I hear it often enough amongst a group of guys, “Dude, we gotta revoke your man card!” after some sort of major, or minor, unmanly behavior. The first time I heard it, I sort of stumbled at the thought of the statement. Obviously the guy was a wuss, he wasn’t “manning up,” but that was the surface implication. There was an entire iceberg of implications hiding underneath it. Since then, I pretty much hear the statement everywhere, in fact its ubiquitous in commercials geared toward the young male demographic watching sports, so I don’t respond (how? The first time u did wut, why?) You can even email a friend to revoke his man-card here. Have you ever wondered about the implication of the statement beyond the fact that a guy isn’t behaving like a man?
If a man were to get his “man card revoked” would he stop being a man? Does the idea of physical manhood and “manhood” exist separately from each other? If a woman were to have her “woman card revoked” would that make her less of a woman? The answer to the last question actually is pretty straightforward, no? I have never heard women talk about other women losing their “womanhood,” but a woman does seem to naturally and holistically “grow into womanhood” and live out her life in that identity. If anything is questioned its her manners, or put another way “that wasn’t very lady like.” To me the apparent distinction in the male sphere is that manhood is something a male can loose, whereas, not so much when it comes to womanhood.
I haphazardly started to fumble around these ideas when I posted about Ottoman male wrestlers and Muslim men in heels and skirts, but that effort highlighted how I lacked the language and ideas to articulate the thoughts running through my head. I also get the sense that I didn’t really know what I was having a hard time comprehending all these years. Discussing this topic with friends wasn’t easy either. Apparently I was putting to much thought into this whole idea. I was told to lay off the intellectualization of the whole thing. But I never could put any of it too rest. To me it seemed that the very idea of “manhood” was arbitrary, there were just these unspoken assumptions of what it took to qualify as a man. We see it portrayed in movies and know that that was what a “real man” was. But there isn’t a listing of criteria, and if there no concrete adjudicator to safeguard manhood from constant questioning.
Be a Man, Do the Right Thing
The Canadian Indian comedian Russell Peters has a now famous skit where he relates an interaction with a Chinese sales man selling purses, Russell asks the price of the bag and promptly puts it down. In Peters observation an Indian man is always looking out for a bargain, a Chinese man is never willing to bargain, therefore the two can’t pull off a deal. The Chinese salesman responds to the potential loss of a sale, using stereotypical Chinese imitation by Peters, by challenging Peters to “be a man, do the right thing.”
Its a pretty funny skit, but underneath the surface one has to wonder why is having one’s manhood questioned over a purchasing decision funny, aside from the voice/cultural imitation/clash? Is it because part to being a man requires the ability to not only make decisions and take risks, and in purchasing decisions men face this dilemma of having their man card revoked? Or is it because the idea of having one’s manhood questioned in such a trivial fashion is nonsense? I feel that the root of the joke is the real unease men experience with the precarious nature of their manliness. We laugh because underneath it all we are masking the reality that our manhood is constantly being tested, even in seemingly idiotic circumstances as purchasing a purse. Society requires us to publicly display our laurels of manhood in constant tests of it. Therefore we sit on the precipice of humiliation and man card revocation.
Its after some time just not liking the implication of this reflection along with the nagging desire to know what precisely these untold/unspoken criteria and boundaries of “manhood” are, that I sought out reading material. I started with a work that had been cited in numerous books I had read on various topics from gender and business and self development- David D. Gilmore’s “Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity“– which basically represented the core academic source that surveyed the intellectual work done on masculinity succinctly and from which the academic field continues to draw upon up until now. Published in 1991, it would seem outdated, however its not, because manhood itself as a construct is part of societal construct, and therefore integrally weaved into human experience.
Gilmore’s work is interesting in that at the time it published, it was the first attempt to explore the “global” and “universal” definition of masculinity through a cross cultural survey. Prior to that, work on masculinity had focused on the European and American context. Gilmore sought to answer the question of whether there was a global archetype to manhood, or put another way, “how integrally weaved into human experience is this masculine social construct?” He reached into the similarities he found in cultural mythologies to guide his work, much like Carl Jung in his description of a male archetype. Gilmore concludes that there was not a universal male archetype, but he argued that there was a “ubiquitous male” ideal that was tested against the idea of performance. Gilmore states,
“The pressured type of manhood seems to be far more frequent. Manhood is a test in most societies, and there is no doubt that this statistical frequency means something. It is clear that manhood cults are directly related to the degree of hardiness and self-discipline required for the male role.”
He goes on to affirm that where ever there is an emphasis on societal norms requiring “manhood,” there were “three moral injunctions” that seemed “to come repeatedly into focus— Triad of Manhood.” To be a man in these societies “one must impregnate women, protect dependents from danger, and provision kith and kin.”
This definition of manhood is very much role based, it values cultural assumptions for what it means to be a man- men are what men do, therefore, culture perpetuates their role for the inherent benefit it provides society. Obviously this leaves out other forms of “masculinities” by focusing on a mans ability to successfully perform within the triad of manhood. For instance women can be a provider and a protector, especially in today’s contemporary life; or the fact that gay men can very much be “manly” even without fulfilling the first leg of the triad.
I am sure there are critical analysis of the flaws in Gilmore’s argument, but for me of particular concern was his emphasis on cultural construction of masculinity and its utility to benefit society. Gilmore suggests that “Among most of the peoples that anthropologists are familiar with, true manhood is a precious and elusive status beyond mere maleness, a hortatory image that men and boys aspire to and that their culture demands of them as a measure of belonging.”
