This essay is not directed primarily at trans or agender people, who will likely get this on a visceral level (though please feel free to tell me if I’m wildly off-base anywhere). This is for cisgender people who don’t. Because I think it’s something that gets missed, even in otherwise excellent discourses around gender, and we should talk about it.
So with that out of the way, I’ll dive in. This is going to be a long one.
There’s a creator on YouTube called David J Bradley, to whose channel I was recently introduced. He makes videos giving a broadly leftist, progressive take on media he enjoys and general topics he wants to address, where he talks about gender and sexuality fairly often. And does so very well! I’d highly recommend you check out his work.
David’s latest piece, Masculinity, is an excellent introduction to both toxic masculinity and the performative model of gender developed by theorists like Judith Butler (whom he references extensively). He approaches the topics of what traditional ideas of manliness and gender roles do to men, and how patriarchy harms us in deep and often deadly ways, with care and compassion. In the end, he makes the case for building one’s own, healthier version of masculinity from the available parts lying around. It’s an expansive, well-argued analysis of heteronormative gender roles and of how they’re enforced in our society, which sucks for everyone. Men included.
That said, I have a few notes. Because while David does eventually arrive at something like the model of gender I’m putting forward here, in his suggestions for how we can move forward and build a better version of manhood — and props to him for getting there on his own — it is in spite of the framework he uses. Let’s talk about the problems with performative gender theory
All An Act?
Judith Butler is a brilliant writer and Feminist theorist. Her seminal book, Gender Trouble, was groundbreaking when it was published in 1990. I encountered it at university, and found it incredibly useful in shaping my own understanding of gender. It’s considered essential reading for a reason. She makes a vital and persuasive case for gender expressions as socially-constructed and enforced phenomena with norms that perpetuate themselves down the generations. The idea of gender as a performance, something we act out for other people and ourselves, is powerful. It enables a deeper interrogation of what gender is and how it functions in society.
Butler does, however, miss a crucial aspect of gender in her analysis. And in leaning so heavily on her work, David ends up almost missing it too.
Whilst making the case that gender is a socially constructed set of performative behaviours — something we do, an act for others and ourselves — Butler states:
“Although there are individual bodies that enact these significations by becoming stylised into gendered roles, this action is a public action. There are temporal and collective dimensions to these actions and their public character is not inconsequential; indeed, the performance is effected with the strategic aim of maintaining gender within its binary frame — an aim that cannot be attributed to a subject, but rather, must be understood to found and consolidate the subject.”
This is a broadly accurate description of how gender operates as performance, albeit with a somewhat unhelpful elision of the objectives and coercive strategies of the patriarchy with the idea of gender itself (not to mention a lack of regard for individual agency). Later, she continues:
“Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalises nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires, and because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts there would be no gender at all.”
Here, Butler approaches gender as if it’s entirely a social fiction, a construct developed to keep people in their place and enforce patriarchal ideals. Despite her undeniably invaluable assessment of how gender roles operate in our society, and how we can use the way we act to reinforce our own identities and maintain social norms, she conflates “traditional” gender binaries with what they seek to colonise and control. In this, she not only does the patriarchy’s work for it, she makes an unforced and unfortunate category error. Consequently, she centres the cis, white, Western experience of gender in a way that, ironically, erases the very people whose mere existences challenge the binary she seeks to dismantle.
Gender isn’t just an act. Nor is it a product of the society around us. As any trans person who’s had to speak, wear clothing, and generally perform in a way that feels fundamentally wrong to them on a daily basis can tell you, it isn’t only something you do. It’s something humans feel in our bones. Something we are. It’s an essential part of our internal identity and experience. Performance is a central aspect of gender, but it’s not the whole picture. There’s more to it than meets the eye.
Nature, Nurture, and Not Listening to Trans People
Theorists often get fairly dry when talking about the subjects they’re analysing. It’s easy to become so lost in the intricacies of a topic, and so focused on the model of the thing we’re holding up to the light we have in our heads, that we forget to account for a diversity of lived experiences. Especially when it’s something we have a personal connection with, and therefore cannot ever approach from the outside, we tend to centre our own takes on a given topic. For her part, Butler attributes all facets of gender to aculturation, to societal conditioning and social enforcement, and asserts that it would not exist if society didn’t build it for us. This is, frankly, arse-backwards.
Gender and the ways we express that part of ourselves to others are not the same thing. The psychological reality of gender is far more complicated than social coercion and patriarchy internalised. Like a great deal of the human condition, gender exists on a spectrum, with all the messiness and confusion that entails. Everyone has their unique range of positions on it, error bars within which we feel most comfortable, and for some those bounds are relatively narrow. For more flexible individuals, they cover many more possibilities. This is an essential part of us, and when we are forced to go beyond the hard edges of where we feel we lie on that spectrum, it is deeply uncomfortable. When we are consistently forced to act in a way that doesn’t feel right to us, it does significant damage. And not just because Boys Don’t Cry.
Humans are extremely social creatures, and we often can’t help but define ourselves on the terms set by our communities. Yet the definitions we gravitate towards — what we want to say about ourselves rather than the way we can say it, when and to whom we feel comfortable doing so — are by and large not determined this way.
