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MyNewtBoobs's avatar

Where do conflicting but simultaneous ideals of masculinity fit into the binary gender system?

Asked by MyNewtBoobs (19026points) April 22nd, 2011

I’m having a bit of trouble with the idea of the binary gender system, largely that any time it’s referenced, there seems to be more than one ideal of masculine (well, or of feminine or hetero vs homo, but masculine is what we’re focusing on). For example, in many societies, A Man will both leave home often to conquer new worlds, gather treasure, and bring the family often, whilst at the same time A Man will stay home unless absolutely necessary, so as to best protect his domain. Which then means that, at minimum, this binary has become 3-pronged (Man A and Man B, and Feminine), and no longer fits the definition of “binary”. Another example: A Man is a great warrior, a beastly creature. Simultaneously, A Man is a great intellectual, as far away from beastliness as possible.
And then I don’t understand if the other side of the binary is simply the culmination of all qualities not included in the other side of the binary (eg. red vs green) or if each side of the binary stands alone while still being opposed to each other (eg. scotch vs daquiris, although that may not be a great example).

Right? Because I’m very unclear on this, and I get the feeling I’m missing some puzzle piece in understanding this concept.

So, the main question is, if there’s more than one ideal of A Man, is it still a binary system?

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35 Answers

WasCy's avatar

A man does what a man’s gotta do. Period.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@WasCy I’m not asking if you agree with a binary gender system, but asking for help understanding the concept.

WasCy's avatar

That was the concept. That’s the whole concept.

iamthemob's avatar

Generally, in each different culture, it is constructed so that there is a binary. In reality, there isn’t really so much that can be considered masculine or feminine that is not wholly detachable from a sexed body.

The problem is that the qualities that we often associate with masculinity or femininity are human qualities. That they should be associated with one gender and not the other is a ridiculous claim when looked at objectively. Is being intelligent masculine, if an intelligent woman is worthy of praise? Not at all. Is a woman who is a strong warrior less of a woman because of that? No.

You’re not missing any piece of the puzzle at all. It sounds like you hit the nail on the head.

I’m going to leave before I mix another metaphor.

wundayatta's avatar

Can you explain to me what things like who goes to war and who stays home and who is a warrior and who is an intellectual have to do with gender?

Seems to me you’re trying to knock together two or three paradigms that have nothing to do with each other.

iamthemob's avatar

@wundayatta – but you can’t really deny that we’re raised to think that they DO have something to do with each other.

incendiary_dan's avatar

You can only make so much sense out of a senseless system.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@incendiary_dan I feel like my teacher won’t really accept that as an answer.

@iamthemob Please don’t leave, you sound like you might be able to actually help. Because I’m having problems understanding this one book. The author keeps mentioning the gender binary in William Malmesbury’s works, but she hasn’t quite spelled out if this is a binary that William himself sees (despite none of his works being on gender), or if this binary she mentions is a lens she puts on his works herself. Which is then unfortunate, because when she goes on to mention the different ideals of Man – laity vs monastic/ecclesiastical – I’m unclear if she’s not choosing her words wisely in calling it a “binary” or if she’s making a comment that there are too many ideals of Man for it to be the binary that they all (medieval men) keep striving for, despite not calling it a binary.

@wundayatta Ok, but before we knock how crap the binary gender system is and how inherently flawed it is, can we please make sure I understand it? Because being a flawed premise is almost never an excuse for getting an F on a paper.

@WasCy No, it’s not.

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wundayatta's avatar

Binarity (is that a word?) is just a function of how our minds work. We can sort things into any number of groups because you can draw lines between groups any way you want to. People love binary systems because they are simple. Yes/no. For many purposes, the binary system works.

Perhaps it’s greatest power is that it is simple. Either you are or you aren’t. You’re with us or against us. You’re an atheist or a believer. You’re rich or poor (boy, I’d like to see where people draw that line).

You know that sentence that begins, “there are two kinds of people….” That’s what we do. We turn our choices into dualities. We simplify things and of course, simplification makes you lose data. I have all this data about the race of people, but I turn it into “white” and “nonwhite” just because it’s easier to analyze.

I really truly do not understand what ideals of masculinity have to do with gender. They seem barely remotely related to me. Ideals of masculinity are paradigms or myths. They have to do with the stories people tell. Gender is based on measurable attributes that have been sorted in many different categorization systems. You can do a quantitative analysis of gender. You can only do a qualitative study of masculinity.

Your problem, I think, is that you are imposing binary systems on subjects that require a more subtle approach. Ideas of masculinity can be reduced to a binary system, but if you do that, you lose so much information that I think it would be hard to argue that you have any knowledge.

The same is true with gender. To say there are only two genders is patently absurd to anyone who has an open mind and takes a look. Of course, openmindedness is generally hard to come by, and few people bother to look at anything other than that which fits their internal paradigm.

In other words, what you are trying to do can’t be done. You can not make sense out of the binary systems you are looking out. If you want to make sense, you must use a more sophisticated categorization method. What you want to do, insofar as I understand it (and your question is written so confusedly that I am not at all sure I understand what you want), simply will not work.

Nullo's avatar

I think that @WasCy nails it together very well. Keep in mind that it is the young/single man who ventures abroad for the purposes of derringd-do, and it is the older/married man who stays home to look after his family. Through it all, a man does what he’s gotta do.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@wundayatta Well, scholars brighter and more educated than you or I have made some amount of sense out of it, enough to comment upon and deconstruct it.

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incendiary_dan's avatar

@wundayatta said: “Gender is based on measurable attributes that have been sorted in many different categorization systems. You can do a quantitative analysis of gender.”

