What does masculinity look like?

I’m fascinated by the concept of masculinity – partly, I suspect, because as a shy, geeky child in the 1980s, and a shy, geeky teenager in the 1990s, I was dimly aware that I wasn’t like the “lads” who played football every opportunity they could and talked about sports – and, as we grew up at school, sex and drinking. That was a laddish and blokey culture, and there was a semi-unspoken agreement that you had to be that way inclined to be sene as masculine; if you were more softly-spoken, or interested in practically any activity other than sport, or not really a drinker, then you were clearly not very masculine – you were considered “gay”, as that was often a pejorative form of “feminine” despite all evidence to the contrary. But, I believe now, that being blokish or laddish doesn’t make you automatically masculine; there are a range of traits that can collectively make you masculine, and we need to continue embracing that in our society.

Masculinity has continued to refuse to be properly defined, but the term has broadened somewhat; the late 90s and early 00s seemed to herald a change in the zeitgeist, slowly but surely. Here in the UK, there was a change of government that seemed to signify the start of a more socially liberal time, and I can remember my own awakening as to what being masculine meant starting around that time. I’m not saying that the Labour government of 1997-2010 was solely responsible for that, but it undoubtedly played a part.

I never wanted to change my personality in order to fit into those older, thoughtless expectations of what “masculinity” meant; it never occurred to me to change, because I knew – on some level – that it wasn’t possible to change your fundamental personality. I couldn’t have vocalised it in quite those terms, but I didn’t like football or lager or having casual sex every weekend; I think, if I reflect on that, I probably did feel “less than” other male peers, because there was a blokish culture in some areas that associated a love of sports, etc, with being masculine – and ignored everything that didn’t fit into those norms, such as girls who liked sports or boys who liked art, for example.

It probably wasn’t until I was into my twenties that I became more conscious of my own masculinity, and actually identifying myself in that way; the term, in some ways, had been hijacked by a particular subset of men, and I realised how much I disliked that. I had been influenced by that, and hid my own emotions behind a wall because that was what men did, and because men were often not encouraged to respect and value their emotions – feelings being seen as a bit “gay” or for women. Both of those points of view are utter tosh, of course; you’re not more emotionally attuned just because you’re gay or a woman, and to show emotions as a male was sometimes seen as weak in communities I knew of – and in wider society as well.

It was an uncomfortable experience to examine my own emotions in my twenties, when I had kept them at arm’s length for so long, but over time it helped me to appreciate that I was still entirely male and masculine with emotions that I would acknowledge at least some of the time, and perhaps clumsily from time to time. But I was beginning to explore my own sense of being at a time when society was exploring what it meant to be socially more liberal and tolerant. Whether you think we have gone as far as we need to (no), or even perhaps regressed slightly in the early part of the second decade of thr 21st century (possibly), we have changed as a society, and it feels safer to explorer our attitudes towards life.

I do marvel at the world sometimes, as strange as that might sound; children and teenagers are growing up now in a world not-so-subtly different to the world I grew up in. The blokey atmosphere of old has faded, although there are people who still react and think in that way, and men are learning to explore their own identity, rather than having to fit into the expectations that just don’t fit any more. I feel loberated to tell my son that I love him, and I made a conscious choice to do that when I became a dad; I wanted to show my love and feel confident in telling him as well, as well as help him learn about his own emotions so that he could process them in much more ofa healthy way than I did at his age – by accepting them and feeling comfortable in having them. He’s elven, so his normal hormones are kicking in, and that often means that I embarrass him and can’t be too expressive in public – or at all, tell the truth. But he is learning about his emotions and his sense of self; he doesn’t mind a bit of football with his friends int he playground – but he chooses other activities outside of school, such as tennis and dancing. Neither of those activities take his masculinity away, and he is confident in himself and his friendships in a way I admire. We are thirty years apart, my son and I, and I see the differences already – I am so very glad of it.

Being a male isn’t easier than being female, or harder – it’s its own unique experience, and I reclaimed my masculinity a long time ago from people who tried to imply that it was their way or no way. Love, compassion, wisdom, mental strength, humour, an interest in the world, a willingness to protect children (and be a good father), an ability to be a good friend, and integrity are all good attiudes to have as a human being, and I can’t think of anyother way to feel confident about my identity.

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