Is Masculinity Unnatural?

ImageMy partner is Russian. In his language it is impossible to refer to a friend or a cousin without using a word that indicates his or her gender.  He finds English to be unreasonably imprecise in this regard, so he will often say things like, “My friend– woman.”

He does not, however, say, “My friend– man.”  “Friend– man” goes without saying. People are men until proven otherwise.

He tells me that there is a joking expression in Russia that says men are people and women are “friends of people.”

That would be, of course, “Friends–women.”

Our language does not work this way, but that does not mean we are free of the “men are people, women are friends of people” mindset.

The other day I was reading an article on the gender gap in pay. At the moment I cannot retrace my steps to post a link, but it was one of those articles that uses a political debate to extrapolate on what it reveals about the underlying mindsets of conservatives and liberals. The author of the article argued that the big gulf in the equal pay debate is because conservatives think that differences between men and women come from nature and liberals think they are social constructions.

I found this to be a strange argument in a number of ways. The main one is this: Who cares why women are drawn to different careers from men? The real question is why is it assumed that these careers must be paid less than those traditionally held by men? Is there something inherently less valuable about teaching, nurturing, taking care of children?

Addressing the pay gap is one of those problems that defies a quick fix because there is not a single cause. There are many factors that need to be addressed in different ways. That doesn’t make a great “vote for me” soundbite.

As a society we seem to be of two minds when it comes to the “nature vs. nurture” debate.  This reflects what seems to me to be undeniable, that differences in gender (and how we respond to them) stem from a combination of biological and social factors. Going back to the pay gap argument, the reason women tend to be paid less, say some people, is that they are naturally nurturing and family focused. They are drawn to careers that pay less (because nurturing careers must be paid less) and they prioritize family life over career advancement. They take time off for maternity leave and family emergencies and so on, which puts them behind their male peers.

I wrote yesterday about the amicus brief filed by Hawkins and Carroll in Utah’s attempt to ban same sex marriage in that state. I have to say here that I only read the parts that were quoted in the Family Inequality blog written by Philip N. Cohen. So it is entirely possible that I do not have a full picture of it, but in what I read Hawkins and Carroll framed their argument in terms of same sex male couples and they had little to say about women.

“Traditional, gendered marriage is the most important way heterosexual men create their masculine identities,” they wrote. “Marriage forms and channels that masculinity into the service of their children and society.”

In other words, women are felt to be natural caregivers due to their biology but boys need to learn to become men.  Be a man! Man up!  Manhood is earned. And there are all kinds of pitfalls and threats along the way that can prevent a male from reaching that state.

(What is interesting here is how masculinity is associated with caring for children, whereas in the equal pay debate the feminine responsibility of caring for children is seen as an insurmountable barrier to women ever earning what men do.)

What strikes me today is that we have two parallel ways of thinking about gender. On the one hand, men are assumed to be default people. On the other hand, femininity is assumed to be more “natural” than masculinity.

Women are born. Men are made.



  1. Well put. I think they would say men are made, but they are made in their premodern state, in which their evolutionary goal is to produce children, not care for them. So modern fathers need to be made by society (especially religion), which is a civilizing force on masculinity.

    1. It is an interesting thought experiment to try to construct the framework in which men in their natural state are essentially immoral and need to be civilized and homosexuality is immoral because it is “unnatural.”

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