In the late 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, pink was promoted and advertised as strong and masculine color. The use of typewriters in the office of the same era was considered to be a job for a man, as it involved complex machinery. These are two examples of the arbitrariness of attributions of femininity and masculinity that psychologists question in our current application of these socially constructed labels. Those of us studying gender have long since understood that these attributions are created and maintained by each society and are neither biologically based nor present at birth. They are learned and, as such, can be unlearned.
Now comes our nation’s current leader in 2020, announcing that masks are not masculine. Why not? Because he says so, and secondarily perhaps because they demonstrate fear and gullibility, which real men do not experience. He holds himself up as an example of that masculinity in every way and he often succeeds with his public displays.
This very throwback offers us a window into the arbitrariness of so-called gender characteristics. It took him only a few minutes to establish this spurious connection, as many of his followers are already well and traditionally programmed with regard to such a toxic form of masculinity. In certain quarters, he receives enthusiastic support for this position.
But wait just a minute. Don’t many super heroes wear masks? Didn’t the Lone Ranger wear a mask? Couldn’t Trump have alleged the exact opposite with equivalent instant success? Isn’t it just as possible that masks are a daredevil display of strength that need not be easily identified? After all, who was that masked man?
The reworking of Freud’s Oedipus complex was an important theoretical and clinical analysis of the construct of masculinity and why it is so fragile that it has to be re-enacted repeatedly for assurance. That is, men and boys are assigned the lifelong task by traditional masculinity of demonstrating that they are not women or girls. Masculinity becomes then what it is not. Not weak, never frightened, always ready to fight, and other impossible stances for any single human to accomplish. And it must be enacted frequently, lest the individual is found wanting.
Gender roles have rightfully been called a performance because that is largely what they are. This kind of performance can be accomplished individually but can be even more impressive readily in groups where contagion is so apparent. Thus, sporting events, car races, and cock fights, the more violent the better, the more masculine the better. And this is right where rallies and even tweeted attributions that promote toxic masculinity take hold of the most vulnerable men and their supporters.
Trump and his tropes give them the momentary illusion of strength. A red hat is strong, a blue one is weak. A gun is strong, discussion weak. Cooking outdoors is masculine, indoors feminine. Rape is masculine, being raped is the ultimate feminine. Violence is strong and hatred is triumphant. Love is soft and feminine.
If we did not promote this sort of masculinity, we would not have to defend against it. If we did not teach it, we would not have to unlearn it. We could instead allow that each of us is only human and does not have to convince himself or herself otherwise, does not have to convince the world otherwise. That revolution is occurring, but perhaps too slowly for our own good.
Kaschak, E. Engendered Lives: A New Psychology of Women's Experience, Basic Books, New York, 1992.
Kaschak, E; Los Llantos de Antigona: La Epistemologia y Psicologia de Genero, Uruk, San Jose, Costa Rica, 2020.