Flames and Storms
Sherry Ahmed and Sarah Hussain
Edited by Miriam Zeghlache
Bare to the bones: a philosophical inquiry into the state of masculinity
To try and give definition to “masculinities” (a state of plurality) is reductionist; the term itself is precarious - a radioactive atom. The traits we assign to masculinity today are based on historical and political ideologies, as opposed to the genetic wiring of man. In this article, the authors (who share a similar point of view on this topic) will explore contemporary masculinity from each own’s academic discipline of interest: from a social point of view then delving deeper into the anthropological, philosophical and pseudoscientific interpretations of the subject over various timeframes.
The ‘missing male experience’
Connell, a sociologist, postulated the gender order theory, which separates masculinity into four types, one of which is hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 1996). The man who embraces this is the courageous and aggressive type - stoic and dominating over the Woman and the normative version of masculinity. It imposes an idealistic standard for those who practise hegemonic masculinity, particularly cisgender men, since this type ostracises the woman from its class. But, masculinity is so vast, and cannot be simplified. Thus, the concept can be perceived as a plurality, as masculinities, encouraging intellectual dialogues and progressive tolerance in a prejudiced society. Nevertheless, other forms of masculinity exist in the gender order theory, such as subordinate masculinity - practices which do not conform to the hegemonic, thus, are considered more “feminine”.
The margins between the types of masculinities are ambiguous, and research shows that hegemonic masculinity, for example, is not self-reproducing (Demetriou, 2001). They distinguish the experiences of masculinity in the position of the macroenvironment (the social and political world) and the microenvironment (interpersonal competition between other masculinities). The problem is that this civil war divides those who assimilate into desired personas versus those who do not and result in people suffering a constant social pressure to be the unadulterated version of masculinity they have chosen to be. And of course, their choice is open to prejudiced scrutiny that is further encouraged by cultural and religious beliefs. The greater the social pressure, the greater the aggressive response to self-perceived threat there will be (Stanaland & Gaithner, 2021).
Masculinity studies highlight these pressures and work towards post-structuralism in their field. We don’t know about you, but we began questioning the role of masculinity after we challenged femininity. You will see feminism commanding contemporary gender discourse and the struggles of breaking away from the hegemonic masculine figure. What you will see less of is the over-compensation of salient emotions in response to the covert protest against masculinity, which can be interpreted as tyrannical and provides justification for misandrist feminists. There needs to be an acknowledgement that alongside the oppression of women, the ramifications of this very same system subjugate the people who practise masculinity and is known as the ‘missing male experience’.
Masculinity in ancient times
From Eastern Confucianism to Western Greco-Roman traditions, an amalgamation of the cisgender man and the state of masculinity was sought; ‘Man’, ‘Manliness’, ‘Male’ and ‘Masculinity’ were synonymous. In Aristotle’s polis, the male was superior because his judgement was rational, void of emotional interference (Aristotle, 1981). Universally, masculinity was elevated to a cosmic realm whereby according to medievalist Mathew Kuefler, even separating “Roman definitions of masculinity from more general notions of ideal human behaviour” was impossible - his words not ours. What we are left with here is a standardisation of masculinity: it does not exist in a dichotomy or relational to femininity (the absence of masculinity), but rather, it is a postulation that mankind’s excellence is governed by facets of masculinity.
However, masculinity wasn’t the inherent condition of the cisgender man - rather it was something one had to build. An intricately designed hierarchical system oversaw the power struggles between the multiple states of masculinities. In ancient Greco-Roman culture, the man who succeeded to achieve a perfected masculine state had the power to approve or disapprove other mens’ masculinity. For example, the andreia (“maleness”) of a man could be defeated in political debate, if his opponent surpassed him in oratory skills. It is interesting to note that ancient Greece was divided over this being a desirable, manly quality - the Spartans were well known for their laconism whereas Athens paid more attention to the literary and artistic development of their young (Rubarth, 2014). Similarly, in ancient Rome, a man who could control his desires was regarded manly - presenting as too aggressive or sexual would’ve threatened one’s virility (Mancisidor, 2022). The rigidity of this system is likely to end in forcing those who embrace masculinity to the extreme edge where they become devoid of human emotions and experience a dissociated sense of self. To us, this sounds like a sad attempt to bully others to achieve power and eudaimonia (what Aristotle refers to as happiness, in simple terms) and in the process, facilitate a self-destructive cycle of ‘who will top in this game of survival of the fittest’.
A philosophy of the classics
But before the ancient philosophers coined terms to describe the ideal state of manlihood, and before scientific theories could provide interpretations for nature, we had pseudoscience: beliefs and practices based on what scholars deemed objective and mathematical.
