What does it take to be a man, Part 3: How many masculinities is too many?

In a previous post, I discussed the idea of masculinities. In it I mentioned that masculinity should really be masculinities because there is not one standardized way to be a man. A followup post focussed on masculinities in the Philippines, an area of significance in my own life. In the comments, Mike Swalm and I chatted about the extent of these masculinities looking at the question of how many masculinities is too many? Mike pointed out a key issue with an infinite amount of masculinities and wisely says, “we move toward negation of corporate meaning. Why even talk about masculinity if it has such malleable and infinite meaning? Doesn’t that remove the very nature of the concept as something that is definable as a category, giving us no real ability to say it is “this” and not “that”?”

I thought I would take the opportunity of Mike’s question to discuss where masculinity studies is in this seemingly infinite continuum. As usual I will take a Bakhtinian approach.

Monologue. Revisiting Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity, we realise that even though there may be any number of variations on the masculinity theme within a given context, there is one that predominates the discussion so much that it drowns out the others. Interestingly enough the predominant theme doesn’t necessarily have the most supporters — it just predominates. Bakhtin called this “monologue.” Even though Connell’s insights have opened the door to other masculinities as being acceptable, masculinities more closely associated with patriarchy continue to predominate.

Dialogue. Obviously dialogue is better than monologue because it allows another voice to provide balance. We actually prefer a dialogic point of view because we enjoy dividing things up into to opposing parties. It is this recognition that leads from singular masculinity to plural mascuinities. In reality, however, things are rarely as black and white as we might like. In fact, they are often greyscale.

Heteroglossia. But there aren’t just two voices in dialogue — there are a multitude of voices, each seemingly clamouring for attention, each contributing to what it means to be a man. This moves us beyond greyscale into millions of colours. It’s actually this final idea that creates the question Mike asks because it seems to leave open the possibility of an infinite number of potential masculinities.

At the risk of oversimplification, on a practical level, there aren’t an infinite number of men in the world; the world is at least divided into males and females. That means that give or take 50% of the worlds population isn’t male. That means that the first line of demarcation is the male-female.[1]

A second line of demarcation is society itself. Society creates a framework for the conversations surrounding masculinity. Sometimes these societies are monologic in nature but quite often they provide limitations on the range of acceptable meanings within that society. For example, in a study I did in my community, where men had a variety of religious experiences and influences, I was surprised to discover that the conversation centred around only a couple of common themes. There is no limit to the horizons of epistemology in Bakhtin but the conversations still revolved around a few key clusters, including the importance of the wants, needs, and input of wives and families and seeing Christianity as central to their faith. Perhaps this means that cultures as a whole exert influence on the boundaries of dialogue that make it difficult for conversation to move beyond those points.

A final aspect of Bakhtin’s idea provides another level of demarcation. Bakhtin wasn’t really looking for that one unifying, universal answer to life. His purposes in developing his framework were not so that we could necessarily make sense of this crazy world we live in. Rather he seems to be giving us a way to recognise and embrace the messiness of this world we live in.

How does all of this work? Let me try an illustration from sports. For me, there is only one hockey team. When I refer to this team I will use the word “dynasty.” I will refer to their preponderance of Stanley Cup wins. I will refer to their aggressive style of play. Yup, you guessed it. My team is the Montreal Canadiens (How ’bout them Habs?). In many ways my allegiance to the Montreal Canadians is monologic. When we were kids we would argue about who we liked best. But through thick and thin it was Montreal for me. I know that other teams exist but what’s interesting is that I am not sure what you could do to convince me to cheer for another team.

But I do have to admit that Montreal is not the only team that exists. After all, they do need teams to beat 😉 The National Hockey League provides the fodder for the Montreal machine. It started with the Original Six (who some believe are the only real teams), then expanded to twelve in 1968, then to eighteen in 1974, twenty-two in 1992, and finally to the current thirty-two teams that take to the ice each week.

What also happened during these years is that hockey expanded internationally. What begun as an almost exclusively Canadian sport now has teams and players from all around the world. I remember watching a recreational team playing in the Philippines’ only ice rink a number of years ago. A friend was a part of a team in the United Arab Emirates around that time as well. Hockey has indeed become a heteroglossia.

