JOHN EBIMOBOWEI YESEIBO, Ph.D
DEPARTMENT OF THEATRE AND FILM STUDIES
FACULTY OF HUMANITIES
UNIVERSITY OF PORT HARCOURT
PHONE NUMBER: +2348037058079
This paper interrogates the value judgment the culture applies to the concepts of masculinity and femininity and how the former is hegemonized over the latter. The author aligns with widely held views that gender – masculinity and femininity is a social construction that is diverse, variable and dependent on historical circumstance. Gender traits that are conceived to constitute what is masculine and what is feminine in temperament and behavior are largely, if not all, social constructs that are generated by the pervasive patriarchal biases of our civilization. The author therefore is of the opinion that, since gender is a construct, it can be reconstructed in a culture that evidently is in a state of flux. Gender is not invariant and fixed but malleable and flexible. Gender is fluid, it is this quality of fluidity that Kate Bornstein attributes to as “the ability to freely and knowingly become one or many of a limitless number of genders for any length of time, at any rate of change.”
Keywords: Masculinity, Femininity, Gender Traits, Social Construction, Patriarchal, Fluid, Hegemonized.
MASCULINITY AND FEMININITY: SHIFTING GENDER IDENTITIES WITHIN A DYNAMIC CULTURAL CONTEXT
Masculinity and femininity, broadly speaking are a set of attitudes, roles, norms of behavior, hierarchy of values typical of the male and female sex in each specific society. The concepts of masculinity and femininity are multiple like other gender categories. While masculinity is power, masculinity is also terrifyingly fragile because it does not really exist in the sense we are led to think it exists, that is, as a biological reality … it exists as ideology; it exists as scripted behaviour; it exists within gendered relationships. This is because the male gender is constructed around at least two conflicting characterizations of the essence of manhood. First, being a man is natural, healthy and innate. But second, a man must stay masculine. He should never let his masculinity falter. Masculinity is so valorized, so prized, and its loss such a terrible thing that one must always guard against losing it. (R. W. Connell 4). Ideas about femininity are associated with the private sphere and with traits that suggest passivity and subordination; ideas about masculinity, on the contrary, are associated with the public sphere, and with authority and dominance.
Morell posits that men have multiple ways of performing masculinity. Performing masculinity is both about men making and remaking masculinity, and it is also about challenging hegemonic masculinity and reconstructing it. An examination of masculinity shapes the lives of men and the social world in general. David .D.Gilmore in his “Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity”, describes masculinity as “the approved way of being an adult male in any given society” (qtd in Haralambos and Holborn, 143) He claims that “culture uses or exaggerates biological potential in specific ways. He identifies three features of masculinity thus:
Man the impregnator
Man the provider
Man the protector: men must be able to protect their women and children from other men and any threats which might arise. The Tahitian concept of masculinity does not require men to act as providers and protectors. There is little need for men to take physical risks since there is no warfare, and there are few dangerous occupations. The lagoon offers a plentiful supply of fish, so risky deep-sea fishing is not necessary. (144)
Eve Kosofsky’s book, “Between Men: English Literature and Male Desire” is an incisive expose on the nature and plurality of masculinities. The book proposes that there is a large “homosexual spectrum” of male-to-male bondings, ranging from fierce rivalry through a variety of relationships in families, friendships, and all-male societies and organizations, to patently erotic desires and intimacies; she also held that these relationships were crossed, concealed, or distorted by a pervasive homophobia – the fear that one’s bondings to other men, whatever its type, should appear to be homosexual to oneself as well as to other people. (qtd in Abrams, 133-4)
Types of Masculinity:
R.W. Connell identifies two types of masculinity namely hegemonic and gentry masculinities. Hegemonic masculinity: is the form of masculinity that claims and tries to maintain a dominant influence over social life. Heterosexuality is a form of hegemonic masculinity most often or always places homosexual masculinity in a position of subordination. Gentry masculinity: Under this form of masculinity, men had domestic authority over women and were largely free to pursue affairs with women other than their wives. (qtd in Haralambos and Holborn 147)
