One Definition of Masculinity?

Is Your Definition a Cultural Caricature?

We all have mythologies that we have constructed and
adapted from infancy — we cannot exist without them.
They are a vital part of our development,
even though some can be deeply destructive.
The problem arises when we fully identify with these mythologies,
viewing them as a complete and accurate description
of who we are and how the world works.

Peter Rollins, Northern Irish writer, speaker, philosopher, and theologian [1]

The most perfect caricature is that which, on a small surface,
with the simplest means, most accurately exaggerates,
to the highest point, the peculiarities of a human being,
at his most characteristic moment in the most beautiful manner.
Max Beerbohm, English essayist, parodist, and caricaturist

Did you ever go to a fair, theme park, or mall and watch the artist draw a cartoon caricature of the person sitting across from them? I remember having mine done in high school and I prepared myself for the worse. I knew that caricatures exaggerate an individual’s more striking characteristics. Because of that, I knew the artist would notice my ears and my eye glasses. My glasses were ‘nerdy” and my ears huge (or at least I thought they were). Sure enough, it was my ears and spectacles that he decided to emphasize on my cartoon portrait.  Knowing it was a caricature, I was able to step back from my self-hatred and (at least for a moment) laugh at myself and what made me different from the rest of the crowd. A caricature is just that – a comically or grotesquely exaggerated representation of (someone or something).

A caricature is not a real-time photograph but one person’s disproportionate or altered view of an object from their standpoint or current situation. Quite often, when it comes to masculinity, I believe what we are taught, learn or see can be distorted or manipulated images of God’s creative design. As a Christian, I believe it is important for us to be careful as to not read the Scriptures with our preset American ideals or stereotypes of masculinity in mind. It’s important for us to examine what it means to be created in the image of God. God himself was a creative artist and so we need to be careful not to adhere to generalized cultural statements or ideals.

Anthony Goulet in his article “Manhood: The Burden of Proof” said, “Attempting to prove our manhood is like trying to punch a hole in water. I’ve known very gentle men who were told they were not real men because of their gentleness. I’ve known the strong and silent type of men who were told they’re not real men because they don’t express their emotions in a manner acceptable to some. From a young age, men are bombarded with conflicting messages of manhood and even emasculated for adhering to a version of manhood that is right with their own heart, but is contrary to someone else’s version of manhood. [2]

We must not bend Scripture to rationalize our sinful desires; however, we must not miss the beauty of God’s artistry in his creation of man and their individuality. Quite a few of our Christian masculinity “textbooks” portray these caricatures. When we stereotype male and female behavior, we alienate those who don’t fit in; when we pigeonhole their skill sets, we rob industries, governments, and the church of the diversity they need to flourish. We also provide the opportunity for others to exaggerate differences and give them the ability to poke fun at or bully when someone’s “grotesque” features don’t match their learned constructs.

The Independent Association of Prep Schools released figures in 2011 that showed a rise in numbers among a third of boys’ prep schools stating that “parents were worried about peer pressure in mixed schools, which could lead to boys being labeled as ‘gay’ if they show a flair in drama, art or music.” [3]
Together, we need to search and ask the sincere questions that will lead us to a Godly and Biblical masculinity rather than settle for the ideals we have adapted along the way. God doesn’t want us to settle for the easy way.

Because we are talking about the social or cultural construct rather than the biological one, the word masculinities (plural) is the best word to use. “Anatomy alone does not make the man, and what it means to be a man is subject to variation across cultures, and even within individual cultures.” [4] Throughout history, different cultures have created their own masculinity rules, some even devised rather extreme ways for young men to prove their masculinity or manhood. Often, one’s masculinity has historically been something a man had to prove. When I share some of these constructs, I am not presenting them as paragons but rather suggesting that “masculinity” does not look the same everywhere.

