The masculine person is not someone going around wearing shoes they cannot walk in for more than a block. The classic masculine pursuits—hunting, fixing a car, throwing a ball—cannot really be performed in heels. The philosopher William James said the masculine virtues have historically derived from going to war or going to work; the Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield says it’s all about confidence in risky situations. Wrong and wrong. The quintessential masculine virtue is simply an unwillingness to put on immobilizing footwear. When you see a masculine person in a physically restricting accessory—straitjacket, leg-irons—you can be fairly confident it’s not voluntary.
From these observable social facts, we derive the insight that a masculine consciousness favors liberty over bondage. Now, the pathways toward human emancipation have never been straightforward. No one would argue that the history of masculinity has not been one of conquest, rape, plunder, and so on: I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture. I’m just pointing out that self-restriction has not typically been masculinity’s default setting. It is, by contrast, femininity’s calling card, and self-hobbling shoes aren’t the half of it. Bodily liberty isn’t nothing, especially when the fractional quotient of it previously possessed by women and other childbearing humans is currently being razored away, state by state.
Which is among the reasons that, if masculinity and femininity are construed as polarities and I had to pick one, masculinity is the preferable option. Ditching the whole conception of binary gender is always an option, but in the current schema, getting the fuck outta Dodge, hitting the open road, or seizing whatever remnants of rebellion you can from the maw of the oppressor and storming the palace—also impossible in heels—remain masculinity’s domain.
Needless to say, masculinity is not only the province of biological men. It’s distributed among the sexes, though perhaps not equally. Plenty of women wear comfortable shoes—even to the office, despite the fact that “power dressing” apparently still demands heels. This very credulity about “power dressing” is the essence of feminine consciousness, in which immobility is empowering and cultivating hotness is a long-term self-marketing strategy. Masculinity may have its downsides, but femininity is civilization’s longest-running scam. When they tie the legs of horses together to stop them from straying, at least they don’t call it “power dressing.”
Now, you may argue that four-inch heels represent the femininity of capitalist patriarchy, and you’d be right. But they’re still a choice, one that the masculine person eschews. I understand that it isn’t beneficial for people identifying as women when femininity is associated with negative traits like self-repression and masculinity with positive ones like freedom. But indictments of masculinity have become so mandatory that you can’t go five minutes without hearing some bien-pensant going on about mansplaining and manspreading. How about a hat tip for masculinity’s salutary daily reminder that at least some forms of surplus repression can be refused?
A memory: Years ago I was at some academic event and ended up at a bar with a woman I didn’t know. She was writing a book about bisexuality, I recall. It was winter, and she was wearing white Levi’s and black boots, which I found daring, having apparently internalized some useless feminine prohibition about which months the wearing of white is permissible. We fell into mutual griping about the bottomless correctitude the feminism of our circles seemed devoted to. So many rules, so many rebukes! Free-range imagination was increasingly regarded as a masculinist operation. What might be called “the feminization of culture” had hardly reached its current apogee—who knew then how mainstream and corporate-liberal the culture patrols would become? At least queer theory was still some small refuge from political propriety, though it too would be overtaken by sensitivity police.
Somehow it emerged that we both guiltily loved the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “What’s Your Name.” Obviously, no feminist should like this song, about a guy in a band spending the night with a woman whose name he doesn’t remember. On his way out of town the next morning—“It sure was grand!”—he offers to get her a taxi, gallantly promising to see her again when the band comes back the following year.
There’s something about the rollicking good-old-boy exuberance of this dumb song I never get tired of. The same for my conversation mate. I’m pretty sure neither of us identified with the “little girl” in the song. No, we wanted to be on the road, getting in brawls and having sex with groupies whose names we didn’t know, in lieu of the cosseted little world we called home. At least we wanted a hall pass for that corner of our psyches, and the pleasurable perversity of loving a song by a bunch of Southern longhairs with horrible politics singing odes to discarded women.
We wanted mobility, imaginative or otherwise, and unreconstructed masculinity is still its emblem.
