On Performative Masculinity       


For all the attention focused on how what they’re supposed to do is hard, women at least get to know what it is they’re supposed to do:  look at the women most sought-after by guys, and try to look like them.  For guys, it’s not that simple.  Look at the guys most sought-after by women, and what you get isn’t necessarily a template for aesthetics.  In high school and college, for example, the guys girls like most usually go around in ratty shorts and ballcaps.  Are girls turned on by ratty shorts and ballcaps the same way that men are turned on by false eyelashes or fishnet stockings?  Of course not.  The point of these clothes on the guys who wear them isn’t that they look good; it’s that they identify them as members of the dominant group.  Their function is akin to that of a military uniform (which women also reputedly find attractive).

Once you're out of school, you’ve got the fact that women find guys in suits attractive, but this is kind of the same shit.  Unlike women’s formalwear, a suit or tux does not show off that you have a nice body.  In fact, the point of suits and tuxes seems to be that guys with nice bodies and guys with bad bodies look pretty much the same in them.  They’re attractive because nice ones are expensive, thus making it look like you have money — which is a good deal if you have money, but who the fuck has money?   

Sure, I can go into evolutionary biology here, and talk about how males evolved to look for cues that the female was physically capable of producing multiple healthy offspring (so it’s all about what the woman looks like) and females evolved to look for cues that the male could protect them once they were born (evidence that he has resources and/or a posse), but there’s no point in annoying everyone with backstories that don’t provide solutions.  Whatever the explanation for the situation, the situation sucks.  As a guy, how the hell are you supposed to be sexy if you are  a) no longer in school, so festooning yourself with the symbols of a feared ninja clan is irrelevant, and  b) not rich?

The solution is simple.  If what guys are supposed to do doesn’t work, then stop doing what guys are supposed to do, and just do the male version of what girls are supposed to do:  look at physically attractive guys, and try to look like them.

Granted, we sort of do this already, but in a severely handicapped way.  Women grow up developing a far, far more finely tuned sense of what constitutes having a “nice” any-particular-part-of-the-female-body.  As guys, we do not.  We know that there is such a thing as having a nice butt, but we don’t know exactly what this would entail, since knowing what this would entail would involve… well, looking at guys’ butts.  So instead we look at the parts of attractive guys that are heterosexually “safe” to look at, and this inevitably leads us down the wrong path:  we hear women say Johnny Depp is hot, so we try to grow a stupid moustache that only looks good on Johnny Depp, merely to discover at a later date that the funny thing about stupid moustaches that only look good on Johnny Depp is, they only look good on Johnny Depp.

Johnny Depp, star of "Private Resort"
"Why did I grow this moustache?
Purely to fuck with you, for I am Depp."

So the first thing guys need to do in the 21st century is develop a sense of what it means to be a hot guy in a sense at least comparable to women’s sense of what it means to be a hot girl:  and not just by copying some actor’s haircut, but by looking below the neck too.

Have you ever heard girls joke about how guys look silly naked?  About how, whereas girls look “balanced” or “complete,” what with there being cool stuff upstairs, cool stuff downstairs, and just generally cool stuff everywhere, guys just have a penis and nothing else worthy of notice?  Well, that is true.  On guys who don’t work out.

One unfortunate effect of the fact that discussions of sexual attractiveness in our culture all center on the female body is that this has led to everyone talking about how you’re born:  this woman was so lucky because she was born looking this way, and that woman has it so tough because she was born looking that way.  Whatshername has a nice this, and So-and-so has a nice that, and it’s all just luck.

And although women can and do benefit from exercise, this “born lucky” idea is true to an extent where female attractiveness is concerned:  if you do not naturally have big boobs, there is nothing you can do to get big boobs outside of plastic surgery; a woman who works out enough will have a great body, but it is also possible just to be born with one.  This is, however, not true at all for men.

Outside of a few general basics (e.g., height, cock size), there is nothing that constitutes having a “nice body” on a man that is simply a matter of being “born that way.”  What a good body means on a guy is your musculature, and no-one is born ripped.  You get ripped by working out, and that’s it.

So why doesn’t every guy just work out, if it’s that simple?  Is it just laziness?  Well, some guys are lazy, to be sure, but that’s not the whole explanation.  For a lot of guys who are certainly industrious about many other things in life, it comes down to "sincerity paranoia" about who you really are:  “Oh, I am not some jock, so if I got all muscular, that wouldn’t be the real me…”

And this degree of paranoia is, well, pathetic.  Being in shape does not change who you are any more than a girl’s wearing makeup or high heels changes who she is.  Honestly, if you are scared to work out, that is equivalent to a woman being scared to wear makeup.  It is kid stuff.

