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.
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.
 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.