“Anthropologist Robert LeVine (1979) says it is an organization of cultural principles that function together as a ‘guiding myth within the confines of our culture.’” (however, this is a shared notion, so drop the ‘within the confines of our culture”)— we see the heroic image of an achieved manhood in American movies from Hollywood, Italian American gangster culture, Western cowboy culture epitomizes a radical individualism an independence (the man without a name starring clint eastwood), therefore it is deeply ingrained in American male psyche what manhood archetype is.
Men, when they fit the role (play the part) are beneficial to society, but what happens when they don’t? You see men also go through midlife crises, do women? Do women go out buying convertible red cars, and start doing all the other stereotypical things that are depicted in pop culture? Again, lurking behind this issue was the idea that midlife crises for men were fundamentally challenging their notion of what it meant to be a man, and the expectations that society had of those men. You see society plays a very crucial role in constructing not just relationships but also individual expectations, and there are rewards, a built in system to encourage conformity. Because that would be the only reason why midlife crises behavior would be seen as being an aberration from the norm, why men experience and then come down off of the crisis to reinvest into their “roles” or to “reject” them. Isn’t that what the implications reflect?
On Dislocated Manhood
Going back to the Russell Peters skit of interactions between two cultures in a Canadian mall, we find the Western conundrum- diversity of cultures also means a diversity of manhoods if we accept the concept that manhood is a cultural construct. The implication of a cultural construction for manliness leads me to one of my biggest anxieties growing up- what cultural standard do I meet?
To perform in each of the legs of the Triad, men have to have competency if not mastery to succeed. A man stands at the doorstep to manhood, but here in America, like most Western countries, is a “makeshift masculinity” where there is a bewildering array of possibilities toward/on the path of manhood is in itself a dilemma. the diffuseness and ambiguity presented to a boy, or a man, trying to figure out what it takes to be a man, is in itself a “crisis of masculinity.” Men must resolve this in their own way according to culture; society, however, is the ultimate adjudicator.
When you live in a culture where masculinity is emphasized by the Triad, then boys sense of self comes from their bodies, their sexuality and the morals and principles of accountability are lost when the supporting cultural foundation ceases to function. Instead we get notions of masculinity for being an impregnator focused on the quantity of sexual relationships; where being the protector is driven by selfish individualism; and, where the provider is a contractual exchange. These are all straining to define the path to manliness for young boys, and men, they try to fit these shifting ideals as the current and trends in society emphasize different aspect. I say this because when I look at the sources for defining or explaining masculinity, what I see on the one hand is through the lens of popular culture- dominated by male writers and producers and directors- that present their version of manliness (i.e. X X’s 300); hugging, a localized experience (i.e. machismo culture a la Mexican culture, or a name-your-religion-emphasis); pushing up against the notions of a Western-Judeo-Christian/American-Manifest-Destiny ideal of manhood. And because this is identity, men wear different masks while navigating through different spheres when they come from minority backgrounds. I know this, because I live it.
As an immigrant- or migrant- you experience a dislocated sense of manliness. Because it is not just trying to navigate these various constructs, its also about validating, questioning, discarding portions of you expected from your cultural experience. We often call this our cultural baggage. In the end, my hypothesis is that we have a dislocated masculinity that works; but like a dislocated shoulder hurts like hell and doesn’t function properly, so it is with this construct of masculinity. This dislocated construct is temporary because it is transitional, because like many other communities, immigrant/migrant, communities in America are moving from that generation of arrivals, to the generation that settles and perceives their identities from a greater American context. However, is the American masculine construct ideal?
I don’t have answers here on how any of this should be addressed, in fact, the only thing I have is a very simplistic grasp on my internal discomfort with the culture and my place within it. I think I have far more questions about all of this then answers. However, this is important because for American Muslims, we are constructing an identity. In this endeavor we have to understand how layers, conflicting and similar, interact. Because young boys have to function in American society, and it seems to me that the generational divide is so stark that we are perpetuating this broken, or dislocated, masculinity to the next generation. In America the general norm on the path toward manhood is riddled with ambiguity and there no sure way to get to it, and worse, it involves achieving feats that go against the grain of Islamic behavior.
The pornography affliction, the “where are all the Muslim guys” posts by Muslim girls, the men who constantly act like boys- all of this has to do with the concept of what being a man means. Its all related in my head, and I only have more questions that so far Imams or other folks haven’t fully been able to answer.
The Questions I Have On Top of the Questions I Had
Islam and Masculinity
- Islam is wrapped up in questions of gender when we talk about it in the West, so what is the Masculine in Islam?
- Can you untangle the culture and the religious notions of Masculinity?
- How does this (or the cultural-religious) concept fit into an immigrant experience?
- What are the South Asian (Muslim and other ethnic/cultural) norms of masculinity?
- What are the pervasive contours of American masculinity?
- How does that concept work in a globalizing world?
- Why are there so many men in Hollywood, but such an awful portrayal of masculine ideals?
- How do we learn it?
The Path of Masculinity
- How do we perpetuate this concept?
- Do we want to perpetuate it?
- Teaching masculinity, there is no right or wrong way, is there?
- Questioning the construct, and alternative “masculinities”?