What Is Masculinity?

Big Muscles. The ability to kick someone’s ass. Walking away from explosions without looking. An uncontrolled violent temper. The courage to fight a horde of enemies. An outdated concept that belongs to the stone age. The single biggest problem with the modern world.

Every day it seems there are more people who need an answer to this question. Unfortunately the answers that are being given are confusing, contradictory and inflammatory. In many cases, searching for the meaning of Masculinity ironically results in nothing but conflict.

But just because the search is difficult doesn’t mean we should stop looking. Now more than ever our world needs to know what Masculinity is, where it comes from and how it can harnessed it for the good of society.

What Masculinity Isn’t

In June 1918 the Ladies Home Journal, one of the premier women’s magazines for over 100 years, printed an important article on color and fashion for young children. They advised parents:

“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

Time magazine printed a chart with similar instructions in 1927. Boston’s Filene’s had parents dressing boys in pink, as did Best & Co. in New York, Halle’s in Cleveland and Marshall Field in Chicago.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that manufacturers finally chose to assign pink to girls and blue to boys. Their exact reasoning isn’t obvious. They may have been influenced by the popular “Little Boy Blue” nursery rhyme. It’s possible their marketing departments liked the hard-B alliteration in “Blue” and “Boy.” Whatever the reason, the colors stuck and 100 years later every culturally literate child knows that blue is for boys and pink is for girls.

But those colors are arbitrary. By themselves they have nothing to do with gender. Our modern media has adopted them as a shorthand to describe the sexes. It’s easy. It’s fast. It’s convenient. But that doesn’t make it accurate. Just because gender has been associated with certain things doesn’t mean that association is correct.

High Heels for Homeboys

Quick, what’s the first image that pops into your head when you hear the phrase “high heels”? If you’re like most guys your first thought is probably sexy stilettos and garter belts. If you’re a little old school you might imagine World War II pin-ups. Or perhaps you’re imagining hot chicks at a club.

What you’re probably NOT thinking about is fat French noblemen. And yet that’s exactly where modern high heels came from. In the early 17th century, emissaries of Shāh Abbās I of Persia brought the style to Europe and a fashion craze was born. The elevated footwear quickly came to signify elevated status. According to historian Klaus Carl’s book Shoes, higher heels equaled a higher ranked man: “½ inch for commoners, 1 inch for the bourgeois, 1 and ½ inches for knights, 2 inches for nobles, and 2 and ½ inches for princes.” The king, obviously, wore the highest heels of all.

It took more than a hundred and fifty years and the death of Louis XIV for Enlightenment thinking to  change the culture. As fashion and excess made way for science and reason, men finally abandoned the impractical footwear.

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Once upon a time, the coolest boys wore pink and the most powerful man in the world wore high heels. Now only very confident men wear pink and only drag performers wear stilettos. Fashion and culture can and will change significantly in different places and times.

What this means is that it doesn’t matter if your beard is long, short or non-existent, whether you drive a muscle car or an upscale sedan, or whether you wear a suit or Dickies to work. Regardless if you cut down trees or cut open hearts, superficial classifications of Masculinity aren’t sufficient.

Sorry Men’s Health, Maxim, Nike, Adidas and GQ. We can’t define Masculinity by how someone looks or dresses. And absolutely not by what they buy.

We have to look deeper.

Masculinity vs Femininity

Assuming there are no physical or chromosomal anomalies, when a mammal is born it can only be one of two possible sexes: female or male. Females have a certain series of qualities that are genetically present from birth. Males have a different set of qualities also present at birth.

As children grow up a variety of social and cultural factors will shape those inherent qualities but generally males and females naturally embody a series gender-associated characteristics:

Masculine QualitiesFeminine Qualities

These characteristics are universally and historically associated with each gender. Certainly there are exceptions. Some men embody more Feminine characteristics and some women embody more Masculine traits. For every individual there will also be a range of each Masculine and Feminine quality.

None of these traits are good or bad in and of themselves, although there can be significant social penalties for failing to represent the expected traits within a local subculture (ie. Wearing a bikini in Saudi Arabia; spitting tobacco if you’re a woman; twerking at the club if you’re a man; etc).

Because men and women demonstrate both Masculine and Feminine traits, we cannot look at the actions of a single man or woman and extrapolate the meanings of Masculinity or Femininity. Even large groups or cultures are insufficient. We need a universal description that reaches throughout all cultures and throughout time.

The Heart of Darkness

In order to get the greatest possible context to define Masculinity we need to go back to the beginning of recorded history. Over 4,000 years ago the Sumerians wrote down the first significant piece of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Akkadian tablets tell the story of Gilgamesh, the brutal King of Uruk, and Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods to stop the king from murdering and raping his people.

