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I’m a man, sonny, and what a man

New issues place contemporary masculinity in check

According to the eminently scientific definition of Luis Fernando Verissimo, real men only watch soccer on TV,while drinking beer. And definitely NO pickled onions! Real men belch and do not say “Excuse me”. Real men do not let their women show their butts, not even in Carnival. Real men show their butts to no one; only in the changing room, with other men around, and even then looking for more than 30 seconds leads to a fight. There is a real man inside every Brazilian, buried under layers of civilization, of false sophistication, of feminine propaganda and complacency. If it is easy to define masculinity in humor, a real man is an animal that science has difficult understanding “After all, what does it mean to be a man.”   “It’s a hard question to answer. We know even less about the relationship of men with reproduction, their own particular point of view on contraception and the meanings they attribute to the reproductive sphere. The fact is that men have been mentioned in research in a secondary way, even though they take part in the conception of their children,”  observes Sandra Garcia, an anthropologist with a Ph.D. in Demographics and a researcher at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (Cebrap), author of a recently published study, Homens na intimidade:masculinidades contemporâneas [Men in their intimacy: contemporary masculinities] (Holos Editora/FAPESP), based on her doctoral thesis that was funded by FAPESP.

Prepared to include real men in her investigations into demographics, Sandra went into the field and interviewed middle class men aged 25 to 55 and asked them to reflect upon masculine identity and the changes in the relationships between the sexes. The result was a mixture of stereotypes of the real man with the so-called  new man. “Being a man”, according to them, covers being heterosexual, giving a lot of importance to work and the role of the provider in masculine identity; the continued sexual separation of domestic chores for the 60s generation, and maintaining a double sexual moral standard (“men can, women never!”).  At the same time, new concepts are appearing: a greater expression of subjectivity, with the possibility of both men and women showing their feelings; a new view of masculine and feminine dimensions; recognition of feminine sexuality and pleasure; a new approach to parental functions, and for the generations from the 70’s and 80’s onwards, a new stance relative to the sexual division of  labor, albeit with the limitations imposed by a social and market legacy. “Gender identity is no longer seen as fixed, although its mobility does not necessarily mean that the acquisition of new values will cause the old ones to be displaced. On the contrary, ambiguities arise precisely because they live alongside each other in the same subjectivity and, therefore, they cause conflicts that these subjects try and overcome in their reflections and practices,”  is how the researcher analyzes it.

A poet rightly said that “the boy fathers the man”,  ponders Machado de Assis, quite rightly. “For most of the respondents, except for those from the 80’s’  generation, the model of conjugality to which they were exposed was rigidly marked by the specific place of men and women: woman, the housewife and carer of the family and of the relationships between its members, and man, the provider, absent from any close familiarity with his children,”  notes Sandra. This confirms the study “Men, these strangers”  (also funded by FAPESP), coordinated by Maria Coleta de Oliveira, from the Population Studies Center (Nepo) of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). “Men resent their relationship with their own parents, classified as being absent and authoritarian, and see paternity as a heavy burden to bear, to the extent that they demand that they be better parents than the ones they had,”  the research describes. However, things are changing. “Many statements talk of the difficulties of being a father in a world in which work plays a big part in their lives. However, most say that their paternity is more participative, right from first caring for the baby. Redefinition of the traditional father model generated a process of reflection on his place in the family as a father,”  says the researcher. “We saw that men from the 60’s generation adjusted to the old model and did not look after their children when they were babies. Those from subsequent generations were led by the “egalitarian project”  between the sexes and were constantly present, right from the pregnancy to the babies’ first days.”

Even so, Sandra continues, if men now have a closer relationship with their children, daily care affects the lives of women a lot more. The gender matrix, therefore, has been updated but not radically transformed, says the author. “Paternity is on these men’s horizon, but it’s not the realization of an objective that must perforce be achieved. Building a family, the exercise of responsibility and the social sense of continuity were mentioned by the respondents as common elements in being a father.”  For Sandra, the changes seen when faced with fatherhood belong to the same sphere as the transformations that threw women into the job market and required a new configuration of the roles of men and women in families. “I think it’s difficult being a man, corresponding to the expectations of women, being the provider, always being strong and not letting your feelings get in the way of your professional or sexual performance. Guys have to be great studs; if his secretary’s pretty he’s got to have the hots for her. There’s all this pressure on us,”  one of the interviewees complained. The same applies to the job market. According to the study, men still consider work as a way of affirming their masculinity, but they demand that their partners contribute to the domestic budget, complaining when they lose their jobs that ‘they only look for part-time work.”  “Men compete with women in everything, from the bed, to see who gets the greatest pleasure, to the home, who contributes the most, who does most for the home and who has the greatest professional success,” complains another respondent.

“There are no comfortable or long-lasting positions, but changes, discomfort and tension,”  explains Sandra. “Men see themselves as multifaceted, sometimes meeting the external demands of a competitive society, sometimes constructing more egalitarian relationships based on the division of power between the sexes, not always in an equal way, but seeking their own path, trying to free themselves of their inherited beliefs and values.”  Above all, continues the author, men complain at having to confirm their masculinity to other men and women. “As sexuality is the key to male identity, it is important we follow the rules of how to behave like a man, in a way that does not rouse suspicion and is totally opposite to the figure of the pansy, a social threat that is very present in male imagination.”  Homosexuality and impotence would, therefore, be the major threats to the predominant model of masculinity. Are there historical reasons for all of these behavior patterns? The concept of masculinity is something recent, because until the 17th century the differential model we have today did not exist. “Sexual monism dominated anatomical thinking for two millennia, in which the woman was seen as an inverted man: the uterus was the scrotum, the ovaries were the testicles, etc. The model of perfection was the male anatomy and woman, according to the phallic rule, was less developed on the metaphysical scale,”  notes historian Thomas Laqueur in his work “Inventing sex”.  When the 19th century put an end to monism, it was replaced by the “political and ideological sex that justifies the moral and behavioral differences between men and women. From an inverted man, woman became the inverse of man.”   The real man did not know what he had done.

“The image of the “inverted man”  is attached to man himself, who now acquires the irremediable opportunity of being a “sexual invert”. The cult of masculinity is born? Prerogative and burden. “Threatened by an inherent femininity, arising from fear of becoming a homosexual, and putting their sex to the test, men had to cultivate their masculinity and their virility. Concern with a possible feminization meant that men constructed a series of roles and outlines of their masculine condition for themselves. Bourgeois capitalist masculinist society constructed its new image of man and, as a consequence, the hard tests which men had to undergo, such as fights, part of the “components of masculine behavior”,”  notes Laqueur. Masculinity becomes a stereotype. “The masculine ideal was a staff erected against decadence; it represented an ideal of chaste virility that entered the bourgeois conscience in a big way. It was the rock on which this society (and perhaps ours, also) built a substantial part of its self-image.”  Everything has its price: if in the 18th century man was able to cry in public and suffer from dizzy spells, by the end of the 19th century this was unfeasible, because it jeopardized masculine dignity. However, everything that is constructed can be destroyed and rebuilt.

“But breaking with the predominant values of gender is not an easy task. It is important that fixed models of men and women be rejected in order to work with the notion of reproduction as a social construction of gender. Another fundamental point is that it became apparent, from the research, that men are dealing better with the anxiety of changes at the individual level than at the collective level. This is not enough. One must encourage social debate and make it more intense,”  advises the researcher. Real men may not actually like canapés or anything that takes longer than 30 seconds to chew and swallow, but real men really do deserve an arena for discussion – preferably after the game that is being shown on TV.