Is there masculinity without men?
In recent years, the question whether there can be masculinity without men has ignited substantial intellectual discourse. This query poses an intriguing conundrum, marked by complexities arising from the absence of a singular, universally accepted definition of masculinity.
This essay delves into the sociological examination of masculinity beyond men’s figures. The initial section aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of masculinity by examining various definitions and delineating the foundational characteristics for subsequent discussions. Following that, the essay will delve into an analysis of queer female masculinities, focusing on the experiences of lesbians in order to elucidate the phenomenon of masculinity beyond traditional male contexts, by referring to one of the brightest manifestations of such a case. Furthermore, attention will be directed toward investigating female masculinity in diverse cultural contexts, shedding light on the multiplicity of expressions observed across societies
The initial inquiry into masculinity presents a challenging task, as there is no singular, comprehensive definition available.
Gender, as a socially constructed power system, organizes identities, norms, and behaviors around notions of masculinity and femininity. Judith Butler’s gender performativity idea emphasizes that gender is a continually enacted social construct shaped by behavior, action, and appearance ((Butler, 1999).
Another very close idea of gender is suggested by Raewyn Connell. She proposes focusing “on the processes and relationships through which men and women conduct gendered lives. “Masculinity” to the extent the term can be briefly defined at all, is simultaneously a place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women engage that place in gender, and the effect of these practices in bodily experience, personality, and culture” (Connell, 2018). While Judith Butler’s work emphasizes the performative aspects of gender, Connell’s approach underscores the importance of recognizing gender also as a place, where the performance happens.
When we think about masculinity, usually a certain image comes to mind: tough and dominated gays with patriarchal privileges. This type can be described as hegemonic masculinity, which refers to the dominant form of masculinity that is culturally and socially privileged within a given society (Connell, 2005).
Hegemonic masculinity, the prevailing form of privilege in a society, is often associated with traits like physical strength, aggression, emotional restraint, and competitiveness. This dominant type also involves a breadwinner role and, notably, homophobia, which is central to its definition (Connell, 2005; Kimmel, 1997). Here it should be noted that such aspects of masculinity as homophobia depends on certain society. In many “traditionally oriented” nations, which endorse conventional gender roles characterized by distinct gender traits, this phenomenon tends to be more pronounced.
While masculinity remains multifaceted and fluid, and hegemonic masculinities are not the only ones available in society. However, a particular type of hegemonic masculinity serves as a reliable source of information about the power dynamic and the way to organize society from the gender perspective.
Female Masculinities: Expanding Perspectives
Talking about masculinity, most authors usually mean male masculinity like it’s the only and natural feature connected to the male body. However, there are some thinkers who made attempts to separate this idea from the body.
Eve Sedgwick is one of those, who challenges the association of masculinity existing solely with men, asserting that it can exist independently of male bodies (Sedgwick, 1995). Female masculinities have been historically obscured, but their existence is evident through examples from history, literature, cinema, and science. Exploring female masculinity involves considering status, power relations, and physical characteristics.
If in the case of the general notion of masculinity, we have numerous definitions applicable to different kinds of contexts, the case with female masculinity is much more difficult.
In general, the concept of “female masculinity” refers to a cultural and social understanding of masculinity traits, behaviors, and characteristics that are typically associated with men or maleness but are exhibited or embraced by individuals who identify as female or as women.
However, it’s not enough to take the general definition and tie it to the female body. It’s necessary to define the unique traits of female masculinity. Jack Halberstam one of the most known person who tried to define this phenomenon through the particular examples from the cinema and literature, and the most suitable analytical tool is lesbian masculinities, which will be explored further.
Queer masculinities refer to expressions of masculinity that deviate from traditional societal norms and challenge established gender binaries. They encompass a wide range of non-normative gender identities and presentations that disrupt and transcend conventional understandings of masculinity and its attachment to the man’s body.
Lesbians have often been recognized as representatives of female masculinities, as their identities challenge traditional gender norms and expectations. In her groundbreaking book “Female Masculinity,” Jack Halberstam examines the intersections between lesbianism and masculinity, highlighting how lesbian individuals embody and perform various forms of masculinity (Halberstam, 2018).
