"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Monday, June 12, 2006

More on Muscles and Masculinity

Sorry for the alliteration.

At the risk of being overly self-referential, even for a blog, I'd like to riff on something that Dave commented on from another post:
From this description it seems the man exhibited behaviours that smack of masculinity, and perhaps privilege as well. The muscles, the shaved head. Perhaps a bit of an overbearing attitude.

I get Dave's point here, I think, and a tangential point which is that context is everything: Muscular, eager guy at the gym = normal; Muscular, eager guy at a youth shelter = creepy.

And yet this is an example of something that I think I'm increasingly confused about. It could be that I was sleeping during Feminism 101, and that this is familiar territory for everybody but me. If that's the case, I'm relatively certain that y'all will let me know pretty quickly. These aren't thoughts that are solid, but the beginnings of musings into concepts that seem larger than they did at first.

The flavors of feminism that I tend to support are generally 'anti-essentialist'. That is, if gender essentialism is the view that some/most/all facets of a gender are somehow immutable, the feminisms I embrace generally point to the mutability of various facets of gender. (I also tend to be 'anti-essentialist' in realms not directly related to gender.) So, if somebody points to a 'masculine' trait, I almost immediately make a little mental note that it most likely isn't the case that said triat is somehow essentially only applicable to men. For instance, regarding the above comment, men aren't the only gender that can be muscular.
And yet, even if 'masculine' facets are mutable (to whatever degree), it's still the case within our culture that if something is labelled/thought of/seems inherently masculine, there are all sorts of value-judgments associated with it. There are what we might call 'traditional' value-judgments (i.e. "men ought to be strong"), some (most?) of which are the very sorts of ways of looking at gender that feminists want to avoid. For instance, "Men ought to be strong" in a patriarchal culture implies that women aren't strong, or shouldn't be strong; as feminists, we might avoid saing 'men ought to be strong', unless, of course, we follow it up with something akin to 'like other genders are strong' or some such. There are, then, what we might call non-traditional or feminist value-judgments of concepts like 'masculine', too, such that one non-traditional judgment of masculine would be that it's something to avoid, because it buys into partriarchy.

So, anything that is labelled as traditionally masculine (i.e. muscles) is at one in the same time generally thought of as desirable by the larger popoulation and undesirable by many feminists (often including myself!). And this is the case even if one thinks of these things in anti-essentialist terms. (And, of course, this isn't accounting for the various feminisms, some of which would disagree with this analysis on at least a couple of levels.)

So what happens to me, given the above situation, is that traditionally masculine traits become desirable only if one isn't a man. That is, women who go to the gym primarily to build muscle mass have my sort of automatic 'ok', while men who go to the gym primarily to build muscle mass aren't given the benefit of the doubt--they are, as Dave put it in another comment, out to make themselves 'more manly,' which is also inherently suspect if you're a man:
And why does he purposefully make himself muscly? To be more manly. And anyone who has "be more manly" as a goal is suspect.

To be clear: I don't think any of these judgments are wrong, necessarily. Women who are building muscle mass at the gym have a sort of automatic 'in', in my opinion, because they are going against all sorts of patriarchal crap: That women should stick to cardio, that women don't need muscle mass, that muscle mass=manly, that women should 'tone' and men should 'bulk', and many more. Men who are at the gym bulking up are much more likely to be there for what I might consider 'the wrong reasons,' akin to Dave's 'be more manly' example. Gyms tend to be pretty sexist places, and it's the muscle-men (and aspiring muscle-men) who create sexism there.

And yet, because I'm also an anti-essentialist, I think that we need to acknowledge that, just as it's wrong to think that women ought not build muscle mass, it's also wrong to think that all men who want to bulk up want to do so to 'be more manly' or even 'to be more masculine'--any more than some of the women who are there to bulk up aren't there to be more masculine. Because 'being muscular' ought not equate to 'being masculine'--and yet here we sit in a culture that still throws that in our faces pretty much constantly.

The long and the short of it is that when I go to the gym, I do want to build muscle mass. I want to get big. I think it feels good, and it helps to keep my body healthy in all sorts of other ways. I don't think I want to do this to be more manly--and yet, if I achieve my goal, to the extent that our society still equates muscles with manliness, I will appear, at first glance, more 'manly' in the negative sense of the word; and, strangely, I will appear more manly in the 'positive' sense of the word to those people who do equate muscles with manliness. Not such a huge burden to bear, I know, compared to the burdens of others; and yet, it is something that I have to deal with, to know that my version of being more healthy will affect how others might see me in the world in this negative way.

(Disclaimer: Likely, I will never be very muscle-y. While I like the process, I am not dedicated enough, have too many other interests, etc., to ever have to worry much about it.) This, my friends, is the kind of stuff I think about when I go into the gym.
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