In the late nineteenth century, hegemonic masculinity succeeded in defining homosexuality as a deviant subordinate form of masculinity. Homosexual conduct was criminalized and began to be seen as males engaging in feminized or bestial behavior. (148) In the words of Connell, “it is obvious that from the world of the films and by extension in context, that men demonstrate “contemptuous misogyny in which women are treated basically as disposable receptacles for semen.” (148) According to Connell, “the choice of a man as sexual object is not just the choice of a body-with-penis, it is the choice of embodied-masculinity. The cultural meanings of masculinity, are part of the package.” He says that ‘young people’s’ sexuality is a field of possibilities, not a deterministic system. He does not believe that some men are predestined to be homosexual and others heterosexual. Both types of sexuality are ‘produced by specific practices.’ They come from the bodily experience of sex, which develops into a sexual closure in which one type of sexuality is chosen above the other. ) Laura kramar identifies four culturally dominant versions of masculinity; the “No Sissy stuff” which emphasizes manliness as the opposite of assumed feminine qualities, especially openness and vulnerability. “the Big Wheel” is the successful, achieving man. “The Sturdy Oak” is strong, self-confident, and independent. The “Give’Em Hell” man is aggressive, violent, and daring. (28)
I.S. Kon posits that hegemonic masculinity is not a property of a certain male, but a specified socio-cultural normative canon, to which men and boys are geared. This normative structure gives the location on the top of the gender hierarchy to a boy or a man who supposedly possesses these properties and shares these values. Masculinity of accessories or ‘accessory masculinity’ is a behavior model of those men who take no efforts to occupy a hegemonic position because of a lack of strength or desire. Natural masculinity is life in compliance with a male habitus, in which different restrictions imposed by hegemonic masculinity are lifted. This implies recognition of a right to emotionality, a right of a male to be unconfident, worried about the future, and an opportunity of a different attitude to family and children. Inversion masculinity is life in compliance with a habitus of self-doubt, low degree of personal autonomy, lack of independence in views and behavior, conformity. Men possessing this type have numerous characteristics conflicting in content and behavior with female patterns of behavior. (4)
On the basis of consumption and not power, other forms of masculinity can also be delineated. Models of masculinity such as metro-sexual and uber-sexual fall into this mould. Metrosexual masculinity is expressed in a life style of a man focused on constant care about himself. Such men have refined taste, are sophisticated in manners and clothes. A typical representative of metrosexual masculinity is a well-to-do young man living in a large city, where there are fashion designers’ shops, night clubs, fitness centres and beauty parlors. Ubersexual masculinity has a content close to that of metrosexual masculinity. The former is more interested in relations than in himself. He is more sensual. He clothes for himself, not for the others, choosing a certain personal style, not a fashion. Like the latter, the former enjoys shopping, but his approach is more focused. He buys specific things that match the things he already has, but does not turn shopping into pleasure. His best friends are men. He does not consider women to be “nice guys” in life. (4)
The behaviours labeled as masculine and feminine actually vary from one culture to the another, and within a culture they vary over time, supporting the view that gender is socially constructed. The patriarchal essence of a culture is rarely badly stated; rather, it is understood as natural and inevitable. Powerful groups dominate in part, by creating and perpetuating a set of cultural beliefs and practices that legitimate their power. This hegemony or domination, is usually invisible. (Doyle and Paludi 24)
Variants of Femininity:
Normative femininity corresponds to the female habitus with orientation to female values that are deemed traditional in the public conscience. Family and maternity belong to these in the first place. All models of female behavior are built in accordance with these values. The orientation to family and maternity in one way or another, impacts on the traits of character: conformity, empathy, kindness, simplicity, carefulness. Infantile femininity: Females of this type take the initiative in their hands, try to occupy an active leader position and be self-sufficient. Absence of conformity, desire to control other people, lack of empathy, elements of intolerance can be observed in the traits of character. The main feature of infantile femininity is that family and maternity values are not at all dominating. Inversion femininity: Females with this type of femininity possess excessive masculinization. It is life in compliance with a habitus of independence, sense of purpose, non-conformity, self-confidence, business-like approach, work addiction, professionalism, pride, ambitiousness, aggressiveness, competiveness (including that with men). Deformed femininity: Females with this type have behavior models that are accompanied by alcohol addiction, drug addiction, child abandonment and other destructive patterns. Androgynous femininity: the behavior models in this type of femininity are characterized by a rather high level of combination of both female and male. Women with androgynous femininity prefer such qualities as even temper and common sense. (Kon 7)
