By creating a specialized vocabulary to differentiate between men who behave femininely and women who behave femininely, we’ve created a divide that prohibits the acceptance of gender difference in our culture, says Drew Bowling.
One of my favorite things to rant about whenever I’m at the grocery store is the deodorant aisle. Our entire culture of gendered, misguided language is strangely all represented there in a microcosm of products to rub under our armpits.
On the left, we have an array of pastel selections with gentle names that sound more like mood therapies, like Secret and Everlasting Sunshine and Ooh-la-la Lavender (no, I didn’t make that one up). Opposite these calm, non-aggressive brands of deodorant are shelves upon shelves of deodorant displaying bolder colors of black and charcoal gray and revolutionary red. They boast names like Aqua Impact and Extreme Blast and Phoenix.
It doesn’t take highly sophisticated statistics computations to ascertain which of these products are marketed to women, and which are marketed to men. Men must be determined and bold, swollen with power worthy of mythical creatures. Women, on the other hand, are soft and fair. However, beneath the deeply sexist marketing language of something as simple-minded as deodorant, we get a glimpse of what straight men have been taught to fear the most in our culture: effeminacy.
Men in our culture are so terrified of being accidentally feminine that entirely new versions of perfectly fine products are created so as to preserve their all-important masculinity. This absurd habit of mindless self-preservation is all over our culture, too. Recently, I read about this brand of yogurt called Powerful Yogurt, which Grub Street has appropriately labeled as “brogurt” due to its not-so-novel marketing pitch as “a new Greek yogurt specifically suited to address the unique health and nutrition needs of the most neglected consumers in the category: men.”
It’s no secret that this gender-branding is all over our material culture. However, more troublesome for me has been the constant growth of our vocabulary of portmanteaus whose sole purpose is to preclude any guess that hetero men may be anything other than exactly hetero.
We’ve been creating these illusions with our language for quite some time now. One that I recall seeing in celebrity tabloids for a while is “manorexia,” which describes a man who suffers from anorexia. I imagine this neologism was born from the fact that anorexia is traditionally seen as problem exclusively associated with women. Therefore, manorexia tells us that this man is merely anorexic, and not at risk of losing his masculinity, since he suffers from an illnesses that is culturally indexed as feminine. He has an illness, sure, but it’s an illness that isn’t a result of him acting in feminine ways.
Manorexia is merely the tip of the iceberg in this land of gender reassignment vocabulary. “Murse” is another one, which I’ve learned can refer either to a male nurse, or a purse carried by a man. “Manny,” as in a male nanny. “Manscaping,” which refers to the habit of men trimming or shaving their body hair, namely their pubic hair. “Man crush” and “man date” are fairly similar, both connoting that a straight man is excited about spending time with another straight man. But since it affixes the word “man” at the beginning, we can be assured that no accidental homosexuality should be inferred from these occasions.
We’re so clever and interested in preserving masculinity that we’ve even created a complex for men who worry about not being manly enough: “manxiety.”
Whether it’s something so trivial like the color of packaging your deodorant comes in, or it’s something as grave as a mental illness that can kill you, why are we so bent on “manning” certain aspects of our lives and culture so that we don’t unintentionally make straight men feel less masculine for being or doing things that are traditionally femininely coded? The question here isn’t really so much why we feel the need to re-codify these constructs in masculine language so as to make them more comfortable for men. Rather, if you’re a heterosexual man, why is it so terrible to express or exhibit historically feminine behaviors?
In the interest of full disclosure, I have a fairly nice suite of MAC makeup that I’ve compiled over the years. I wore it more then than I do now, but some makeup has served its purpose more often than others. For instance, I’m nearly 32, yet for some reason that I can’t really explain, still get acne breakouts that would put my worst puberty-era breakouts to shame. My solution to this has been to use concealer, mostly because I find it unspeakably undignified to have both gray hairs and acne.
My epidermal vanity trumps any and all devotion I have to maintaining my own masculinity, which ungracefully brings me around to my second point: What exactly is masculinity (or, for that matter, femininity)?
However you may answer that question, and no matter how varicolored your definitions of gender may be, in the end, you cannot escape the fact that we simply made them up.
We made up masculinity.
We made up femininity.
You’d think that since we made up these gender constructs that we’d also be willing to play along in the reality where we could re-define them, or even re-evaluate the amount of vested power these constructs have over us. But instead of trying to push those boundaries, or even eradicate them altogether, we’ve opted to foster a culture that dictates that anything Other is naturally to be feared and reviled.
With this in mind, if we are teaching boys that any activity or behavior that might be effeminate is cultural venom, what impressions are we giving them about women, who are concurrently taught to be feminine?
If we’re teaching men that it’s terrible to act feminine, the lesson exchanged is that the feminine is lesser and inferior. If the feminine is how women are taught to behave, the opinion shaped through the male lens is that the women/feminine is not our equal. More than this, we’re also implying that the feminine is unsafe to the heterosexual male. It’s a threat to masculinity, hence the weak preservation of masculinity through words like “murse” and “man date.”
By teaching boys/men that the feminine is to be avoided and worthy of our derision, then it’s not too far of a leap until we’re beginning to understand the amount of violence that men unleash on women. It’s not too far of a leap to imagine why our culture still resists paying women a salary on par with what men earn. Women are feminine, and femininity isn’t respected as much as men’s masculinity.
Additionally, the notion that femininity is perceived as a threat to the straight man’s masculinity can also be seen in the manifestation of homophobia. Beyond regarding the women/feminine as not equal, the male/feminine construct is seen as a threat because it’s transgressive. As a result, the quest to preserve heterosexual masculinity dictates that anybody who is feminine, whether female or male, is something to regard as less-than and, unfortunately, worthy of prejudice and scorn.
Greater acceptance of anyone who desires to explore any and all points of the gender spectrum would help normalize behaviors that bleed outside of the rigid gender lines we’ve drawn around ourselves and others. It would help teach that difference is not only acceptable, but encouraged.
If we’d put as much effort into accepting a more open, relaxed idea of gender, instead of protecting and restricting gender boundaries like we do now, I’d like to think that the bigotry that haunts most non-masculine people would hasten its disappearance from our culture.
Beyond that, if traditional masculinity is so fragile that it can be shaken or shattered merely by the mutual excitement that two heterosexual men get from spending time together, or even by toting along a very practical purse, is it really worth clinging to so desperately?
Ironically, by creating a specialized vocabulary to differentiate between men who behave femininely and women who behave femininely, we’ve created a divide that actually prohibits any experience or acceptance of gender difference in our culture. Using words like “manorexia” or “murse” may seek to preserve a man’s masculinity, but it does so at the cost of reinforcing the straight man’s belief that femininity is different and, therefore, wrong.
Drew Bowling is a writer, erstwhile photographer, and highly decorated factotum living somewhere in the United States. His writing lingers on language, gender, mental health, and occasional raves about outer space. Keep up with his fancy musings over on Twitter.