4 min read

Becoming a Manly Man 💪

Becoming a Manly Man 💪
From Taylor Swift's 'The Man'
If you're new here - hello! I'm Nishant, and this is The Balcony, my weekly newsletter about philosophy and adulting. If someone sent this to you, you can sign up here.

If you had told 19-year-old Nishant that in a few years, he'd be at the gym strength training and drinking protein shakes, you'd see his face lose colour. Something had to have gone horribly wrong.

For the 19-year-old reading about patriarchy and power structures, the idea of masculinity was disgusting. He had no intention of ever relating to being a 'man'. He preferred being just a person, living out his life and emotions outside of the constraints of gender (a privilege afforded to him by his gender, I should add).

I talk about him in the past tense as if that's all changed. It hasn't. What has happened is only that I've started working out regularly. I have a little bit of muscle to show for it now, and it's brought up an important question: am I becoming a man?

Tempted by masculinity

Building my body has made it harder to claim a lack of affinity to gender roles. When I look in the mirror, there seems to be no way to relate to my muscles outside the framework of masculinity. I'm starting to look 'manly'.

What's more unsettling is that I'm not entirely resistant to the idea. I confess that I've felt the need for a little masculinity. I have gone through life till now as a feeble boy, always smiling so as to not offend anybody. I have stored up complaints against people, only for them to resurface later in cowardly forms. I have avoided conflict, at times resorting to lying to avoid uncomfortable conversations.

Despite my knowing better, it feels like some masculinity is just what the doctor ordered. Be a man. Don't be a pushover. Don't avoid conflict. Communicate your needs. Radiate strength, not weakness. I feel the gender role creeping up on me, and I'm anxious about letting it do so without examining it.

What's wrong with masculinity?

If strength becomes my norm, what happens to vulnerability? If I want to feel power, then over who, and on what grounds? I had an inkling that these are questions investigated deeply in feminist theory, so I spent some time looking for answers.

'In the matter of conformity patriarchy is a governing ideology without peer,' Kate Millett writes in Sexual Politics, 'it is probable that no other system has exercised such complete control over its subjects.' I had started to feel this control. Quietly but surely, the idea of masculinity had caught up to me while I wasn't looking, starting to capture more and more of my identity.

I went into the text, though, wanting to remind myself of why masculinity was problematic. Despite a rigorous liberal arts education, I had forgotten. Millett reminded me:

The basic division of temperamental traits is marshalled along the lines of 'aggressive is masculine' and 'passive is feminine' ... If aggressiveness is the trait of the master class, docility must be the corresponding trait of the subject group.

The problem with masculinity, of course, is that it defines itself in opposition to femininity, and there's a power dynamic built into the definition: men as strong and women as feeble. That is the problem with becoming masculine. It might seem harmless in isolation: what's wrong with being a little aggressive? It's when you examine what it's contrasted against–femininity—that the gaping flaws start to become visible.

Strength without masculinity

I want to be strong. I don't want to be strong in contrast to women. Relating to masculinity, though, makes it so that I cannot escape the opposition. If I need to get a little more assertive, it cannot be through claiming ownership of a gender role with a skewed power dynamic built in.

Admittedly, this is a messy position to be in. I find myself wondering if strength can be rid of its gender connotation and pursued as a virtue in and of itself. One of the appeals of having physical strength, at least for me, is the hope that it also translates into spiritual strength.  

I'm constantly afraid of what others might think, and whether I might offend them. I get tense when I'm near any sort of conflict. I am starting to wonder if I may have underestimated the role that a weak body plays in that disposition. I'm waging that a little self-assuredness in my ability to defend myself physically will translate to the same assuredness in my emotional self.  

I am not settled on this yet, and I come to you this week a bit messier than usual. If you have experience or thoughts about the conundrum that is masculinity, feel free to write back. I'd love to hear from you.

📖 What to read this week

Since this edition is about gender and contradictions, I thought there was nothing better to recommend than a chapter from Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay:

I am failing as a woman. I am failing as a feminist. To freely accept the feminist label would not be fair to good feminists. If I am, indeed, a feminist, I am a rather bad one. I am a mess of contradictions.

I want to be independent, but I want to be taken care of and have someone to come home to. I have a job I'm pretty good at. I am in charge of things. I am on committees. People respect me and take my counsel. I want to be strong and professional, but I resent how hard I have to work to be taken seriously, to receive a fraction of the consideration I might otherwise receive. Sometimes I feel an overwhelming need to cry at work, so I close my office door and lose it.
Roxane Gay: the bad feminist manifesto
She wants to be independent – and taken care of. She loves rap, while finding the lyrics offensive to the core. In this extract from her latest book, a ‘flawed’ feminist reveals all