There are certain ways that men are “supposed” to act in our society, and there are expectations about women’s behaviour. How someone dresses is used to tell other people something of who they are. A person’s words; the pitch and intonation of their voice; the way they cross their legs. These are all signs in a dialect that changes with environment, time, and culture. Practically anything we do can be read in the context of gender. None of these signifiers is gender. They are merely the ways we express our identities, how we relate to each other, and how we reinforce that part of ourselves which relies on external affirmation for a measure of definition. Gender expression is a social language, while gender itself is an internal state. The former is the medium; the latter the message. This becomes blindingly obvious if you look at cultures which have norms which differ from ours.
When I was eight years old, my family visited Bali, in Indonesia. My youngest sister had been born just under a year prior, so my mum was carrying her for most of the trip. Instead of women crowding round and cooing over a new baby, as you might see in Western countries, it was universally the men — all dressed in traditional sarongs. When I, inquisitive kid that I was, queried the marked difference in male performance and dress to the UK, it was explained to me that men simply acted differently there because they were a lot more involved in raising children. I remember it came as something of a minor revelation at the time, though I didn’t have the tools to explain why until many years later.
Childhood reminiscences aside, this speaks directly both to the social aspect of gender, and how it works on a personal, individual level.
The men cooing over my baby sister weren’t doing so because they were different from men elsewhere, nor were they performing behaviour that was considered feminine in their society. They did it because they were men, and that is what men do when babies are present, where they lived. It was part of how they stated and reaffirmed their masculinity to themselves and their community — but more than that alone. An opportunity to act in a way that affirms one’s identity tugs at something deeper: the universal human need for self-expression, whether anyone can see you or not. Guys don’t do weird shit like flexing solo in front of the mirror because society told them to, or because anyone is watching. We do it for ourselves.
The ways we have to convey our gender to others and ourselves are determined by our society. As are those in which we feel comfortable expressing it, and not necessarily thanks to our fear of social ostracisation if we don’t act as expected. Speaking with trans friends about their journeys towards self-acceptance and comfort in their own skin, and from my own experiences questioning and hashing out how I feel about my identity, it is clear to me that the description of gender Butler gives comes up short. In failing to account for or listen to people who aren’t cisgendered, straight, and white, she entirely misses out those whose lives could most illuminate and enrich her arguments.
We Can Rebuild Him, We Have the Technology
David’s video-essay is, aside from the inclusion of Judith Butler’s worst conclusion about the subject to which she’s otherwise contributed hugely, pretty damn good. To his credit, he seems to realise the problem with her line of reasoning fairly quickly after quoting it. While he doesn’t actively highlight the glaring issues present in her analysis of what gender actually is, her theory of gender-as-performance provides a firm foundation for his argument. He then swiftly moves past the entirely socially constructed model he initially presented and acknowledges that we do feel a certain way about our gender as well, whilst highlighting differing experiences of it. It is, overall, solid work.
The main thrust of his argument focuses not on any definition of gender, but the need for a new and less toxic version of masculinity. It’s a worthwhile goal, and a valiant attempt at moving men in a positive direction and away from violent, outdated, harmful archetypes. He comes to the conclusion that, if men want to be better — if we want to be less awful to ourselves and the people around us, as a group — then we had better stop letting a thoroughly broken and abusive society draw the boundaries of acceptable performance for us. We need to build our own models of how to be men, ones that fit better than the copy-pasted, chest-thumping personas to which so many of us cling.
He’s completely right, of course. And with few lodestars to guide us as we struggle to figure out what “manliness” really means in 2020, plenty of men are lost and in pain they feel unable to either bear or talk about. Far too many are searching for answers in all the wrong places, and deeply harming themselves or others. It’s nothing like the oppression and trauma faced by queer people (hi), say, but as he points out it is nonetheless murderous. And even if it weren’t, suffering is suffering, and pain is pain no matter who’s feeling it or what privileges they enjoy. It matters that a decent proportion of the population is adrift and miserable, and we should try to help. If for no reason other than the second-hand sorrow they transmit to everyone else. So it’s heartening to see a fellow cis guy with an understanding of gender and sexuality as considered as David’s tackling the problem head-on.
It would be remiss of me not to point out, though, that trans guys have been cobbling together their own versions of manhood from bailing wire and twigs for as long as they’ve been able to publicly do so. And a lot longer in private.
They are often rendered somehow even less visible than trans women, and face similar challenges having their identities accepted by large sections of the population, on both the Left and Right. Like all trans people, they have had to struggle to realise an iota of their true selves, with every institution and most of the society around them fighting against it tooth and nail every step of the way.
Trans guys have been forced by necessity and long years of hardship to figure out what’s essential to manhood, for each of them, and what can be left at the door. If anyone knows how to build a kinder, stronger version of masculinity in a crisis, they do. We might ask for a tip or two.
2021 Update: Heh, well, turns out I’m nonbinary. But leaving this mostly unedited because editing it would screw up my own rhetoric in a bunch of places and it’s a little uncomfortable to figure out how to put my own gender across in the piece.