One of the first examples in terms of female/lesbian masculinity is tomboy. It might be considered as a type of extended childhood period of female masculinity. One of the main ideas of a tomboy, described by Halberstam, is that as even a cursory survey of popular cinema confirms, the image of the tomboy can be tolerated only within a narrative of blossoming womanhood; within such a narrative, tomboyism represents resistance to adulthood itself rather than to adult femininity (Halberstam, 2018).
One of the well-known examples, depicted in the literature, is Idgie Threadgoode from “Fried Green Tomatoes”. Idgie is portrayed as a free-spirited and independent woman who defies societal expectations and embraces a more masculine presentation and behavior. She prefers to wear men’s clothes (pants, suspenders, and button-down shirt) which deviates from traditional feminine attire. Additionally, her love for sports and her participation in traditionally male-dominated activities further reinforce her tomboy identity. And finally, it’s not openly pictured, but it means that her sexuality also “deviates” from the traditional norms – from her child/teenagehood she falls in love with Ruth. Their relationship is portrayed as intimate and affectionate, with Idgie displaying strong feelings of love and devotion towards Ruth.
It is worth mentioning that such “type” is alive beyond the books. Moreover, it’s associated not only with child/teenage female masculinity, but also it’s one of the lesbian “types” which is similarly characterized by a combination of masculine traits such as more boyish or masculine presentation, behavior, and interests.
The second example of female masculinity among lesbians is butch. This term is closely associated with gender identity and performance, challenging traditional notions of femininity and embracing a more masculine presentation.
Butch female masculinity is often characterized by a range of physical, behavioral, and stylistic traits. These may include adopting more traditionally masculine clothing, hairstyles, and mannerisms. Butch individuals may also engage in activities and interests that are culturally associated with masculinity, such as sports or manual labor.
Interestingly, here is what Halberstam describes (a lot and mainly in their first chapter) as a standard feature of the butch narrative – the bathroom problem. Due to their gender presentation, butch individuals may encounter resistance, suspicion, or hostility when using gendered bathrooms. They may face scrutiny or be subjected to verbal harassment from others who perceive them as not conforming to societal expectations of femininity. This can lead to feelings of anxiety, self-consciousness, and even a reluctance to use public restrooms altogether.
Leslie Feinberg perfectly describes this issue in her “Stone Blues Butch” book, providing a bathroom scene experienced by the main character Jay: the author describes her situation as a limitation to move around in the public space. This experience might be characterized as confusing and stressful.
The bathroom problem illuminates the challenges faced by butch women in relation to their female masculinity. This issue underscores the tension between their authentic expression of masculinity and societal expectations of femininity. The bathroom problem exposes the limitations and rigidity of gender norms, as butch women are marginalized and subjected to scrutiny for deviating from traditional feminine ideals.
Masculinities in different cultures
Discussing indigenous cultures with a variety of gender, it’s hard to not recall the concept of Orientalism presented by Edward Said.
It can be perfectly applied to the Western imposition of a binary gender system on Indigenous societies that historically recognized more than two genders. Orientalism refers to the Western representation and domination of non-Western cultures, often resulting in the distortion and subjugation of their identities and practices. In the context of Indigenous cultures, many societies traditionally recognized multiple gender identities and expressions, including the existence of Two-Spirit individuals. However, the arrival of Western colonial powers and the imposition of binary gender norms sought to suppress and erase these diverse gender identities. This process of Orientalism perpetuated a Eurocentric understanding of gender and reinforced the notion that there are only two fixed and mutually exclusive genders. However, this norm is not true for numerous indigenous societies. The following examples will serve to demonstrate this.
Sworn Virgins in Albania
Sworn Virgins, also known as “burrneshe” in Albanian culture, are individuals who take a lifelong vow of chastity and live as men within their communities. Other ways of naming sworn virgins include sokoleshe. Literally translated, sokol means falcon.