Now, this is usually where a bunch of people chime in with “Yeah, but not every girl likes those huge bodybuilder guys…”

Whoa.  One problem at a time.  You have never worked out in your life, but right off the bat you’re afraid about getting too huge?  Guys who look like that devote every waking moment to making themselves look like that, adopt crazy diets and supplementation programs, and — maybe not all, but definitely lots — take steroids.  There is absolutely zero chance that by doing a 45-minute weight routine three days a week you are somehow going to get huge to the point where it’s weird.  This would be like a girl deciding that, because not every guy likes insane fake pornstar boobs, she doesn’t want to have boobs at all.  Having boobs at all is unquestionably a plus, and so is being muscular at all.  If you’re still so scared about it, concentrate on cardio + abs, since there are no girls who dislike sixpacks and that obliques “V” thing.

Yes, in college, you heard some girls say that they don’t want guys to exercise at all in any way, because of some fucked-up political explanation.  Here’s the thing:  They were lying.  That's just the female equivalent of those guys who pretend they want girls to wear jeans and sneakers all the time because they’re so “nice,” so you don’t care what they think anyway.  They are just going to be pissed at you no matter what you do, unless it is turn asexual or kill yourself.

I know they are skilled at convincing you that you are a “bad person,” but that’s because, much like the pro bodybuilders mentioned above, they devote their entire day every day to nothing aside from figuring out how to convince you that you are a bad person.  But anyway, your main problem so far isn’t that they are convincing you that working out will make you a bad person — it’s that you are convincing yourself of that all on your own.

Are we as guys lucky not to be evaluated as stringently based on physical attributes as girls are?  Of course — the way women's bodies get discussed in our culture is balls-on-the-moon insane, and I can't imagine what it must be like to put up with.  But the downside to being the gender whose bodies get discussed less is, it can make us complacent about how we look.  The best strategy is, even if we’re not being judged as harshly as women, imagine that we are.  It’s this complacency that makes some guys think stupid shit like “Well, I am a sensitive writer, so not only do I not need to have a nice body, but I should actually avoid having one, because having one would mean that I am not a sensitive writer anymore.”

Seriously, that makes no sense.

Look at it this way:  when you see a chick who is wearing glasses and a pencil skirt because she is going for a Sexy Librarian thing, do you want her to not have an amazing body because the look she's going for is intellectual, or do you want her to be going for that look and also have an amazing body?  Obviously, you want her to also have an amazing body.  There is no possible aesthetic for which the equation [given aesthetic] + [amazing body] = [even better] does not hold.  So why would girls think of us any differently? 

You say you are going for a Jarvis Cocker thing?  Work out anyway.  If some chump comes up to you and is like “Hey, I don’t get it, how come you have Jarvis Cocker hair and glasses but are also buff?  That’s not allowed,” you can be like “I just decided it was allowed.  If you don’t like it, I will croon a dry witticism about being a perv and then break both your arms 90 degrees backward at the elbow.”

Guys grow up thinking that “having a nice body” is one of the aesthetic categories itself, whereas girls (correctly) identify it as an attribute you should seek out no matter which category you are in:  it doesn’t matter whether a chick wants to be a poet instead of a swimsuit model by profession — the culture tells her that she has to be a poet with a nice body, or she might as well not exist.  Is this fair?  I guess not.  But something unfair can still motivate you, so this is how intelligent guys have to start thinking too. 

If his bones are coated with metal, where do his blood cells come from? + Suck it, "Saving Private Ryan."
Just do this, dumbass.

But guys, function-minded as we are, experience the knee-jerk reaction that this advice makes no sense.  “But wait a minute,” we think.  “It makes no sense for me to try and look like Wolverine, because I am not actually like Wolverine — it is not an accurate representation of who I am.”  But you know what?  No shit you are not an ageless indestructible Canadian government experiment gone wrong cursed with a loner’s destiny and eternally torn between ineffable stirrings of nobility and your undeniable animal nature.  You’re not trying to make people think you are.  You’re just trying to get that thing where your shoulder muscle has another smaller shoulder muscle sticking out from the middle of it, because it looks hot.  Jeez, do you not want a chick to have Angelina Jolie lips unless she actually leads a double-life as a highly-paid globetrotting assassin?

Guys sometimes get mad when they perceive women as acting like sex is “funny” or “a joke.”  And though it seems this way to us, it’s not that they’re treating sexuality as “a joke” so much as that they realize it is essentially performative.  In our place and time (ancient Athens and Elizabethan England were other matters), the performative nature of sexuality is inescapable for women in a way that it profoundly is not for men.  There is simply no way to spend three mortal hours getting dolled up to go out without at least making it into somewhat of a joke — blasting some Beyoncé crap, posing for one another, talking in funny voices, etc.  You’d go nuts otherwise.

Men can begin to get a window into this when we adopt performative practices ourselves, such as working out.  But a lot of men — especially smart men — resist this, because it just seems so stupid to get psyched up to pump iron by blasting some cock metal or whatever.