The Concepts of Sex, Gender and Gender Differences
Gender is a fluid concept. Up to the beginning of the 20th century, sex and gender were often interchangeable words, essentially referring to the anatomical difference in genital organization and its behavioural terms. L. Rakow defines gender as “ the culturally constructed organization of biology and social life into particular ways of doing, thinking and experiencing the world”. Gender is insidiously and concretely a part of our being. It influences and is influenced by every facet of being. There is no idea, behavior or process that is gender-free, for all human action is inseparable from gender socialization. (11)
In her “The Implications of Gender Dynamics in Contemporary Nigerian Women’s Drama.” Mabel Evwierhoma posits that Gender is not immutable and culture is central to gender dynamics. According to her, “the interaction between male and female is considered in different ways in different cultures. In Japan it is known as in-yo-do, in China as yin-yang, in Tibet as yab-yum. Gender is important to us because as a concept, it affords us the opportunities to assess roles and behaviours across cultures that are considered acceptable and expected of women and men. (484-5)
Jayanti Basu calls into question the binarism of gender; that is, we are only one or the other gender. Bem’s gender schema theory states that stereotypes are developed on the basis of schema. In Bem’s theory, masculinity and femininity are considered not as two ends of a bipolar continuum, but as two independent dimensions. A person may have a share of both in any combination; those who had high masculine and feminine traits were designated as “psychologically androgynous,” those lacking in both were “undifferentiated.” (qtd in Basu 51) The sociobiological model explains masculine and feminine roles in the society as providing support for women during pregnancy and lactation and maximizing and ensuring scope of paternity for men. (51-2) from the social learning theories, if the implication is that gender is learned, then it can be unlearned. Much of what is known about gender today has been a juxtaposition of medical research and feminist movement, two approaches so radically different that the issue has to be politicized one way or the other. The medical model is founded on the basis of a binary gender system, which requires not only that male and female genitalia are different but that manhood and womanhood are also different.
In his classic 1966 book, The Transsexual Phenomenon, Harry Benjamin stated that “sex is under the belt and gender is above it.” The medical model believes in fixed gender identity. This view, in the opinion of Raymond, may itself be a sociobiological maneuver to technologize the body and perpetuate the correspondence of sex, gender and sexual orientation. Bernice Lott (1990)also concluded that “appearances of gender differences in behavior depends upon social context and particular situational conditions” (qtd in Basu 73)
Judith Butler’s position in her book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, coheres with Simone de Beauvoir’s. Butler argues that gender is not an innate or essential identity, but a contingent and variable construct that mandates a “performance” – that is, a particular set of practices which an individual acquires from the discourse of his social era and strives to enact. Judith Butler assumes gender to be “a multifaceted, fragmented concept, without any spatial or temporal stability.” She conceives of gendered subjectivity “as a history of identifications, parts of which can be brought into play in given contexts and which, precisely because they encode the contingencies of personal history, do not always point back to an internal coherence of any kind” (56)
All the psychological theories of gender are underlined by a commonality; they more or less agree that gender is learned as a constellation of behavioural and affective norms associated with one’s genital characteristics. Most if not all of these theories fail to account for the development of gender fluidity as they see gender exceptionality as the result of a deviant nurturing, as some distortion in one’s early identification. Theories of gender difference refer to theories that describe, explain, and trace the implications of the ways in which men and women are or are not the same in behavior and experience. All theories of gender difference have to confront the problem of what is usually termed “the essentialist argument” : the thesis that the fundamental differences between men and women are immutable. (George Ritzer 458)
