Just recently, a rather contentious issue was examined at this website, concerning the design of another website for male studies. I was struck by the high level of “Hot debate” comments underneath the article, as well as the large number of comments themselves.
I do not wish to reexamine the issue of whether or not that other website’s design can be considered masculine, gay-centered, feminine, or even whether Paul should have written the article in question. I think that Paul’s decision to end the debate on a high note is sufficient. However, I do think that many of the points mentioned by numerous commenters are worth exploring in a different vein. One comment in particular, by the writer whose article sparked the whole debate, is definitely worth closer examination. Jack Donovan is under the impression that the word “masculinity” has lost its meaning.
I am not interested here in delving into Donovan’s mind, or creating more hot debate. If such disagreement arises again, so be it. But I will take issue here with definitions, meanings, usage, and our society’s tendency to destroy, whether intentionally or not, a wonderful word like “masculinity.”
But first, some music.
Below are two audio selections from the orchestral repertoire. If you are a classical fan, you may recognize one or both of these works, so my little experiment may not work so well for you. If you are not a classical fan, don’t worry: Both examples are two minutes or less. Simply listen and tell me which piece was written by a man, and which was written by a woman:
It seems fairly obvious, doesn’t it? Musical Example 1 is soft, slow, with long, drawn-out notes played by the strings, a delicate harp playing descending modal scales, and the whole of the work sounds rather sad or forlorn. For a piece such as this to be expressed well, an attention to fine details and an intuitive grasp of emotional expression is required. Are these not the qualities we normally associate with the feminine?
Musical Example 2 is loud, harsh, exciting, violent, and tremendously difficult to play. It requires an orchestra at the top of their form, each player a virtuoso. It is commanding and demanding. It makes you sit up and take notice. (It is also, incidentally, my favorite piece of music of all time.) I would argue, and I’m sure most would agree, that these are qualities we normally associate with the masculine.
I’m sure you realize where my little experiment is headed. You may be thinking that I want you to think that Musical Example 1 was written by a woman, and Musical Example 2 was written by a man. The more perceptive reader would probably anticipate that I’m up to something, and that there is some sort of trick being played here.
The more perceptive reader is correct. I did play a trick. Neither piece was written by a woman. They were both written by a man. A single composer: Igor Stravinsky.
These two brief examples help to explain why I think Stravinsky was one of the three greatest composers of all time. Granted, that’s an opinion, and can never be more than that. But it can also never be more than my opinion that the first example, from the ballet “Orpheus,” and that the second example, from Stravinsky’s earth-shattering, landmark masterpiece, “The Rite of Spring,” are both an exploration of the masculine.
Just because I assert that the above is merely my opinion does not mean that “masculinity” is ultimately meaningless, or that it is always thus symbolized in music and art. I think that much of what is normally or traditionally associated with the masculine is merely perception, and nothing more. That’s not such a bad thing.
The masculine, as it is represented in “Rite,” is indeed violent. The final whirlwind during the finale is, again in my opinion, the single most violent passage of music ever written for orchestra. By the time the ballet is finished, The Chosen One has been chosen, and she will be sacrificed by the men (with the blessing, of course, of the surviving women of the tribe) to appease the gods of spring. Was Stravinsky a misandrist? I have never seen any evidence of that.
To the contrary, the way that the masculine is represented in the ballet “Orpheus” seems to indicate that Stravinsky understood something about masculinity that I like to think I understand. The title of Musical Example 1 is actually “Orpheus weeps for Eurydice,” who was his wife, according to legend. Here we have a heterosexual man with the ability, through the normally feminine-associated arts, to charm nature, and to sensitively explore deep-rooted emotion. Was Stravinsky a poof? Hardly. (Although Tchaikovsky was. And if you choose to follow that wonderfully funny link, you will hear a segment of the most violent part of his final work. This is the same Tchaikovsky that wrote the intricately delicate and beautiful “Nutcracker.”)
Does this mean that “masculinity” has no meaning, since these two pieces of music are so divergent? To the contrary. But would there be any problem with going back to original meaning? Perhaps, because it’s also true that many of the words we use have evolved over time, making original intent impossible. Sometimes, political considerations are responsible. It is my view that the word “liberal” was hijacked some decades ago by a political ideology that is far from liberal. There is even an argument currently en vogue within the anarchist community as to whether or not we should try salvaging the word itself, or move on to calling ourselves “voluntaryists” or “abolitionists.” There are good arguments to be had on both sides.
There is also the consideration that what normally falls under the heading of a particular term has changed to such a degree that the definition has to be reduced. In keeping with the musical examples I have proffered, I can safely say that this has happened with the term “music.”
I am quite certain that the definition of “music” used to mean: “Sounds that are deliberately organized for the human voice and/or musical instruments, where such organization leads to a harmonious outcome.” If you listen again to the example above from “The Rite of Spring,” you may think that it doesn’t qualify as music, if you were to go by this definition. It is true that the twentieth century brought about such an explosion in ideas, genres, styles, and attitudes, that the above definition simply won’t work any longer. Therefore, I believe that the definition of music at this point is probably: “Sounds that are deliberately organized for the sake of their sonorous qualities alone.”
Therefore, we basically have three options with the word “masculinity,” as I see it:
- Declare the word to be meaningless, and weep like Orpheus.
- Fight for the original meaning.
- Strip down the meaning to its bare essentials, and stand for that no matter what.
I see no point in Option Number One.