I got serious about working out a while back, and even though I am a sensitive writer and all, I noticed that I could get into it much more effectively by blasting music I can take or leave, like Guns ‘n’ Roses or Metallica, than music I actually like.  My “real” personality prefers sensitive music, but the problem is, Simon & Garfunkel or Nirvana Unplugged doesn’t make me want to exercise — it makes me want to put on an oversize sweater and curl up in the corner and smoke cigarettes. 

You don’t have to actually like Guns ‘n’ Roses, or think that Axl Rose should seriously be held up as a model of how men should behave.  Just take it for what it is — the masculine equivalent of Britney Spears:  performative gender taken to the level of parody and consumed as a means to a specific end.

If you’re an intellectual guy who’s tried to get in shape before and failed, maybe the reason you’re having trouble is that Plain White Ts aren’t the best musical selection for psyching yourself up to do that extra lap.  Just swallow your pride and download the theme from Rocky.  What, too embarrassed?  Well, I guess it would indeed be lame if you were having your friend follow you around the park blasting the theme from Rocky on a boom box — but it’s 2009, the shit is on your iPod, who’s gonna know?  If you’re concerned that someone you pass will actually read “Theme from Rocky” scrolling across the iPod display screen, then just go into iTunes and change it to read something else.  You know, “Definitely NOT the Theme from Rocky” or something.

If psyching yourself up with stereotypically masculine music would still bother you regardless of whether anyone knows, ask yourself why.  Are you concerned that embracing performative masculinity, even as a technique, will somehow make you “the same as” the people you hate?  Well, if you are genuinely scared of that, then you must not be very secure in the extent to which you are a good person.  Come on:  the guys you hate think that Noah’s Ark really happened and call Barack Obama a terrorist every five minutes, and you think that you are somehow going to become “the same as” them just because you downloaded “Welcome to the Jungle?”  

Dude, honestly?  It’s just music.  You don’t have to actually kill someone just because you listened to “Enter Sandman” while working out, any more than the girl who listens to stupid dance pop while she does her hair and makeup actually has to take a ride on someone’s disco stick (although she certainly can if she wants, whereas on the whole it would probably be a good idea for you to refrain from killing people).

 Now to get in there and see some Art!
Not Pictured: Man running up stairs to a Bright Eyes song

Women are taught to be actresses — to “play dress-up” — because the sheer amount of stuff they have to do when it’s “time to be sexy” necessitates this.  Conversely, men see performativity as silly at best and a form of insincerity at worst.  Girls learn to adopt different vibes for different situations, and boys learn to pick a vibe and stick to it:  whereas a girl learns to say “I will look like Dita von Teese at this party, like Shirley Manson at that party next week, like ’80s Madonna for that dance party,” etc. as needed, a guy just decides at age fifteen that “I am like John Lennon, so I will try to look like John Lennon, and that will be my thing every day for the rest of my life.”

Neither of these templates is right or wrong — it is just a matter of how girls on average learn to present themselves versus how boys do.  The point is, boys can benefit from considering the girls’ template.

The stumbling block for guys is that we are hypervigilant about accurately projecting our personalities — I have to wear “A” and have haircut “B,” so that anyone who sees me can plainly tell that I am XYZ type of person.  But people don’t actually need as much help discerning our personalities as we are inclined to believe they do.  In fact, occasionally adopting a style that doesn’t instantly telegraph your demographic might be socially beneficial, because it forces you to actually interact with people if you want them to know what you’re like.

I understand the paranoia:  maybe this time there will be some chick there who has always been looking for a guy who projects exactly what my “real” personality is, and if I get dressed up all “fake,” she won’t know it’s me.

That seems to make sense, but the fact is that the knee-jerk “real/fake” distinction here is an illusion.  It is just the fear of failure making stuff up to fuck with you.  Look at it this way:  chicks worked past that particular paranoia in middle school, because they had no choice, because the culture makes it plainly obvious to them that they simply have to look hot wherever they go.  And in fact, we as guys regard this as a sign of strength and maturity in women.  When we hear a girl say something to the effect of “Oh, I will just wear jeans and no makeup everyplace, because someday I will meet a guy who will love me best that way,” we just feel sorry for her.  So why should we do the same pathetic thing?

Finally — and maybe most importantly — there’s the question of whether, when you perceive a certain advantage as being characteristic of a rival or despised group (real or imagined), you choose to cede that advantage to the despised group, or deny them its exclusivity.  For example, since you’re reading this website, I’m assuming you like smart chicks — do you want smart chicks to refrain from dressing sexy just because some people think it’s what dumb chicks do, or do you want smart chicks to dress just as sexy?  Obviously, you want smart chicks to be sexy too.  So why would you assume that smart chicks wouldn't want smart guys to do the same?

And that’s how I feel about finally coming to terms with what they referred to in college as “traditional notions of masculinity.”  When I hear jocks/Conservatives talk about how they can beat up nerds/Liberals, I don’t have to respond by complaining about how physicality is stupid.  I can simply say “No, you can’t.”  And as someone who used to have to respond the first way, believe me when I tell you that the second way feels a lot better.

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