We Should Stop Asking If Men Are Manly Enough

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Chanel Dubofsky says enough with the “enoughness” questions surrounding gender roles.

The New York Times Room for Debate topic this past week invited folks to weigh in on the question of “Are Modern Men Manly Enough,” and frankly, I can’t believe we’re still asking this. The concept of evolving gender roles remains so threatening that it requires aggressive policing? It’s frightening that men might be interested in activities like “manscaping” (waxing, grooming, except, you know, done by men), because that’s something ladies do, which illumines a few things about the question itself.

It’s only women who care about their appearances, of course, and we know the consequences of being a woman who doesn’t (hint: it sounds like “thespian”). In his debate response, “We Need Nuance, Not Lumberjacks,” Mark Simpson asks, “Would we dream of asking: ‘Are modern women womanly enough?’” I’m afraid we would, and we do. The recent discussion around whether women can have it all is essentially a question of whether or not women should be allowed to have multiple, complicated desires and roles. The ongoing argument around access to basic women’s health care (read: contraception) is actually an argument about whether or not we can trust women to decide their own fate, coming into direct conflict with what’s believed to be the “nature” of women, motherhood, regardless of circumstance.

The fact that the interrogation into the “enoughness” of gender role portrayal is an example of how sexism is harmful to everyone—men, women, and folks who identify all across the gender spectrum. The traditional male script calls for, among other things, steering clear of showing one’s feelings, or actually even feeling them, while women are imagined and portrayed as being consistently incapable of controlling emotions, making us totally inept at performing in the world. The anxiety around men moving outside prescribed gender behavior is deeply rooted in homophobia (which Simpson also points out). The idea that men would behave in a manner in which women behave is deeply troubling in a culture of misogyny, where the worst thing someone can possibly be is a woman. If you transgress your gender assignment and start doing things that  “women do,” like go to the spa, what’s next? Getting penetrated by another dude? Terrifying, destabilizing, civilization disrupting. (I didn’t come up with this idea, by the way, but it is an appropriate tool for this context.)

Sexism keeps us nailed into our boxes, and when we step outside of these boxes, the result is fear, loathing, and backlash. The question isn’t actually, “Are men manly enough,” or “Are women attracted to men who aren’t macho,” but are we prepared to deal with what it means when the boundaries of gender become (more) porous?

The response, at least in this situation, seems to be to ask if ladies could possibly be attracted to men who like pedicures, emotions, and conversation, or if this kind of non-traditionally masculine behavior is completely unpalatable. I suspect the answer to the question is as complicated as we fear gender might be—and what will we do then?

Chanel Dubofsky is a writer in Brooklyn, New York, and the creator and editor of the Marriage Project, an interview series about marriage in imagination and reality. She has published essays in the Forward, Tablet, Gender Focus and The Pursuit of Harpyness, and fiction at Monkey Bicycle, Matchbook and Quick Fiction. She blogs at Diverge (www.idiverge.wordpress.com).

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