The idea that men should avoid being a “sissy” at all costs is based on notions that men and boys who show any such features are weaker, ‘soft’ or even feminine. So a boy demonstrating characteristics such as caring, vulnerability and sensitivity becomes somehow a lesser man – a deep societal shame that they have to carry.
The American documentary called The Mask You Live In explores ideas around what a man should be that are common in both our national and global discourses. What is striking about the documentary is the vividness with which it shows how ideas around masculinity affect young boys and the men they ultimately become. In the film, a coach and former NFL player says “The three most destructive words that every man receives when he is a boy [are] when he is told to ‘be a man’”. The idea of being a man is often associated with, “don’t be a pussy” and “grow some balls”, meaning a man cannot express their feelings, whether they are hurt, sad or [he] wants to express love.”
It is often said that the primary features of masculinity that prevail in South Africa are rooted in power and expressed in the violence we often see, especially perpetrated on the bodies of women and LGBTIQ persons. According to UN Women, South Africa is one of the countries where up to 70% of murdered female bodies are killed by intimate partners. Tragically, as Dean Peacock writes in “Educating men for gender equality”, above “90% of rapists and nearly two thirds of men who kill their intimate partner are not punished in South Africa”.
In a recent article, Sandile Memela in “When a boy becomes a man” chronicles with much excitement the story of a 28-year-old black chef that has become “a man, a father and a head of a family” which, according to Memela, is “one of the greatest life-changers for an African male.” Memela continues that “without young men who know themselves, look for meaningful work to express their talent and seek women to build families, there can be no nation building.” Memela sees men who aren’t married (to women) and have no access to economic means as purposeless and not “self-knowing.”
While this may indeed perhaps be the aspirations of many (primarily heterosexual) men, such ideas around manhood are dangerous in our South African setting. Memela’s article is problematic, patriarchal and limited in many ways, especially as it defines African manhood through heterosexist norms that place value in men being dominant.
In African feminism in context: Reflections on the legitimation battles, victories and reversals, Josephine Ahikire notes that (ideas such as those propelled by Memela) often come as a result of “moral panic” arising out of concerns “about the family and about women who allegedly want to rule their husbands…” In this instance it becomes important that the man stay the “head” of the family and that the quest for gender equality be “ridiculed or seen as a threat to society (especially to the institution of the family).” Yet Ahikire is also optimistic about some of the gains that have been made. Ahikire says that “the panic over masculinity has a direct linkage to the ways in which African feminism has destabalised hegemonic discourses. The visibility of gender equality as a public issue has had the effect of placing patriarchal norms and values under relative stress.”
With pervasive and harmful ideas around being a ‘man’ so saturated in South African public discourse, it is important, therefore, particularly regarding the background of 16 days, to explore different spheres, including the home, formal education and the social sphere, so that they “harness more accepting, loving and caring attitudes toward others (across genders and sexualities) in a society like ours that thrives on giving homophobia [and] misogyny so much airtime.”
Many thinkers, researchers and scholars of masculinities have long cautioned against viewing masculinity in very monolithic ways that privilege hegemonic and dominant masculinities, while silencing those masculinities that challenge and contest the hegemonic. In “How the ‘cult of femininity’ and violent masculinities support endemic gender based violence in contemporary South Africa”, Professor Pumla Gqola cautions against conservative “discourses of gender” which “exist very comfortably alongside overwhelming evidence that South African women are not empowered, as is evidenced by the rape and other gender-based violence statistics, the rampant sexual harassment at work and public spaces and relentless circulation of misogynist imagery, metaphors and language.”
Despite the destructive displays of masculinities that are so evident in our everyday lives, it is important to not highlight a single narrative of African masculinities. In “The Problem With Stereotyping Masculinity As Violent”, Priscilla Frank points us to the dangers in presenting violence and masculinity as “cultural norms”. She states that “this dangerous affiliation normalises violence while overlooking the many, many men who do not fit this dark stereotype.” These include the men who practice healthy masculinities, are loving and respectful and whose masculine script does not fit neat narratives of violent and aggressive masculinism.
There is a deep need to expose South African boys and men to different masculinities that exist outside dominant masculinities. As Peacock further affirms, “gender issues are also men’s issues” and hence it is important to that men are also brought to the table in accounting and joining the efforts to achieve a more “gender-just world.” In a country that is soaked with narratives of harmful masculinities, it is important to highlight progressive masculinities that point us to the world that we envision.
What would this masculinity look like? For us there are three main points for the type of healthy masculinity that we think is conducive to building a more loving, caring and gender-sensitive society. The first of these is position on gender. It is important that men demonstrate a clear and explicit commitment to gender equality. This entails a broad inclusive understanding of gender that does not just include ‘males’ and ‘females’, but is welcoming and accepting of non-binary, *trans, and intersex people. Secondly, we think a commitment to socio-economic justice is important especially an understanding of how class and economic inequality intersect with other oppressions. Lastly, as a commitment to socio-economic justice, it is important that men also understand race since in our country it shapes and is tied to many other oppression linked to gender, sexuality, and disability amongst others.
There is often a disjuncture in men who preach gender equality in public and yet as we tragically often learn the praxis is often different at home. Cornel West reminds us that “justice is what love looks like in public”. We need more men loving out loud both in the public and especially in the private. There is a lot of value in also exposing a different kind of South African men not concerned with phallocentric ideas of manhood and dominance, but rather a politik of inclusiveness, love and care for others. DM
In other news...
July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.
In the words of Madiba: "A critical, independent and investigative free press is the lifeblood of any democracy."
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