As is common in times of increased political polarisation, recent years have seen common understanding of masculinity vs femininity become at once oppressively reductive and needlessly over-complicated.
One side declares that there’s nothing inherently feminine or masculine about the traits conventionally aligned with each. They urge parents to let their little boys play with dolls and girls play with trucks, so as to avoid or at least limit socially conditioning their children into performing narrow gender roles.
Their opponents deny there’s any such thing as ‘toxic masculinity’, urge society to ‘let men be men’ and, at their least politically correct, conceive of trans-gender identities as a form of mental illness.
For a woman, I have a lot of conventionally ‘masculine’ personality traits. I’m bluntly communicative, I don’t have body hang-ups, I have low voice, I don’t cry very often compared to some of my girl friends, I don’t have particularly high empathy levels, I’m not easily rendered nervous, the thought of caring for a needy person is not a particularly alluring prospect for me.
I have never felt unease about my various masculine traits. I have never aligned my identity as female with the intensity of my conventionally feminine side, I have never wondered if I was less woman because I was clearly less stereotypically feminine than some of the women I know.
Nor have I ever felt that because I have a more masculine side, and I am a woman, that there is nothing inherently masculine about my masculine traits. The notion of inherent traits is not a zero-sum game. To say that to be sweet, to be caring, to be nurturing, to be welcoming, to be diplomatic, to compromise, to empathise, are ‘inherently feminine’ abilities does not mean to say that only women can be this way, or that being a woman determines these traits in a personality in an absolute manner.
‘Inherently feminine’ means that, to varying extents, these traits are traits that are complementary to a female biology. That having a female body makes it more likely and slightly easier for someone to have a personality of this kind. That does not mean that it is impossibly difficult for all men to be caring. It does not mean that selfishness should be accepted in men and stigmatised in women. It means that it is easier for a body with breasts that can be used to nurture infants to have a brain whose chemical composition leads to a metaphorically nurturing personality. That does not mean that I am necessarily more nurturing than my husband. It is so obvious that one premise does not lead to the other, that I have come to believe that anyone who reduces essentialism to an oppressive totalitarian framework is wilfully doing so in order not to engage with the complex, sometimes painful, reality of the differences between the genders.
Physically and physiologically, men and women are different. This difference is least evident in children, slightly more during and post puberty, and really comes to the fore in fathers and mothers of infants. Fathers do not give birth to their offspring. They do not literally nurture their offspring. If we concede these things as facts, and most people do, then it becomes a giant leap to conclude that gender roles are purely social constructs. Of course social constructs play into gender identities. But that is a more nuanced discussion than the one overwhelmingly had by politicians, pundits, and increasingly, academics.
It is true that humans are vastly separate from their nature: we have formula, surrogacy, childcare—civilised society enables solvent citizens to exert control over their physical limitations to a degree that our Neolithic ancestors could not have dreamt of. But to assert from this general truth that there is therefore no such thing as male or female biology, or that our male and female bodies do not determine a higher propensity of certain traits in women and in men – that these are only socially enforced differences – does not follow.
Having children as a mother is vastly different from doing so as a father, even in the West, even in 2018. It is wrong to relativise or undermine the objectively greater physical and emotional sacrifice of mothers compared to fathers during their offspring’s infancy. Gestation and breastfeeding render motherhood vastly more physically and emotionally demanding than fatherhood in the first years. They also demand of each mother very specific traits. Even the most introverted mother has to become more extroverted in order to look after a young child. Even the most unempathetic mother will respond to a newborn’s cries with more urgency yet less stress hormones than the father. Not because society forces her to, but because she is the only one capable of physically nourishing the child – this reality is bound to impact brain chemistry both in the individual but also across the species throughout time.
My husband carried both of our children in slings. When Piers Morgan said James Craig was being ‘emasculated’ by doing the same, he was understandably upset.
‘There’s nothing more masculine than a Father [sic] taking an active role in nurturing and looking after his child’ someone declared on Twitter in defence of Craig.
Is it masculine to nurture a newborn? To nurture means, literally, to feed. A father does not feed his child until it has been weaned off the breast, and the World Health Organisation encourages this does not happen before the baby is at leastsix months. This suggests it’s not in fact masculine to nurture your baby, it’s feminine. And it’s a colossal sacrifice – personally I had to wean both my babies extremely early because they were not gaining enough weight according to the doctors. We should not undermine the uniquely feminine role and sacrifice of nurturing a newborn.
Of course it can be attractive to see a man carrying a baby in a sling. It can be attractive to see a man rise to the challenge of fatherhood, whatever that looks like. For me it was certainly a source of comfort, that my husband would carry them so my body could have a break.
But how attractive or desirable or moral a personality trait or an action or a skill is has nothing to do with how masculine or feminine it is. Perhaps it’s attractive to see a man so secure in his masculinity that he will undertake an emasculating task in order to serve his partner and children. But we must not conflate that with the annihilation of masculinity and femininity as real, not merely constructed, concepts.