Conformist Masculinity and the Quest for Freedom

I have a new article out about conformism, freedom and masculinity: https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/conformist-masculinity-and-the-quest-for-freedom-wcz/

Male Initiation

Stage 2 on The Five Stages of Masculinity is concerned with constructing an image of what masculinity should look like, encouraging men to fulfil that image and mocking those who do not. There are various types of Stage 2 masculinity, but whether you’re Donald Trump, a Christian men’s ministry or a pick-up artist, the message is all the same.

A common theme that runs through Stage 2 masculinity is the need for some form of male initiation in order to transition from being a “boy” into a “man.” Stage 2 masculinists will often point to various social ills such as gangs, violence, drug use (and even homosexuality) as evidence of what happens when boys do not have the opportunity to be initiated into manhood. Tribal societies who perform male initiation ceremonies are held up as exemplars of how manhood can be bestowed upon boys, with the implicit logic that this would solve our perceived social ills if replicated in Western society.

Male initiation, we are told, bestows identity upon a boy. But there is another way of looking at this: initiation does not bestow identity upon a boy, it erases identity. Think about it. It is common for children to be unique, creative, visionary, and to have little regard for authority (every parent knows it is their lot in life to be the subject of constant mockery). Even in tribal societies, initiation is seen as a time when such ways are put to one side, when boys join the “club” and largely behave the way the other club members behave. Initiation is the time when boys fall into line. All of this suggests that young men have not gained an identity, rather they have lost it.

Conformist Masculinity

The loss of identity for men provides an interesting way to think about manifestations of Stage 2 masculinity. A recent article about the fraternal organization ProudBoys provides an example to explore. The organization celebrates the values of “minimal government, maximum freedom, anti-political correctness, anti-racial guilt, pro-gun rights, anti-Drug War, closed borders, anti-masturbation, venerating entrepreneurs, venerating housewives, and reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism.” The article is illustrated by an image of young(ish) men celebrating in what appears to be drunken revelry. Between the language of the values and the partying of the image, one could be forgiven for thinking that ProudBoys is primarily about freedom. But is it?

Another way of looking at ProudBoys is that it functions as a model of conformity: this is what masculinity should look like. When you join ProudBoys are you really celebrating your freedom, or are you surrendering it to the organization’s role of masculinity police? Like male initiation, ProudBoys (and Stage 2 masculinity in general) does not encourage freedom, rather it encourages a conformist masculinity that adheres to its ideals, which, paradoxically, is the exact opposite of freedom.

“Conformist masculinity” may be a more useful way of thinking about what is commonly referred to as “toxic masculinity.” Toxic masculinity is problematic for various reasons, not least of which is the fact that at best it articulates a symptom of a problem while glossing over the problem itself. Conformist masculinity offers more insight into the problem, chiefly that there is a process of regulation taking place that wants men to conform to a particular model of masculinity (which happens to sometimes have toxic effects).

Freedom

Freedom is the core value behind healthy models of masculinity. However, there cannot be any freedom when we are being told what masculinity should look like. It is important to note that people are also free to align with the values of ProudBoys, but we have to explore how regulation works here to get it right. Let’s look at the example of John Wayne, because he’s such an icon of masculinity.

At Stage 2 on The Five Stages of Masculinity, Wayne would say, “I am John Wayne, and I am embody what masculinity should look like.” A Stage 3 (feminist) response to Wayne’s statement would be something like, “hell no, that’s toxic masculinity and it’s killing us.” At Stage 4 on The Five Stages of Masculinity, Wayne would say, “I am John Wayne, and this is what masculinity looks like to me.” The difference between the Stage 2 and Stage 4 Waynes is significant. At Stage 2 he is an agent of conformity and regulation, telling people to fall into line behind him, which probably has toxic effects. At Stage 4 he is an agent of freedom, referring only to what works for him. (For the curious, at Stage 5 Wayne would say, “I am John Wayne and masculinity does not exist.”)

So, at Stage 2, 4 or 5, Wayne looks the same: the same stubble, the same dusty boots, the same cowboy hat. What’s different is the process of regulation that takes place around him. So you don’t necessarily need to abandon the values of ProudBoys, you don’t need to turn into some pink-haired transgender evangelist in order to leave Stage 2 thinking behind. All you need to do is stop saying this is what masculinity should look like. Then we’re talking about genuine freedom.