Is masculinity in crisis?

Edwin McSwineRecently, two elderly men came into the same crowded train carriage as me. One had a walking stick so the other assisted him on to the train and on to the seat which I stood up to offer. I’d guess the men were in their early 80s but I’m not good at predicting the ages of either the very old or very young.
‘Thank you young lady,’ the man with the stick said as I stood up. They were in good spirits.
I’ve written here about my tendency to eavesdrop. Maybe because of this I have developed a skill of “hearing” even the unsaid. I sensed namely that without saying much these two old men were reminiscing about someone whom I reminded them of. They flirted with me in that charming way old men do  by not meaning it really, with a kind of nostalgic respect. The conversation about the woman whom I resembled either physically or metaphysically lasted no longer than a minute.

‘I wonder what happened to her, ‘ one of the men said.

‘Yes,’ the other responded, thoughtfully, exhausting the topic.

I stopped listening to the rest of their conversation. My inner storyteller was satisfied. The observation I’d made, which I am now writing as much as an attempt to understand it myself, as to share a story with you, was that the men shared a physical closeness which came along with a perceivably comfortable emotional component to it. Their friendship was coated by a comradely intimacy which I rarely see younger men demonstrate to each other.

As there is guilt in innocence, there is innocence in guilt. – Yoruba proverb

One thing that irks me about much of the written word about Africa, whether in newspapers, academic books or novels, is the uncritical way in which many writers still produce so called historic facts about Africa without reflecting about their own objectivity and the understanding of the society they write about. For example, it’s one thing to defend the European slave trade by writing about how Africans also heartlessly sold slaves. It is another, often more truthful thing, to write about the Africans who sold slaves as men who indeed were as heartless and brutal as the white slave-traders, but who nonetheless also were leaders of communities and saw the transactions as a way to enhance their positions. History can not erase an atrocity but if written carelessly it can erase power. It is untrue that influential African men gave up their sovereignty. Yes, at the expense of the less fortunate they negotiated their authority, sometimes selfishly, sometimes carelessly and often, as leaders do till this day, because they believed that making sacrifices would produce a greater outcome for their own power.

My great granddad donated a piece of land to the British so that they could build a school because education was a welcome bargain. If we look at that example, historians could account that he yielded to British superiority, or, as his legacy remains in his town, that he was a philantrophist who didn’t even request a payment for an exchange which would benefit his society.

The lengthy detour from my topic serves to say that I’m reluctant to write about masculinity with anything else but cautious objectivity and distanced curiosity.

It occurred to me on the train, listening to those two old men, why masculinity may be in crisis. It somehow seems that there is a level of intimacy which human beings thrive on, that our current definition of masculinity oppresses. To an extent, it seems that only when death lurks, such as at old age, or war, or illness, does patriarchal culture allow intimacy and sentiments between males.

In so many ways, being able to show vulnerability as well as defense, tenderness as well as protectiveness and closeness as well as cool, seem to be characteristics of many of our heroes like Jesus, Ghandi, Mandela, Einstein to name a few. Yet we live in a culture where even women increasingly dispossess feminine traits and where people would blame feminism for this rejection rather than the fact that masculine traits are those that succeed in patriarchy. The fact is, neither masculine nor feminine have to be tied to biological sex. Men can possess some qualities that are considered feminine and vice versa. However, if feminine features are tied to women only, then aren’t men denied some of the most important tools that humanity has been given to develop with?

Looking at history it isn’t difficult to distinguish leaders that estimated power over strength and toughness over compassion and the crimes that were committed in their names. In a culture where male leaders outnumber females by far, I wonder, how can our current definitions of masculinity look after people that need not only muscular protection but also an intimate understanding of what it means to be alive and human with a range of sentiments?

Would love to hear your thoughts, ladies and gents.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Steve Snodgrass

  • Trey

    I am male. i am masculine. and i speak on behalf of most men in the world. WE ARE JUST FINE. No crisis here.. move along.. nothing to see. Honest.. :)

    • MsAfropolitan

      So, in as much as yourself and many men ARE fine, there are many gender definitions ‘to see’. We need to have discussions about masculinity, not males mind you. After all femininity and women’s roles are constantly up for discussion in the press, in popular media, in universities, in politics etc and we cannot expect to develop as a group by only analysing one half of the circle.

      We really need to start talking about facts such as the high amounts of absent fathers, why more men than women commit suicide, why more men than women are in prison, use drugs, are violent etc. These are huge problems that largely are rooted in how our society has defined masculinity and it is a shame because it really does not have to be that way. I refuse to accept that my future sons (figuratively speaking) must live in a world where their gender is so misrepresented.

      Even on the dating field, if I received a penny for every time a male friend says to me, I don’t understand women, I would be opening a savings account by now. This statement often roots in that there is a lack of understanding of the ‘new’ masculine role to play as women’s ‘feminine’ roles are constantly changing.

