At risk of inviting all manner of hostility, let's talk about masculinity. *cue dramatic music*
For the record, this was prompted by a recent arrival on my Twitter feed. One of the images I remembered from many years ago, which had prompted so many arguments about what was and was not masculine. I figured I'd tackle it here, because the question of masculinity and how it is performed carries weight; it influences and is influenced by fiction.
But first, the images on my Twitter feed that sparked my brain:
By and large, most of the women in the comments were crooning about the image and how handsome the man in it looked. Enter the others. Mostly men, but definitely some women, started to pile in on how effete the model was. Long hair and fanciful hairstyles are not masculine. That stuff is for women.
Except... LOL, no.
The idea that short hair is masculine is actually really, really recent. It dates back to the war, when soldiers had to crop their hair in an effort to control lice; a huge problem when people are stuck in trenches together in less than ideal situations with less than ideal hygiene. There was a dedicated campaign to equate this new, short hair with things considered traditionally masculine - toughness, strength, owning a penis. You know, the ideals of that are held up as paragons of masculinity.
This isn't to say that men before then did not crop their hair, particularly for practical reasons (Alexander the Great had his soldiers crop their hear and shave their beards so that they couldn't be grabbed by the enemy, for example). However, generally speaking, men used to wear their hair long.
As for the fanciful hair styles, let me let you in on a little secret. It's a secret that might shock the very posters who derided the model for creating these elaborate hairstyles for himself, particularly since it is about a culture such people often celebrate as paragons of masculine representation. I'm talking, of course, about the Celts. Men often wore their hair long, and often took the time to put that hair up in braids and curls, and decorate it with gold and bronze rings and other decorations. Yes, that's right. Men styled their hair; they dyed it blond (bleached with lime water), curled it or pulled it back so that it might resemble a horse's mane or tail.
In fact, the first thing I thought of when I first saw the above model and his beautiful hair was - Celt. That's what popped into my head. I was not far off. He also dies his hair blond.
Long hair on both men and women was pretty much the norm. The length of hair had nothing to do with masculinity. In fact, it was considered desirable for men to have long hair. It makes sense, when you think about it. Having long hair requires good health, good nutrition, and rest. Long, beautiful locks are an important signal to potential partners that the owner of those locks is healthy and hale, and probably has really good genetics, to be honest. This is true for both men and women.
Here's the thing, the Celts, this warrior people who once inspired fear in all of Europe, were quite vain. They were conscious of their hygiene, they spent a great deal of time on their appearance. This is true of the men, by the by, not just the women. Celtic men, it seemed, liked to feel beautiful. This did not impact their masculinity in any way whatsoever. In fact, their masculinity might have depended upon it. There are records of laws that state that a woman may divorce her husband for a variety of reasons, including losing sexual interest in him or if he could no longer sexual satisfy her. It was in the man's best interest to keep himself beautiful.
This also appears true of the vikings, who seem to be the spiritual successors of Celtic vanity, though, granted, I know an awful lot less about them than the Celts. It's not my area of expertise.
The point I'm trying to make here is that the visual cues of masculinity that we've become used to in the modern era - the short hair, the tanned skin, and some of the performative aspects - the disregard of one's appearance (or the pretense of it), are not inherently masculine. They're modern constructs. In fact, a great deal of "traditionally" (HAH!) masculine traits, both physical and performative are not actually inherently masculine.
So, what is?
Well, nothing really. Like femininity, masculinity comes in all shapes and presentations. I can see how this can cause problems for those who require definitive definitions for everything (like the commentators I had previously mentioned). Generally speaking, masculinity is not any particular trait. What makes a man a man isn't a set of behaviours or a certain appearance.
Near as I can tell, what makes a man manly is the man's own confidence in himself. Nothing more. Nothing less.
How that translates into one's writing is up to the writer, really. I tend to write men who are entirely themselves, and don't pay much mind to the constructs of masculinity. They don't try too hard to be masculine. They refuse to perform it, if any part of that performance is not genuine. In fiction, as in my life, male characters who are clearly performing masculinity makes my eyes roll. I don't care for it. It makes that character immediately unlikable. That might be just me. Clearly there are a large number of people who are totally invested in men performing their version of masculinity.
Still, people who refuse to perform masculinity in this way are gaining a lot of momentum in the social consciousness. Think Keanu Reeves, who appears to be a sweet soul, Tom Hiddleston and Dan Reynolds, both of whom have shed tears publicly, Taron Egerton, who refuses to kill his affection for his friends and tells them they're gorgeous... all these people have dedicated, adoring fans, and appear to be gaining momentum and praise without performing masculinity as we're used to seeing it. They are simply men, who are apologetically their sensitive, silly, soulful selves.
So far, writing men this way has worked for me. I've gotten a lot of compliments on how I write men (which I still find bizarre. I'm hardly an expert on the subject).
Still, the subject of masculinity is fraught, with a goodly amount of vitriolic backlash levelled at people who do not perform it well enough (in many, many cases). What it is, and who embodies it is far from agreed upon. I'm fairly certain that I've only helped muddy the waters with this post. I'm okay with this.
All a writer can do in situations like these is to write and hope they're doing it correctly.
What do you think? I'd love to know how you consider masculinity in your writing (or in life, really). Be warned, though, I will not tolerate abuse on this site. Any comments I deem unacceptable will be deleted for any reason I see fit.