What is masculinity, anyway?

Sunday 11th March 2018

As I have already explained, one of themes of my novel – The Streets of London – is masculinity. What does it mean to be a man? The second theme is growing up to be an adult. So the plot of the book (if it can be said to have a plot) is how boys grew up to become men, in the twentieth century.

In writing my novel (it is work in progress), I have been doing research. One of my research themes is masculinity. That is predicated upon there being such a thing. An abstract; an idea or attitude. Clearly, masculinity exists, if only because people talk about men being masculine. What I have been trying to figure out is what it means – as an idea, a concept – in the way it is used. Moreover, how did people use the term in the 1960s and 70s? Back then, was there a way in which men were masculine? Were there men who were seen as being not-masculine? Were there varieties of masculinity? How did a boy become a man who was masculine, in his own eyes and in the eyes of others? Were men forced to become masculine or did they choose to be?

There are a lot of questions here; I cannot answer them all in this article. But I have to at least understand them in order to write a novel, in which, those questions provide the thematic content of the story.

Today’s men

The challenge I face (as a novelist) is to be clear about differences – the differences between the world of today and the world as it was some fifty years ago. As I write my novel, I have to make it clear that what the characters are saying is about the world they are living in. Over half a century, the world has changed. We look back at the past through the lens of the present; that lens can easily distort what is seen, presenting an image that is skewed, misshapen, wrinkled. The world has moved on; it continues to move on, day by day. It might be easier to write about the world as it was in Roman times, during the renaissance, the times of the Tudors – those worlds were very different from our own. There seems to be more evidence and an established archaeology. The world of swinging sixties is more difficult to write about because it is too like today’s world. The differences are more nuanced. The evidence is less than it is for the times of the Romans.

Talking about the sixties

My novel describes London in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It does so through dialogue – what the characters say to each other – and through what they do. There are few passages of narrative. The London that is portrayed in the novel is a London seen through the eyes of the characters – in particular, through the eyes of the three main protagonists. The main characters talk about their experiences of being teenagers in London; they talk in pubs, at parties, in cafes and in each other’s bedsits. In this respect the whole book reads like a film script. There is much more talking than there is doing. If there is doing, then it is described and narrated through the dialogue. People doing things is the action – the scenes that portray events and describe activity. I do that through what they say. Instead of a narrator explaining what someone did, I get one of the other characters to tell what was done. So, it is a novel about talking. I might change my mind on this but that is where I am at, for the time being.

What kind of man is he?

I can offer one conclusion: there is no one masculinity. Masculinity is not a singularity; there are several kinds of masculinity. Men are aligned along a continuum – from being not very masculine at all through to being extremely butch. Most men are positioned somewhere in the middle. That there is a middle can only be accepted if there are ends; a middle is a place between two ends. What kind of men were not masculine, in the 1960s? I explore this question through the gay scene. It was on the 1960s gay scene that you could find men who were not masculine. The word used back then was ‘camp.’ Effeminate men were described as ‘queans.’ (I use the odd spelling that other writers have used to distinguish effeminate men from monarchs of the female gender.) As my characters observe, not all men who were effeminate were homosexual, any more than all homosexuals were effeminate, which clearly they were not. This looks as though I am playing around with gender. At some points that is so. But not always.

Gender is not polar it is fluid

Masculinity is not entirely about gender and not always about sexuality. However, often it was and still is.

What my characters do, in the book, is meet all kinds of different men. They try to analyse them. They find ways of describing them. In between the parties, pub sessions and evenings in the cafes, they read. One reads newspapers and magazines; one spends long hours in libraries and the other is always watching the television and going to the cinema. The three teenagers talk about men, who they are like, what they are like, how they behave, what they think and what they do. And if all this sounds a bit macho, there are scenes in which the boys meet girls and women. They each meet a lot of females. Female characters also talk about men. I am not suggesting that masculinity can be understood only by its being compared and contrasted with femininity. Or vice versa. These two ideas need to be explored as though they are free-standing conditions. Having done that, one can then go on to seeing them side by side, one being the reflection of the other.

What are you like?