      Trust me, this is not something to ‘move along’ nor is it something to be defensive about. Both femininity and masculinity seem to be in ‘crisis’

  • Lara

    Interesting detour on slavery, although of course the European enslavement of Africans had completely different connotation (economically, ideologically, politically and racially) from the captives that were ‘enslaved’ as prisoners of war as a result of inter-state wars between e.g. Western or Eastern African states in pre-colonial times (Rodney, Howard University Press, 1982).
    As a foreigner in British soil, the first thing to strike me in the UK socialization process is how rigid the roles are, and how physically distant men actually are. Men broadly speaking are required not to hug, double kiss etc. Men are militarized to perform their masculine role at their uttermost best at all times, keeping an exaggerated almost homophobic distance, Wayne Rooney lookalikes with a constant grump and a big voice – often enough becoming a caricature of themselves, when the boasted voice squeaks, and the big chest implodes in a huge beer belly of insecurity and emotional void, as if imploding in the heaviness of a role too hard to act upon at all the times. This of course in stark contrast with the culture that originates from British soil, the Celtic one, which instead had a much more flexible approach towards gender socializing and where having androgynous traits was widely accepted and much common. Interestingly enough, although the Latino culture I originate from produces the most appalling machismo ever imaginable, still it allows far more intimacy between men than the current British culture ever does, as it constantly revolves around the tactile and in so doing it physically breaks some of the barriers that patriarchy culturally and socially imposes.
    Having said that, both cultures – Latino, British (again, apologies for the broad generalizations) – fail to socialize the individual in a rounded way, by undermining emotional literacy/intimacy in men, and physical/social/political empowerment in women (just to name two). That creates individuals that crave in the other what’s missing, or rather resent in the other what’s missing. A man may search in a woman his long since lost emotional half, for then resenting her emotional readings and the mirror she forces upon him where he can’t recognize himself; a woman craves in a man that security and strength that she should have first and foremost developed herself for herself, for then resenting the patronizing and the controlling traits that a man will surely show in such a sad scenario. And of course in this un-level playing field, the male traits are reinforced by patriarchy by adding a pinch of social power in the intimacy of the relationship.
    I am baffled as for why men and women in this society are socialized to be enemies, rather than partners; when it would be much easier to be working together and sharing equally the skills we are both capable of – this radicalization of roles does not serve anyone.

  • Adura Ojo

    “History can not erase an atrocity but if written carelessly it can erase power.” That’s so true, as evident in some historical accounts (and defence) of the European slave trade.

    And i share your thoughts on: “there is a level of intimacy which human beings thrive on, that our current definition of masculinity oppresses.”

    Some men can be defensive when confronted with the fact. They would usually say I’m ok, really! Masculinity is fine just as it is…hmmmm!

  • Diggame

    Men and women should forever stay evolving so I wiuld men definitely have a lot to work on in our evolutionary process. Particularly the balance of being manly and still showing some form of emotion

  • madeleine laini


    I really like your style of writing… (moving along swiftly). I must say that this feature took me by surprise – I wasn’t expecting it to take the stance that it did – a challenging read. You discussed history, politics, culture, perceptions, gender; and I agree with you on many levels. For the sake of my argument I will keep stray away from the politics.

    Is masculinity in crisis? I would say yes, although from your article it would seem that you are in favour of men being more in touch of their feminine side, so it is a little contradictory – Do you want men to be more masculine or not? And how do you define masculinity?

    In my opinion a man who is mature and confident would have no worries about being ‘a little feminine’. He would know how to adjust at the appropriate time/location and with whom.

    Masculinity’s loss of masculinity (lol) is a result of decades of lobbying (yes I said it) from the media and the fashion industry. From the extreme grooming of the 21st century, the man bags to the guy-liners. The acceptance of homosexuality in society has left many men questioning the way they carry themselves – what is deemed acceptable to what isn’t, so not to be called ‘homosexuals’ or even ‘homophobic’- A very fine line indeed.

    I think men are having a hard time at the moment, that pretty much sums it up for me.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hey Madeleine, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m actually arguing that any rigid definition of masculinity is harmful. I think ‘opening’ the definition of masculinity is good, albeit not for commercial reasons, but i absolutely don’t think homosexuality should have an impact on any man’s sense of self and if it does then that’s a worrying thing. In fact it’s a sadt hing that masculinity is in such a confined box. Which reminds me of a good speech that more eloquently describes my viewpoint. Watch it if you have a moment

  • Anna Renee

    I think you have something here, sister!

    Some men may not want to admit this, but I’ve seen enough brothers in my own circle who fear intimacy because they perceive a loss of power–over the women in their lives and in the eyes of other men. Masculinity is narrowly defined, and I once read that THAT is the reason men go wild for sports. The only arena where intimacy and emotionalism is allowed for men.

    In my experience with men, for some, being able to express their dominance overrides their deep felt desires to be intimate and tender, thus the reasons why they cheat even on the women they love. It’s not just the sex, it’s the power expressed in being able to cheat.

    In my own research I found a link that was quite humorous, but I believe it express truth of what some men may feel. The article’s title: Nine reasons men are jealous of women. It’s interesting! 😉

  • Xay B.

    Your writing is really superb. I’ll def. need to come back more often to check out your work.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for those kind words. Look forward to it :)

  • Mark Armstrong

    While I think it is true that every man should be in touch with his natural feminine instincts yet when that over takes his emotions, he loses the power of his essential masculine traits. Yes masculinity is in crisis in part because men are confused as to what true masculinity is and why it’s desirable to develop those strong masculine traits even when society encourages otherwise. I wrote an article on this very topic.

  • Gestewelde Johan

    Masculinity isn’t in a ‘crisis’, nor does it need some TLC. We need to let go of it. Men need to read Stoltenberg, for example. And they need to become traitors to their sex.

    They also need to let go of gender.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for reading. What is the main thing about gender that needs letting go of? And what writing by Stoltenberg would you recommend?