J. Pilcher and Whelehan in Key Concepts in Gender Studies hold the unswerving view that: “… the meanings attached to sex differences are themselves socially constructed and changeable, in that we understand them and attach different consequences to these biological ‘facts’ within our own historical contexts.” (57) Gender issues impact on social activities which overflow into political and economic domains. The cultural meaning and significance attached to femaleness and maleness… The study of gender has been used to assess the validity of claims of human sex differences. It has also been used to challenge assertions of biological roots of gendered behavior by testing alternate causal theories (e.g., environmental, learning, cognitive theories) Some students of gender aim to analyze the social organization of female/male relations, elucidating gendered power dynamics and patterns of dominance and subordination. (Jacquelyn White, xxii)
Presenting the case for multiple sexes and gender roles, Judith Lorber points out that in Western societies: “on the basis of genitalia, there are five sexes: unambiguous male, unambiguous female, hermaphrodite, transsexual female-to-male, and transsexual male-to-female; on the basis of object choice, there are three sexual orientations: heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual (all with travestic, sadomasochistic, and fetichistic variations), on the basis of appearance, there are five gender displays: feminine, masculine, ambiguous, cross-dressed as a man, and cross-dressed as a woman (or perhaps only three); on the basis of emotional bonds, there are six types of relationships: intimate friendship, nonerotic love (between parents and children, siblings and other kin, and long-time friends), eroticized love passion, lust, and sexual violence: on the basis of relevant group affiliation, there are ten self-identifications: straight man, lesbian woman, gay man, bisexual woman, bisexual man, transvestite man (perhaps fourteen, if transvestites and transsexuals additionally identify as lesbian and gay. (59)
Doyle and Paludi examined six exceptions to the rule of two gender roles, namely, four among North American Indians (i.e., the berdache, the nadle, the alyha, and the hwame), a group found in India (the hijras), and the xaniths of Oman. According to anthropologists Charles Callender and Lee Kochems, a berdache was: “a person, usually male, who was anatomically normal but assumed the dress, occupations, and behavior of the other sex to effect a change in gender ststus. This shift was not complete; rather, it was a movement toward a somewhat intermediate status that combined social attributes of males and females. The terminology for berdaches defined them as a distinct gender status, designated by special terms rather than by the words “man” or “woman.” Literal translations of these terms often indicate its intermediate nature: halfman-halfwoman, man-woman, would-be woman. (105) The berdache suffered neither scorn nor shame for this gender role. Berdaches generally assumed the occupations of the sex whose attire they wore. For example, men berdaches usually became extremely skilled in sewing and cooking.
Power, especially political and economic power, is at the centre of most explanations of the system. In the words of Reskin, social change can occur through individual agency. Individuals can exercise agency to reinstate or retain old practices.
Among the Navajo and the Mohave Indian tribes, infants born with ambiguous genitals were assigned to the gender role of a nadle who was treated with extreme deference. The nadle wore women’s clothing when engaged in women’s work and men’s clothing when involved with men’s activities. Hunting and warfare were the only two activities prohibited by the nadle. Among the Mohave Indians, two other gender roles were recognized: the alyha and the hwame. A Mohave man who chose to live the life of a woman was called an alyha. In nearly every respect, the male-turned-alyha dressed and acted like a woman; the alyha even mimicked a woman’s menstrual flow by cutting his upper thigh. (qtd in Doyle and Paludi, 106) A woman who wished to live as a man was ceremoniously ushered into her new status as a hwame. The hwame dressed and acted out the masculine gender role, with the xeception of not being permitted to go into battle nor serve in a leadership role. (106)
From the above examples, it could clearly be seen that there were more than two gender roles that a person could live out. And according to E. Blackwood who did an extensive research on these people:
Neither women nor men had an inferior role but rather had power in those spheres of activity specific to their sex. . . . Gender-assigned tasks overlapped considerably among these people. Many individuals engaged in activities that were also performed by the other sex without incurring disfavor. . . . Engaging in such activities did not make a woman masculine nor a man feminine, because, although distinct spheres of male and female production existed, awide range of tasks was acceptable for both sexes. Because there was no need to maintain gender inequalities, notions of power and prestige did not circumscribe the roles.