Various cultures recognise the world by dismantling substances to facilitate our understanding of nature through the universal “Five elements”. These are credited to be at the centre of all and include: Earth, Wind, Water, Fire and Quintessence (the void/soul). There are two elements amongst the four (with the void being a neutral force), that are accepted as masculine energies, and are summarised, alongside their attributes, as below:
Confucius asserted that “the interplay of opposite principles constitutes the universe”, implicating that the characterisation of the masculine force is the reverse of its feminine counterpart (Li, 2006). To further support this, the table above indicates that masculine energies are active (travelling) and initiative (aggressive), whereas feminine energies are receptive (unmoving) and stable (calm).
Let’s apply this theory to the Greek Amazons – a society in Themiscyra (modern day Turkey) which consisted of women only. Using ancient Greco-Roman values, the lack of manliness would produce an imbalance. However, these women embodied the strength and fierceness that was typically considered masculine. So, Confucius’ theory would suggest that the Amazons’ legacy was maintained by a balance of both masculinity and femininity, further illustrating that the concepts can exist without the cisgender man or woman. But it does not support a view whereby masculinity is abstract and transforming so it becomes harder to offer a medium of interaction between the two “opposites principles” when they are so polar.
Although masculinity (and femininity) is static and binary, it exists in us all as a part. But this does not support a view whereby masculinity is abstract and transforming. It becomes harder to offer a medium of interaction between the two “opposites principles” when they are so polar.
Interestingly, the labels employed to depict each element in the West is one out of the two descriptions in the table above. For example, fire and air are both interconnected as ‘hot’ but differ in their respective levels of humidity (i.e., dry or wet). Evidently, both elements being denoted as ‘hot’ takes priority when assessing whether each force is masculine/feminine. A similar pattern can be observed in the East, where fire, a masculine force, is linked to ‘life’, which is commonly associated with childbirth and the element of Earth, thus femininity.
The aforementioned elements can exemplify energies in other pseudoscientific studies. In Western Astrology, the twelve Zodiac signs are presented as a ‘wheel’, connoting the twelve constellations in the sky. The Sun, Moon and planets pass through each constellation during a year, which is utilised to determine natal charts as well as daily horoscope transits (Tester, 1987). Each star sign is parallel to one out of the three modalities: cardinal (the leaders), fixed (the stabilisers) or mutable (the adaptable). Additionally, each Zodiac is ruled by a planet, and is allotted a masculine/feminine marker. Once again, the feminine signs here are the Earth and Water signs, whereas the masculine signs are Fire and Air. Femininity correlates to intuition and introverted energy, alongside the previously established passiveness, whereas masculinity is instinctive and exhibits extroverted energy, as well as maintaining its activeness.
The table below can be analysed and observed, to hypothesise what is considered masculine in Astrology (Hamilton, 2001).
Referring to the table above, it can be documented that the masculine signs are Aries, Gemini, Leo, Libra, Sagittarius, and Aquarius. The one true commonality that interlinks these Zodiacs are that they are all either Air or Fire signs, which, as formerly discussed, are linked to masculinity. Curiously, the only house that focuses on an internal area of life is the masculine Aries, whereas the rest of the houses propel towards the external world. This flaunts the independence of the masculine house, as it endorses self improvement and survival. No matter the school of thought taken to interpret masculinity (e.g., Astrology and Greco-Roman philosophy), somehow it always prevails as the dominating counterpart. Where is the balance now?
Investigating the houses further, the third, fifth, seventh, ninth and eleventh houses are denoted as masculine, yet some of the specialisations oppose the stereotypical merits ascribed to each Zodiac. As an example, the seventh house of Libra, concentrates outwardly on ‘commitment, partnerships and marriage’, which are, hypothetically, passive, and constant areas of life (allied with the feminine Earth and Water). As an air sign, the qualities of the house that rule Libra, should be complementary to its characteristics to evade a state of uncertainty or even contradiction; though, it may be argued that the houses are indeed independent of any gender assigned to them.
Masculinity is a familiar concept and has historically been oversimplified. However, we believe there should be more clarity in defining the boundaries between the terms ‘man’ and ‘masculinity’. Currently, we do not have the adequate lexical knowledge to propose such distinctions. Nevertheless, we think of masculinity as a state which is attached to a ‘host’ such as a man (as it traditionally has been). Furthermore, Astrology only models a fragment of the interpretive array of masculine traits. With the involvement of the houses and planets, there will be archetypal attributes of opposing genders, which will overlap in their practical application.
So, no man is void of feminine characteristics and vice versa.
Therefore, masculinities operate on a spectrum held within constraints, whereby no form holds precedence over another, but coexist in a somewhat equal hierarchical structure. Perhaps this is unattainable given that humans constantly desire superiority. But perhaps if we use a neutral lens to undress masculinity to a constant (like in mathematics where a fixed quantity is given for a specific value) that transcends time in existence (e.g., traits such as aggression), we can begin to understand it better.
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