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Symbolic masculinity

by Paul Varnell . Contributing Writer



Has the symbolism of extreme masculinity outlived its usefulness?
For some time now I have been seeing books and articles about masculinity and how recent changes in men’s social and economic roles create a supposed crisis in which contemporary men feel uncertain about how to assert a sense of their own value and significance. In the distant past, masculinity was demonstrated by how well a man could hunt to provide food for his family, how well he could fight in its defense — wield a sword, shoot an arrow or a gun — or even how many progeny he produced to support the family effort.

In the more recent past, farming and factory work often required both strength and endurance. But modern technology makes much of that unnecessary. We buy food at the grocery store, machines do most of our physical work, and having numerous children is uneconomic. Even modern warfare is computer assisted and technologically sophisticated.

So how are men to prove their worth — to themselves, their families and other men? This issue may particularly confront gay men who face the same modern social and economic conditions as other men but who also face the long-standing — if now fading — stereotype of gay men as deficient in masculinity because they are attracted to men. Modern men, gay as well as heterosexual, seem to try one or another strategy to cope with this. Consider a few. Some men deliberately take physical risks, do things to prove themselves or give vent to high levels of testosterone. They enter the military and join special forces units, they become firemen, they play sports like football, or they join wrestling or fight clubs or street gangs. Some men still hunt but they do it more to test their skill in aiming a rifle than to feed a family. One conspicuous strategy is working out at a gym to build muscle — for no purpose except their visible display. The muscles are only a symbol of the strength and stamina once, but no longer, required for hard work. The muscles are their own purpose.

I knew a man who always referred to working out as “training” but he wasn’t training for anything. For some men having sex with a large number of partners is a satisfying display of masculinity. Few heterosexual men actually wish to have numerous children. They, like gay men, simply want to show that other people find them sexually attractive. They tacitly assert, “Be impressed: I have a lot of sexual energy and male sex appeal.”

Another symbol of masculinity is a large penis and for about the same reason as big muscles. As a primary sex characteristic, the penis itself indicates masculinity. But it also suggests that a man so equipped has, or could have, sex with a large number of partners since men and women would likely find him appealing. Hence men with perfectly adequate, average-sized penises line up for penis enlargement surgery to bolster their self-esteem and impress their peers in the locker room or at the bathhouse — despite the medical risks and the sometimes disappointing results.

Looking young is another symbol of masculinity and virility. Few people associate old age with vibrant masculinity. Testosterone and energy decline with age. Hence the desire among men for plastic surgery, liposuction, and various temporary youth enhancement treatments to increase their masculine sexual appeal.

Somewhere in here too are “sports fans” — men who do not or no longer play an intense, active sport such as football, basketball, hockey or boxing, but attend games or watch them on television and get wildly excited at gains by their favorite team. It is a way for them to feel some portion of the elevated adrenaline and testosterone levels of the athletes themselves without having to expend any physical effort.

Is it any wonder so many sports fans are obese? Young men watch “action films” or play violent computer games for the same reason — to get their juices flowing without having to leave their chair. And some attend professional wrestling events even though those are not real athletic contests but choreographed athletic entertainments.

I don’t have a useful alternative to offer for all this. I am not sure there is one. But we do seem to be awash in a culture of symbolic masculinity — a masculinity that has long since left its moorings in any real needs in a modern technological society.

I suppose my point is that people should be aware of our altered social context and be aware of the limitations, risks and vacuity of the various modes of substitutive symbolic masculinities we are offered. To be aware of what they are is at least partially to be inoculated against taking them too seriously.

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