I see very little point in Option Number Two, because there are numerous things about “original meaning,” depending on the individual or group of individuals who stand for that meaning, that would count people like me out of the realm of what is “masculine.” In fact, I think that in modern-day America, perceptions of manhood are so far askew as to leave a great many heterosexual men out in the cold as well. I believe that feminism and misandry are only partly to blame. There are also various systems of coercion in place doing their part, many of which were in existence long before modern-day feminists sank their talons into those systems. There are also non-coercive elements to blame, such as the consumer culture; and there are developments that have been a positive boon to humanity, such as the Industrial Revolution, which has altered every single aspect of human existence beyond recognition from ancient times, yet has presented us with challenges that I don’t think we have completely addressed. To go back to some ancient form of masculine existence or an outdated definition is simply out of the question; therefore, original meaning has very little use in a Post-Industrial, Post-Enlightenment, Information Age.
The option for me, even if I go it alone, is Number Three, to strip the word down to its bare essentials, and to grow it from there, with equal amounts of love, freedom, truth, and peace. Here, in my view, is the bare, essential, pure, fundamental meaning of “masculinity”:
The existence of manhood; and the perception, recognition, and application of reality through it.
It is my considered opinion that both musical examples above fit nicely within this definition, as both were written by one who existed in manhood, and who perceived, recognized, and applied the principles of the universe in which he lived to create his music. His contribution is different from a football player’s, from Jack Donovan’s, from mine, and from every other man who ever walked upon this earth, or whoever will, but it is still masculine.
The key, as I see it, is to take that basic definition, own it like you own manhood, and walk in whatever direction your volition takes you, so long as you’re not causing harm to anyone else. Always remember that your face, body, musculature, brain, and various internal organs, even if women possess many of the same, are unique to men in the way that they have been affected by your masculine genetic code, and the attendant hormones surging through your masculine body. We can travel the world and recognize men, distinct from women. We have always been able to do this. We always will.
As I said in my first comment on Paul’s hotly debated article, I have no problem with effeminate men. The reasons why I have no problem with them are, first of all, because “effeminate,” like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder; secondly because, as I hinted in that comment, I had numerous positive experiences with effeminate men in group therapy. Without getting into detail, let me tell you of a singular experience I had where the transformation began:
I had put up with these guys for several weeks when I first started in the group. As I saw it at that time, the “girliness” was out of control. It irked me to no end. I did not like these boys at all.
At some point, I finally got up the nerve to voice my concerns. I remember Randy (not his real name) finally sat still, looked me directly in the eye, took me seriously for once, and asked me numerous direct but inoffensive questions about my feelings. As I returned his gaze and spoke about what I was feeling, I could feel the resentment leaving, and a bond forming. I admitted it openly at the time, and the group seemed to be appreciative.
Over the next several months, or perhaps it was longer than a year, this group of men became my lifeline, my outlet, my anchor, and my friends. They were the genuine article. (Turns out that they all loved Madeline Kahn as much as I did.) I wasn’t the only masculine entity walking around on that campus that initially dismissed them as less-than-manly. I’m sure I am not the last to have been proven wrong. The masculine qualities these guys expressed were different than most. But there was no mistaking that each of them had a penis and testicles, and that the unavoidable, external acknowledgement of the possession of those members, along with the internal surging of testosterone, had its influence on their behavior and their manly bodies. None of these guys wore a dress. None of these guys wanted a sex change. None of them was under the impression that he wasn’t really a man. Unhappy, yes. (Just look at the religion each of them felt compelled to swear allegiance to.) But masculinity was not in question for them.
To embrace a stripped-down, fundamental definition of “masculinity” is not destructive of anything worth saving. It is merely to ask the question, “Have we been wrong all along?” In some ways, I think we have. We separate boys from men during the most crucial years of their development, right up until they’re ready to leave the fiery confusion of puberty. Once these “boys” are 18, they know next to nothing about paying bills, holding down a job, starting a business, getting a mortgage, screwing or drinking responsibly, what to watch out for as their bodies start aging, starting a family, taking care of babies, how to be on guard against dangerous women, or what on earth “misandry” means. We can give them automatic weapons when they’re 18, however, and cross our fingers that they don’t get their legs blown off. Well done, America.
Masculinity, whether we choose to define it or not, will continue. It’s natural law. What is required at this point in time is not to abandon the word, any more than I think we ought to abandon the word “honor.” What will benefit us the most is understanding, whenever we encounter it, those aspects of manhood that have been left behind, ignored, derided, or simply misunderstood.
I would also propose to all women out there that the definition of “femininity” be reduced similarly, for the benefit of people like me, who care about words and their definitions, and who are on occasion utterly fascinated with the feminine. However, if the word “feminism” simply meant a pre-concern with the problems of women, then I would consider myself a masculinist, ever since I started reading about men’s issues in the mid-90s. Unfortunately, that’s not what feminism is. It cannot be reduced to a feel-good definition like what I have proposed. Its track record is far too deadly. With all the damage it has already done, it would be a shame if a few well- or ill-intentioned individuals have the final say on a wonderful, mysterious, and highly beneficial word like “masculinity.” As long as I feel that I embody some aspect of the term, I ain’t gonna let that happen.
B.R. Merrick writes for “Strike The Root” and “A Voice for Men,” lives in the Northeast, is proud to be a classical music reviewer at Amazon.com and iTunes, and in spite of the poisonous nature of television, God Himself will have to pry his DVDs of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” out of his cold, dead hands, under threat of eternal damnation.