What is interesting is that regardless of the level of the sport — from the NHL all the way down to shinny on the street in front of your house — the sport is still hockey. The nuance hasn’t changed that. What this has done for the sport is to make hockey better. I recall as a child reading about how Team Canada defeated some hapless international opponent 50-0. That wouldn’t happen today. In fact, international hockey is incredibly competitive, at both professional and amateur levels. The result is the reality that a team like the Montreal Canadiens cannot dominate the sport any more because other teams are able to join the conversation. Rather than a single dominant team, what we see is an entire sport that is played on an almost infinite number of levels. And the sport is better for it.

In a similar way, a deeper understanding of masculinities can only make those masculinities better. We need to move beyond the idea of a singular approved masculinity into a better set of masculinities.

What contribution are you making to the masculinity conversation? How are you making your voice heard? Please feel free to leave a note in the comments below to let us know.

Remember sharing is what friends do.

Missed the previous posts on this subject? You can read them here: Part 1 and Part 2.


Notes:

[1] The 2SLGBTQ+ conversation is still going strong, and is still undergoing development. What started out as simply “straight” or “gay” has exploded into a seemingly infinite number of options as heteroglossia in that area develops. The male-female demarcation that I use here is not intended as a rejection of those voices but merely a recognition of the fact that, one, the voices are still sorting themselves out and, two, that I don’t understand them enough to place them into an easily-explained framework.

Image by Andrew Wulf on Unsplash.

6 thoughts on “What does it take to be a man, Part 3: How many masculinities is too many?

  1. Pingback: My thoughts on Kristin Du Mez’ “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.” | Michael J. Fast

  2. Hi Michael. I put together a reply of sorts but it looks to have gotten lost in the ether. So I’ll do my best to reiterate, though admittedly my memory is lacking these days!
    Firstly, thanks for the continuing conversation. It’s a blessing to me to see this progressing!
    Secondly, a few thoughts/questions this post elicits in me:
    1. You are correct that my language of “infinite masculinities” was hyperbolic! There are indeed not an infinite number of men. However, even taking 49% of the current population of the world (I think that’s the percentage, but I’m going off the cuff), and adding all the other 49%’s from generations past, we get an awfully big number. It is not an infinite number, but billions of masculinities certainly still seems unwieldy!
    2. I love the language of “framework” – the challenge to the methodology you are proposing (at least as I read it, working from local to global, from individual to communal) is of course that it is not as efficient in terms of work, and that it requires so much more sociological work that can too easily introduce agenda and bias on the part of the observer. That is, if we ask certain questions of masculinity, we often assume answers that predetermine frameworks. AN ethnographic approach is laudable but can be fraught with all sorts of landmines!
    3. The societal boundaries and shaping mechanisms are fascinating, and I’d love to read more about how you see those at work in shaping our conceptions of masculinity. I wonder if we don’t run into the same challenge as number 1, however. Is it the case that society so exerts influence and shapes masculinity, and that there are so many different cultures, that we may be left with more data than skill to distill? Nature vs. nurture always fascinates me!
    4. Finally, a note about hockey. I am a terrible Canadian and don’t play or follow hockey, but I’ve lived here long enough to know enough to converse. I love the comparison with heteroglossia, but it raised a question in me. There is such a thing as “hockey” and that thing has definable shape and rules that make it “hockey” despite its seemingly infinite variations. But some things we call “hockey” bear little to no resemblance to “hockey” – say for instance “air hockey”, which shares almost no identifiable characteristics with ice hockey. Or field hockey. This, then, clarifies our challenge for me. Are there things called “masculine” that are not, and if there are such things, how do we identify them as such if we’re not yet able to say what “masculine” is?
    Thanks so much for this conversation, and blessings on you for exploring this. I’m loving it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mike,

      Bias is not something that we can really escape from and perhaps that is the crux of this whole conversation. Bias is not necessarily wrong. How can we have a discussion about masculinity that acknowledges and embraces these biases when formulating frameworks about masculinities. As Hammersley says when defining hermeneutics for the The Sage Dictionary of Social Research Methods,

      “The study of how we understand the communications, actions and products of other human beings – especially those of past times or other cultures. But it also implies a particular set of views about what such understanding involves, one that stresses the role of inner life experience, culture and/or imagination on the part of the interpreter – as against attempts to found the historical and social sciences on a method that begins from, or tests hypotheses against, description of the external features and/or behaviour of human beings.”

