Towards a positive masculine aesthetic

A hail-Mary pass in these dark times

Right after the election, for about a week, I felt I was living inside a poem, but not in good way. There was no plot to the days, no definite structure. We were at the dawn of an era, a dark time in our country’s histories but time was operating according to unfamiliar principles and I couldn’t keep up. I don’t think I was sleeping well. I don’t think I was behaving normally, but no one was so there was no stability to hold up as a comparison.

In my memories of that week, moments cluster according to association rather than chronology. One of these warped and misremembered afternoons organized itself around the theme of men. It’s not objectively true that it happened this way, but it seems important to contextualize this poetics by saying that to me, inside me, I had three different conversations with three different men, either in rapid succession or at exactly the same time. All of these men were despondent, two of them were artists and one of them was Alex and the last thing I remember Alex saying, while looking very sad, leaning his leonine head against a wall as though it had become very heavy all of the sudden, was this: I don’t know what to do.

This is essay is a gesture towards an answer to what wasn’t a question but felt like one. It’s actually a gesture towards a very narrow slice of a very large question which is: how to be a masculine person in a patriarchal society designed to reward you every time you use your power to oppress someone else? Because we are a community of artists, we are going to examine a very small slice of this question which pertains to our goals here: specifically, how to create non-toxic representations of masculinity in art, how to re-write (re-draw, re-sing, re-perform) it.

If you are wondering why I am the one delivering this poetics, I will go ahead and affirm for you that this is an excellent question, one that I am also asking myself right now in this very moment. But here we are and I aim to make the best of it.

Two years ago, I heard an interview that changed my entire shit on the topic of masculinity. The subject of the interview was Aiden MacCormack, a Chicago-based trans-masculine performance artist. He was talking about his early forays into masculinity and he said this: I understand we really need to hold trans-masculine people accountable to their behavior and how they contribute to oppression, particularly the oppression of trans-women, all women. But I also think there is something to be said, that masculinity in our culture, it’s really hard to develop a positive masculinity. And it is incredibly difficult to develop a healthy relationship to one’s masculinity, to masculinity as a concept. It’s difficult to do that in America.

And I was like Oh. Fuck.

I would say that before this moment, I had a survival-based understanding of how masculinity worked (and how, as a woman, to work with it and work around it), an academic understanding of why masculinity worked this way, sympathy for trans-masculine people based on queer solidarity, and very, very little in the way of sympathy for cisgendered straight men.

But what McCormack said was undeniably true and was, in some ways, applicable to all masculine identified people. It reminded me of an essay called the The Laugh of Medusa by Hélène Cixous. This essay is not about masculinity at all, but it is about the importance of models and how models are necessary if we are to fully become ourselves.

Cixous concerns lie with artistic representations of the feminine. She believes artistic representations have the potential to help us transcend the inherent loneliness of human experience. When we see ourselves reflected in art, we tap into our collectivity and also access our own separate wholeness. However, Cixous argues that women are almost never fully reflected in art. There are aspects of our experience that remain unrepresented and this halts in our becoming. Her essay is a pleading invective, a call to action for women to write themselves into being, to write and write as women, to create representations that will help us all see ourselves more clearly and thus be ourselves more fully.

Cixous doesn’t say exactly how we are to do this, which is part of the essay’s genius, allowing it to remain timeless, but there is one problem she either didn’t foresee or didn’t feel like getting into. Leslie Jamison addressed this problem in her essay The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain and it’s basically this:

1)   Women must write themselves fully in order to become.

2)   Women are oppressed.

3)   Oppressed people’s lives involve suffering and trauma.

4)   Thus, to write about our lives fully means we must record this suffering and trauma.

Conclusion: When women write, we get a lot of representations of women suffering and undergoing trauma, and, though this reflects reality, it also becomes a troupe, which limits and and oppresses us further. We might become, but the selves we write and we read ourselves into are still victims of patriarchal circumstance. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. It’s a classic double bind.