In some European countries, men kiss each other on the cheek as a greeting and it’s not uncommon to see boys or men holding hands in some countries. Duncan Muir shares: ”It isn’t just the young who are more physical about their friendships. There are factory workers who sit chatting on their lunch break, holding one another as if they have shaken hands but forgotten to let go. Two old men might saunter home from a night of drinking with their fingers loosely clasped together. But don’t misread what’s going on here, it doesn’t mean that these men holding hands are gay. Outside of Beijing and Shanghai, two grown men holding hands will almost always have nothing to do with homosexuality.” [5]

This closeness may seem strange to a foreigner, especially for those of us from where this kind of public display would be taboo and frowned upon. So, what does this all mean for those of us who live in America or another Western country? There’s a message we receive (often between childhood and adolescence) that tells us male physical contact is taboo. Some believe that it has been the fear of appearing homosexual that has made Western men feel like they must constantly prove their manliness.

My teenage daughters have become huge fans of K-Pop and South Korean dramas. I’ve got to admit that my wife has fallen victim to the dramas and even I have enjoyed a few myself! I immediately noticed that many of the “boy band” members didn’t fit within our American masculinity guidelines. Despite their high regards to fashion, wearing of makeup, and public shows of male camradery, they are still perceived as masculine in their country.  Using facial care products and applying makeup every morning is becoming commonplace in South Korea. It didn’t take long for us to spot non-homosexual, male friendship holding of hands in some of their dramas as well.

I read an article in 2012 that explained that  “straight men holding hands isn’t just present in China, another nation of male hand holders is India, where men in Kerala probably hold hands more than those in China. Though men don’t tend to hold hands in the West, we do shake hands, but a handshake is not the same. A handshake is not devoid of competition; there is a stress on the firmness of the grip, and men with weak handshakes are often criticized behind their back for this very reason, by other men and by women too. But in China and India, male to male hand holding has no focus on strength; the whole point is contact, not competition. It just forms a normal part of male.” [6] After reading this, I was curious and wanted to fact check what I read. I turned to an Indian friend who shared, “In south India it is common that guys hold hand together. It is not for sexual attraction but like a friend. When they hold hand it’s just means they are close friends. I think in Kerala, I hardly see a gay guy but in north, third gender (gay) is very common. So, in Kerala people don’t even perceive the concept of guys acting like a girl.”

He continued, “I remember my uncle used to argue with my sister about this issue. According to him,’If there is no means of sexual desire, then what is the problem with holding hands?’ I studied in an international school and the kids don’t have any issue touching each other. And I believe, for every human being, there should be some best friend to share their emotions, feelings, and passion. When people don’t have those attachments, it eventually leads to distress within themselves and later toward others.” And then he added one last comment: “My friends in India are very close to me. I share my feelings with them. I do cry. I express my feelings and emotions with them. They are ‘brothers,’ We even say that our relationship is called ‘bromotion.’ That means brothers with whom we can share our emotions.”

Bromotion – I love it! Again, I’m not suggesting that we adapt any of these things in our culture; however, I do want us to see that the masculinity you might have learned may not be the ideal face of manliness but rather a cultural caricature.

Is it possible that in some places we have fabricated a single definition of Biblical masculinity? As you continue to read, join me on the journey – shared stories of struggle, discussions that center around the person of Jesus, examples in from the Scriptures and the questions that need to be asked. Maybe it’s time for us to trade in the caricatures and simple answers for discernment and solutions that face the complexities of authentic living. Maybe in the end we can spend more time exaggerating the good, creative, and unique in each other. We will be free to celebrate our differences.

[1] Peter Rollins (p 60, The Idolatry of God)
[2] Goulet, Anthony. “Manhood: The Burden of Proof.” The Good Men Project. The Good Men Project, 27 Sept. 2014. Web.
[3] Daily Mail Reporter. “Peer Pressure ‘to Conform to Macho Stereotypes’ Fuels Boom in All-boys Schools.” MailOnline. Associated Newspapers Ltd, 26 Sept. 2011. Web. 20 July 2014.
[4] Page 68, New Testament Masculinities, Semeia Studies
[5] Muir, Duncan. “Chinese Male Intimacy: On Men Holding Hands.”, 1 Apr. 2012. Web.
[6] Muir, Duncan. “Chinese Male Intimacy: On Men Holding Hands.”, 1 Apr. 2012. Web.

A special thanks to Tibin Thankachan for his personal insights on masculinity in India


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