Enkidu leaves the jungle and finds a prostitute who educates him about civilization and culture. After she teaches him to make love, he travels to Uruk to challenge the violent Gilgamesh to a test of strength. The king barely wins the match and is impressed by Enkidu’s ferocity. He offers his friendship to Enkidu and the two powerful men become friends. Gilgamesh finally has a companion and ceases his cruel domination of his people.

Jealous of their friendship, the goddess Ishtar comes to earth to seduce Enkidu but he spurns her advances. Ishtar is enraged and sends the Bull of Heaven to destroy him. The combined might of Gilgamesh and Enkidu are able to overpower and kill the supernatural bull. The men are greatly pleased and begin plotting to conquer heaven itself. Hearing of their plans, the gods quickly descend and murder Enkidu.

Mourning for his lost friend, Gilgamesh sets out across the world in a desperate search for either peace or immortality. He finds neither. After a lifetime of searching, the great king is forced to admit defeat. “Life,” he says, “which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands.”

The Lesson of Gilgamesh

For more than 4,000 years men have been characterized as violent, power-hungry and doomed to tragedy. Men have waged unending wars. Men have murdered. Men have raped. Men have built brutal empires destined to rot. Countless men have spent their lives fighting to achieve lasting peace and immortality and they have never succeeded.

Like Gilgamesh, the heart of man is a dark and troubled landscape.

Yet for an equal amount of time men have also been friends. They have created kingdoms where culture and civilization were formed. They have fought to stop other men from raping and murdering. They have learned from women how to make love. They have changed and grown. They have fought side by side to save their brothers. They have mourned their friend’s deaths. Even though they have never succeeded, they have continued to fight for lasting peace and immortality.

Like Gilgamesh, the heart of man is also beautiful and worthy of love.

The Definition of Masculinity

Masculinity [măs′kyə-lĭn′ĭ-tē] adjective
1. pertaining to or characteristic of a man or men:
2. having qualities traditionally ascribed to men
(Merriam Webster, Cambridge Dictionary, Dictionary.com, OED, et al.)

What is Masculinity? It is the essence of maleness. It is the quality of being a man.

What, then, are the characteristics of men? What are their qualities? What have they done? Here are some of the most important examples:

Vladimir Lenin. Pol Pot. Idi Amin. Chiang Kai-shek. Alexander the Great. Attila the Hun. Genghis Khan. Leopold the II. Napoleon Bonaparte. Talat Pasha. Josef Mengele. Osama Bin Laden. Saddam Hussein. Heinrich Himmler. Maximilien Robespierre. Kim Il Sung. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Kim Jung Il. Emperor Hirohito. Emperor Nero. Tomas de Torquemada. Ivan the Terrible. Vlad the Impaler. Joseph Stalin. Mao Zedong. Adolf Hitler.

Mahatma Gandhi. Abraham Lincoln. George Washington. Martin Luther. Martin Luther King, Jr. Nelson Mandela. Albert Einstein. Plato. Isaac Newton. Leonardo Da Vinci. Galileo. Moses. Shakespeare. Aristotle. Charles Darwin. Plato. Socrates. Nikolai Tesla. Thomas Edison. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson. Michelangelo. Henry Ford. Homer. Confucius. Charlemagne. Warren Buffett. Giacomo Casanova. The Wright brothers. Paul of Tarsus. Hippocrates. Louis Pasteur. Walt Disney. Copernicus. Alexander Graham Bell. Johann Sebastian Bach. Steve Jobs. Sigmund Freud. Marco Polo. Muhammad. Gautama Buddha. Jesus.

The history of men is both terrible and great.

Men are fighters. Scholars. Politicians. Warlords. Poets. Statesmen. Scientists. Sadists. Rebels. Generals. Torturers. Madmen. Artists. Philosophers. Killers. Lovers. Missionaries. Zealots. Martyrs. Teachers. Fathers. Sons. Brothers.

  • A man can be strong. He can lead. He can fight. 
  • He can also be gentle. He can listen. He can heal.
  • A man can teach and he can learn.
  • A man can give life and he can take it.
  • He can share or he can steal.
  • A man can create and he can destroy.
  • He can transform the world from ugliness to beauty.
  • And he can transform it from beauty to ugliness.

It is his choice.

What Is True Masculinity?

Here, at last, is the end of our search.

What is Masculinity? It is the inherent, essential, innate qualities that are dominant in a male human at birth.

Whatever males are, at their core, before social conditioning, apart from culture, untouched by psychology, untainted by commercial manipulations, separate from the machinations of dogma, politics and religion….

What men are, individually and collectively, in their heart of hearts….

That is Masculinity.

What will you choose to do with yours?

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Jathan is passionate about helping create a community of great men. He enjoys beautiful women, altered states and Monty Python jokes. He lives in San Diego with two cats and a lot of books. Email him anytime at jathan@wearesuperiormen.com
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