      Bias, or “a particular set of views about what such understanding involves,” is a key part of interpretation.

      With regards to your 3rd comment, I am working on some descriptions of the sociological boundaries of masculinities but that will take another form than this blog. Part of my doctoral work touched on this area and I hope to turn some of it into a book in the near future.

      I also need to make a confession here, Mike. I don’t follow nor do I play hockey either. My only knowledge comes from my elementary school days. But the points you raised about hockey are interesting. But what, as Mike asks, makes air hockey, field hockey, etc. hockey? In fact, I was also thinking about how the term hockey is used.

      Of course for Canadians, hockey is played on ice. It has a very specific set of rules and a certain way it is played. Perhaps road hockey and floor hockey remain closest to the original. And maybe table hockey with the little spinning figures. Then there is air hockey, played on a perforated table that allows the puck to float as it bounces around. The Olympics have featured field hockey for many years, this played with a curved stick that is used to strike a ball. Many more versions exist: I was actually surprised at the number of other hockey — and hockey-esque — games listed in the Wikipedia article about the sport, many I had never heard of.

      There appear to be a few common features, which is perhaps why they are all considered to be related.
      1. Played on a surface.
      2. Played using an instrument (usually a hockey stick).
      3. The goal is exactly that, to make a goal, usually by directing an object (usually a puck) into a net that is flat against the playing surface.

      I guess when we apply this to the study of masculinities, we need to determine what are the common features that can keep the conversation grounded.

      Enjoying this conversation, brother.

      Like

  3. Hi Michael. I put together a reply of sorts but it looks to have gotten lost in the ether. So I’ll do my best to reiterate, though admittedly my memory is lacking these days!

    Firstly, thanks for the continuing conversation. It’s a blessing to me to see this progressing!

    Secondly, a few thoughts/questions this post elicits in me:

    1. You are correct that my language of “infinite masculinities” was hyperbolic! There are indeed not an infinite number of men. However, even taking 49% of the current population of the world (I think that’s the percentage, but I’m going off the cuff), and adding all the other 49%’s from generations past, we get an awfully big number. It is not an infinite number, but billions of masculinities certainly still seems unwieldy!
    2. I love the language of “framework” – the challenge to the methodology you are proposing (at least as i read it, working from local to global, from individual to communal) is of course that it is not as efficient in terms of work, and that it requires so much more sociological work that can too easily introduce agenda and bias on the part of the observer. That is, if we ask certain questions of masculinity, we often assume answers that predetermine frameworks. AN ethnographic approach is laudable, but can be fraught with all sorts of landmines!
    3. The societal boundaries and shaping mechanisms are fascinating, and I’d love to read more about how you see those at work in shaping our conceptions of masculinity. I wonder if we don’t run into the same challenge as number 1, however. Is it the case that society so exerts influence and shapes masculinity, and that there are so many different cultures, that we may be left with more data than skill to distill? Nature vs. nurture always fascinates me!
    4. Finally, a note about hockey. I am a terrible Canadian and don’t play or follow hockey, but I’ve lived here long enough to know enough to converse. I love the comparison with heteroglossia, but it raised a question in me. There is such a thing as “hockey” and that thing has definable shape and rules that make it “hockey” despite it’s seemingly infinite variations. But some things we call “hockey” bear little to no resemblance to “hockey” – say for instance “air hockey”, which shares almost no identifiable characteristics with ice hockey. Or field hockey. This, then, clarifies our challenge for me. Are there things called “masculine” that are not, and if there are such things, how do we identify them as such if we’re not yet able to say what “masculine” is?

    Thanks so much for this conversation, and blessings on you for exploring this. I’m loving it!