In northern India we find a group of intersexed males, many of whom undergo ritualized castration called hijras. Anthropologist Serena Nanda who studied this group noted that many function as homosexual prostitutes. Although hijras dress as women they are not seen as women within their social circles. According to Nanda:
Their (hijras) female dress and mannerisms are exaggerated to the point of caricature, expressing sexual overtones that would be considered inappropriate for ordinary women in the roles as daughters, wives, and mothers. Hijra performances are burlesques of female behavior. Much of the comedy of their behavior derives from the incongruity between their behavior and that of traditional women. They use coatse and abusive speech and gestures in opposition to the Hindu ideal of demure and restrained femininity. (38)
The xaniths, found in Oman, are a group of male homosexual prostitutes who dress in gaudy and brightly colored men’s attire. At social gatherings, the xaniths associate with the women (a practice forbidden non-xanith males).
Culture and Shifting Gender Identities in Society
Despite the claims of some that change is not possible – men are men, women are women, that is the way it is, biology is destiny – we believe that behavioral change is possible, as well as vital. It is not in doubt that in recorded history, from one known culture to the other, majority of the world’s cultures have valued men over women and masculine style over feminine.
Will gender play a central role in determining quality of life? Men and women have crossed lines which hitherto seemed impermeable. Though pristine conceptions of gender-appropriate guidelines for living still persists, norms of feminine and masculine behavior are not seen as hard and fast rules. Femininities and masculinities, in both content and their salience, are expected to shift in line with changing dominant political-economic forces. This is inherent in the description of contemporary capitalism by Acker (1999) which she likens to a monster: “it is a monster that mutates with changes in technologies and social organization. How it changes is uncertain, but she maintains that “as the mutations continue, classes change, as do the forms of gender and racial oppression.” (qtd in Laura Krama, 180)
Changes in the norms of socialization and gender may either originate from internalized values or external sources. It is possible to create obstacles that discourage no longer acceptable behaviours, and rewards to encourage desirable ones. New definitions of gender-appropriate behavior should emerge. This idea of the fluidity of gender is what Kate Bornstein (1994) attributes to as “the ability to freely and knowingly become one or many of a limitless number of genders for any length of time, at any rate of change.” This fluidity covers all imaginable areas of existence, identity, love life, sexual orientation, dress, speech, mannerism, and of course, the thinking and feeling processes. (qtd inJayanti Basu, 56).
