleness was no more significant to me than their fingernails or what they ate for breakfast.

Most of the time I've just gone my own sweet way without ever thinking about masculinity. But every so often I'm in some situation where it seems appropriate to 'act masculine' or 'act like a man' and I have to rack my brains as to what that means.

Sometimes it's obvious enough - wearing a skirt or putting on make-up wouldn't go down too well - but sometimes I'm baffled. Usually it's some kind of emergency and I'm clearly expected to be a master plumber or an income tax wizard or just a tough he-man who can casually break down a door or see off some unsavoury loiterer.

When I tell people I'm utterly unmasculine, they usually say 'Oh, but you're so male when you do so-and-so.' I explain that I wasn't being masculine, I was just doing what the occasion demanded or what seemed sensible. I repair the garden fence not because I'm a bloke but because I don't want it to fall to bits.

It's also puzzling that people expect me to defend other men because I'm one of them. Shouldn't I be loyal to my sex? But I don't see why I should excuse someone who behaves badly because of what's between his legs. It makes no more sense than rooting for fellow spectacle-wearers or right-handers.

I think a lot of men feel secretly unmasculine, or even feminine, but not being brave enough to resist, they conform to the classic masculine patterns. How many men slouched in the pub debating the pros and cons of four-wheel drive would rather be trying on dresses or cooking lasagna or ballroom dancing (or even something gender-neutral like campaigning for cheap nurseries)? The answer might surprise you.


bye bye bellulah said...

A young couple I know told me that she'd got up v early one morning to mow the lawn and he, an hour or so later, had gone to do the shopping. On the way home from the shops he bumped into a particularly patronising neighbour who asked him if he'd been up doing the garden that morning. He said, 'no, it was my girlfriend' and the neighbour apparently laid into him saying he 'should be ashamed of himself, him being a big strapping lad n all', and that he was obviuosly being punished for it now as he was being made to do the shopping, blah blah blah.

They'd not even considered that what they were doing was 'wrong', but just what fitted in with their own preferences and abilities.

It's these million little assumptions that make up discrimination and why it's so hard to get rid of, not so much the big bars to entry, but the niggling picky shoulds and oughts and can'ts.

Nick said...

You're right Bellulah it's these little everyday assumptions from all the people around us that bog us down and make it more difficult to just be what we feel ourselves to be.

And ironically the 'big strapping lad' was only strapping because boys are brought up to be more muscular than girls. Potentially girls are equally strong, and there are traditional cultures where women have done as much heavy manual work as the men.

Conortje said...

What a great post Nick - makes for many interesting questions. Growing up in Tralee you're written off at an early age if you don't like soccer that being the how masculinity is measured. Over in the Netherlands there is much less male pride and nobody seems to have to prove themselves as they do in Ireland. Men are much more comfortable with themselves here it would seem.

Nick said...

Yes that's the impression I got when I was in Amsterdam - that men were more relaxed about their identity, and also more relaxed with women and with other men. Is there some vital difference in the way men there are brought up? Is gender identity seen as less important?

Medbh said...

I don't believe that any individual is either totally masculine or feminine, not can we rely on what those things even mean since they are culturally constructed and imposed on us before we're even born. There are no absolutes to the idea of gender.
It's encouraging to hear that your unwillingness to be an apologist for men who behave badly. That's right, Nick, you don't have to do it! You measure someone's behavior and ethics not their genitalia. Coalitional politics based on justice and human rights ahould be the goal rather than falling back on male privilege (or class or race).

Nick said...

I don't think it's clear why men and women behave in certain ways, whether it's nature or nurture. I doubt if we can ever totally disentangle them. But what's important is that men and women should be able to behave in the way that comes naturally to them, and not according to someone else's sexual stereotype.

Caro said...

Gender roles are very clearly defined in Italy. The Italian's friends think he's nuts for (sometimes) doing the cleaning as none of them have ever washed a floor in their lives. One of the first things I did when we moved in together was show him how the washing machine works. I've been berated by his grandmother for not ironing his work clothes (he's a mechanic) - I told her if he wanted them ironed (which he doesn't) he could do it himself. It didn't go down too well.

And whenever we're out, I either get filthy looks if I drink as much as the boys (even if the boys aren't drinking much) or people will pass it off with a "well she is foreign"...

Nick said...

Hi Caro, long time no see. Yes I gathered gender roles were still sharp in Italy but I'm still shocked at some of your examples. Ironing his work clothes??

I thought of you the other day when I was reading a letter in La Repubblica replying to the FT article on 'il trionfo di veline e donne nude in Italia'. Mila Spicola said the real problem was the rigid gender roles in Italy which meant women were only seen as beautiful and stupid or ugly and competent. Even though Mica has two degrees, two masters degrees and a research doctorate, men still value her backside (fondoschiena) over her professional knowledge. Pathetic.

Conortje said...

I think it must be how they are brought up - also I think differences are generally encouraged or are seen as normal. This trend is begining to change slightly though now with the famous Dutch 'tollernce'beginning to wane somewhat.

Caro said...

I hate to admit it but it's true. Physical appearance is extremely highly valued in Italy (especially in women), over and above everything else. I once shared a flat with a 33 year old Italian who had a degree in law and worked for a holding company in Milan. She earned a fortune, dressed impeccably, had a perfect figure and spent hours each day in the bathroom and had a specific cream for every square inch of her body. I never saw her eat anything other than frozen vegetables and yoghurt. Then one day I came home to find her in tears because the hairdresser had bleached her hair too blonde, and she'd made him dye it a bit darker to compensate. She was crying because the result was too dark and her boyfriend "doesn't like brunettes" and had even offered to sue the hairdresser on her behalf (he was a lawyer). She was actually afraid he would leave her because her hair was too dark. I told her it was really nice (it was) and that it suited her, and if he didn't like it to mandargli a fare in culo. She kicked me out about a week later.

Nick said...

Con - interesting that differences are generally encouraged. So why is tolerance beginning to wane - is it a backlash to the easy availability of things like drugs and prostitution or something else?

Caro - a totally incredible story. Its suggests to me that strict gender roles are partly control freakery - the desire to control every tiny aspect of your life to the nth degree. More amazing stories like this in your blog please! Note to English speakers: mandargli etc roughly equals 'go and f*** yourself'.

Wisewebwoman said...

I've been offline due to guests and demands.
Incredible post, Nick, so thought provoking.
I thoroughly despise labels of any kind, they are so confining.
Society is obsessed with them whether gay/straight/Christian/female/male and don't get me started on colour/ethnicity.
Drives me nuts. It is so unimportant and stops us being our authentic selves.

Nick said...

As you say, labels are so confining - anything that doesn't immediately fit into the formula is seen as odd or unacceptable. And here of course there's Protestant and Catholic to add yet more restrictions.