In a piece that first appeared on M&G Thought Leader, Lindsay Clowes, associate professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Western Cape, tries to dismantle the “myth of a timeless masculinity that somehow exists outside history and culture”. This is a very powerful, baffling, myth, as I will say again below.
Professor Clowes writes that according to the majority of students in her undergraduate gender class “South African men’s lives a have not changed much over the last few centuries.” Curiously, the students tend to agree that South African women’s lives and femininities have changed dramatically over time. They acknowledge that changes that have occurred in society have created increased access to educational and economic opportunities for females.
So, whereas the students understand women’s lives and femininity as shaped by society, men’s lives and masculinity are thought to be as biological determined, with “little or nothing to do with gender.”
What’s going on here?
We have a paradox. It is interesting, if you are interested in such interesting academic questions.
But this is more than just an academic issue. Ideas are productive. Not in that neo-con self-help way that we can think our way out of structural want and misery. All human being live with constraints, such as unemployment and violence and inequality, and you can’t think them away. We are thrown into the world with the bodies we have – although make up, and certainly surgery, can do amazing things.
However, how we think about our bodies and the rest of our lives also fundamentally shapes what we do or don’t do.
How we conceive of our self and world makes a difference.
As such, as teachers of gender – and we are all teachers, at least we should be if we are adults – we need to provide answers, tentative however they may be, to young men and women on the question of how to think of their lives. At least, we should try and plant the seeds of other ways to think. And this is was the post by Professor Clowes provides.
She makes a really good argument on this problem. She states: “seeing biology as destiny denies men the opportunities to reach the potential of their full humanity. It also precludes the possibility of change in the future.”
I understand the point she is making as simply that masculinity, like femininity, is something that is always changing – sometimes rapidly, most often slowly. This is important, very important, to underline. Men can change their circumstances. Masculinity changes. The future does not have to be the same as the past.
But, to return, to myth of an inflexible, timeless manhood: The story of masculinity as singular, primordial, buried deep in male cells and waiting for the right conditions to be brought out, is an influential though puzzling narrative. The fact that it is confusing makes it not less, but more intractable. For one thing it keeps all of us, as boys and girls, lesbians, mothers, gays, fathers, bisexuals and trans, teachers and preachers and Ugandans, it can keep us occupied for quite some time, doesn’t it. I mean you can’t say culture is important to who you are then turn around and say biology is everything. At a minimum, you have to see the interaction of biology and culture in who we become. At a minimum.
I wish all boys and men – and women – could wake up and smell the sweat. But I know it won’t be done soon, not without a lot of conscientisation. It will take time.
Read the post by Lindsay Clowes here.