Since gender fluidity implies detachment of identity from the body and the body from the sexual orientation, the scientific attitude must encourage scrutiny of all alternatives, however impossible or offensive they may apparently seem. Gender fluidity is subversive in tone, and an existential reality, that our culture/s, in their state of flux must embrace. Let us here recall the poignant words of Michel Foucault in his introduction to the published memoirs of a nineteenth-century gender exceptional person, Herculine Barbin: “Do we truly need a true sex? With a persistence that borders on stubbornness, modern Western societies have answered in the affirmative. They have obstinately brought into play this question of a “true sex” in an order of things where one might have imagined that all that counted was the reality of the body and the intensity of its pleasures. (61) In the words of Foucault, “as “true sex” is but an idealistic thought, true gender also is gradually proving to be a utopia. It has served its historical needs more that adequately, and now can happily be dispensed with,”
Let us close our argument of the fluidity of gender with the seminal, supportive and corroborating view of Basu:
The history of knowledge has always been from the fixed to the probabilistic model. We have shifted from the notion of the earth being the centre of the universe to the revolving planet concept; we have accepted that we are standing not on a solid base but on an eternally changing plastic mold of matter; we have learnt to live fuzzy electrons and the now-alive-now-dead Schroedinger’s cat. This is the opportune moment to change the paradigm for studying gender also. One has to recognize that manhood or womanhood is a socially generated fluid concept, not separated by a strict irreversible boundary of imaginary extension of one’s genitalia, but blending, migrating, oscillating, changing its shape, and occasionally dissolving to enable human beings to enjoy a kaleidoscope range of gendered and nongendered experience. (62)
Males and females don’t stop to be representatives of their sexes. It is their behavior models differing from traditional ideas about males and females, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, to a greater or lesser extent, that change. The growing multiplicity of masculinities and femininities is an inarguable reflection of the slow but inevitable change in the gender order at the level of actions and at the level of the structure. This change in the gender order, it is hoped, with time, will result in the harmonious interaction of men and women and formation of the most harmonious type of masculinity and femininity.
Current masculinities and femininities are in a state of flux, as the range of possibilities for properly performing them are rapidly changing due to economic and social conditions and as military service is increasingly visible and respected. (28) Hegemony includes maintaining the aspects of the culture that serve powerful interests. It also involves changing the cultural aspects that challenge prevailing interests. If the interests of the dominant group change, cultural change is likely to follow. The slow rate of cultural change is indicative of the resistance of powerful groups to structural change than some inherent resistance to change in culture itself. Cultural change may also come about because of changes in the distribution of power in the society. Dissatisfied members of the society may mobilize to gain power to bring about the cultural (social structural) changes they seek.
The French cultural theorist Louis Althusser, in his seminal essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, attempts to explain the ways in which people come to be subjected to the dominant ideology – that is, how people come to follow a set of rules and values given to them by a series of mainstream cultural institutions as “the State.” Church and school have traditionally shared ideological values concerning gender as well – the church traditionally placing men in the highest positions of authority (for instance, as priests), and schools traditionally channeling young boys into the more lucrative and prestigious careers in science, medicine, and engineering.
In the view of Althusser, ISAs, because they share ideological values, create a very persuasive set of messages for their culture to consume. Because the church, the media, the school, and the family traditionally give similar messages regarding a woman’s subordinate place in society (for example, in the nunnery, as a sexual object, in the “soft sciences,” in the kitchen), Althusser seems to suggest, people will inevitably come to hold these values to one extent or another. He calls the process in which individuals take up these dominant values “interpellation,” and claims that is a procees we all go through. Althusser, however, fails to explain how values change over time. If we are all always-already subjects to the dominant ideology, if we are all always-already interpellated, then how can change ever take place? If issues of gender and power are mainly a matter of interpellation, then we may have an obligation to work to change dominant ideological structures as best we can, working to fight against the deleterious gender interpellations they might perpetuate. (74)
Gender is a social construction that is diverse, variable and dependent on historical circumstance. Let me finally conclude this paper by positing that I have modestly interrogated the value judgment the culture applies to the concepts of masculinity and femininity where the former is hegemonized over the latter. Gender is not invariant and fixed as some scholars believe but malleable and flexible.
Gender traits that are conceived to constitute what is masculine and what is feminine in temperament and behavior are largely, if not entirely, social constructs that are generated by the pervasive patriarchal biases of our civilization. As Simone de Beauvoir puts it, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman … it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature … which is described as feminine.” By this cultural process, the masculine in our culture has come to be widely identified as active, dominating, adventurous, rational, creative; the feminine, by systematic opposition to such traits, has come to be identified as passive, acquiescent, timid, emotional, and conventional. (94)
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