It’s time we redefined masculinity

Joanna Taylor 16 May 2016

"Masculinity is harmful to everyone." Thus read the motion for last week's Cambridge Union Society debate. Now, I call myself a feminist, and believe passionately in the equality of the sexes, but part of me is appalled that a motion so worded was even proposed. Think about it from the opposite perspective: someone claiming that 'femininity' is harmful and exposes human weakness, or turns us into emotional wrecks. Can you imagine tolerating that? Well, people have for centuries, and it is a claim that should similarly be rebuked. 'Femininity' is not one single thing – it is not weeping, hysteria or domestic talent – any of those terrible Victorian stereotypes: it is what those who choose to define themselves as feminine make of it. 

The same goes for masculinity. To suggest that masculinity is 'harmful' implies that it can only be defined according to narrow stereotypes which ought to have been left in the 1950s. 'Masculinity' is not confined to men, and it should not be defined in opposition to 'femininity': these are both modes of self-expression. To deny people the right to be who they are, just because what they purport to be is not 'in vogue', is judgmental and unfair. 

Of course, there are certain traits associated with masculinity which can have a negative effect on everyone: the encouragement to repress one's emotional state is often considered masculine, which is harmful for those who feel this pressure and everyone around them. But 'masculinity' is a term entrenched in a continually changing language, and perhaps as time and attitudes alter this language, what 'masculinity' connotes can alter accordingly. After all, there is now far less stigma attached to men who are openly emotional, and greater belief that men can and even ought to express their feelings.

What can truly make masculinity harmful, however, is privileging it over femininity. Masculinity is simply a way of being and is no better than any other: this should be recognised. To privilege masculinity forces everyone to adhere to rigid stereotypes which don't fit them. Everyone should feel comfortable being however and whoever they are, and should accept others too: 'masculine' or not.