    Like

  4. Hi Michael. I put together a reply of sorts but it looks to have gotten lost in the ether. So I’ll do my best to reiterate, though admittedly my memory is lacking these days!

    Firstly, thanks for the continuing conversation. It’s a blessing to me to see this progressing!

    Secondly, a few thoughts/questions this post elicits in me:

    1. You are correct that my language of “infinite masculinities” was hyperbolic! There are indeed not an infinite number of men. However, even taking 49% of the current population of the world (I think that’s the percentage, but I’m going off the cuff), and adding all the other 49%’s from generations past, we get an awfully big number. It is not an infinite number, but billions of masculinities certainly still seems unwieldy!
    2. I love the language of “framework” – the challenge to the methodology you are proposing (at least as i read it, working from local to global, from individual to communal) is of course that it is not as efficient in terms of work, and that it requires so much more sociological work that can too easily introduce agenda and bias on the part of the observer. That is, if we ask certain questions of masculinity, we often assume answers that predetermine frameworks. AN ethnographic approach is laudable, but can be fraught with all sorts of landmines!
    3. The societal boundaries and shaping mechanisms are fascinating, and I’d love to read more about how you see those at work in shaping our conceptions of masculinity. I wonder if we don’t run into the same challenge as number 1, however. Is it the case that society so exerts influence and shapes masculinity, and that there are so many different cultures, that we may be left with more data than skill to distill? Nature vs. nurture always fascinates me!
    4. Finally, a note about hockey. I am a terrible Canadian and don’t play or follow hockey, but I’ve lived here long enough to know enough to converse. I love the comparison with heteroglossia, but it raised a question in me. There is such a thing as “hockey” and that thing has definable shape and rules that make it “hockey” despite it’s seemingly infinite variations. But some things we call “hockey” bear little to no resemblance to “hockey” – say for instance “air hockey”, which shares almost no identifiable characteristics with ice hockey. Or field hockey. This, then, clarifies our challenge for me. Are there things called “masculine” that are not, and if there are such things, how do we identify them as such if we’re not yet able to say what “masculine” is?

    Thanks so much for this conversation, and blessings on you for exploring this. I’m loving it!

    Like

  5. Hi Michael, and thanks so much for your exploration here. I know i’ve been tagged on social media but it’s taken me a while to find a free moment to work through the implications of what you’re saying.

    A few thoughts and questions came to mind as I read:
    1. You’re right, we’re not dealing with infinite masculinities. But given your statement, we’re at least dealing with billions, which is not insignificant (if we use the extreme understanding that each man has his own masculinity which is in some way differentiated). I’m not averse to billions, but I’m not sure it helps us define masculinity as anything other than “something just under half the population of earth shares somehow, but individuated” (hyperbolic, I know).
    2. Society certainly exerts significant “boundary” on our identity…I appreciate your emphasis on the societal formation of norms and expected behaviours. I suppose where I’m coming from in North America, we’re seeing such significant pushback against what those norms have been that there seems to be (and i have no data to back this up, I know) a “twisting in the wind” when it comes to a collective sense of masculinity. Perhaps interaction with other societies would help us make some clearer lines of demarcation, or perhaps it would add to the caucophony (heteroglossia can be a whole lot noisier!).
    3. I love the hockey analogy (though I’m a terrible canadian and don’t actually play or watch hockey)…but in some ways doesn’t it just more concretely identify the problem? There are a massive number of hockey “versions” but all of them have, as you say, hockey in common. The look of the game, the rules, the “essence” of hockey remains, despite the multiplicity and variety of forms. That’s the big question I’m still confused about…what’s the “essence” of masculinity that the conversations (heteroglossia) identify? The challenge seems to me that we’re trying to listen to all the conversations and then distill and summarize into what it means to be masculine. That would be like not really recognizing hockey but seeing it in all of its variety and form and then trying to distill all of those expressions, in a way, into “hockey.” I love the concept of working from the specific to the general but struggle here with its implementation.
    And now it’s time for bed. Bless you Michael for instigating this vital conversation. I’m loving it!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.