So, let’s leave that hell-pit of depressing thought and return to the land of masculinity. As MacCormack pointed out, it’s very difficult to develop a healthy masculinity in our cultural context and partially this is because very few artistic representations of masculinity reflect a model that doesn’t involve feminine oppression. We’ve discussed James Bond, the apex of masculinity for the last century and how Bond can’t be Bond without a Bond-girl. But even representations of masculinity that seem innocuous or positive also uphold oppressive systems. For example, ‘the nice guy’, that denizen of rom-coms and YA novels and Degrassi: he likes women, he’s good to women, he listens, he’s maybe even feminist and, yet, he can only exist in opposition peers who treat women badly. Without the patriarchy, the nice guy is nothing. He needs it and he feeds it.

Let’s imagine we have two adjacent rooms in a magical house. There is the room of masculine representations and the room of feminine representations. If we enter the room of feminine representations, we find it isn’t full. We can fit more stuff. Great, we say, industrious artist people that we are, and we get out our pens and our chisels and we begin to make a slew of fancy women and femmes to fill the room but we find as we work that about 3/4s of our representations won’t stay. The room rejects them like bad kidneys and when consult our magic house manual we find the room doesn’t accept feminine representations that also serve to oppress. So we keep working and working and we try to fill the room, but progress is slow.

Next door, in the room of masculine representations, we can barely keep the door shut because of all of the stuff spilling out into the hallway. We can’t walk inside without stepping on a bust of some emperor or tripping into a popular all-male improv comedy troupe.  Fabulous! We say, because our work here is done, but then we consult our magic house manual and we find out the room of masculine representations doesn’t have the same protective spell as the room next door. This room is chock full of representations of masculinity which perpetuate the oppression of women and queers and other men and it’s bad news, so we resolve to clean out this room and have a yard sale. But it’s hard and confusing because there is so much stuff to sort through. In the meantime, we vow to make some better masculine representations to store in the basement for whenever we have enough space, but we when we begin to try, we are perplexed and we hold our pens and our chisels and we lean our heads against the walls as though they have suddenly become very heavy and we say: I don’t know what to do.

This would be a better essay if I ended it right now, if I pulled a Cixous by elegantly articulating the problem and then waltzing into history, yelling Figure it out kids over my glorious mohair-clad shoulders. But because this is workshop and a workshop is an aspirational space, I’m going to propose a half-baked solution with the hopes that it will become fully baked in your heads later or in the space of our conversation after the show. We are in the midst of a socio-political apocalypse born of toxic masculinity at the moment, so we might as well try everything.


A gesture towards a positive masculine aesthetic:

I know that I have many other people inside of me.  If I were to represent myself fully, it would involve representing parts of myself that have been infiltrated, occupied, possessed by others. We all have voices in our heads. We all carry other people around in our bodies. Some people inside me got there because they were in a position of power over me and I needed to internalize them in order to survive them and, in this way, I am made of many men. But some people got in there via other means, like affinity and admiration and love. (I admittedly have less men in this nice category but there are some and so I know it is possible).

If this is true of me, it is also likely true of a masculine artist. What if such a person were to consciously represent themselves, their masculinity, by representing those ways in which they are made of women. Not made from women, as in not the parts of their masculinity that uses femininity as a contouring tool, but instead, the parts of their masculinity that are impregnated by, occupied by, and infiltrated by the feminine. Such masculine representations would still be authentic, could still do the vital, life-affirming work of being models for other masculine people and yet, such masculinities would be, I imagine, inherently inoculated against the worst patriarchal offenses.

Of anything I’ve said here, this is the part where I’m least sure what I mean. But I do believe I’m onto something and, as Cixous would say, I know it when I see it. I’m going to read a poem and then we are going to close. Thank you for your attention.


Annabel read Corn Beef and Cabbage by George Bilgere, which can be found here.