The plot might, at first glance, seem rather odd. Three teenage boys move to London and start researching masculinity. In fact, the story unfolds rather differently. The main characters are a peer group – all around the same age, all male and all from similar backgrounds. As individuals facing the transition from adolescence to adulthood, they are each struggling to find themselves and confirm their own identities. They form a bond that enables them to do this together. That is what makes the story interesting. Despite their similarities, they are three quite distinct individuals. That is where their chemistry comes in. And, yes, there is a lot of chemistry. Not just within the trio but also between them and their friends and lovers. The three boys did not arrive in London obsessed with masculinity. In fact, it was Adrian (the writer) who picked up the term and ran with it, as a tool for considering the variety of people he met. Adrian then got the others to explore the idea with him. He begins to ask questions about what it is to be a man. He asks his two friends to consider their own manliness and how they grew up to be masculine. The three boys agree to go to gay bars to observe homosexual men in their natural habitat. They did that in the manner of anthropologists. Adrian is adamant that when they talk to the men, they do not make judgements or reveal their own feelings or attitudes about what they hear. They are not going there to judge; they are not going there to implant their own concepts into the scene. They are there to observe, with the least possible intrusion, and with maximum objectivity. They meet men who are not like themselves; men who are camp. Men who are not masculine, who defy the rules of manliness, who transgress social norms with respect to being male. All the boys find this fascinating.

Gender bending image

The three boys also meet men who are aggressively masculine; men who have taken their manliness to extreme lengths. Men who can at times be violent. Some of these men show a different way of being manly than the average bloke. Men who are ultra butch. Some of these are straight guys; some are gay. They find that there is no correlation between masculinity and sexuality. Some of these scenes are comic; they are the points at which the reader is prompted to have a good laugh. Even so, there is a serious side to this. The boys develop this notion of ‘aggressive masculinity’… a form of manliness that is threatening, abusive, confrontational, belligerent, challenging. Rather than just being afraid of such men (or just disliking them) Adrian tries to dig down into them, to see why they behave in the way they do. He craves insights into what he sees. He wants to discover what makes a man aggressively masculine. Some of these types are dark figures; but not all. Some are funny and charming, in an odd sort of way, and Adrian begins to view them as heroes. As a creative artist, Adrian employs the idea of heroism. He begins to admire men who are challenging, strong, truculent, virile, courageous, intrepid. He sees them as being storm troopers leading the assault against the front line of bourgeois vulgarity. He is attracted to the way in which they fearlessly ignore the formalities of polite life and just go for it. At times they appear to be reckless; they can be shocking; they can be brutal. But it takes guts to do that and they have to be smart to pull it off, Adrian concludes.

Is there such a thing as masculinity?

As I work through the theme and work with the characters to explore, with them, what it meant to be a man in the 1960s, I keep colliding with a wall – a conceptual wall in which some writers and talkers insist that masculinity is false-consciousness. In other words, manliness is not about how masculine you are (or not, as the case may be) but is about other aspects of personality, character and behaviour that get wrongly attributed (by society) to gender and its manifestations. In this narrative, masculinity becomes a shibboleth – something that obscures our understanding of people. Even by the 1960s, the concepts of masculinity and femininity were beginning to crumble. Today, they are legacy ideas – concepts we have inherited from a culture that has all but expired, disappeared into the annals of history. We cling to them out of habit. Today, the idea of binary gender is under attack from the cultural storm troopers. They are assaulting the belief that everyone is either male or female. That was not very apparent in the 1960s; the first glimmerings of it were seen in the early 1970s with the emergence of the radical feminists and ‘gender benders’ – not a term that Adrian and his friends would have used.
Gender politics started in the 1960s but it was not until the early 70s that it had become a movement in Britain.

Gender bending through the ages

Adrian and his friends see the rise of people who were leading an assault on gender polarities; their main target was stereotyping. And labelling. Adrian and his friends refer to each other as ‘boys’ and they talk about men and blokes. They do not use the word ‘guys.’ One of them is a ‘northerner’ and sometimes talks about ‘lads.’ Society gives us an armoury of gender and sexual ordnance. Our language is laden with the shrapnel of convention and traditional ideas and attitudes. We fire off rounds of values, about people, without ever thinking about it. Adrian is a writer and his friend Michael is a journalist; they work with words. They have to think about them. They have arguments about the meaning of words and the way that words are used to assert traditional values or to reject them. That was what young thinkers did back in those days.

Actor Glenn Close starred in the film Albert Nobbs in which she played a woman being a man

This might seem all a bit intellectual, somewhat cerebral, but my job is to write a story. After all, I am not a historian, not even an academic. I am just an entertainer.

Previous posts in my blog

Sunday 18th February 2018

Sunday 4th March 2018

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