I think you’re thinking of sex. Gender is the series of cultural constructs based around sex. The idea of masculinity has entirely to do with gender.

Nullo's avatar

@incendiary_dan Not true. Males tend to be masculine, females to be feminine, hence the close relationships between the words.

LostInParadise's avatar

Things are much simpler among hunter-gatherers. Men hunt and fight against enemies. Women gather and raise children. Battles are on a small scale and enemies are not that far away so it is not necessary to choose between going off to fight and defending home.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Nullo But I’m not trying to say William Malmesbury (or Kirsten Fenton) is wrong. I’m trying to evaluate how good a job Fenton did of analyzing how a binary gender system influenced Malmesbury, his works, and the 12th century Anglo-Norman world he lived in.

Nullo's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs Hence my abstraction.
(What I’m getting at is that it’s fallacious to assume that smarter or else more educated people must know better than yourself. It sounded like you were waxing that way, so…)

incendiary_dan's avatar

@Nullo Masculinity is a series of traits attributed to the male sex, so of course males tend to be masculine. Problem is, the idea of what that means is drastically different between cultures. In Scottish fishing villages, for example, it’s considered a feminine trait to be rather burly, and not masculine at all. Femininity involves being able to carry your partner on your shoulders through ice cold water for considerable distances. Etc. etc.

@LostInParadise Actually, those gender roles, though common, are not writ in stone, as it were, amongs foraging peoples. Many hunting and gathering peoples view gender roles more fluidly than that, perhaps owing to the presence of a third (and sometimes fourth) gender.

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augustlan's avatar

[mod says] Please stick to trying to answer the actual question, folks. Thanks!

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iamthemob's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs – If we’re talking about medieval works, and relations between men and women, I would wager that the critic you’re talking about (whoever was using the term gender binary) was referring to the social structure in the past.

There were distinct male and female roles, and a great concern for displays of chivalrous gestures and knightly courtship. Actions that demonstrated one was a proper man in particular (e.g., jousting) were central to the society.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs To answer the main question, something can still count as a binary gender system even if one (or both) of the elements is essentially disjunctive. That is, I do not think it matters if the system is such that males have multiple roles they may fill so long as women may not fulfill those roles and to not pick at least one of those roles is not, in some sense, to “be a man.”

Consider it this way: a man in 1930s America might have been a plumber, or a baseball player, or a salesman, or a lawyer, or a fire fighter, et cetera; but he could not have been a seamstress, or a housekeeper, or a switchboard operator. The binary comes in the prohibition of crossover between the sets of options available to each gender. Think of “being a man” and “being a woman” as more coarse-grained “super-roles” within which one has limited options for more fine-grained “sub-roles.”

Obviously, your Man A and Man B must represent mutually exclusive lives. Were it the case that each individual man was expected to alternate between periods of wandering around looking for conquests and staying home to defend what he has accumulated, there would be no division within the male role. But again, we still have a binary gender system so long as what we have is a strict division between sets of possible roles such that:

1. a man is either Man A or Man B (or Man C, or Man D),
2. a woman is either Woman A or Woman B (or Woman C, or Woman D), and
3. there is no overlap between the roles available to men and women.

Finally, the above is an idealized schema, by which I mean it only represents an absolute binary. In real life, things are always a bit more complicated. The normative strength of the binary can be determined by the degree to which the schema may be violated and the consequences thereof. Is it even possible to violate the schema? If so, are people ostracized from society for attempting to crossover, or are they merely mocked for not doing what is expected of them? A woman had no chance of becoming a smith in some cultural contexts, but was merely considered odd for wanting to do so in others. A man might be teased by his friends for becoming a nurse these days, but he would have been killed for trying to become an Amazon in antiquity.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@SavoirFaire Perfect, brilliant answer.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

This is a good question. Where do they fit in? They fit in because the gender binary is reconstructed in each time period, in each community, etc. For example, the straight hipster man is supposed to be sensitive and goofy and sardonic…the straight black urban youth is supposed to be independent, tough and one of few words…the Mexican man working two jobs is all about never going for a health check up in order to maintain machismo…etc. I can go on and on, masculinity is very important to construct for some people, it never exists for its own sake either, it always exists in complement, in opposition to femininity. Once you realize how ridiculous and contradictory it all is, you are ready to question the entire social construct of gender as non-sensical. @WasCy‘s answer is actually in line with this questioning, even if he doesn’t know it. A man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do is the kind of mindset that allows each man to have to align himself with what a man is within his most immediate context, environment and this is vastly different in different places.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir But, I’m not asking to understand the pitfalls of it or how it fits into today’s society. I’m asking to understand some basic parts of the definition so that I can understand what a medieval historian is talking about.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs The same applies to medieval society. Different classes had different ideas of masculinity.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir It’s still a critique, not an explanation of the definition.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs All right, I’m game. What do you want a definition for? Masculinity? There is none.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir Well, @SavoirFaire has already given me my answer. But the definition I was looking for was, if a binary system of any kind by definition only has two part, then is a system in which one of those two parts has multiple parts itself still a binary? There is too a definition for masculinity. You may not agree with it, it may do more harm than good, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and what exactly the definition of masculinity was tended to be a rather big question for philosophers of the Middle Ages, so we actually have tons and tons of definitions for masculinity. I’m not trying to bring back a binary system, or say that it’s good, I’m just trying to understand the theory so that I can understand what people who do believe that at some point in time, it existed, are trying to say.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@MyNewtBoobs I’m glad you got your answer. And since there are so many disparate definitions of masculinity, the concept becomes meaningless like a limit that doesn’t exist in calculus. Obviously concepts of masculinities exist, people make them up but therefore it’s impossible to define without qualifying that this definition works for this tiny portion of men and so forth.

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