Writing and thinking about masculinity has made me skeptical that the concept has any stable definition. Defenses of masculinity typically focus on various good qualities that are assumed to be men’s special business: courage, strength, an interest in math, a willingness to do dangerous jobs, a love of tinkering. These traits are ubiquitous in women. If we call these attributes “masculine,” this implies that there is something either freakish or meritorious about a woman exemplifying them. But when I see that my wife has been brave, I don’t think, “What a masculine gal I’ve married!” Similarly, when my brother-in-law (6-foot-2, swole) shows how nurturing he can be to his sons, I don’t think, “Wow, he’s feminine too.” I simply find, in both cases, that masculinity and femininity are vast and indeterminate. Neither covers territory the other cannot claim.
This is true as well of bad traits that are sometimes assigned to masculinity: violence, aggression, dominance. Men do have a high collective body count. Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol and whose SCUM Manifesto advocated for the elimination of men, proposed a scheme by which women could catch up—several billion people in one fell swoop—but they have yet to take her up on it. We don’t, comparatively speaking, have many women mass shooters, serial killers, or rapists, but we do have, increasingly, women cops, prosecutors, polluters, captains of industry, CEOs of weapons companies, and imperialists. Women’s ability to wear these hats perfectly well suggests that dominance and violence would not disappear from the world along with men.
There is another perverse consequence when we label traits that belong to everyone as “masculine”: Good things fall into disrepute. I have seen people disparage, say, weightlifting, the use of logic, bravery in the face of physical danger, and other fine things as “masculine” in the attempt to be good allies. (How I have come to loathe that bland geopolitical metaphor.) Logic in particular gets it coming and going: Sometimes it is accused of being a Western or a white trait, too. What a massive and unearned compliment to white men; our hegemony rests on everything but logic.
What about chivalry? This is the part of “masculinity” that seems, at first blush, like it might be of use to society, since it encourages men to behave self-sacrificingly. Certainly, if either my wife or I need to run into a burning building, I am going to attempt to do it before she can. But notice how quickly even this impulse, if it is based in love, must check itself. If my wife decides she wants to be a professional firefighter, and if I use my power to stop her, at some point I am no longer acting in love toward her. We want to protect those we love, but part of what we love is their autonomy and their capacity for goodness. As for less dramatic acts of chivalry—holding doors, opening jars—they are best understood as instances of the principle that you should use your skills, privileges, and other attributes to serve those whose gifts lie elsewhere. Karl Marx’s old principle “from each according to their ability” applies to everyone. (And yes: That means that if you’re a person with a middle-class income who loves a working-class man, he shouldn’t always pay for dinner.)
“Masculine” finally seems useful only when we talk about identity and desire. The writer Andrea Long Chu, contemplating bottom surgery in her superb essay “The Pink,” tells cis women: “I don’t want what you have, I want the way in which you don’t have it.” Chu seems to say that being a woman is a relationship of desire: that there’s a picture in a person’s head that they’re trying to live up to. This is a man’s relationship to masculinity as well. I desire to be many different, mutually incompatible men: Superman, Noam Chomsky, and Al Green, with a little W.H. Auden thrown in. I can’t be all of them. I know this, but sometimes I try anyway, and I get mad at myself when I fail.
Several times in my life I have stepped between men bigger or wirier than I am to prevent a fight, and what I saw in their eyes, every time, was fear, then gratitude. I had given them the pretext they needed to retreat from the masculine selves they strained to project. (If you’re in that situation and don’t see fear, you’re looking at a sociopath. Duck.) The last time I was in a physical confrontation—I was at an event where formerly imprisoned people were reading their work, and I had to march a drunk right-wing heckler off-site—my main feeling could be summarized as “How long can I keep this going?” (Eventually he retreated a safe distance and insulted my mother.)
What are we left with? Masculinity is some tricks of the light, some hazy desires about who you want to be. But it’s not stable enough to tell you who you ought to be. Better to leave it to the side and worry about being moral.