The words burrneshe and sokoleshe are associated with hyper-masculine connotations, while the ending –eshe makes the word grammatically feminine. These terms are used to praise a woman for her characteristics which are, in these societies, desirable in men and often overlooked in women.
This unique gender practice has been documented in various regions of Albania, particularly in the northern mountainous areas. Sworn Virgins are typically assigned female at birth but choose to assume male social roles and behaviors. Becoming a sworn virgin means completely disregarding your sexuality to have a better societal role. Since that moment of change, now they can act as a man: smoke, drink, hold a gun, dress as a man, use the male pronoun, and have men’s jobs, but what is most important – is the change of power dynamic. Now these new men have the power to make decisions, to be the householders, and to use all privileges given to men (The Collector, 2022).
One of the reasons described in some stories is to avoid unwanted marriage. Also, the economic reason plays its role – after the death of the father or other breadwinner of the family, women might decide to take this place to care for their family. Some have said they became sworn virgins simply because they felt more male than female. However, one of the sworn virgins emphasizes that this choice has nothing to do with sexuality, rather it’s a choice to have another role, and another position in the family (BBC News, 2022).
Although our understanding of the motivations behind the choice to become a Sworn Virgin may be incomplete, it is crucial to acknowledge that this practice serves as a compelling illustration of the existence of masculinity independent of the male physical embodiment.
Two Spirits cultures in North America
Native Americans prioritized a person’s “spirit” or character over their physical body, placing greater importance on internal qualities. Rather than perceiving two-spirit individuals as transsexuals seeking to become the “opposite sex,” a more accurate understanding is to recognize them as individuals who assume a gender identity that differs from both men and women.
Navajo scholar Wesley Thomas explains that Navajo culture has four genders (Wesley, 1997):
- feminine women – asdzaan (they are biologically and function socially as female)
- masculine man – hastiin (an “opposite” to feminine woman)
- feminine man – nádleehí (was born biologically as man, but function socially as female)
- masculine female – dilbaa (an opposite: was born biologically as female, but function socially as male)
Navajo culture views masculine females as separate from other female-bodied people because their role in society is different from primary gender women. Today, masculine females occupy some roles usually associated with men.
One of the well known authors who writes about two-spirit identity, Chelsea Vowel provides another gender classification of two-spirit society, which includes such categories as a man who dresses as a woman, a woman dressed as a man, a man dressed/living/accepted as a woman, a woman dressed/living/accepted as a man, one who acts/lives as a woman, and one who acts/lives as a man (post by 2012, “Language, Culture, and Two-Spirit Identity.” Apihtawikosisan).
Two Spirit people often take on wives and husbands of the opposite gender, but not always; they may have diverse sexual experiences with both men and women.
Nevertheless, the Two Spirits are not regarded as homosexual, bisexual, or even transgender.
The exploration of masculinities in different cultures, including the examples of Two-Spirit cultures in North America and the practice of Sworn Virgins in Albania, challenges the assumption that masculinity is solely tied to male bodies. These cultural phenomena demonstrate that masculinity can exist and be expressed independently of biological sex or the presence of men.
Keeping in mind provided examples, it’s important to understand these examples provide valuable perspectives on how gender can be performed and understood outside traditional gender binaries and bodies, but they are just a fraction of the broader spectrum.
Connell, R. (2018). Masculinities.
Connell, R. (2005). Hegemonic masculinities: Rethinking the concept.
Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge.
Sedgwick, E. K. (1995). Constructing masculinity.
Kimmel, M. S. (1997). Masculinity as homophobia: Fear, shame, and silence in the construction of gender identity.
Halberstam, J. (2018). Female masculinity.
“Balkan Sworn Virgins.” BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63904744
“The Forgotten Sworn Virgins of the Balkans.” The Collector. Retrieved from https://www.thecollector.com/balkan-sworn-virgins/
Thomas, W. (1997). Two-spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality.
“Language, Culture, and Two-Spirit Identity.” Apihtawikosisan. Retrieved from https://apihtawikosisan.com/2012/03/language-culture-and-two-spirit-identity/
Williams, W. L. L. (1992). The spirit and the flesh: Sexual diversity in American Indian culture.